Parents, Please Don’t Forget How Strange the Bible Is

Parents, Please Don’t Forget How Strange the Bible Is

With the start of the new school year, we’ve begun reading through the Bible together as a family again (see this post if you want to know more about what we’re doing).

One reason I love the children’s Bible we’re using is that it includes far more stories and much more detail than most children’s Bibles I’ve seen. That means we’ve had the opportunity to dig deeper into Genesis than our young kids have ever dug before. And there’s a running theme to what they’re noticing about these new stories:

There’s a lot of really strange stuff in the Bible.

For example, we’ve been reading stories like Abraham entertaining angels, angels striking a crowd with blindness, Lot’s wife turning into salt, God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and Jacob wrestling with God.

I hope you don’t think it’s irreverent to label these and many other Bible stories as strange. The definition of strange is “unusual or surprising in a way that is hard to understand; not previously visited, seen, or encountered; unfamiliar or alien.”

To acknowledge and discuss with our kids that the Bible is strange is not irreverent…it’s actually extremely important when preparing them to engage with a secular world. In this post, we’ll take a look at why that’s the case, and how to discuss biblical strangeness with your kids.

 

Have You Forgotten How Strange the Bible Is?

In the normal course of our lives, when we make a strange claim, we naturally connect that claim to an explanation of why someone else should believe what we’re saying.

For example, imagine for a moment that you’re sitting in your office one morning when a colleague walks in and says to you, “Good morning! There’s a flying hippo in the parking lot. Really cool! Anyway, have a good one…” then casually walks on to his cubicle.

You would be baffled by that person’s behavior. He just claimed something that you assume isn’t possible or likely, yet he didn’t feel the need to elaborate. That’s not normal. You would have expected him to tell you in great detail about the crazy thing he saw, then offer some kind of explanation as to why he believes something so strange to be true.

Clearly, we normally assume that the what and the why of strange claims go hand-in-hand. But if you don’t realize that your claims are strange, you won’t realize just how much explaining you need to do. Like the guy from the office, you’ll end up making those claims without offering the corresponding explanation that should naturally follow.

That’s exactly what many Christian parents are doing.

Many of us grew up in Christian homes and have been hearing “strange” biblical accounts like the Garden of Eden, the burning bush, the Egyptian plagues, Jonah being swallowed by a whale, the virgin birth, Jesus’ miracles, and the resurrection our whole lives. It’s easy to become immune to just how strange these events really are. We end up recounting them to our children as if we told them there’s a flying hippo outside, then casually tuck them into bed for the night.

But when the Bible’s strange claims are unnaturally divorced from the rationale for believing them, it can lead to two kinds of problems:

 

1. We can dull our kids’ critical thinking skills.

Kids might learn to believe stories in the Bible that they wouldn’t believe in any other context, but have no idea why. That’s dangerous territory and none of us should want our kids to believe for the sake of believing, just because the word Bible is on the front of the book.

Atheist Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, summarized the problem this way: “Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.”

Inaccurate caricature of salvation aside, I agree with Harris’ general point. The Bible makes some strange claims, and we need to be ready to offer an explanation of why our kids should believe them….just as we would with any other strange claims in life.

 

2. Kids can become overly skeptical and reject the Bible just because it IS strange.

At the other end of the spectrum, older kids may end up rejecting the Bible simply because it IS strange. For example, atheists like to comment on my posts that they don’t believe in the resurrection because they know dead people don’t come back to life. What they don’t realize is that I know that too (surprise)! No one naturally comes back to life. Christians believe Jesus supernaturally came back to life.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that many things are strange but true. We live on a rock that jets around the sun at about 18.5 miles per second. Just because something sounds bizarre on the surface doesn’t mean there isn’t good evidence to support it.

Our kids need to understand that it’s not how strange a claim is that should determine its plausibility, but rather what evidence there is to support it.

 

How to Discuss Biblical Strangeness

For the reasons I’ve discussed, I love acknowledging to my kids when things we read about in the Bible are strange or even crazy sounding; it’s made for some of our deepest conversations. Here are some tips for discussing the three major kinds of biblical strangeness you’ll encounter: cultural, supernatural, and theological.

