Children, violence, and the Bible

Eid al Adha, a Muslim festival in honor of Abraham’s (almost) sacrifice of Ismail, begins tomorrow. Families will sacrifice sheep (just as Abraham sacrificed the ram provided by God) and give the meat to the poor. Considering my own work on ‘family violence’ in the Bible, I am fascinated by a week-long holiday celebrating one of the most famous stories of family violence in Jewish, Christian, or Muslim tradition—especially how the intended sacrifice of a son at the heart of the story becomes a way to provide for the needy.

Violence in sacred texts is a troubling problem. How do the faithful in any tradition read and interpret violent texts? Last spring, the Religious Studies senior seminar addressed this issue—what is violence, what is its place in the Bible and Christian theology particularly, and what should the Church be doing with violent texts today. We came back several times to the question of how violent texts are taught to children. Think of Noah’s ark, for instance. Do you have a nice wooden boat with animals sticking their heads out the windows floating through your mind, maybe with a cheerful rainbow over the top? We teach children about the salvation of Noah, his family, and all the pairs of animals, and certainly salvation and renewed creation are central to the story. But this telling of the narrative omits the carnage of the flood—the destroyed homes, the dead animals, the dead humans. I think it’s dangerous and dishonest to sanitize stories this way, to forget about the real costs of violence.

The issue of teaching violent stories to children has been on my mind lately because of a conversation with my Arabic teacher. I can’t remember now how verb conjugations and noun-adjective constructions led to this topic, but she was telling me how difficult it is to teach the Old Testament to Christian children in the West Bank, especially the stories from 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. Take David and Goliath, she said: this story is so hard to explain to the children.

My first thought was of the photo of a Palestinian boy throwing a rock at an Israeli tank, which was plastered everywhere during the Second Intifada. The picture tells the story of the underdog, represented by the child, challenging the powerful giant—but in this version of the story, the underdog is defeated (the boy was killed soon after the photo was taken). Of course, in this image, Goliath is represented by an Israeli tank, and David by a Palestinian child. The identities of the original story are inverted.

My connection of the photo with the children’s questions about 1 Samuel 17 was actually not far off. The problem for the children is the issue of identity. In Arabic, ‘Palestinian’ is ‘Philistine.’ When you’re reading 1 Samuel 17 in Arabic, then, David, the ancestor of Jesus, kills Goliath, the Palestinian—with the help of God. My teacher said that this is why the story is very disturbing to the children. They want to know why God wants the Palestinian to die. Are the Palestinians not God’s people?

Now, if I were the teacher in this situation, I would dive into etymologies, the Latin name for the province during the time of the Roman Empire, the migrations of peoples around the Near East, the historic disconnect between the Philistines of the Old Testament and the Palestinians of today. Unsurprisingly, this is not the tactic taken by Sunday School teachers in local churches. Rather, my teacher said she tells the children that of course God loves the Palestinians, that Paul in the New Testament explains that all people are God’s people. She teaches that the story is about having faith in God, that with God’s help you can conquer any problem.

Like traditional tellings of Noah’s flood, this interpretation of the 1 Samuel 17 sanitizes the violence—but not in order to excise the distasteful elements of the story; rather, the interpretation is intended to reassure the children that God loves them, too. Reading stories of violence in a land scarred by violence, among people who have experienced violence, demands special care. I don’t know how this story is taught in Sunday Schools, or churches in general, outside the West Bank, but I wonder if the children’s questions about this story might have something to teach the worldwide church: lessons about identity, with whom we identify in a story, and with whom our neighbors may identify. Would we tell stories like this differently as a result?