Is the Old Testament Rated PG or R?

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How do you read the Bible with your children?

The Old Testament; it may be old but the special effects were way ahead of their time. We’ve got a man swallowed by a large fish, city walls spontaneously combusting, a talking topiary and a GPS made entirely of fire. It’s compelling stuff, but is it for kids?

On the plus side, the non-stop riot of blood, death and destruction certainly holds children's attention. On the down side, it makes for some slightly uncomfortable moments for mum and dad who prefer to talk about nice things, like puppy dogs and candyfloss and mythical children who sleep through the night.

I’ve taken to reading through the Bible with my kiddywinks (aged 3 and 5) as we finish up our evening meal. This week we came across a very jolly story for children. The Israelites were with Moses in the desert, doing what they do best – moaning and complaining. So God sends some snakes to bite them to death. This being the Children’s Bible, there was even a huge illustration of sinister multi-coloured snakes taking chunks out of screaming people; with corpses spread liberally around the page. Sheesh, I thought. Thanks a bunch. It almost put me off my yogurt.

From a child’s point of view how does this story come across? Perhaps like this: The Israelites were a bunch of whining kids. They kept moaning and complaining that there wasn’t any ice cream to eat and they were REALLY sick of fish fingers and they wished they could go back and live at Nanny Pharaoh’s house. So, God sent a bunch of snakes to learn ‘em good and proper. Frankly at this point, the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang starts to look like someone you might consider inviting to your house at Christmas. Um, is this the God I want my children to hang out with?

“If you complain about eating vegetables, children, God will send a plague of snakes to eat you. AND YOUR TEDDY!”

So what are our options when it comes to reading the OT with kids?

  • Carry on regardless with no explanation at all – I mean it’s got to have a Universal rating, it’s the Bible!
  • Not read the Old Testament. It’s clearly Rated R (Cert 18).
  • Heavy censorship to skip over the weird bits (you’re going to be fitter than a bantam weight boxer if you plan to skip all the weird bits).
  • Really get into it. Adopt a voice of doom: “Yes and if you complain about eating vegetables, children, God will send a plague of snakes to eat you. AND YOUR TEDDY!

My feeling is that the OT needs a PG rating; it’s best if we give parental guidance through the extreme details of the stories and into the sweepingly cinematic bigger picture. I try to understand the R rated (Cert 18) stories in the context of who God is and what he’s trying to achieve. Of course this approach leads us to the rather thorny question: Do we really believe the loving God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old Testament?

I’m not surprised that people lose the loving God of the New Testament amidst all the thunder and lightning of the Old Testament. But my contention is that He is being a loving Father to the Israelites in the same way that a parent introduces strong boundaries to protect and teach their young kids.

"Super Nanny would definitely approve."

The first boundary was for Adam and Eve and went something like this: “Do whatever you want but do not press the red button.” Well we know how that turned out. So then a whole bunch more rules came in. Human beings didn’t seem to instinctively realize that punching your brother was not nice (Cain and Abel, take note). Ditto wife stealing, starting a ‘I Covet Your Cow Society’ and all the other high jinks. Hence we have some really clear, good and helpful boundaries introduced. Some people call them The Ten Commandments. Super Nanny would definitely approve.

Now God is really serious about the Kids (Israelites) keeping the rules. Just as you are pretty firm on rules for your kids which amount to “Do not stick your hand in the fire”. “Do not play with traffic” “Do not hold your sister’s head under water”.

It has been known for the odd parent here or there, not in your country I’m sure, to go a little bit mental when their child breaks one of these rules. Say for example, little Johnny runs into the road, you might hear phrases like “ARE YOU CRAZY? YOU’RE GOING TO GET YOURSELF KILLED. YOU ARE NEVER LEAVING THE HOUSE AGAIN UNLESS I HAVE SUPERGLUED YOU TO MY HAND!”

Let’s face it, we go a little bit nuts when we see our precious darlings do something dangerous. Not because we are super precious about our RULES, but because we really do prefer our children alive and well. If they continue to do things which are nuts we had better make them sit up and listen to the rules before they get really hurt.

This is what I see happening in the Old Testament. The small kids (the Israelites) keep on running into the road to play with the traffic (murder, sexual shenanigans, worshipping foreign gods, wanting to go back to slavery etc). Father gives them repeated warnings, he begs, he pleads, he sends them more warnings, and a few crazy prophets to drive the message home. But when they willfully keep choosing to jump in front of juggernauts, Father sometimes, weeping to his very core, allows them to get hit.

Yes, the God of the OT sometimes covers himself in a fearsome smoke cloud and won’t allow anyone to step foot on his mountain. But if we are convinced that the bottom line is that he is our Father and he’s crazy about us, then the smoke starts to clear. After all if any of the kids had casually wandered onto his mountain where he was, the sin in them would have exploded on contact with his holiness – and them with it. So he made himself look spectacularly scary – in order to keep them safe. Exodus 20:20 is a very enlightening verse "Moses said to the people, 'Do not be afraid. God has come to test you so that the fear of the Lord will be with you to keep you from sinning.'”

So it seems to me, in the Old Testament, Father God’s parenting technique was Fear of the Lord (which is the beginning of all wisdom). Father’s heart was this: sin will kill you. Sin will maim you, pervert you and mess you up good and proper. So, I will show you my power in order that you will respect me and then you will BE SAFE because I really, really like you. A lot.

So, over yogurt, I gave my kiddywinks some Parental Guidance about the snake story. I reminded them of all God had done to rescue the Israelites out of appalling slavery where Pharaoh had been killing all the male babies, and how he had provided food for them every day in the desert. And that not trusting God was super dangerous for them. And that he even sent them a way to be healed from the snake bites – by looking to the metal snake on the pole. Which is a picture of Jesus becoming sin for us on the Cross so we can be saved from the bad things we do too.

Maybe it was too much PG, but I tried, and it seems like you can’t go too wrong when you end up talking about Jesus. That’s another thing about the Old Testament – there are pictures of Jesus all the way through it. Find the foreshadowing glimpses of Jesus in the story and the whole thing starts to make a whole lot of sense. And, phew, because kids get Jesus.

Well that’s my understanding anyway. But hey, I’m just a woman with no ice cream in her freezer. What yer going to do about it? Complain?