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Teaching Children the Book of Nehemiah: Part Two

Here is the second lesson in my Nehemiah series.  What I neglected to mention in Part One is Nehemiah’s conversation with King Artaxerxes.  He had a way with words, did Nehemiah, which is one of the things I like about him.  The king said, “Why are you sad when you are clearly not ill.  This is surely the sadness of the heart.”  A very sensitive guy, this king.  And Nehemiah replied, “Why shouldn’t I be sad, when my city lies in ruins, with its walls destroyed and its gates burnt to ashes.”  Fortunately for everyone concerned, King Artaxerxes could appreciate snarkiness as much as I do.  “What can I do for you?” he said kindly, and proceeded to give Nehemiah everything he asked for.  But perhaps this isn’t the best example for a the Sunday School classroom!  So, on to part two:

Last week, we learned that Nehemiah was sent by the king  to Jerusalem to rebuild the city gates and walls.  The king of Persia had provided everything that would be needed for this great work.

Now Nehemiah is in Jerusalem, but he does not start building right away.  He does not even tell anyone why he has come.  Instead, he goes out at night with just a few friends to look at the ruins of the old walls and find out just exactly what needed to be done to rebuild them.    Close your eyes and picture Nehemiah on his trusty horse, riding carefully in the dark around the city, picking his way through the rubble of the broken walls in the moonlight.  Sometimes the piles of stones from the fallen walls were so big, he had to ride far out of his way to go around.  Perhaps the moon cast eerie shadows from the ruined bits of stonework.  Nehemiah took note of all the damage done.  He knew how important it was to make a plan.

Here is what the word PLAN stands for:  Pray, Learn, Ask, and kNow what you’re doing.  What comes first when you make a new plan?  PRAY! Prayer always comes first, doesn’t it?  Nehemiah prayed before talking to the king, and kept right on praying every step of the way to Jerusalem.  If we don’t do a job the way God wants us to, we may as well not do it at all!  So we must always begin by asking God what He wants us to do.

We must also be sure to LEARN all there is to know about a job before we begin.  Nehemiah wisely looked at the walls and gates, so that he knew exactly what work needed to be done.  But he didn’t learn how to build a city wall in one night, did he?  He must have been studying about how to build walls for months, while he was waiting to go to Jerusalem.  We can begin preparing ourselves for whatever work God has planned for us to do by studying now and learning as much as we can from God’s Word and from our schoolwork.  If we learn all we can now, we can be ready to do God’s work when the time comes.

ASKING for help and advice is also important.  Nehemiah took his friends with him to look at the walls because he knew they could give him good advice and might spot things that he might miss.  No matter how much you learn, you just can’t know everything, can you?  There’s always something that someone knows that you don’t know.  Your parents, teachers, and even your friends can help you in whatever task you have at hand.  God never means for us to work alone.  He puts other people into our lives to work with us–but we must ask!

Now, I know that KNOW doesn’t begin with “n”!  But I had to make it fit with the word PLAN!  Always try hard to KNOW what you are going to do before you begin.  An artist sketches out a picture in pencil before starting to paint, so that he will know how the picture will all fit together.  A writer always makes an outline before he begins writing a story, so he knows how all the details will fit together.  A builder makes a blueprint copy of his plans so he knows how the building will fit together.  Nehemiah made a plan of how the wall was going to fit together before he started building.  God expects us to use the brains He gave us to plan our work so that we can do our best for Him.

Remember that Nehemiah had not told anyone but his few special friends why he had come to Jerusalem.  Only after Nehemiah made his plans,  did he then reveal the plans to the people.  Everyone was excited and ready to begin work at once.  Do you think they would have been so excited if Nehemiah had said, “Let’s rebuild the walls.  I don’t know how to do it, but we’ll figure it out somehow.”  I don’t think so!  Nehemiah had planned very carefully, and was able to give each family a job to do so that they were able to begin working right away.  Every family in Jerusalem had specific job; not just professional builders, but also the priests, the store-keepers, the blacksmiths, the farmers–even the jewelry makers and the perfume makers!  Men, women, and children worked side by side, following the plans that Nehemiah gave them.

But the enemies of the Jews were not happy about this building project! Two men named Sanballat and Tobiah  began to mock the people and try to discourage them.  What does it mean to mock?  It means to make fun of someone.  It hurts when people make fun of the work you are doing, doesn’t it?  But Nehemiah just said, “The God of heaven will give us success.”  We can say this, too, if anyone tries to discourage us from doing God’s work.  Then Nehemiah said to Sanballat and Tobiah: “We have every right under heaven and by the king’s command to be here and to do this work.  But you have no right to be here at all.  So go away!”  And they went away.  But only for a while!  Next time, we’ll learn more about the evil schemes of Sanballat and Tobiah, and how Nehemiah outsmarted them!

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We keep our cat Ira indoors for a reason:  there are a lot of dogs in our neighborhood and we want him to be safe.  He does not understand this.  He believes our rules are unreasonable and unnecessarily restrictive  He is sure he can fend for himself and that he does not need us to take care of him.  Of course, he is always quite willing to eat the food we offer him, but he never shows gratitude for it.  He acts as if we somehow owe it to him.  And he resents our keeping him in the “prison” of our home.

Ira has run out the door a million times without incident.  But last week, he ran out the door for the million and first time, and disappeared.  We searched for him for two days.  It sleeted.  The wind was blowing cold and merciless.  The temperature dropped to 20 degrees.  We worried and hunted for him, calling his name, going door to door, handing out pictures of him.  And at last, on the third night, we found him.

He was trapped 60 feet up in a tree.  That’s like the height of a six-story building.  This tree had been trimmed back within an inch of its life and had almost no branches between the ground and the crotch of three limbs where Ira had settled himself.  He was so high up, you could barely make out his pathetic little face as he cried for help.  The only way he could have had the initiative to climb that high was if a dog were chasing him.  Well, we told him so, didn’t we?  Not understanding the reasons for our rules did not help him escape the consequences of disobedience.

We called the fire department.  They did not have a ladder tall enough to reach Ira, and the nearby power lines made it unsafe to use the bucket lift.  They soon gave up and went home.  Next we called a professional tree trimmer.  By now it was nearly midnight, and he was unable to help Ira, either.  The next day, we found an animal rescue service who sent out a man with their longest ladder.  That ladder was almost 20 feet short of where Ira sat.  We were getting desperate.  After four days of sitting in that tree, Ira was dehydrated and hungry, as well as in danger of freezing to death.  At last, we found a man who could climb trees using a sling and harness and spiked boots.  He climbed up that tree, putting himself in danger of falling, and rescued our silly cat.

