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Old Testament History 101

By Rob and Cyndy Shearer
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #4, 1993.

The Shearers make it simple.
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Rob and Cyndy Shearer

Whenever we suggest (as we have more than once in previous columns) that parents should make the Bible their first history text, the reaction we most often get from the audience is absolute panic.

  1. "Why the OLD Testament? Isn't that too hard for children?"
  2. "But the Old Testament is so boring . . ."
  3. "I don't know enough about the Old Testament to teach it to my kids . . ."

We've heard these complaints often and they are somewhat understandable. We parents are the victims of our own inadequate education. The church and our "Christian" schools have let at least one generation down in a big way by neglecting the study of the Old Testament. We don't know it as well as we should and that's sad. Because we don't know it, we labor under several serious misunderstandings about it. We think the Old Testament is just one long list of begats that is occasionally interrupted by an obscure law, a bloody massacre, or an explicit sexual reference we're not ready to explain to our children. We would all rather stay with comfortable stories, like "Jesus calls the little children to him" and avoid the hard stuff.

We imagine the God of the Old Testament to be wrathful and judgmental while our imagined Jesus is always meek and mild. But this is a perversion of the worst sort. There is a great deal of tenderness in the Old Testament and a good deal more wrath, righteous anger, and judgment in the New Testament than we would like to admit (maybe we don't know the New Testament as well as we should either).

It is possible to avoid the Old Testament. But the problem with that tactic is that it disobeys one of God's explicit commands. God commanded parents (specifically fathers) to teach these stories to their children. We refer you to the homeschooler's theme verse, Deuteronomy 6:7, "And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up." Friends, God is not talking here about reviewing the multiplication tables with our children (talk about boring . . .). He isn't even talking about reviewing the New Testament stories (they weren't written yet). He is saying that we are to saturate our children with the stories of the Old Testament.

God intended that these stories be taught specifically and diligently to children. Paul commends Timothy's mother and grandmother for their faithfulness in teaching Timothy these things and reminds Timothy that "from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus."

All scripture is profitable -- not just for adults, but for children as well. The Old Testament is the textbook God designed not just for us sophisticated adults, but also for our children.

Take Your Bible Out of the "Religion" Box!

The second reaction we get (once panic subsides) to the suggestion that we use the Old Testament for a first history basically boils down to: "But nobody else does it that way . . ." And that is true. For far too long, we have become used to dividing our school work up into boxes. The Bible goes in the "Bible/Religion Box," and the history textbook goes in the "History Box." But if we stop and think about it, there are usually good reasons for not rushing off the edge of the cliff with everyone else.

First, as long as we put the Bible in one box, and real history in another box, we will continue to perpetuate the myth that says that the Sunday School stories and "real" history never meet. Our children need to see that God is the Lord of History, the Lord of nations who moves in the affairs of men. Of the 66 books of the Bible, at least 18 are historical narrative. These books comprise almost half of the total pages in the Bible. The Bible tells us the history of God's people, and therefore is our history.

Bible History Lays a Foundation

Secondly, using the Bible as our children's first history text lays the proper foundation for all further history study. If our children know the history of Adam and his children, know how they peopled and settled the earth, if they know how men fell away from the knowledge of Truth and fell victim to all kinds of false worship, they will know how to place mythological/evolutionary tales in their proper context.

History with Good Guys and Bad Guys

Thirdly, God's way of presenting history is not just different, it is unique. We need to understand God's approach to history first, so that we can follow His pattern with our children in later studies of other nations and their leaders. By seeing clearly God's judgement upon the leaders of Israel, we prepare our children to judge the leaders of the other nations.

The Bible does not merely present historical facts. It shows us how God's people have wrestled with moral choices. It gives us God's authoritative standard. God clearly distinguishes between the godly and the wicked kings. For example, God's summary of Josiah: "He did right in the sight of the Lord and walked in all the way of his father David, nor did he turn aside to the right or to the left." (2 Kings 22:2). God's summary judgement on Josiah's son Jehoahaz is just the opposite: "He did evil in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his fathers had done." (2 Kings 23:32).

We need to teach our children to ask "Was this person a success in God's eyes, by God's standards?" not "Was this person a political or financial success?" God doesn't care whether or not a king enlarged the borders of Israel, or balanced the budget, or implemented a program of national health care (are we being too pointed here?). God wanted to know whether the king loved Him with his whole heart, whether the king established His law. Did the king tear down the altars to foreign gods, or turn aside and worship at them? As our children study later nations and their rulers they need to keep this question foremost in their minds, "What is God's judgment on this life?"

Getting Started

Now, if we have convinced you that you should teach the Old Testament to your children, your next question is likely to be, "How?" "What," (we hear many asking), "if my own experience with the Old Testament has been less than exciting?"