 

Cultural Strangeness

There are a lot of things in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, that are strange because they recount historical events tied to an ancient culture far different than our own. For example, in Genesis 15:9-21, God reiterates the covenant he had with Abraham by having him cut a bunch of animals in half and leave a path in the middle for God to pass through (as a smoking fire pot and flaming torch).

What?!

When we read this story last week, I had no idea what it was about. Somehow I had always read right through it. So we researched it and learned that this was a type of ritual done in the ancient Near East to seal a covenant (see this article for more). It was meaningful to Abraham based on his cultural context, but is a completely foreign idea to us.

Stories with elements of cultural strangeness are a great opportunity to:

  • Research what the significance of something was in an ancient culture.
  • Emphasize that the Bible communicates real history across thousands of years, so we naturally read about people who lived very differently than we do.
  • Talk about why so many laws very strange to us today exist in the Bible (like what to do if your ox falls into a pit—Exodus 21:33).

 

Supernatural Strangeness

Every supernatural event in the Bible should be considered strange. Miracles are by definition not part of our everyday experience. Stories with supernatural strangeness are a great opportunity to:

  • Acknowledge that some people assume miracles aren’t possible, so they reject the Bible without consideration. If God exists, however, miracles are possible (this is why it’s so important that your kids understand the evidence for God’s existence—the entire plausibility of the resurrection miracle rests on whether or not God exists).
  • Talk about how miracles were astounding to the people who witnessed them; just because they lived thousands of years ago doesn’t necessarily mean they were more gullible than we are. For example, when Jesus lived, people knew exactly what death was and that dead people don’t come back to life. Something very significant had to have happened to convince them that a dead man was resurrected.
  • Explain how miracles filled very specific purposes of God. A lot of skeptics have the idea that the Bible reads like a fairy tale—page after page of events that defy common experience. Given the lack of a continual stream of similar events today, they say the Bible lacks credibility (why believe God used to endlessly play in the world during biblical times but not today?). However, if you read the Bible carefully, you’ll notice that throughout thousands of years of history, there were actually just three relatively brief but prominent periods of miracles: the time of Moses and the Exodus, the time of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, and the time of Jesus and the early church. Biblical miracles primarily occurred when God would have needed to authenticate His messengers and their message at key times in history. When considered in this context, there’s good reason for believing that if God exists, and He wanted to reveal Himself to mankind, He would have used miracles in exactly the way we see.

 

Theological Strangeness

Some things in the Bible are strange to us because, if we’re being honest, we just wouldn’t have expected God to act in certain ways or say certain things. This is a very subjective strangeness, but an important one. Skeptics are often quick to point out that they don’t believe in God because they don’t believe God would (fill in the blank with any number of claims from the Bible).

When something in the Bible seems to defy your or your kids’ personal expectations of what God would say or do, it’s a great opportunity to:

  • Call it out! I often tell my kids, “If I were God, I totally would have set this world up differently.” (For example, I think everyone should have the same life span. I’d like to discuss that with God someday.) My kids are amused when they agree that something would seemingly be more fair or make more sense if they were another way. And it’s a great chance to discuss how limited our understanding is of what God knows and wants to accomplish.
  • Discuss theological tensions, like the problem of evil. It’s certainly “strange” in many respects that evil exists in the world despite God being the world’s perfectly good creator. But if we never discuss that, our kids can end up thinking we haven’t considered the problem ourselves, or that there aren’t any good answers.

When you take the time to acknowledge and discuss these kinds of biblical strangeness with your kids, it will give them the important opportunity to critically think through their beliefs…and understand why, sometimes, strange is exactly what we should expect.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the “strangeness” of the Bible. Which biblical accounts have you had the most difficulty explaining to your kids? If there’s one in particular you’d like to see a post on here, please let me know!

16 Comments

  1. […] Parents, Please Don’t Forget How Strange the Bible Is […]



    • Mari on October 6, 2015 at 7:04 PM

      The one I never see addressed is Satan approaching Eve in the form of a snake (serpent) and talking to her. Was she not taken aback by this or was it common for animals to speak? hmmm….no answers, but any thoughts?



      • Jana on October 7, 2015 at 1:35 AM

        Good one Mari, I am also wondering about that!!