What’s the moral of this tale?  Romans chapter 6 tells us that we are all slaves to what we obey.  Ira obeyed his own instincts, believing that ignoring our restrictions would give him greater freedom.  He ended up stuck in one position, completely alone, without food or water, and exposed to the elements,  helpless to even move an inch in any direction.  If he had been willing to obey US, he would have had everything a cat would want–free run of the entire nice, warm house; plenty of food and water; and people who love him.

Doing what I want looks like fun.  It looks like freedom.  But freedom from what?  Freedom from God means freedom from all the good things He wants to give us.  Freedom to do what we want can look attractive, but can lead to horrifying circumstances!  Ira thought he knew more about how life works than we do.  He thought that fulfilling his own desires would give him happiness.  He had to learn the hard way that we actually do know what’s best for him.  I had to learn that lesson, too; I learned it well enough that I never want to be free from God again.



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Teaching the Epistle of Jude to Children

Sandwiched between the letters of John the Beloved and the intriguing Book of Revelation, the tiny book of Jude is perhaps the most neglected and ignored of all New Testament scripture.  So short it is not even divided into chapters, Jude is mysterious and fascinating–and little understood.  Teaching this beautifully written letter to children is not a challenge, but an opportunity to explore the mind of a man who grew up in the same household as our Savior.  Here is a lesson designed to introduce Jude to young elementary-age kids.

Jude is very short letter written by–guess who?  A guy named Jude!  Who is this guy?  He was one of the sons of Joseph and Mary, making him the earthly half-brother of Jesus.  Another brother of Jesus and Jude was James, who became the leader of the Jerusalem church soon after Jesus went back to heaven.  We don’t know nearly as much about Jude as we do about James, but we can learn a lot from his little letter.

Jude’s letter is so short, we have not even bothered to divide it into chapters.  It is only 25 verses long.  But it’s jam-packed with interesting stuff!  One thing to keep in mind when reading this book is that Jude makes his points by referring to Old Testament stories.  He mentions something from the Old Testament in almost every verse, in fact.  But he never tells the stories–he just expects his reader to have already learned the stories and remember them.  He says things like, “they are just like Cain,” or “they made the same mistake as Balaam”.  If you don’t know Cain or Balaam, you won’t have any idea what Jude is talking about!    I cannot emphasize this often enough, kids:  you  cannot really understand any of the New Testament if you don’t know your Old Testament.  All of the New Testament is meant to be understood in light of the Old.

Jude addressed his letter to all believers, or as he put it: “to those who have been called, who are loved by God the Father and kept by Jesus Christ.”  Does that describe you?  Then Jude wrote this letter to you!  Jude says he felt compelled to write in order to warn the believers not to listen to false teachers.  The false teachers in Jude’s day were telling the believers that since Jesus has saved us, now we can sin all we want!  Jude says that these false teachers are twisting the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection in order to make themselves feel they have the right to do whatever they want.  Should we just do whatever we want?  No, we should live the way God wants us to live, shouldn’t we?  If we belong to Jesus, then He is our Lord.  What does the word “Lord” mean?  A “Lord” is someone who has the right to tell people what to do.  It’s like being the Boss.  Jesus is the one who tells believers how to live.  We do not have the right to live our own lives once we have given our lives to Jesus.  And really, why would we want to live sinful lives, knowing what Jesus has done for us, to take those sins away?

Jude reminds the believers that, even though God saved the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, they still had to be disciplined when they refused to obey God.  All the Israelites who refused to listen to God had to live their lives out in the wilderness instead of going on to the Promised Land.  Even if you are a believer and know you are going to heaven for certain, that does not mean that you will not have to live with the consequences here on earth if you choose to disobey.  For example, if you rob a bank, being a Christian will not keep you out of jail, will it?  If you drink and drive, being a Christian will not stop you from having an accident.

Jude goes on to remind us that even the angels are not left unpunished if they disobey God.  The angels who rebelled against God and followed Satan are going to be bound in chains and judged.  Remember Sodom and Gomorrah, Jude says solemnly.  Can any of you remember what happened there?  The people in those towns were so wicked, God finally rained fire and brimstone on them and completely destroyed them forever.  Today, where those cities once stood, is now the Dead Sea, a lake so salty that nothing can live in it.  Jude’s point is clear.  God loves us and wants to save us from our sins.  But if we insist on doing evil, He has to judge us.

Jude says that these false teacher have “taken the way of Cain.”  Who was Cain?  He killed his brother Abel, didn’t he, and was driven from the presence of God.  The false teachers may not be physically killing anyone, but they are killing people’s souls with their lies.  They are far away from God and are leading others far away from God.  Jude then compares the false teachers to Balaam.  Does anyone remember Balaam?  He was actually paid by a pagan king to curse Israel, but God sent an angel to stop Balaam.  Balaam wanted the money the king had promised him so much, he would not listen to God’s angel.  Then God made Balaam’s donkey talk to him!  But still, Balaam would not listen.  Money was more important to Balaam than obeying God.  Since he couldn’t curse Israel, Balaam tricked the people into sinning against God instead.  Balaam led the people into disobeying God, just like the false teachers Jude is talking about.

One of the things I love about the book of Jude is the writing.  Jude is very much a poet, and his writing makes pictures in your mind.  He calls the false teachers “clouds without rain” and “autumn trees, fruitless and uprooted.”  What do you think he means by that?  Isn’t a cloud without rain kind of useless?  We need rain for the earth to produce fruit.  Isn’t a dead tree also kind of useless?  A dead tree won’t produce any fruit.  Jude calls these wicked men “wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame.”  Can’t you just picture that?  How about “wandering stars, for whom the blackest darkness has been reserved forever.”  How does that sentence make you feel?  It makes me feel kind of shivery!

Then Jude quotes the prophet Enoch.  Does anyone remember who Enoch was?  The Old Testament only tells a little bit about him.  In Genesis, it says that Enoch walked with God, then he disappeared because God took him.  Enoch is one of only two people we know of who never died.  The Bible says God took him right up to heaven to live with Him, still alive.  The book of Jude is the only place in the Bible that records Enoch’s prophecies.  Jude says that Enoch prophesied about false teachers and other wicked men, back in the beginning.  Enoch said, “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of His holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict the ungodly of all ungodly acts they have done in the ungodly way, and of all the harsh words ungodly sinners have spoken against God.”  This is going to happen at the end of time, when Jesus comes back the second time and takes over the earth once and for all.  Isn’t it cool that God told people this way back in the time of Genesis?