It is certainly true that boredom and confusion are contagious. If Mom and Dad are bored with the material -- you can bet the children will catch their boredom. If you find yourself bored, the answer is to pray and ask God to light a fire under you -- to give you a hunger for this portion of His Word, and to help you to understand it.

You don't have to have a graduate degree in Old Testament Studies to teach your children Bible, any more than you have to have a teacher's certificate to teach them math and spelling. What we do have to communicate is that we love the Word, that it is especially worth knowing.

To fill in the gaps in our own knowledge, we can recommend a marvelous series of six lectures on audio tape by noted Bible teacher, Kay Arthur, called "The History of Israel." Also see the article on Bible resources in this issue of PHS. Don't use these resources instead of reading the Bible, use them to enrich your study of the Bible

"What Bible Curriculum Do You Use?"

People often ask how we teach Bible to our own young children. We have not found a Bible curriculum we like, and we have looked at everything we could find. They all seem to be either too "arts and craftsy," too dependent on fill-in-the-blank, or not comprehensive enough. So when we are asked what we use to teach the Bible, our answer has always been, "The Bible."

The advantage to that answer is that it sounds so virtuous. But it's actually good that we have been frustrated in our search for a Bible curriculum. If we had been able to find that perfect curriculum, we would have been tempted to focus more on the curriculum and less on the Bible itself . . . which is not what God intends.

Here's How We Do It

Our approach over the past eight years has been to half read and half tell our way through the historical books (Genesis, Exodus, a little Deuteronomy and Leviticus, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I and II Samuel, I and II Kings -- I insert I and II Chronicles into our reading of I and II Kings; some Daniel, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah). We try to start this with each child in his kindergarten year and finish the Old Testament in first grade. Then after a year in the New Testament, we start Genesis again, picking up our next kindergartner (our fourth started school this fall).

Sometimes we pay attention to genealogies -- chart the lives from Adam to Noah and see who is a contemporary of whom. Sometimes we summarize the "begats" and move on. If the text makes reference to a sexual practice or perversion that I do not want my children to know about yet, I summarize very generally and move on. If I notice that the children are a) glazing over b) falling asleep c) crawling under the table d) making faces at, pinching, or otherwise assaulting a sibling, I conclude that it is time to call it a day, and I try to end quickly.

We have used and continue to use a variety of activities to focus the children's attention on the story.

  • We have had them draw their own picture of the events in the chapter. We have used Bible coloring books. Either of these two things works some days better than others. Sometimes the paper and crayons distract them from the story. Some children can listen better while their hands are busy. Others get lost in their drawings. Some days they fight over the crayons and we put away the crayons and books (and maybe even the kids . . .).

  • If you have a set of Bible story felts, you might find that they help focus your children's attention on the story.

  • We have had much success with the use of what Charlotte Mason calls "narration" -- where the children take turns telling the story back to me. One will start the story and I ding a bell to signal the next child to pick up and continue (the unknown point at which the bell will put them on the spot helps keep the attention of the ones not narrating from wandering). [For more information about narration and how to use it effectively, see Karen Andreola's article on page 19 of this issue. -- Ed.]

  • We have had the children make their own books illustrating and retelling the story. The youngest children dictate to Mom.

  • We acted out portions of a story.

  • We made our own color-coded chart of the Kings of Israel and Judah. If God was pleased with the king, we wrote his name in blue. If he was a wicked king, we wrote his name in black. For kings with mixed accomplishments, we mixed the colors and wrote part of the name in each. Keeping this chart had more than one benefit. It helped them sort through the long list of difficult names. It gave them an overview of the history of Israel and Judah. They began to look for God's assessment of each ruler -- and to understand why God had to judge his people. We weren't very far into our reading before the kids began to ask, "Why doesn't Israel ever have a good king?"

Keep It Simple

No one tool will work forever. What worked last week, may or may not work this week. But our goal is to help our children develop a love for the stories of God's people and see them become men and women who have a heart for God Himself.

Giving our children a basic knowledge of the stories of the Old Testament is an important foundation and first step in their acquiring wisdom and godly character.

It is important for us to notice when our children have that basic knowledge of Old Testament stories, and when it is time to move on to teaching them how to study the scripture for themselves -- a different, but equally important skill that we would like to talk about in a future column.

Try it! Try reading the Old Testament to your children. Don't do too much at once, but read them a chapter from Genesis or Exodus (or half a chapter if it's especially long or you sense that they are especially restless). Then talk about what you just read. Ask them to tell the story back to you in their own words -- it's a marvelous tool for Bible study. We predict you may be quite pleasantly surprised at how much your children understand and the effect it will begin to have in their lives.

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