reading Genesis to a toddler

So recently my mom visited, and she took us to this beautiful exhibit at the Skirball Center, telling the story of Noah and the flood in a very gentle and child-appropriate way:

They do this, of course, by largely skipping over all the stuff about wickedness and how God regretted making man on the earth. This is probably the sensible way to do it. And even leaving that stuff out, there’s a pretty good story in the tale of Noah — one in which Noah is aware that a flood is coming and builds a ship to save all the animals. It’s kind of a soft story — man versus nature, which never really has the moral bite of man versus himself or man versus man — but it’s got a decent moral about environmental stewardship and the value of hard work.

That works fine in the vague context of a museum display that focuses entirely on cool sculptures of animals made from recycled materials. It’s more difficult when you’re reading to your child from Peter Spier’s excellent illustrated version of the story. How, for instance, do you explain the pages where the animals who weren’t selected to board the Ark stand outside hopefully as the rains come?

It’s to his credit as an artist that Spier doesn’t shy away from what’s terrible in the story (on later pages you see the cities of man at the bottom of a deep sea), but it’s a hard thing to explain to a two-year-old.

I’ve written before about my moral (and, um, logistical) qualms with the story of Noah’s Ark. But it’s a whole new experience to read the story to your child and come face to face with just how strange and bleak it really is.

This may be the story in Genesis that children are most familiar with — I’d wager more of them recognize the familiar boat, which always seems to have a giraffe peeking out, than images of Adam and Eve (let alone, say, the Tower of Babel). Even Jesus is probably not quite so iconic for children. Yet this story is one of the least comforting in all of Biblical literature, a story of a god so short-sighted He’s disappointed by the creation and so disconnected — or nihilistic — that He’s willing to violently drown all living things (including children) in order to start over.

Yet children, most of them, don’t seem to care. And why should they? Responsible adults have, sensibly, softened the story for them, playing down the angry, frustrated god-figure and playing up the giraffes. Kids like giraffes. They like elephants and zebras and snakes and otters and monkeys. Together, adults and kids take a terrifying story about a hateful Father who kills His children and make it into a wacky story about a cheery, crowded boat and where you put all the poop.

I assume that by the time we get around to reading about Abraham And Isaac, it will be a very silly story about a mountaintop game of hide-and-seek that gets out of hand.

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