Instead of following these wicked teachers into lives of sin, how should we live?  Jude says, “Dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit.  Keep yourselves in God’s love.”  Can you think of ways we can do this?


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Teaching Children About the Wrath of God

Adults in America today have a hard time with the wrath of God. They don’t want it to exist. They want to ignore it, and they hope that by ignoring it or denying its existence, it will somehow just go away. I’m sorry, Americans. God’s wrath is a part of His character and it won’t go away just because you want it to!

Perhaps the mistake is in defining God’s wrath as an emotional response on His part, as if He were a human who is on His last nerve. The wrath of God is coming, not because He’s going to suddenly snap and overreact to childish behavior, but because He has promised us since Adam’s sin that He would destroy evil and He always keeps His promises. I’ve heard it said by so many that a loving God wouldn’t send anyone to hell. But are they really thinking about what that means? If God allowed sin to continue forever, in what way is that loving? Yes, God is allowing wickedness to exist for a time, because He wants to give everyone a chance to repent. But a holy, loving God must deal with wickedness and destroy it once and for all. Unfortunately, those who stubbornly cling to sin will be destroyed along with the sin. How else can there be a “happily ever after”? It isn’t as if they haven’t been repeatedly warned!

Children have an easier time understanding the wrath of God because they long for their parents or other authority figures to “make everything okay” in this sinful world and they get frustrated when it doesn’t happen. Children understand sin. They know they do wrong things, and they know that others do wrong to them. They want the bullies to be punished and the adults who hurt them to be dealt with accordingly. Too many adults today are afraid to tell children about God’s wrath, thinking that it will frighten them. This is, I’m sure, because the adults know deep inside that they deserve God’s wrath and it frightens THEM! Children, on the other hand, are greatly comforted by the knowledge that God is greater than sin and that He will deal with evil. For them, a loving God is One who will destroy their enemies and make the world the place of beauty and wonder that they know it should be.

In this lesson, (Isaiah 33-35) God tells Isaiah what the future will be like for the wicked who refuse to repent and then what the future will be like for those who DO repent and who love God.

Those who sin and won’t repent deserve God’s wrath. What is wrath? It means anger. Did you know that God gets angry at sin? He is so holy that He has to hate sin. Sin hurts everything He created. It destroys the things He loves. Imagine that you created a beautiful work of art and then an ugly monster came and threw dirt on it and stomped on it and ruined it. That would make you mad, wouldn’t it? Sin is the ugliest monster you can imagine. It must be destroyed. What if some people throw their arms around that ugly monster of sin and won’t let go of it, even when God begs them to? The time will come when God will finally get rid of sin once and for all, and the people who stubbornly hold onto sin will be destroyed with it. God warns people and warns people that this time is coming. Everyone has time to repent and let go of the monster of sin. If they won’t stop sinning, they must be punished, mustn’t they? It’s the only way to get rid of all sin. Satan and all of his followers will also be punished, and all the sin in the universe will be destroyed. God says that in that time, “all the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine; like shriveled figs from the fig tree.” That sounds scary, doesn’t it? But we don’t have to be afraid, do we? Why do we not have to be afraid? Because if we belong to Jesus, He has already saved us!

The redeemed will be saved from God’s wrath. Redeemed means “bought back”. We were slaves to Satan and to that monster sin from the day we were born, because Adam and Eve gave this world to Satan in the beginning. But Jesus paid the price to buy us back. What was the price Jesus paid to buy us? His own life! He died on the cross to pay for our sins. If we die for our own sins, it’s too late—we’re dead! Did Jesus have any sins of His own to pay for? No, Jesus never sinned. So when He died, He was able to die for your sins and for my sins. And then He rose from the dead! All we have to do is believe that Jesus died for us and we are redeemed!

Isaiah says that when Jesus returns He will bring the fruit of righteousness, which is peace. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Listen to this: “See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice. Each man will be like a shelter from the wind, and a refuge from the storm; like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land. Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those of those who hear will listen.” Isn’t that beautiful? If we believe in Jesus, we will rule with Him. The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will jump around like deer! The desert land will have water and be fruitful. We will all live happily ever after with our great God! Doesn’t that make you want to rejoice?


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Teaching Children The Book of Philemon

In past posts about teaching difficult Scriptures to children, I’ve been concentrating on Old Testament books. But there is a book in the New Testament which is consistently passed over in most children’s curriculum. Paul’s letter to Philemon brings up the question of slavery, an emotionally-charged and controversial subject that most are not willing or able to tackle in a Sunday School class, or in any other forum I suppose. I propose that the difficultly many have in presenting this book lies in a lack of historical knowledge in placing this scripture in proper context. Here is my attempt at teaching this problematic book to children with a simple history lesson to aid in a proper understanding of it.

Most of Paul’s letters were written to churches, but four of the books Paul wrote he addressed to individual people. Can you name them? (I Timothy, II Timothy, Titus, Philemon) These books are really short; Philemon is only one chapter!

When this letter was written, Paul was in prison in Rome waiting to see Caesar. Paul was allowed to live in a house which he rented there in Rome, but he was constantly under Roman guard and in chains, not allowed to leave the house. He could not go out into the streets and preach to the unbelievers of Rome. He depended on his friends to bring people to him so that he could teach them in his home. One day, a run-away slave named Onesimus found his way to Paul’s house. We don’t know if he sought Paul out or if someone brought Onesimus to Paul. But we do know that after talking with Paul, Onesimus became a believer in the Messiah. Paul calls his new friend “my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.”

Now Onesimus had a problem, though. He had run away from his master. In Rome at that time, slaves who ran away were considered a great threat to the government. You see, about 100 years earlier there had been a great slave uprising. A slave named Spartacus had run away and had become a great leader among other runaway slaves. He had managed to gather an army of tens of thousands of slaves, who marched against the Roman army to gain their freedom and end slavery. This slave army was defeated and 7,000 of the leaders, including Spartacus himself, were crucified–hung on crosses that lined the road leading into Rome for miles. This was done as a warning for the slaves to never rise up against their masters again! Since that time, any slave who ran away was sentenced to die, unless his master would take him back and protect him.

What was Onesimus to do? His life was in danger every day that he was separated from his master. Fortunately, God is a good God! It so happened that Onesimus’ master was a good friend of Paul’s! His name was Philemon, and a church met in his home in Colossae. Paul wrote this letter to Philemon for Onesimus to carry with him on his journey back to Colossae. In it, Paul says of Philemon, “your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because, you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.”