      • Heather on October 7, 2015 at 8:55 AM

        That’s funny. I also thought about that when the donkey talked to Balaam. And instead of acting surprised, Balaam answered the donkey (Numbers 22). There is also a different passage that I find interesting. It talks about how the people need to bury or dispose of their excrement because the Lord walks through the camp sometimes. Can’t remember where it is but I always found this and its implications interesting. Does He walk in disguise among them or invisibly? He sees it all from heaven so why come down to walk through the camp? Does He still walk among us invisibly and does our ‘waste’ offend Him in some way? Makes me think harder about my cleaning of my house.



        • Heather on October 7, 2015 at 11:21 AM

          I found the passage. It is Deut 23:12-14. (paraphrase) “Designate a place outside camp to relieve yourself. Dig a hole and cover up your excrement. For the Lord your God moves about in your camp to protect you. Your camp must be holy, so that he will not see anything indecent and turn away from you.” Of course it relates to the whole “rules of uncleanliness” thing, but it still intrigues me to think of God walking in the camp, and why He needs to if He rules from heaven, and how He could be turned away by certain things. It makes me wonder how He moves and works and what impact we have on Him and how (and if) this passage relates to us today at all. Just thinking out loud.



          • Laura on October 14, 2015 at 6:04 AM

            Hi Heather, I’m also thinking out loud about this passage. How it relates to us today, it makes me think of Jesus telling us He has no feet and hands on earth now but ours. We will often consider that in relation to doing good deeds and looking after others, but of course in order to care for anyone else we first need to look after our own physical hygiene needs.



      • Vicky Frank on October 10, 2015 at 3:50 AM

        Great article! Will employ these things with my grandson.
        With regard to the ‘serpent’ and Eve: I’ve heard that Satan appeared to Eve in the form of a man/being, but was referred to as a serpent because of his nature. In the same way that Herod (was it??) was referred to as a fox.
        Not sure if this is correct, but seems plausible.



  2. Jen Harwood on October 6, 2015 at 7:54 AM

    Hi Natasha,

    I have struggled from time to time on how to explain some of the strange sounding things in the Bible to our kids. It actually kind of phases me when I see them accepting something that is strange without comment. A lot of the strangeness I’ve been thinking about lately is on the Old Testament. I’ve used a few different approaches to this:

    – When there is something strange – for instance, like how God set up His battles (e.g. Gideon’s lamps), I’ve acted the scenes out with my kids using playmobil or lego. Then we talk about why on earth God would lead a battle this way. It acknowledges the strangeness, but also the sovereignty of God.
    – When we encounter the miraculous, we need to pause and help them realize that this IS strange. This does not happen normally. Then we talk about what the miraculous means. I’ve also been surprised to find evidence associated with some events that we’d consider miraculous (Noah’s flood story is repeated in all ancient literature, with some small variations; the tower of Babel isn’t quite so strange when you read about ancient stele discovered through archaeology; I’ve heard evidence through Ray Vander Laan on why the Egyptian plagues may have happened as they did, etc.).
    – There are still some strange ones that I’m not sure what to do with, like the apple, much of Judges, and Elisha and Ezekiel. Many of those are not miraculous, bur rather in the category of “Why did you do it that way, God?” Remembering that the Bible wasn’t just written for our ‘modern minds’, but for people from all times who may or may not have been struck the same way these same events is helpful. And you’re right, we don’t know everything and have to decide based on the rest of the evidence if God is believable and if His character is trustworthy or not.
    Thanks for the reminder to be the first ones to point out the strangeness of the Bible to our kids and ourselves! And to be respectful when others respectfully point out the Bible’s strangeness to us.



  3. Pat on October 7, 2015 at 12:42 PM

    Good thoughts. The miracles and odd traditions do make it hard for people to grasp.

    But I guess if the Bible wasn’t strange it would just be another book. If God didn’t do extraordinary things why would we need Him? If Jesus didn’t do miracles He would have been just another good teacher.



  4. […] article I want to link to today is from super-mom Christian apologist Natasha Crain, who writes at Christian Mom Thoughts. She has lots of interesting ideas about how to introduce […]



  5. Agata on October 15, 2015 at 4:28 AM

    Thank you very much for this post!



