One of the many joys of parenting is teaching. As a parent to a preschool-age daughter, I am largely responsible for what she learns, and at that age, everything is new to her. Every day is packed with new information, new connections, new ideas and discoveries, and I find much joy in watching my little girl figure out this complex world. She soaks it up like a sponge, and since she has yet to enter the public schools, learning is still a lot of fun for her. For her, the world is a wonderful and magical and mysterious place, and she wants to know everything about it.
I am raising her to be a critical thinker, a freethinker unrestrained by the chains of religious dogma, and while some people might make the assumption that that means I’m ignoring or shunning the religious in her education, quite the contrary is true. I want her to know more about religion than her religion-indoctrinated counterparts. I want her understanding of religion to be deep and meaningful. The difference in what we do and in what was done to me is that I cannot teach her that religion, any religion, has any kind of special hold on the Truth (with a capital T). Rather, I endeavor to put religion in a human context. From that perspective, religions are collections of stories that, as is the case with most good stories, teach us something about what it means to be a human being.
We spent the last few months reading D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, a truly wonderful book that provides as good a foundation for Greek Mythology as any I’ve seen. We learned all about powerful Zeus (she loved his thunderbolts), his jealous and spiteful wife Hera, the cold and stoic Hades, the beautiful Aphrodite, the stupendous labors of Heracles, and much much more. And the thing that strikes me about those myths is how human they are. They are imaginative, fun, and the gods are sometimes quite noble, and sometimes quite petty and mean. Further, none of the stories turn out all that well for those involved. No one, and I mean no one, lives happily ever after, which highlights the complexity of life in ways that she can’t yet understand. We have our good moments, and we have our bad moments. Good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people, and in the end, we all end up with the same outcome. Fairy tales, these are not.
So after completing that book, we moved on to the mythology of the ancient Hebrews, which is also called the Bible. I picked up the Standard Bible Storybook by Carolyn Larsen, and over the past month we’ve been reading those stories at bedtime. My daughter loves the illustrations in the book, but the stories themselves have disturbed her to the point of nightmares, and I admit I’m very conflicted about it. I think she needs to know those stories, but I was unprepared for her reaction to them. They are full of violence of the most brutal kind, and the Old Testament God comes of as, well, meanspirited and petty, if not outright evil.
To show what I mean, let me walk you through the stories we’ve read so far. First of all, there’s the creation story in which god created Adam and then Eve so that Adam would have a companion. I was troubled with the implications of that narrative, that Adam was the default human, and that Eve was created to ease Adam’s loneliness. In other words, according to that narrative, women were created FOR men, and I’m not sure that is a lesson I want to teach my little girl, who I prefer to raise as the equivalent to any male. But, as far as they go, that one was relatively benign.
A turn of the page introduced us to animal sacrifice and murder. I’m talking about the story of Cain and Abel. You know it. God didn’t like Cain’s sacrifice of grain and vegetables; he much preferred Abel’s slaughter of the lamb, and that made Cain so angry and envious that he murdered his only brother.
My daughter was shocked by that story. Though I tried to explain it to her, that Cain was envious and angry, and that sometimes people do very bad things, she could not understand how a brother could murder his brother. And interestingly, she didn’t understand why God preferred a slaughtered lamb to vegetables. I had no explanation for that one.
Next came the story of Noah’s Ark, a classic in which God, outraged that the people on Earth stopped worshipping him, decided to kill everyone. Only Noah and his family were spared. That is the first incidence of mass murder in the Bible, but it isn’t the only one, and at the end of that story, and I admit I had forgotten this, God sends a rainbow as a reminder that he will never drown everyone in the world in a flood ever again. I said, “so now, whenever you see a rainbow, you will know that God will not kill everyone in the world with water ever again. Isn’t that nice?” I was being a bit sarcastic there, but I couldn’t resist.
A few pages later, we have the story of the Tower of Babel. By this time, the theme of God’s deep insecurity and pettiness is firmly established. As with Noah’s Ark, the people weren’t giving God enough attention and they were aspiring too much, so God screwed up all the languages so they couldn’t talk to each other and make grandiose plans. For this God, when people get too uppity, they have to be taken down a peg or two.
And that brings up to the one that disturbed us both: Abraham and Isaac. You know this one: God commanded Abraham to murder and burn his only son, and Abraham willingly obeyed, had Isaac tied up and on the altar, knife at the ready for the death blow, when an angel stayed his hand. God hadn’t been absolutely sure about Abraham, but his willingness to murder his only son was confirmation enough of Abrahams utter devotion, and God was somehow pleased about that. The theme of pettiness and insecurity cannot be missed.
But my daughter was floored by that one. “He was going to kill his son!?” she asked.
“But Daddy, would you ever kill me?”
“NO! Never. Not ever, ever. Never!”
“But why does God want people to kill things?”
And what explanation can a reasonable dad give for that kind of question? The only thing I could come up with was the historical context, that people a long time ago believed some really strange things. They believed that if they killed and burned animals it would curry favor with the spiteful god. I don’t know why they though god would like that so much, but that’s what they believed. Luckily, most of us don’t believe that anymore, and most of us, or at least the reasonable among us, see murder and violence as universal evils.
“I’m glad you don’t kill things, dad,” se said.
Just like the Greek gods, the Hebrew God is capable of good and bad. He is capable of generosity and love, yet his pettiness and insecurity seem to know no bounds. And people are like that too, capable of the highest highs and the lowest lows. Of stories written by people, that is exactly what one would expect to find, and indeed, that is exactly what we find.
Suffice it to say, the Old Testament god doesn’t come off so well to a preschool-aged child, nor to this adult, even in a book explicitly written for children. These stories, like any horror movie one can watch, are about the most egregious forms of violence, the most astounding acts of evil. And I think they are valuable for exactly that reason: The world is not all mystery and magic; it is also full of violence and terror, and my little girl has to learn that, as much as it pains me. Of violence, pettiness, and evil, one would be hard-pressed to find a better textbook than the Bible.