You might ask yourself, if Philemon was such a good man and a Christian, why did he own slaves? It’s hard for us in America to understand how different slavery was in ancient times and in other countries because our own American system of slavery was so horrible. In America, slaves were kidnaped from their homes in Africa and sold. They were treated as if they were property and not really human beings. But slavery in ancient times worked differently. Most of the time, it was an arrangement made between the slave and master. Perhaps you owe some money to someone and can’t pay it back. Or perhaps you have for some reason lost your home and your land and have no means to feed and clothe your family. How would you get money? You could sell yourself to someone and work off your debt. You would agree to work for someone for a certain amount of time and then when that time had passed, you would be free to go. In the meantime, you could be saving up your money so that when you were free you could buy a home and maybe even start your own business.

Here’s another way to become a slave: perhaps your family is very poor and cannot afford to send you to school. They could give you to someone as an apprentice. This means you would be learning a trade from your master, like carpentry or iron-making. Your parents would have an agreement with this master–he would give you food and clothes and a place to live while he taught you all you needed to know about his business. In return, you would have to work for him for a certain number of years.

Now, there were also slaves who were from other countries whom Rome had defeated. These people had not made an agreement with their masters! However, since they were a conquered people, they had no home to go back to. If they were to be freed, they would be poor and homeless with no means of supporting themselves and their families. This was a big problem with no easy solution. Simply freeing all the slaves would not solve anything. It would just put a lot of people out on the streets with no place to live and no way to earn a living. I’m not saying that this was a good system. Owning people against their will is wrong. But it was the system that Christians had to deal with at that time as best they could. Protecting their slaves and treating them well was one solution. Giving them their freedom along with land and money to help them start out on their own was another, if you had the land and the money to do this.

We don’t know if Onesimus was a slave by his own agreement with Philemon, an agreement with Onesimus’ parents, or because his country had been conquered by Rome. We do know that it was not safe for Onesimus to wander around without his master’s protection! Any Roman soldier who caught him could put him to death. Onesimus knew he needed to go back to his master. Paul asks Philemon to take the run-away slave back as a brother in Christ, not just as a slave. The name Onesimus means “Useful”. Paul makes a joke of that name when he tells Philemon, “He was Useless to you before, but now he is Useful to you and to me.” In fact, Paul says, he really wanted Onesimus to stay with him in Rome and help him, but he knew he couldn’t do this without Philemon’s permission. “He is more useful to you as a brother in Christ,” Paul tells his friend. I believe he is hinting to Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom and help him find a way to live on his own. “Remember that you owe me your very life,” Paul added. “I’m certain you’ll do as I ask.” Paul was being a little forceful, wasn’t he?

We don’t know what Philemon did. But we do know that 30 years or so later there was a Bishop, a church leader, in Ephesus named Onesimus. Ephesus is not very far away from Colossae. What do you think happened?


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Teaching Children the Truth of the Scriptures

This is a re-posting of my first blog entry, with a few little changes. I began this crusade for better Bible instruction for children many years ago, and I am making little headway! Now that my blog is being read by more people, I wanted to re-emphasize the reasons I began it in the first place–to improve teaching methods for Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Schools. Our children are the future of the church! They need to be prepared to lead. They need to be taught truth!

Deuteronomy 11:18-19. “You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul. . . . And you shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up.” When God commanded that His words be impressed on our hearts and on our children, the only words there were to impress were those in the Pentateuch. How far we have diverted ourselves from this simple command of teaching God’s word in its entirety, difficult parts, “boring” parts and all.
Up until about 240 years ago, the Bible was taught to children in the same way it was taught to adults: it was read to them. Most children in English-speaking nations, in general, learned to read by reading the Bible. Families were all together in church services–children heard the same sermons as the adults, and the parents would talk to them about the message afterward. I’m not advocating going back to that way of teaching, and we have many more resources available to us which we should take advantage of. But it served human-kind well enough for thousands of years, and I am not sure that adults of today who learned under modern methods of teaching are better educated than those who came before.
Along came the Industrial Revolution. In the 1780′s an upper-class gentleman in England, Robert Raikes, noticed that children of the poorer classes were no longer attending school or church, but were being forced to work in factories to help support their families. He became concerned about what kind of adults this generation of uneducated children would grow up to be, and so he conceived of a “Sunday School” to be held on the only day the children had off of work. This was the beginning of the concept of Sunday School that we have today. Unfortunately, it was Raikes’ primary goal to teach the underprivileged to read and to be good, moral citizens of Great Britain. Their spiritual enlightenment was secondary in his mind. Therefore, he chose to teach the children only those Bible stories which he could adapt to his agenda of moral values, leaving out any details that might detract from his goals. For example, he might teach them about the patriarch Jacob by expounding on his faithfulness and how he was blessed by God, leaving out the parts where Jacob lied, deceived people, and ran away like a coward. The Bible stories were presented as isolated tales rather than as part of a vast history, so that anyone attending his schools would come away with the impression that the Bible was like Aesop’s Fables: a book of unrelated moral tales with unreal, perfect characters.
As the years passed, printing in color became easier and cheaper, and colored story books for children became all the rage among the wealthier Victorians in the mid- to late-1800′s. Bible stories, with beautifully colored wood-cuts, were popular presents for Christmas and birthdays. Naturally, the stories in these books were chosen for their illustrative qualities, and the narratives themselves were often questionable. When the wealthy Victorians got wind of the Sunday School movement among the poor, they grabbed onto the concept with their own twist-–illustrated Sunday School cards and papers. Again, these stories were presented as isolated, moral tales and chosen for their illustrative qualities. The Bible was cleaned up and disinfected so that the children would never know that David committed murder and adultery; that every living thing on earth, except those in the ark, died in Noah’s flood; that when Ehud stabbed Eglon, Eglon’s fat stomach closed over the hilt of the knife. In other words, the Bible began to be unreal and unhistorical, and those whose only knowledge of the Bible came from Sunday School grew to have a warped and one-dimensional idea of what the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is all about. A warped view of the Bible means a warped view of God, and there was a great falling away from the faith as the children taught in this way grew to adulthood.
Darwinism took hold, and the Bible began to be seen by many, even by Christians, as unscientific, even mythological. By the 1950′s and 60′s, the Bible was being taught more and more as a lot of unrelated, moral fables rather than historical truth–-as a way of teaching children how to behave rather than teaching them to know their Creator and Savior. Even those churches which remained fundamental in doctrine often used inferior Sunday School material which failed to emphasize the historical accuracy of the Bible. Lessons were still chosen for the cute crafts and pretty coloring pages that could be created to enhance the stories, and so the less “pretty” stories were ignored. Think of the vast amount of material which is never presented in Sunday School, or in other venues of children’s education: most of the Judges, most of the Kings, most of the prophets. Fascinating, enlightening stories which children would love, which never-the-less would be difficult to illustrate tastefully or to create appropriate hand-work for. The adults raised in these Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Schools thought they knew what was in the Old Testament and so never bothered to read it for themselves. The Old Testament began to be seen as irrelevant to adults, to be set aside with books of fairy tales.
Many of us who now attempt to teach the Scriptures to children today received our earliest Bible instruction in the 1960′s style Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Schools. You might argue that they were better than nothing and that no other curriculum was available to be taught at that time, and that is certainly true. But the tragedy remains. Ask any adult of our generation a question about the Old Testament and see if they can answer it. Look it up and make sure YOU know the right answer yourself! How many adults today are fully literate in Old Testament theology? I have known many intelligent, well-educated Christians who are very knowledgeable in the New Testament Scriptures but have only the most rudimentary grasp of the Old. I have even heard arguments for abandoning the study of the Old Testament Scriptures since they have been “replaced” by the New! I sincerely believe that this attitude comes from a Sunday School mentality of Old Testament study. Since people are being taught the Old Testament as a collection of isolated morality tales, they can’t understand how these Scriptures can be relevant to adults. They don’t understand what they are missing, because they have never really been taught Scripture as a serious, historical document.
How then should we teach the Scriptures to children? I’ll share my ideas on this tomorrow.

