Catholic Activity: Scripture in the Home
Reading the Bible aloud at home, both Old and New Testaments, is a practice most families have promised to begin one day. But most of us never do it. The Bible can be difficult, but with some help it can be read with great pleasure. And for the family really intent upon discovering what God has to say in His book, there is much being offered in the way of help. Books and pamphlets by scripture scholars are plentiful these days, at every price and at every intellectual level.
In our family we have found that six or seven is the ideal age for children to begin to read the Old Testament aloud with the family. The contents of the first two books, Genesis and Exodus, are not strange to children if they have heard the Bible stories from them. At about age fourteen, children begin to be so involved in their own growing-up world that they are not as easily drawn to family reading as before, and although they may come in obedience, they are apt to come disgruntledly. If there is anything to be avoided at a family Bible-reading, it is an audience of disgruntled teen-agers.
We start with the Old Testament since it gives us the background for the New, and because much that our Lord taught in the New is not intelligible without acquaintance with the early books of scripture. Also, our children already have an acquaintance with the Gospels through the Mass texts, and until we explore the history of God's people it is sometimes impossible to make the almost too-familiar Gospels come alive. The Gospels, it seems, become somewhat like the pictures on the wall: we are so used to hearing the one and seeing the other that we neither hear nor see either of them. And, too, the Old Testament is full of action and stories, while the Gospels and Epistles are often put in almost abstract terms which small children can take in only small doses. But given a background of the Old Testament, as they grow they become less dependent upon action to help them understand, because the rich tapestry of the Old Testament events prepares them to move from concrete images to pure ideas.
What exactly should the family read? Starting with Genesis, read the historical books which tell the story of our salvation. These can be explained to the children as God's own mystery story, telling of His love for man, man's betrayal of His love, God's plan to redeem man. God steps into history with Abraham and begins to prepare a family out of which will come the Son of God made Man, Who will redeem the world. There are clues, heroes, heroines, villains, plots, and always God, moving His people toward the great climax of His story — the coming of Christ and the reign of Christ on earth in the Church, and finally the glory in eternity of God and His sons, resurrected forever.
The clues are, first, the promise, uttered in the garden to Adam and Eve and repeated through the entire Old Testament and on into the New (e.g. the Magnificat, Zachary's Canticle); and second, God's command of obedience. The success of His people in working out His plan will depend upon their entire trust in Him and their obedience. When they are obedient, He will reward them with prosperity as a sign that He is pleased; when they are disobedient, none of their works will prosper. When, at the time of Solomon and the kings that follow him, they forsake God for power and prosperity and pagan gods, He will abandon them and they will have to relearn their lesson painfully in exile.
God's plan is what gives meaning to the very existence of the Jews as His people; when they forget this, they are no longer a unique people. The message of salvation is the essence of the words of the prophets. We learn the meaning of our role as the confirmed people of God from this message. Confirmation gives us the power to be martyrs and prophets, to be living witnesses of God's plan in our lives, and to communicate His message to all men.
A problem that has given considerable difficulty to adults, but that seems not half as difficult for children, is the need to adapt to the mentality of the Hebrew writers. Children are still in that phase of their lives when the language and imagery of fairy tales, morality tales, riddles, and parables make good sense, and they can translate easily from event and image to idea. Youngsters do not demand the mathematical-scientific style of historical writing that so satisfies the adult. The child's sense of mystery is right under his skin. We adults, on the other hand, find it irritating to be asked to believe a story so loosely put together that it seems about to fall apart — and worse, one that has been told several different ways. "What kind of history is this?" we ask. "Hardly dependable!"
We must remember that we are not reading in the Bible a history of human events only, but rather a telling of events which took place between God and man. The important road signs in the story are not on the highways of Chanaan but in men's hearts. We keep track of the story by examining the state of man's affairs with God, rather than by knowing the exact migration routes or battle plans. These latter things did take place, as students of history, archaeology, geology, linguistics, and all the related sciences now testify. But it is not important to the history of salvation to pinpoint the year, the day and the hour when they took place.
Does the God portrayed in the Old Testament seem all too human? This is the mark of the human authorship of the book. The men who wrote these books are not theologians defining God in the most accurate terms possible, but wise men who spoke the truths God wished spoken in the language the people understood. Understanding this, we can appreciate the fluid beauty and imagery of the Hebrew style, and in the end we can admit that it is most wonderfully suited to the telling of God's story.
Each family must work out its own method of Bible-reading — who shall read, when, where, and so forth. But once decided upon, it is good to have this be the family project for a while, serving in part as prayer-time and in part as entertainment. Some interruptions of the reading schedule are unavoidable — club and school commitments, guests, and so on. We do not want to be so rigid that the Bible becomes the enemy of all other activities.
When once we have read through the history of God's people, we can continue to include short, specially selected passages in our family prayer sessions around the year. But this is not satisfactory until we have made the entire story really our own, for it is too exciting to be cut short in the middle of some intriguing situation.
The length of the reading always depends on the audience and on the excitement of the story (some passages outdo others). It is important for parents to pre-read the text, scanning it for problems. Pamphlet commentaries that include the scripture texts are ideal for this sort of study, for one can underscore or make marginal notes without defacing the family Bible. Bible commentaries help parents know what they can omit, rephrase, translate into simpler language and so on. For example, the genealogies, the lists of the patriarchs and their ages, are not exciting reading. Several passages have no relation to the history of salvation, but were rather salutary moral lessons for the people. These passages can well be omitted. Others, such as Joseph's temptation in Egypt and David's sin with Bethsabee, teach powerful lessons that we cannot omit. The latter can be rephrased in language suitable for children.
