24 Mar 2013

Criteria for a Good (Children’s) Bible Story

Religious 12 Comments

I read my son the story of Joseph, which (as a Christian but also an economist) is one of my all-time favorites. When we finished it I said to him that it was a really good Bible story, and he asked me what I meant. So I said there were three reasons:

(1) The people in the story are bad, even a lot of the “good guys.” In this one, it’s obviously Joseph’s (eight) brothers who want to kill him, but because of the wily intervention of the dissenters, it ends up they “only” sell him into slavery to merchants passing by. I told my son that this was why the Bible was so interesting, that it had realistic characters. He didn’t understand what I meant, so I said, “OK remember the Roald Dahl story we read yesterday that was for kids? That was about magical animals and a rich duke. The story we read today was about brothers selling their other brother into slavery because they were jealous. That’s absolutely awful.”

(2) God has a plan to turn the humans’ evil actions into a good outcome. In this one, the good result is that because Joseph ends up as a prisoner in Egypt, his ability to interpret dreams eventually lands him in Pharaoh’s court. He then advises Pharaoh to stockpile food during the initial 7 years of plenty, so that Pharaoh ends up making out like a bandit during the 7 years of famine. (The economist in me recognizes that this is great; sure those people have to give a lot of their wealth to Pharaoh for food, but it’s voluntary and better than starving. It’s socially useful that Pharaoh got the good advice to stockpile during the years of plenty.) Jacob and his sons (Joseph’s brothers) arguably might have died–snuffing out the Abrahamic legacy–had Joseph remained with them. But because of their wicked actions, Joseph ends up running Pharaoh’s affairs and sets them up handsomely in Egypt.

(3) The “star” of the story is a human who trusts in God’s plan. In this one, it’s Joseph of course. In one of the most touching scenes in the whole Bible, he finally reveals himself to his brothers (in Genesis 45), who at that moment are probably thinking he is going to have them executed. Later on (Genesis 50: 15-21), after their father dies and now the brothers are really sure Joseph is going to take his revenge, he spells it out clearly:

15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him.” 16 So they sent messengers to Joseph, saying, “Before your father died he commanded, saying, 17 ‘Thus you shall say to Joseph: “I beg you, please forgive the trespass of your brothers and their sin; for they did evil to you.”’ Now, please, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph wept when they spoke to him.

18 Then his brothers also went and fell down before his face, and they said, “Behold, we are your servants.”

19 Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? 20 But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. 21 Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. [Bold added.]

12 Responses to “Criteria for a Good (Children’s) Bible Story”

  1. Yosef says:

    Bob, you wrote “God has a plan to turn the humans’ evil actions into a good outcome”. But that’s only a good outcome if you arbitrarily chose that ending point in the timeline and call it the outcome. The enslavement of the Jews in Egypt could equally be called the outcome of the sale of Joseph, which is hardly a good outcome.

    That point in general seems to suggest the necessity of evil acts. You write “Jacob and his sons (Joseph’s brothers) arguably might have died–snuffing out the Abrahamic legacy–had Joseph remained with them. But because of their wicked actions, Joseph ends up running Pharaoh’s affairs and sets them up handsomely in Egypt.” So it’s a good thing that Joseph was sold, because one possible alternative might have been bad? There are plenty of other alternatives that could have happened had Joseph not been sold in the first place. If it was necessary for Joseph to be sold to save the Abrahamic legacy, then what a horrid plan God has

  2. Daniel Kuehn says:

    I am surprised you are recommending Joseph to him after telling me on facebook the other day that he won’t hear of Keynes until he’s sixteen! There are clear counter-cyclical fiscal policy ideas in that story.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      I embrace second-best in the OT.

    • Ken B says:

      Can God turn even Keynes into something good???

      :)

    • Daniel Hewitt says:

      There are clear counter-cyclical fiscal policy ideas in that story.

      That only works in a monarchy. See Hoppe.

      :)

  3. Matt M says:

    Pharaoh was considered a living diety. I don’t think any associations with him could really be considered “voluntary.”

  4. Dan Lind says:

    An apt subtitle for _The Bible_: “On How Heavenly Ends Justify Any Means.”

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Dan Lind, so a philosophy that tries to channel people’s evil intentions into socially beneficial outcomes, you find repugnant?

      • Yosef says:

        When that philosophy also claims to have originated those evil intentions? Or worse still, when that philosophy commands people to carry out evil deeds (say, killing a man for working on the Sabbath), then yeah, that’s pretty repugnant.

      • Dan Lind says:

        Oh I don’t know, Bob. Does an economics ideology that tries to channel people’s evil intentions into socially beneficial outcomes, you find laudable?

    • Enopoletus Harding says:

      Or, alternatively, “On How Heavenly Means Justify Any Ends”.

  5. Futurity says:

    Don’t teach your children biblical stories, teach them biblical history. Today people equate the word story with fiction like Roald Dahl story you mentions.

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