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Teaching Children the Truth About Christ’s Death Part Two

Teaching children about the death of Christ is difficult in today’s America. Post-modern Americans are used to hearing all kinds of filthy language and sexual innuendos in their daily lives, but bring up death and they are offended beyond endurance. The Gospel has in many churches been “cleaned up”, with all mention of blood or suffering excised from hymnals and Sunday School material. As violent as our society is, you would think Americans would be immune to death, but instead they purport to be shocked by it. Look through many children’s Bibles and you will notice that the text skips from the Last Supper to the Resurrection with barely a mention of why the Supper was Jesus’ last and why He needed to rise from the grave. And yet, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Do we really dare minimize it when teaching our children? Do we dare leave it out?

Here is the second part of a lesson I wrote for elementary age children in which I attempt to explain Christ’s death and resurrection truthfully in words they can understand. I find no need in being melodramatic–I find that children respond favorably to a matter-of-fact delivery when it comes to difficult subjects such as this one.

Last time we were together, we talked about the Last Supper and why Passover is important. Now I’ll tell you what happened next.
Jesus and His disciples left the house where they had eaten the Last Supper and went to the Garden of Gethsemane, a sort of little park on the Mount of Olives just outside of Jerusalem. There, Jesus prayed and waited for Judas to bring the soldiers to arrest Him.

Soon the soldiers came, a detachment of them. I had a hard time finding anything to tell me about a “detachment”, but from what I gathered, it would have been about 30 soldiers. That seems a little excessive to arrest one man, doesn’t it? Now here’s an interesting thing that happened: Jesus went forward to meet the soldiers and asked them whom they wanted. “Jesus of Nazareth”, they said. “I am He,” Jesus said. When Jesus said, “I am”, everyone drew back from Him and fell to the ground! Why do you think they did that? Do you know what God’s own name for Himself is? It’s Yahweh, and in English that means “I Am”. When Jesus said, “I am”, He was pronouncing His own name for Himself, His “God” name, and everyone who heard it fell over. That’s the kind of power God has–no one can even stand up to the sound of His name! But even though Jesus could have just walked away, He allowed Himself to be arrested and taken to trial.

Was it a fair trial? Of course not! The Jewish religious leaders had already decided that they wanted Jesus killed. They weren’t going to let a little thing like truth or innocence stop them! And Jesus did not try to defend Himself, either. He knew He had come to earth for just this very reason; to be the Passover Lamb that would save the world from the destroyer. His blood must be shed in order to save us from sin.

Did you ever wonder why Jesus’ death saves us? God said in the very beginning, to Adam, that sin would bring death. “The wages of sin is death”, God says. What is death? “Death” means separation. When our physical body dies, we are separated from this world and our loved ones, and from our body, but our souls are still alive. Our souls and spirits never stop being alive. It’s just a question of where our souls are. Real death, the kind of death Jesus saves us from, is separation from God. Separation from God is separation from all that God is: separation from love, beauty, creativeness, hope, peace. That’s what hell is–separation from God. Jesus’ death saves us from that. We deserve to die and be separated from God forever. But Jesus died our deaths for us, so that we can live with Him forever. That’s why it was important that Jesus become a man. Only a human can die for another human, so Jesus had to be human. But He is also God, sinless and perfect. Only a sinless, perfect human could die for another human. I can’t die your death for you; if I die, I die in payment of my own sins. I can’t die for your sins, I have my own to die for! Jesus had no sin to die for. And His death was so powerful, that He not only could die my death for me, He could die the death of everyone in the whole world who ever lived or who is ever going to live.

The Gospel of John describes Jesus’ death briefly, pointing out many of the ways prophecy was fulfilled at that time. David had prophesied that the Messiah’s clothes would be gambled for, and sure enough the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus gambled with each other for His robe. David also said that Messiah’s hands and feet would be pierced–it says all this in Psalm 22. Although the soldiers broke the legs of the two men crucified with Jesus, no bones of Jesus were broken. This was a prophecy from Exodus 12 and from Psalm 34. Instead, the soldiers thrust a spear into Jesus’ side, fulfilling a prophecy by Zechariah.

After Jesus was dead, He was taken down and buried in a rich man’s tomb, just as the prophet Isaiah had said would happen in Isaiah 53. The rich man’s name was Joseph of Arimathea, and he was a Pharisee. He was the only member of the Jewish court that disagreed with putting Jesus to death. Joseph and Nicodemus took care of Jesus’ body, wrapping Him in linens and placing him in Joseph’s own tomb. Isn’t it kind of cool that a man named Joseph helped take care of Jesus when Jesus came into the world as a baby, and another Joseph helped take care of Jesus when Jesus left the world?

Just as important as Jesus’ death for us is the fact that He rose again. The apostle Paul says, “If Jesus were not raised, we are of all men most to be pitied.” If Jesus did not physically walk out of that tomb in His own human body, then our faith in Him is worthless. But we know that Jesus did come out of the tomb! When some of the women who had believed in Him came on Sunday morning to anoint His body, the tomb was open, Jesus was gone, and some angels were sitting there waiting to tell them that Jesus had risen! An earthquake had happened and the Roman soldiers who had been guarding the tomb had fainted! And Jesus had walked out of the tomb right past them.

