Reading the Bible with kids – even the hard bits

flickr: Wikipedia Commons: Michelangelo, Sistene Chapel ceiling

The first chapter of Ezekiel (let’s be honest) is some kind of weird. A wind drives an immense storm cloud from the north; four glowing creatures emerge from the cloud, each with four different faces, with two wings covering their bodies and two spread out, darting to and fro with a sound like roaring waters; wheels within wheels, one for each creature, their rims covered in eyes, move in a straight line wherever the four creatures go; and above the creatures’ wings is an expanse like crystal, surmounted by a sapphire throne on which sits a human figure, glowing like metal in a furnace.

It’s a vivid, startling passage, and the kids’ faces are rapt. Mine too. We read Revelation a year or so ago, and the echoes and allusions are clearer than I’ve ever seen them, so much so that we all pick them up, even our eight year old.

It’s at times like this that I understand why the Puritans called the home a ‘little church’. As we sit here, the four kids and I, listening to my husband Steve read the Bible, it all falls into place. It’s completely casual, and I reckon just about anyone could do it, because all you have to do is to open a Bible, read a passage, and talk about it.

We use the same method my parents used with my brother and me after dinner, back in the day when their Presbyterian church, faithful to its Puritan heritage, taught them that it’s the parents’ responsibility to teach their kids about God. Here’s how we do it:

  • We take it in turns to read a book of the Bible, which leads to some pretty random choices, most recently Revelation, 1 and 2 Samuel, Acts and Ezekiel.
  • We read a chapter a night (the nights when we do it, that is). Mostly the adults read, but sometimes the older children.
  • Each member of the family gets to choose whether to ask or answer a question, even our five year old, whose questions tend to be simple multiple choice: ‘Did Ezekiel see: a. a cloud, b. a mountain, c. a goose?’. If they ask a question, the rest of the family gets to answer it.
  • We pray about what we read.1

See? I told you it was easy. So easy that it doesn’t matter who’s at our dinner table: we can invite them to join in.2 So easy – and yet so challenging – that it suits our whole family, with ages ranging from five to thirteen to forty-four.3

Of course, there’s a little more to it than that. When it comes to Ezekiel, it helps that Steve wrote some Bible studies on it a few years ago. When we’re confused, we ask him to explain, and he does, not in a preachy way, but just because we’re interested in what it all means. If this takes a little preparation, why shouldn’t parents put this kind of effort into teaching their children; or perhaps open a commentary and find the answers together? But mostly there’s no preparation, just us and the Bible.

We don’t read the Bible together every night. But it happens often enough for our kids to begin to realize that they can read and understand the Bible for themselves. Thomas, who’s eight, started out not really listening or concentrating (his questions were limited to the last verse of the passage or to the fascinating topic of death and destruction – ‘Why did so-and-so die/kill/maim so-and-so?’). These days, he takes in most of the passage and asks or answers intelligent questions.

As we chat about Ezekiel’s vision, we nut out some of the weird imagery:

  • the eyes – God sees everything
  • the wheels, like the wheels of a chariot, moving in all directions – God can go anywhere
  • the four faces, each ruler of a different sphere (the man over the creatures, the lion over wild animals, the ox over tame animals, and the eagle over the sky) – God rules everything
  • the ‘expanse’ – eleven-year-old Ben chips in here and says it means ‘God is above them and better’ and his Dad says, ‘Yep’
  • the glowing figure on the throne – eight-year-old Thomas exclaims, ‘It’s Jesus!’ (see, I told you we’ve been reading Revelation)4

Now we’re all getting it.

When Ezekiel sees this vision, he’s with the exiles in Babylon. We know what that means, because we’re all familiar with the Boney M. song River of Babylon, one of the songs on the retro playlists Steve inflicts on us in the car. He asks what the vision means, and Ben answers, ‘That God is there and that he loves them.’ Spot on!5 God is all-powerful, he sees everything, and he’s everywhere, even with the exiles in Babylon. What seemed a bizarre and unsettling vision is now full of comfort.

Steve sums it up with words that haunt me for days: ‘God is there even in the bad things.’

