How Do You Tell Kids Bible Stories?

I was thumbing through a “toddlers bible” this morning.

There was a page dedicated to the story of Noah’s Ark. One half of the page contained a picture of several smiling, happy animals and a few smiling happy humans, in a big, fun boat, all having just a great old time sailing the deep blue sea on a sunny happy day. I don’t recall the exact wording of the text, but it was basically an accurate retelling of the Biblical version in about seven or eight toddler-level sentences.

Here’s the problem. The story is clearly not a happy story. It wasn’t, as the picture seemed to portray, a case of cute cuddly animals and happy humans on a neat-o sailing adventure. Indeed, I think to frame the story that way, even for kids, is to do real violence to the story itself.

But what about the story itself? If the version cleaned up for kids is a travesty, still, the impulse to clean it up is rightly felt. For the story as it actually is told in the Bible is absolutely not kid friendly.

Everyone in the world, with a tiny set of exceptions, was killed, violently drowned. This is not to mention the animal life. This is not just scary, it’s horrific, and it’s hard for me to understand how I could present this story to a kid with any honesty or completeness.

What makes it worse is the fact that the one directing all this destruction is supposed to be one of the main protagonists of the story–and of the biblical tradition in general–I mean, of course, God. Why does this make it worse? I have always maintained to my kid (3.5 years old) that what you do with “bad guys”* is you put them in jail so they can’t hurt anyone, and you do whatever you can to help them turn into “good guys” if they want to. But this is pretty much the opposite of what God does in this story (and plenty others). The “bad guys” get killed, simple as that. All of them, all at once.

So here’s the dilemma with this particular story. I could sort of clean it up–but this would seem to require completely missing the point of the story. (For the point of the story involves essentially the horrible nature of the events portrayed.) But if I don’t clean it up, then it is practically impossible to make any moral sense of the story.

I think it is practically impossible to make any moral sense of the story, even for adults–and I think that is part of the value of the story. The Christian must ask himself some very difficult questions in response to this story, and wrestling with them is sure to lead to moral insight, but never to a “moral of the story.”

But can such difficulties be worked through by a three year old, in even a rudimentary sense? I don’t have the impression that this can be so.

Should one just refrain from relaying these tales til the kid is in, say, the eight or nine year old range? (Depending widely on the kid and the parents’ situation.)

Should one tell the story straightforwardly, and let the kid be decieved into thinking he knows some simple “moral of the story”, until one day several years later he learns to grow past the simple moral aphorisms he learns at his elders’ knees?

Should one not worry so much and just tell the standard cleaned-up version, again letting the kid come to his own realizations many years later?

Should one take stories like this as an opportunity to gleefully mess with his kids’ minds?

Or what?

Some of you are wondering “why tell the story at all?” Some because they think the stories aren’t worth telling, and others because they think it’s clear I wouldn’t be telling the story in a good Evangelical Christian spirit and so shouldn’t feel tempted to bother. The reason I would tell my kid stories from the bible is that it was an important part of my own upbringing and growth in moral and even philosophical understanding, and I think it would be good if the language my kid uses for such growth has something in common with the language I grew up with. So we can communicate, and so I can better end up imparting whatever kind of wisdom there is in me to impart.


*A concept he picked up from his friends

In my opinion the impulse to cut our children with the same scars as we received ourselves is an understandable, if primative reflex.

There are an infinite number of interpretations and presentations of bible stories. I think your guide should be your own ability to present a coherent narrative at a level that feels comfortable to your relationship with your kid. Kids already know about suffering and the current inclination to protect children from harsh reality is just as prone to error as is letting the heavy hammer of life hit them hard and hit them early. Stories are graceful transitions.

But I would urge you to establish a clear context of what the bible is, and to whom, if you have such a view yourself. I steered clear of it when my kids were young, so they encountered it as teenagers on their own terms, relatively uninfluenced by parental sway.

Good luck.

If you’re unhappy with the usual toddler presentation of Noah’s ark, then by all means wait until he’s older to introduce it. It is kind of bizarre that we make a happy baby story out of one of the more difficult Old Testament stories, but it’s been going on a long time–Victorian children had Noah’s ark sets too. (Since you couldn’t play with regular toys on Sundays, your entertainment was pretty much limited to Noah’s ark sets and The Pilgrim’s Progress.) I guess the idea is that animals = kid’s story. I bet the early Americans didn’t pretty-fy it much, though, does anybody know? That idea probably came in with the idea that children should be protected and have a happy time.

I don’t think a 3yo is cognitively able to wrestle with the story as it really is. But I would certainly discuss it with my 8yo; she’s more than capable of that discussion. I probably have. I let my kids have the happy baby stories, though, when they were little; we discuss the real versions as they get older. (I can’t resist books with little doors to open. And the Bible storybook had a whole lot of little doors. And also I’m fascinated by the evolution of folktales, historical legends, saints’ tales, all that stuff.)

How does the kiddy Bible deal with the scene where Lot offers his daughters to the mob, I wonder?