The women ran to tell Jesus’ disciples what had happened. Peter and John raced to see for themselves. John ran faster and reached the tomb first, but could not bring himself to go inside; he just looked in and saw that the burial linens that had been wrapped around Jesus’ dead body were lying there, empty. Peter soon caught up, but he did not stop outside of the tomb; he ran right inside and looked closely at the burial linens, and at the separate head covering that was now neatly folded away from the linens. They saw these things but still did not understand what had happened.

Apparently, Mary Magdalene had followed John and Peter back to the tomb, and when they left, she stayed and wept for her missing Lord. But then Jesus appeared to her. The first person Jesus showed Himself to after He rose from the dead was not one of His twelve disciples, but a woman from whom He had once cast 7 demons. Isn’t that encouraging? Any ordinary person is just as important to Jesus as those who are leaders in His church.

That evening, Jesus did appear to the eleven disciples who were left. Judas, of course, was no longer with them; he had not been able to live with what he had done by betraying Jesus, and had hanged himself. Jesus appeared to His people many times for 40 days after He rose again, and then He went up to heaven to be with the Father.


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Teaching the Book of Judges to Children: Abimelech and Jephthah

Just when you think this book is getting easier to teach to your kids, as you breeze through Deborah and Gideon, here comes more troublesome folks who are just too human! Abimelech was not a judge and certainly not chosen by God, but he’s part of Israel’s history and cannot be ignored. Jephthah made a truly stupid but understandably human mistake and his child had to pay for it; but still, he cannot be ignored either! As morality plays of warning against greed, rash actions, and underestimating God, these stories need to be taught to our children.

Gideon had 70 sons that lived with him, and then he had one more son who was the son of a slave women in a nearby town called Shechem. Gideon is an example of a good man who made some really stupid mistakes. The first mistake was to make that golden ephod. Remember that? I guess he meant it to be a kind of memorial to help the people remember what God had done for them. But the people started worshiping the ephod instead! The other mistake Gideon made was to follow the customs of the tribes around them by taking many wives and at least one concubine. A concubine was a sort of wife, but more like a slave. The son Gideon had with his concubine was named Abimelech.

Remember our cycle of Israel? Let’s look at it again. The people would sin and worship idols; God would allow a foreign nation to take over; Israel would repent and ask God for deliverance; God would send a judge to save the people; the people would serve God faithfully until that judge died; then they would fall into sin and worship idols again.

So, after Gideon died, guess what happened? Yes, the Israelites lost no time; they immediately started worshiping the Baals again. At the same time, Abimelech decided that he wanted to rule over everybody. I guess I’ve felt that way sometimes, haven’t you? But he didn’t just feel that way; he decided to make it happen. He went to his mother’s family and asked for money. They gave him money from the temple of an idol. Abimelech used this money to hire some thugs to help him kill all 70 of his brothers. And they did it, too, all except for the youngest brother. This young man’s name was Jotham, and he escaped by hiding. After Abimelech killed his 69 brothers, he declared himself king, and the people agreed to follow him. Would you want to follow a man who had just killed almost all of his own family? It would be hard to trust him, wouldn’t it?

The youngest brother, Jotham, when he heard that Abimelech was now the king, went before the people and made a speech. I want to read it to you out of the Bible. (Read Judges 9:7-20)

What do you think? Do you think the people treated Gideon’s family well?

God gave the people three years of Abimelech’s rule to repent. But they didn’t do it. So God let an evil spirit stir things up between Abimelech and the people. Suddenly, the people were saying, “Why should Abimelech rule over us? Who is he to tell us what to do?” When Abimelech heard what the people were saying, he set out to teach them a lesson! At first Abimelech was winning. But the people in the town he was attacking all fled to a strong tower to hide. Abimelech was going to set the tower on fire! But just then, a woman threw a huge mill-stone out of the window high in the tower. It hit Abimelech on the head and cracked his skull open! Abimelech was dying, but he called his slave over to him quickly. “Kill me quick!” Abimelech said. “I won’t have people saying I was killed by a woman!” So the slave stabbed Abimelech through with a sword. When the people of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, they all stopped fighting and just went home. Isn’t that weird?

After that, there were two more judges in Israel. They were named Tola and Jair, and they each were judges for over twenty years. Apparently they did a really good job of obeying God and there was no more fighting or war in Israel during that time.

But after Jair died, Israel went back to their old ways of worshiping false gods. They started worshiping the gods of the Philistines and of the Ammonites. So guess what? God let the Philistines and Ammonites take over Israel. Doesn’t that make sense? If the people wanted to follow the gods of the Philistines and of the Ammonites, shouldn’t they also be forced to be the slaves of the Philistines and the Ammonites? For 18 years, these foreign nations crushed the Israelites and oppressed them. Finally the people cried out to God for help. But this time, God said: “I have saved you time and time again, but you always go back to these idols. Why don’t you ask your new gods for help? Maybe the gods of the Philistines and the Ammonites that you like so much will help you.”

The Israelites knew that only the one true God could help them. This time, they truly repented. Instead of just asking for help, they destroyed their idols and showed that they really meant to change. So God sent them a new judge to lead them against their enemies.

This new judge was named Jephthah. Jephthah lived in the wilderness , and he was such a powerful warrior, he had gathered many companions, fellow adventurers, who followed him. I think he was kind of like Robin Hood and his merry men, living like outlaws, but really doing all kinds of good to help the helpless. Jephthah must have made quite a reputation for himself as a mighty champion, because the people came to him for help against the Philistines and the Ammonites. He agreed to help as long as they promised to follow him. He needed all of Israel to work together now. If they would not all follow him, he could not lead them to victory.

The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah and gave him wisdom and power to lead the people of Israel against their enemies. Jephthah must have truly wanted to serve the Lord, and he seemed to know a lot about the Scriptures. But, he was also influenced by his culture. He made a foolish vow, one that was common in his culture but was not anything God ever approved of. He made a solemn vow to God to sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house if God would let him win the battle.

Did he really need to do this? God had already promised to give them the victory. We don’t ever need to make bargains with God. God keeps His word, and He expects us to keep our word, also. God, of course, let Israel win. He had already promised that He would, way before Jephthah was even called to lead. But the wicked vow had already been spoken and we must always keep our promises, especially our promises to God. So, what was the first thing that came out of Jephthah’s house? His daughter came dancing out, playing on a tambourine, celebrating her father’s victory. She was so happy that her daddy had come home safely from the battle. How quickly her happiness turned to grief! But she did not argue with her father when he told her about his vow to God. She knew as well as Jephthah that it is a sin to break a promise.