  6. […] Parents, Please Don’t Forget How Strange the Bible Is– If we don’t take the whole word of God seriously, it will be hard for our children to do so. We need to be aware of the sometimes strange aspects of the Bible and be prepared to answer our kids’ questions about them. […]



  7. Daniel Pech on November 2, 2015 at 6:34 PM

    The story of Abraham’s acting to sacrifice Isaac in accord with the ‘voice’ of God (Gen 22:18) is one of the most easily misunderstood of “strange” portions of the Bible. This is partly because even the New Testament does not spell out every basic factor involved in that story, but only its important *positive* spiritual implications.

    Yet as well all know, what the Bible does not spell out, it still may presuppose in some kind of ‘normative’ sense. This is because the person who originally told of the thing (of which the given Bible text is a written record) assumes that his or her own audience will know of the implicit details that have not been expressed in the core form of the ‘spelled out’ account.

    This what Beale means when he says, ‘there is always a related range of meaning that appropriately is an expansion of the explicit meaning’ of any assertion in the Biblical text. Beale explains that ‘All speakers and writers are aware of more than what they are directly saying in their speech’ or in their writing. (((G. K. Beale, 2014, ‘The Cognitive Peripheral Vision of Biblical Authors’, Westminster Theological Journal 76: 263-93, pg. 265)))

    I think that had Abraham had no cultural exposure to child sacrifice (just as we today have no such exposure), then not only would Abraham never have consented to ‘obey God’s voice’ (Gen 22:18) toward sacrificing Isaac, but God never would have had occasion to consent to the idea of testing Abraham to that effect.
    So a mere face-value reading of many of the Bible texts can often be akin to abiding the letter of the Law while denying the spirit—the intent—of the Law.

    It may be an unusual view, but I think that the best way to avoid *misunderstanding* Gen 22 is first by getting clear on who Abraham was as a distinct moral agent with the ancient pagan culture with which he was surrounded. This comes out especially well when we look at the book of Job in regard to Job’s own premier test of faith.

    Just as with Job, I think Satan had put God to a dilemma regarding Abraham. But I think that Abraham was unlike Job in one decisive respect: Job was an Everyman, and Abraham was still somewhat of a pagan. Abraham may well have been disinclined to the pagan practice of child sacrifice, but this merely because it was the ultimate form of theft (recall the two thieves hung beside Christ?) from a person’s default ownership: his life. Nevertheless, any ‘spiritual’ roots that Abraham still had in the wider pagan culture would have left him wide open to the suggestion that an innocent might rightly be sacrificed if the god to whom the sacrifice was made would, and could, simply return that innocent’s life back to him.

    The typical mistake in reading the story of Abraham’s testing in Gen 22 is to just take for granted that Abraham, as a moral agent, was indistinguishable from any morally normal human being. I don’t think he (because of his moral-cultural context) was normal in that department. And if we grant that he *already* may not have been normal in that way, then we can see what it is that would be the only normal reading of Gen 22.



  8. Our Bizarre, Baffling Bible - Dr. Rick Janelle on December 18, 2015 at 1:59 AM

    […] Crain recently posted an article [“Parents, Please Don’t Forget How Strange the Bible Is” http://christianmomthoughts.com//parents-please-dont-forget-how-strange-the-bible-is/%5D where she […]



  9. […] Source: Parents, Please Don’t Forget How Strange the Bible Is […]



  10. John Marriott on December 4, 2017 at 11:01 AM

    Hi Natasha,

    We really need to meet for coffee sometime. Our work really overlaps. I came across this article as I was writing a chapter for my book. The chapter is about how the church can set up believers for a crisis of faith by not understanding the difference between our contemporary cultural moment / worldview and the culture and worldview of the Bible. We do not appreciate the strangeness nor the radical differences between the world of the Middle Ages, let alone the first century and the 21st. I have read many stories of individuals who lost their faith because as educated 21st century moderns, living in the secular West, they just couldn’t take the Bible seriously anymore. Talking snakes, giants, floating axe heads, a floating zoo, angles of death etc…were too far removed from cell phones, cloning, subatomic physics and bitcoin for them to continue to maintain a belief in the Bible. Great article.