At a recent gathering of seminary students who were engaged in ministry internships, one of the students began talking about her work as a children's minister. She was enjoying the experience, and the children all seemed to be enjoying their time with her on Sundays, but she expressed her concern that the curriculum she was using was not theological enough. "I don't want them just to hear Bible stories all the time," she said. "I want them to learn theology."
At first, it seems like a fair statement. I certainly commend her desire to provide solid teaching, and the church is definitely in need of a more rigorous education for its members. Everyone from the History Channel to Peter Singer to the local Mormon missionary is attacking Christian faith and doctrine. If the church is to withstand these attacks, then we certainly need to be educating our children about what we believe and why we believe it.
I find it troubling, however, that evangelical ministers who claim the authority and inspiration of Scripture would reject the notion that children's Bible stories can provide this education.
I realize that VeggieTales' Dave and the Giant Pickle may not be quite on par with the writings of Carl Henry, but does that mean that the story of David and Goliath is substandard as well? The vast majority of the Old Testament is narrative; in the New Testament, the four Gospels and Acts are also in story rather than propositional form. Jesus Himself primarily taught through telling stories! Biblical narrative is much more than mere entertainment, biography, or history. While they may not always conclude with an explicit moral (as do Aesop's fables), they are deeply theological. Let me give an example.
As a child, I always loved Genesis 24's story of Isaac and Rebekah. That story had it all: romance, travel, jewelry, and my name in it. What’s not to love? As with many Old Testament stories, however, a surface glance at this episode might leave adults with their theological antennae up, grasping for the point.
Fortunately, Genesis makes it easy for us to figure it out. If a Hebrew writer wants to emphasize something, he repeats it. So, for example, the angels who surround God's throne don't just call Him "holy," they call Him "holy, holy, holy." Three holies. God is VERY holy. When God calls Abraham in Genesis 12, he tells him that he will "bless" him and make him a "blessing" and everyone will be "blessed." It will be a GREAT blessing.
Genesis does the same thing here on a much larger scale: It basically tells the same story three times. He tells what happens; then the servant retells it to Rebecca's family, then Genesis says that the servant tells the story again to Isaac. It seems that what Genesis wants to emphasize is the story itself.
And for good reason: This story is about God's faithfulness in keeping His covenant promises. Remember that God called Abraham to leave his home, everything that was familiar and safe, and to go to a new land that God would show him. Because Abraham obeyed, God established this covenant with him. And the covenant was this: Because of your faith, God said, I will bless you, and this great land is going to be yours, and you will be the father of more people than there are stars in the sky, and because I bless YOU, the whole world will be blessed (Gen 12). Isaac was the first child of this promise, but if there was going to be a whole nation, then Isaac needed a wife.
Abraham knows that his son cannot marry one of the Canaanites, so he sends his most trusted servant back to his homeland to find a suitable bride. This servant had been with Abraham for many years and seen how God had faithfully kept his promises to Abraham. On this basis, the servant begins his search with prayer, asking God for a little help—which God gives. Even before the servant finishes his prayer, God sends Rebekah as its answer. Now all the servant has to do is persuade Rebekah to leave her family and marry someone she's never met.
Rebekah's family probably did not worship the God of Abraham, which is why I think the servant of Abraham repeats his story in such detail. He is not simply describing what happened to him; he is describing the character of Yahweh. When I was an English major in college, my professors constantly urged me to "show, not tell" in my writing. Genesis shows us who God is through stories rather than just telling us who God is. This story shows that this God is both powerful and loving, and that he provides for his people and keeps all his promises: "the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments" (Deut 7:9).
The servant is not really asking Rebekah to trust himself or even Abraham (whose wealth was shown by the jewelry); he's asking her to trust Yahweh and the covenant promises he has made to Abraham's family.
This beautiful, engaging, exciting story is rich with theology. The events that take place here play a key role in the course of salvation history. God kept his covenant with Abraham and provided a bride for Isaac so that they would have children and so that one day their descendant, a man named Jesus, could make a new covenant. Jesus Christ, the Lord God Almighty, has made promises to us and He asks us to trust his faithfulness.
As we are teaching our children, we do not have to worry that the Bible stories we tell them are inadequate. Stories such as the one found in Genesis 24 clearly demonstrate the character and nature of God. How much more theological could they be?
Rebecca Poe Hays is a student at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. She co-edited C. S. Lewis Remembered (Zondervan, 2006) and The Good, the True, and the Beautiful: Meditations (Chalice, 2007) and has written devotional material for several publications.