I had one of those kiddy Bibles when I was pre-school aged. It was a pretty hefty book, actually–covered most of the books of the real Bible with some absolutely magnificent pictures illustrating the high points of each story. (Obviously it skipped over the laws and a lot of the books of the prophets because you can’t sum those up easily on one page.)

One of my favorite stories in that Bible was Jael and Sisera, mainly because of the illustration. It showed Sisera with a tent peg through his head while thin streams of blood trickled out and Jael with a hammer nearby. Much more gruesome than Noah’s Ark, IMO. And yet I loved it. I loved the trickery, but the illustration is what grabbed me. I must have been all of four years old when I first flipped to that page but it didn’t really bother me much.

I guess what I’m trying to say is (some) little kids can handle the gruesomeness of the Old Testament. It’s just stories at that point. Later on it becomes religion, but preschool kids aren’t able to comprehend what that really means other than “once a week we go to church and tell tales of God.”

Or where god sends a bear to kill 42 children for calling Elisha a baldy.

Personally, I would be surprised if a 3.5 year old was capable of thinking deeply enough about the story to understand what the idea of everyone in the world being drowned would really be like (in the sense of how horrible and scary it would be to experience). I think a kid that age would be more frightened by the scary scenes in Bambi, simply because having it in visual form would make it seem more “real”. And yet, most kids seem to manage to survive seeing Bambi without too many emotional scars. :wink:

Besides, God promised to never do anything like that again, and since we still see rainbows I guess that agreement still holds!

The toddler ones don’t; they’re just board books, usually. They generally have a few simple OT stories: Garden of Eden, Noah, Moses, David and Goliath, Daniel in the lions’ den, Jonah–and then a whole lot of NT stories about Jesus. The stories are generally a two-page spread.

The kiddy Bibles are written on a higher level. I have two here.

The first is by Tomie dePaola (famous children’s author/illustrator), which is pretty much selected stories from the NIV with dePaola illustrations. There are 18 OT stories and 3 Psalms, and none of them are Jael and Sisera or Lot’s daughters, though Abraham is shown with Isaac on an altar.

Next we have the Golden Children’s Bible (which I bought because of its simplified KJV language, despite the blond Jesus), which is very thorough. Still, not much on Lot–not even the wife turning to salt, surprisingly. Jael and Sisera are there, but not Elisha and the kids eaten by a bear. Lots of other stuff is, though: Jezebel, Absalom, etc. This one works very hard at historical continuity, I see, and leaves out most of the Psalms and Proverbs. Esther isn’t there at all, which is weird, since she’s usually very popular for children.

Probably not. But that’s ok.

Some of the value of the stories is that there are different points to be worked through at different points of your life, and experience, and understanding. So you tell him the story and he’ll get a 3-year-old’s understanding out of it. And then, when you tell it to him when he’s 7, it’ll be something different. And when he’s 11, it will be about peer pressure (because all Bible stories are about peer pressure when you’re 11). And somewhere along the way, he’ll have the background and knowledge to be able to wrestle with the moral implications.

One of the reasons that bible stories (and, for that matter, Greek myths and fairy tales)remain popular is that they are perceived differently by children (and adults) at different stages of life, different depths of understanding, etc. So, I don’t see any problem with telling the story and focusing on the animals and people on the ark as a survival story – even though there was a huge flood, these people and animals survived. As the child grows, the story will be interpreted or viewed from different perspectives, including the morality issues, environmental issues, etc.

How Do You Tell Kids Bible Stories? I didn’t. My son I think had a book similar to the one you described. He seemed to like it but I think to him was nothing more than another childrens book. He never asked me my opinion.

Yeah, and The Bad Guys Get Killed seems to be pretty common in lots of the old stories that kids have been exposed to for centuries.

I don’t know, you think about things differently when you’re a kid. I didn’t have too many Bible stories, but I had my share of Mahabharat stories, and some of them get dark, too, and sometimes just weird. But the feelings of empathy for the people who drown or die or whatever - maybe that comes later, when we have more experience and more world knowledge.

For example, Hindu mythology has a lot of “parents are akin to God” stories - where no matter what the parents are right. Draupadi becomes wife to five men because her mother-in-law misspoke one day - they were living in exile as Bramins, begging for their food, they came home one day with Draupadi after her swayamvar, and as a joke said “Look what we have brought home today, Mother!” She, without looking around, said, “Whatever it is, split it evenly amongst the five of you,” and a mother’s command, even spoken in error, can never be defied. I never thought to question why or exactly how this worked until I was an adult.

Same with Ganesha - his parents tell him and his brother to go around the world and explore. His brother shoots off, and Gaesha instead goes around his parents seven times, praying to them and worshiping them, and then says - encircling your parents and praising them is as good as or better than seeing the world. Another thing I never really thought to question until adulthood. I mean, his dad cut off his head, and only replaced it with an elephant head because it broke his mother’s heart! His mother had made him out of a clay toy because she was onely and wanted a child! These are not good parents - not the worst to be sure, but not to be worshiped. But again I never thought about it critically until years later.

What I did realize was the inherent unfairness of it - the brother as I recall had a much faster steed and would have won, but it seemed to me Ganesha cheated. That is the kind of thing kids notice.