Throughout the Old Testament we find God preparing His people for the coming of the Messiah and for their own eternal life in glory — the purpose of His original plan. Because we are familiar with the gospels, we will recognize many events in the Old Testament which were part of the preparation; and when we do recognize these events, it is wise to finish the evening's reading with the relevant passage from the gospels. Our discussion following the reading can further extend the lesson into our own lives and to our eternal destiny as the resurrected sons of God sharing His life forever.
Here are examples of the way some events in the Old and New Testaments relate to one another and to our own lives.
1) Joseph forgives and feeds his brothers so they will not die (Genesis 45:1-8).
Christ feeds the multitudes and promises them the food of eternal life so they will not die (John 6:1-15; 22-59).
The family discusses the Eucharist as the sacramental food which strengthens us for our journey through life into eternity. When received with the last sacrament, it is called viaticum, "provisions for the journey."
2) God gives the people water in the desert (Exodus 17:1-7).
Christ speaks of the waters of eternal life to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4-15).
St. Paul likens the waters in the desert to Christ, from whom come the waters of eternal life (grace) and warns us against the abuse of grace (I Corinthians 10:1-5).
St. John sees in his vision of the new heaven and the new earth a river of life coming from the throne of God and the Lamb (Apocalypse 22:1-2).
The family discusses its need for grace on the journey to heaven, grace in terms of a sharing in God's life, and how it might see in waters everywhere a symbol of grace.
3) God makes His covenant with the people on Mount Sinai, on an altar with the blood of victims (Exodus 24:1-8).
Christ institutes the New Covenant at the Last Supper, which meal becomes the Mass offered at an altar by means of the Body and Blood of the Divine Victim (Matthew 26:26-29).
The family discusses its renewal of this covenant with Christ at each Mass and its attendant obligation to go forth from Mass to work with Christ for the continuing redemption of men.
4) The glory of Solomon (III Kings 10).
Christ's sermon on trust in God (Luke 12:22-34).
The family discuss the meaning of perfect trust in God in terms of their own specific needs and crises.
5) Elias raises the widow's son to life (III Kings 17:17-24).
Christ raises to life the son of the widow of Naim (Luke 7:11-17).
The family discusses these stories as foreshadowings of our own resurrection from the grave to eternal life in glory with Christ.
6) Eliseus raises from the dead the son of the woman of Sunam (IV Kings 4:8-38).
Christ raises to life the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:21-24; 35-43).
The family discusses these stories as foreshadowings, again, of our own resurrection.
As the family becomes acquainted with the Old Testament, it becomes clear that God speaks to us from its pages about many things. Not only is He telling the story of salvation, but He is also speaking to each one in the secret places of the soul. The weaknesses and sins, the heroism and virtue of the Israelites are exactly like our own. He is illuminating the liturgy for us, since many of its prayers are taken from the scriptures, and its rites are often images of the great salvation events. He is teaching us how to pray, how to see Him in the elements and how to contemplate Him there, how to seek Him in sincerity of heart.
This is why the Bible is called the Word of God. It is truly God's voice.
I will discuss the need for reading the Old Testament with my family, explaining to them what we will find in it and why we must read it.
I will work out a plan for reading the Old Testament which will take my family through the history of salvation.
The books to be read include Genesis, Exodus, Numbers (the journey through the desert), parts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, Josue (the capture of the land of Chanaan), Judges (the people consolidate as a nation), the four books of Kings — sometimes called I and II Samuel and I and II Kings — (the establishment of the kingdom, its destruction, and exile), Esdras and Nehemias (the story of return from exile), and the two books of Machabees (the capture of the land again by the heroes of the last centuries before Christ). Added to this are what we might call the story books: Ruth, a story from the period of the Judges; Tobias, a story of a Jewish family in exile; Judith, a heroine of per-exile times saves her people from the Assyrians; Esther, a Jewish heroine in exile saves her people from annihilation; Job (really a Wisdom book), which teaches the lesson of the unsearchable God and the wisdom of men who submit to Him; Jonas (a Prophetic book), a morality tale teaching of God''s love for all men, Gentiles and Jews alike; and Daniel (a Prophetic book), filled with hero tales written about a real hero, with embellishments, to encourage the hard-pressed Jews in the time of the Machabees.
Space prevents listing the passages from the prophets which could be read at their point of contact with the stories of the kings and the exile, but the family might explore these with the help of commentaries. Children can tolerate just so much of the prophets, since their hallmark is not action but words. These books are best saved in their entirety for more mature reading. Of them all, Isaia, Jeremia, and Ezekiel are children''s favorites, and it is not difficult for parents to choose colorful extracts from these to fit into the chronology of salvation history. The Wisdom books must be treated in the same manner, except for the Psalms.
As the family fills in its background of Old Testament knowledge, the Psalms become more alive and eventually become the logical choice for family prayer. One way to acquire the habit of reading the Psalms nightly is to select one or two which fit with the night's reading, provide each member of the family with his own Psalm book (they are available in paperback editions) and have each person read a verse or two.
The Psalms will need to be explored in order to find those which fit in with each reading session. Those selected can be used as family prayers on the nights the Bible is read.
Activity Source: Homemade Christians by Mary Reed Newland, George A. Pflaum, Dayton, Ohio, 1964