I go away more encouraged than after many church meetings I’ve been to. No, scrap that. This is a church meeting, a gathering of God’s people – one that any family or bunch of people can have in their home. All you need is a Bible, and a willingness to open it and ask questions. As you do this, especially if you don’t skip the hard bits, you realize that, yes, the Bible is understandable, and anyone can read it. You begin to see how it all fits together. You learn that it’s exciting and life-changing. Best of all, you get to know Jesus.

Any family or household can do that!

  1. If this method doesn’t appeal to you, you’ll find some excellent ideas and resources in Sandy Grant’s article Bible reading with kids.
  2. Although we don’t necessarily ask our visitors to jump straight into Ezekiel: when our neighbours shared a meal the other day, we asked if they would mind joining in our after-dinner Bible reading, and read half a chapter of Mark with them. We didn’t make them ask or answer questions, although their son volunteered better answers than ours did!
  3. That said, our five year old is more in the learning-to-concentrate rather than the taking-everything-in category, so we read a children’s Bible with the little ones at bedtime while the older kids and adults do their own Bible notes: not everything is age-transferable!
  4. Actually, it’s ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD’ (Ezekiel 1:28); what Thomas is picking up on is how the description of Jesus in Revelation 1:12-16 draws on Old Testament visions of God’s glory, such as Ezekiel chapters 1, 9 and 43 and Daniel chapters 7 and 10.
  5. Although we’re about to learn that God’s presence in exile has as much to do with judgement as salvation as we read the first half of Ezekiel, something we could have guessed from the lightning cloud; we’ll get to God’s salvation in the second half of the book.

11 thoughts on “Reading the Bible with kids – even the hard bits

  1. I don’t remember ever having read Ezekiel at our after-dinner devotions as our family was growing up, but we did use the common “adult” translations rather than children’s Bibles. I tried to explain the meaning and as long as the children got something out of the passage we thought it important to read from the NKJ or the NIV or one of the other good translations.

  2. Hi Jean – this is a great encouragement. We’re doing judges at the moment at dinner time. It’s full of crazy people and gory details. It’s raised lots of questions for us that we haven’t been able to answer. But we’re learning together about the way that God keeps looking after his people, despite the blunders and the utter moral failure of both the people and the leaders.

    • Yeah, there’s certainly some gory stuff – not to mention plenty of stuff about sex – that you come across when you read the Bible with kids! It calls for a pretty healthy, open attitude to sex education, and for a willingness to let them hear about violence. Compared to what most kids watch nowadays – and ours, ironically, mostly don’t – it’s probably pretty tame, and may help us not to over-protect our kids, and to talk about important issues like suffering. The gory bits probably also – let’s be honest – make the Bible more appealing to boys!

  3. Jean, you alluded to it in the comments, but I’d love to see a follow up article about tackling the other type of difficult passages of the Bible – the particularly gory bits or the sexual parts.

    Reading this, along with reading the most recent Briefing article The Big Read, has challenged me about what we can do in our home…

    • Thanks, Liz, that’s a great suggestion and one I’ll try to consider soon.

      How old are your children?

      Love Jean.

  4. This just reminds me that J. C. Ryle’s book Stories for Children begins with “The Two Bears”, namely the two who mauled the 42 young people who abused Elisha (2 Kings 2:23-25)!

    You can read it online here. I’ve read it aloud to primary and infants age children, and although you think it might have moralising tones, he teaches the passage’s frightening lessons, and after preaching ‘law’, he brings it right back to the gospel at the end!

    • Sounds interesting, and I love J.C.Ryle. I’ve always been puzzled by that story. I’ll have to have a look!

      Does he also tell the story of the lady raped, cut into pieces and mailed all over Israel? (Or something like that, anyway.)

      • Not very PC, is it? It reminds me of those Victorian poems for children where little Johnny doesn’t make his bed and gets killed by a tiger. Did the parents mind you reading it? How did the kids take it?

        On the other hand, it shows us up, doesn’t it? Instead of teaching what the Bible teaches, we soften the message and worry about giving our kids nightmares. (At the same time, of course, we expose kids to all kinds of violence in film and TV.)

        You’ve given me a lot to chew on…

  5. Jean, they were good friends, as well as my own kids. The kids were fine, although it was a tad long for one sitting after lunch.

    The rest of the Bible stories, from memory, weren’t quite in that category. And no, there are some stories such as the other one you mentioned that I would not read to infants or junior primary age.

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