Now here’s the question you are all wondering, I’ll bet. Most of the time, when a person makes a sacrifice, the sacrifice is killed. But this is not always the case, and I don’t believe it was the case this time. Jephthah’s daughter asked for time to mourn because she would now never marry or have children. She did not mourn for her lost life. Also, the only person who was allowed to make sacrifices to God was the priest. No priest of God would ever make a human sacrifice. God made it clear over and over that human sacrifice is wrong. He was punishing the pagan nations all around Israel for making human sacrifices. How could He possibly accept such a thing Himself? No, Jephthah’s daughter was dedicated to the Lord’s work for the rest of her life because of her father’s foolish vow, but she did not die. She could never marry or have a family of her own, though, and that was a sad thing for her.

How can we avoid such a thing happening to us? Just don’t make vows! Jesus told us to just let our yes mean yes and our no mean no. We don’t have to “promise” that what we say is true. If we always speak the truth, people will always believe us without our having to make vows and promises.

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Teaching the Book of Judges to Children: Deborah

One of the biggest travesties of skipping the Book of Judges in Sunday School is that one of the greatest role models in the Bible for our little girls is the fourth judge, Deborah. Really, there are quite a number of good women described in the Scriptures, but precious few of them get much recognition in most Sunday School curriculum. Some denominations have a problem with Deborah as an authority figure, telling men what to do. However, it must be noted that Deborah’s authority was political–she was a judge, not a priestess. Some of history’s greatest political leaders have been women–but that’s a lesson for another day!

Please note that it is helpful to teach lessons from the Judges with the aid of a poster or diagram on the white board depicting the repetitive cycle of events in this period from Israel’s history: sin, particularly idol worship; punishment by enemy capture; repentance and cry to God for help; Judge called and enemy defeated; period of peace and obedience; judge dies and Israel falls into sin again.

My name is Deborah. I am a judge of Israel. Last week, you learned about the first two judges of Israel. Do you remember their names? Othniel and Ehud! Do you remember the cycle of events that kept happening in Israel after Joshua died? The people would fall into sin and worship false gods; then God would punish the people by allowing a foreign king to conquer them and oppress them. The people would be sorry for their sin and ask God to forgive them and rescue them. So God would send a judge to lead them out of bondage.

I am the fourth judge of Israel. During the time of the second judge, Ehud, there was an attack on our people by the Philistines. At that time, God raised a third judge named Shamgar to defeat the Philistine army. The Philistines had iron chariots and iron swords and shields, and our army had only long, pointed sticks called ox goads to defend themselves. But Shamgar killed 600 of these armed Philistines with his ox goad all by himself. That’s really all history tells us of this brave man!

But after Ehud and Shamgar died, the people of Israel again forgot the one, true God and began to worship false gods. They did evil in the sight of the Lord. And so, God allowed Jabin, the king of the Canaanites to defeat Israel with the help of his cruel, wicked general, Sisera. King Jabin and General Sisera tormented the people of Israel for 20 years, until finally Israel returned to the one, true God and cried out for His help. And God called me to help them.

When God called me, I was a prophetess. That means that God talks to me and I can tell people what He says. People would come from all over Israel to sit under the palm tree in my front yard and ask me to help them with their problems, because they knew that the Spirit of God was with me. Whenever two men had a disagreement that they couldn’t solve between them, they’d say, “Let’s go to the Palm of Deborah,” and then they would come and ask me to speak to God for them.

One day, God gave me a message to send to a man named Barak. God was answering the prayers of His people and was planning to deliver Israel from the rule of the Canaanites through Barak. I told God’s plan to this man whom God had chosen. “Gather 10,000 men upon Mt. Tabor and God will lead Sisera’s army right to you and give them into your hands. You will defeat him easily,” I told Barak.

But Barak did wasn’t so sure. “I’ll go,” he said reluctantly. “But only if you go with me. If you don’t go with me, I won’t go either!”

I sighed. I’m not a young woman anymore. Even if I were a man, I would be too old to fight in a battle! What help did Barak think I could possibly be? “All right,” I said, “I’ll go with you. But because you put more trust in me than in our God, the honor of this battle will not be yours. A woman will get the credit for defeating General Sisera.” Barak was fine with this, because he thought the woman getting the credit would be me, just for telling him how to win the battle. But he was quite wrong, as you will see.

Barak gathered his men on Mt. Tabor as God, though me, had instructed. And all went well, because God was with us. The Canaanites had iron chariots and we did not even have horses. The Canaanites had iron swords and shields, and most of our men had only primitive weapons like sticks and bows and arrows. There were far more Canaanites than there were Israelites. But still, when Barak blew his trumpet and our army ran down Mt. Tabor towards the Canaanites’ camp, the enemy panicked and fled, leaving their horses and fancy chariots behind! They were in such fear, they trampled and killed each other, and then they were trapped at the banks of a river, which God had caused to be flooded and rushing wildly. Most of the enemy who were still alive at that point, jumped into the river and drowned. The battle was won, and we had needed no weapon but God!

General Sisera, the enemy general, had seen that all was lost. Instead of staying with his own men, he ran away like a coward and tried to find a place to hide. He came to the home of man named Heber. Heber and his wife Jael did not live in a house like you have today: they lived in a tent. Sisera knew that Heber had served the Canaanite king Jabin in the past and hoped to find help at Heber’s tent. But Heber was not home, and Jael, unlike her husband, was loyal to Israel. When Sisera ran into her tent, demanding shelter and something to drink, she gave him a bottle of milk and let him lie down to rest on a mat on the floor. And then, when her enemy was asleep, she grabbed a tent stake and a hammer and nailed Sisera’s head to the dirt floor! He died instantly. Sisera, the mighty Canaanite general who had tormented the Israelites for 20 years, was dead at the hand of a woman. In the meantime, Barak realized that Sisera had escaped and was searching everywhere for him. When he came near Jael’s tent, she ran out and told Barak what she had done. Now Barak understood what God had meant when He said that the honor of the battle would go to a woman!

With General Sisera and most of the Canaanite army gone, King Jabin no longer had any power in the land of Israel. He was quickly overthrown, and Israel belonged to Israel again. After serving such cruel masters for 20 years, all of Israel rejoiced at our freedom! As long as I lived, the people continue to serve only the one, true God and to obey Him. And God blessed us as long as we served Him, giving us an abundance of every good. Do you think they will continue to serve God after I die?


