Developing Bible Literacy
The Bible is not a book, it is a library, full of stories of amazing people, poetry, letters and prophecies. Some passages are easier to introduce children to than others, David and Goliath and the feeding of the 5000 are favourites of Sunday School teachers while Ezekiel’s prophecies about wheels within wheels or the dramatic descriptions of the End Times found in Revelation are often missed out. In an average year children (particularly in churches following some sort of Lectionary) could encounter readings from a wide cross section of the Bible. We must help them to navigate the differences between these passages, understanding where these stories fit in the Big Picture of God’s love as well as equipping them to , unpack and apply them in their own lives.
Three questions to ask…
The first thing I do in a new teaching space is to put up a timeline, all my syllabus materials are colour-coded to match the Foundationstones “Exploring the Bible” timeline and Bible Cards. I will always try to ask these questions as I teach.
· Which Testament does this come from Old or New?
· What type of book does this story come from?
· What does that mean? (e.g. Gospel, means it is a story from the time when Jesus was on the earth. Prophetic, means it is somebody sharing a message from God for His people)
You will be amazed how quickly children develop Bible Literacy, an understanding of the Big Picture and the different types of book in the Bible.
1) Is this passage from the Old or New Testament?
When approaching a passage from the Bible I will always ask children whether it is from the Old or New Testament. If they aren’t sure they will rush to the timeline to find the relevant book. When we read the Old Testament we read about a people who were waiting for their promised Saviour, who brought offerings and sacrifices to atone for their sins. Knowing which covenant the people in the story are living under gives us a picture and understanding of their knowledge of God and relationship with Him. Before or After Pentecost can also be a useful dividing point when looking at the behaviour of people in the New Testament. By placing a passage on a timeline we instantly have an understanding of how the people in the story know God.
2) What Period of Bible History is this passage from?
God’s relationship with His people changes throughout the Old Testament, we see God connect with individuals first, then through tribes. We see God take His people on a journey out of slavery and into the promised land, speaking to them through Judges, then Kings and Prophets. Finally we enter the New Testament where Jesus walks on the earth, the church is born! God’s people fluctuated in their closeness to and obedience to Father God, having a timeline on the wall helps to cement this overview and place a story within it.
When we find the story of Daniel, kidnapped and taken into exile on a timeline, we realise that he would have known the story of Moses and the exile. He knew that God had led his people out of slavery before and could trust in God’s plans and provisions for his own life. When we cover the story of Daniel we often stick to the ‘easy’ bits, the Lion’s Den and the Fiery Furnace, but we take these stories out of their historical context, a time of the divided Kingdom where God’s people had no clear leadership, where men like Daniel, a prophet. who could hear clearly from God had a vital role to play.
3) What type of book is this passage from?
When we visit a library we know that books are divided by genre and type. We might visit the historical non-fiction section to gain knowledge about the past, but we wouldn’t find this in the plays or poetry section. It is the same with the Bible, we must understand the type of book we are reading to know how to apply it. When we teach from the Epistles we recognise that they were written to specific people or churches and read them within their historical context. Society has changed, some advice given to the reader hundreds of years ago might not be something we can just pick up and run with. The book of Song of Songs is poetry, a play of sorts and not to be understood as a record of historical events. When we place these books in their genre we need not shy away from using them to teach from.
It is important to also recognise types of writing within books, when we read the Gospels some of the passages document historical events while others are stories or teachings of Jesus. The Good Samaritan is not a true story but rather a parable designed to teach. Sometimes we have a tendency to skip to the beginning of the story rather than put it in context with the verses either side to tell us why the story was told and the message that Jesus was sharing. We must also set stories in their cultural context, the story of the Good Samaritan is meaningless unless you know about the relationship between the Samaritans and the Jewish people, when we teach the story we always explain this, but are we doing this for other stories in the Bible?
Working with a Bible
Usually I encourage children of this age to look up passages for themselves in the Bible, we find the passage step by step, “today’s story is from the Old Testament, find the book of ____, look for the big number ___ , begin from the small number ___ .” In a mixed age group the older ones will often pair up with the younger ones to help them search for the right part of their Bible. Even if I am reading the story they can follow it and refer back to things in the passage.
A few years ago I was doing a Bible study with our Year 5s, I gave each child a printed copy of a story from John 21, the printed copy contained no information about where the passage was from. We read it through together and worked backwards.
“It is from the New Testament” they told me, “One of the Gospels” somebody added.
How do we know? Well the story mentions Jesus, he is alive and walking on the earth, they have already narrowed it down to four books.
“Where do you think this passage comes in a Gospel?” I ask.
The passage mentions that Jesus is appearing to his disciples having been raised from the dead, so we know that it is from near the end of a Gospel.
“Do you know which one?”
They don’t, so I guide them to a phrase “the follower Jesus loved”. I explain that this phrase is used in the gospel of John, we talk about why John wanted people to know that Jesus loved him, why he describes himself this way.
We must not underestimate the capacity of our children to understand and explore the Bible, using a timeline (and Bible cards) equips them for their own Bible study time, gives them confidence to explore passages on their own and the knowledge of which questions to ask to understand the context and type of writing they are reading. Why not take the next steps to equipping your Sunday School class today?
Find all our Exploring the Bible materials here.
Exploring the Bible Timeline - £20
Exploring the Bible Cards - £8
The Exploring the Bible MEGAPACK contains a Timeline, Bible Cards, Poster and a 6 week Exploring the Bible teaching syllabus and is available for just £35.