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Laying the Foundations of Faith for our Children

Deuteronomy 11:18-19.  “You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul. . . . And you shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up.”  When God commanded that His  words  be impressed on our hearts and on our children, the only words there were to impress were those in the Pentateuch.  God fully intends for us to teach the Books of the Law to our children, and I believe those five fundamental books were meant to be taught to them first.  After all, He gave them to His own children first.  The Pentateuch is the foundation of all His revelation to mankind.  And yet, three out the five books are rarely taught to . . . . I started to write “to children”, but honestly, they are rarely taught to anyone who isn’t Jewish.  Even the first two are taught in a hit and miss fashion, leaving out whatever is difficult or “boring”.

There are several possible reasons for this lack in the Christian church.  One is the mistaken belief that, because we now have the New Testament, the Old Testament is obsolete.  But God gave the Old Testament to His people to prepare them for what was to come in the New Covenant.  It is arrogance to assume we are better than our forefathers and don’t need the revelations that were given to them. To try to fully understand the New Testament without any understanding of the Old  is to attempt to plant our faith in untilled soil.  The plants may grow, but they will be stunted, malformed, malnourished, weak.  The Old Testament is the plow and the fertilizer, preparing the soil of our hearts to receive the full bounty of the seed of the New.

A second reason for the neglect of the Pentateuch is a misunderstanding of the fundamental purpose of the Law itself.  No one was ever saved by the Law.  The books of the Law serve as a mirror that we hold up to ourselves to see the lack within our souls.  Tip the mirror a bit, and there is Christ Himself, standing at our shoulder, waiting for us to notice Him.  The Pentateuch is filled with pictures of Jesus, if we only care to look.  The entire Old Testament describes God’s character and His plan for His creation, including His plan to send the Messiah.  We miss so much of the heart of God by bypassing the bulk of His Word to us, the first and second courses of His carefully planned dinner, and going straight for the dessert at the end of the meal.

A lamentable, tragic reason for many who refuse to study the books of the Law is simple prejudice.  Early on, the Christian church had striven to separate itself from its Jewish roots.  It did such a good job of it, that it comes as a great surprise to many believers to learn that the Christ they worship is Jewish.  To fully understand the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, one must have a fundamental understanding of Judaism.  But most Christians don’t have this knowledge, and many don’t care to acquire it.  How it grieves the heart of our Savior when His own people reject the forerunners of their faith.  It is the scorning of an older brother by a younger brother, and the Father of both longs for reconciliation between them.  But after persecuting the older brother for centuries, it is the responsibility of the younger brother to move towards that reconciliation, first by seeking understanding and knowledge of the truth, then by reaching out in love and gratitude to those who gave us our Messiah.

But admittedly, a difficulty in accessing the true worth of the Old Testament is a language and cultural barrier that has grown greater as the years have separated us from those first faithful men who saw and recorded the works of God at the beginning.  The Books of the Law were not written in a vacuum:  they were written in a specific language to a specific group of people at a specific time in history.  It is imperative to come to an understanding of this language, this people, this history,  in order to fully comprehend the Scriptures.  The cultural divide is easily recognized and easily surmounted:  there are many books devoted to educating minds trained in the thought processes of modern western civilization in the understanding of ancient Middle Eastern thought and cultural practices.  I can recommend many, easily accessible books to any who are interested in furthering and deepening their understanding of Scripture.  The language divide is less easily understood and overcome.  The most basic way to enter into a real understanding of Hebrew Scripture would be, of course, to learn to read Hebrew.  But anyone can begin the process of understanding Jewish thought by simply acknowledging that the Bible was not originally written in English and that no translation can ever completely and effectively convey the original meanings of the text.  The problem is not just that they are two different languages.  It is that English is a modern language and Hebrew is an ancient one.

I’m about to get technical, so please bear with me!  Modern languages in developed countries have huge vocabularies with many synonyms conveying various and subtle shades of meaning.  We who use a language of modern thought have been trained by our vocabularies to differentiate our thinking, to categorize our thought processes, to separate the literal meaning from the metaphorical.  For example, if I said, “the light came on”, you would want to know the context of my statement in order to determine whether I meant a physical light or a symbolic light.  In ancient languages, this barrier is unknown.  The symbolic and the literal meanings are one and the same.  Ancient minds, wiser than our own, were able to hold several different meanings in one thought without difficulty.  Their vocabularies were smaller, much smaller, but their ability to convey meaning was much greater, far deeper.  Hebrew is an ancient language rich in symbolic meaning.  Each word is in itself a little story, and using a particular word means using that story to express a complete thought.  You can see, then, the inherent problems of a  literal translation of Hebrew Scripture into English.  Every word would need its own explanation in order to completely explain the meaning behind it.

But take heart, English speakers!  There is a way to overcome these problems.  Using a good concordance, any English-speaking Christian can come to understand the Scriptures as it was meant to be read. It takes more time and effort, but the result is so very worthwhile.  To encourage you to give it a try, I’ll give you an example.  The word “Amen” is one of the most commonly used religious words in the Christian vocabulary.  But what does it really mean?  If you look it up in a Bible dictionary, you will find that it means “truth”, or “let it be true”.  But if you go back to the root meaning of this wonderful Hebrew word, it means “doorway”.  Think about that a minute.  I might say “God is good”, and you might reply, “Amen”.  To say “Amen” means to pray God will allow you to walk through the doorway of what has been said, in this case “God is good”, and enter into the truth of it.  Here’s another example:  The word “Atonement” is of major importance to Christian theology.  But what does it mean?  In Hebrew, it is the same word that is used to describe the pitch or tar with which Noah covered his ark in order to waterproof it.   The word in Hebrew means literally “to cover” or “covering”, but it paints a picture of a thick, sticky substance used as a covering of protection.  The Hebrews would have used this everyday word much as we might use the noun or verb “paint”.  It was not a religious word to them, but a common one.  To tell them that the blood of the sacrifice would atone for their sins “painted” a picture for them of the blood literally covering them to protect them.  Am I the only one who thinks this is really cool?

As people of the Book, we really can’t get away with just perusing the Bible as if it were a novel.  We must study it, using the tools we have available to us to help us gain a deeper understanding of the truth God so earnestly desires us to walk in.  We must make good use of these tools to help us teach our children the foundational truths of the Pentateuch and then the entire Old Testament.  And believe me, I know from experience:  kids love this stuff!  Just give them a chance to learn and they will devour the Word with enthusiasm.


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