Cath Kennedy asks what messages stories such as that of Isaac & Rebekah are really giving to young readers.
We tend to think of biblical violence in terms of overt acts – killings, sexual assault, wars and armies … and the Bible certainly has plenty of that. However, this blog is about something more insidious and structural. It’s about the kind of violence which is somehow glossed over within narratives and thereby presented as normal, or at least acceptable.
When I was growing up in the 1970’s, the majority of books for little girls contained plenty of implicit violence. Saxon princesses wept into their embroidery at the news they must marry a disfigured and brutal warlord to make peace. Princesses in fairy stories were routinely made to entertain frogs in their bedrooms and marry young men they had only just met. And Hannah, the mother of Samuel, was pitted against the unhappy second wife who was brought in to bear children on her behalf. It was a tragic story with a lot of sympathy for the childless wife, but absolutely no consideration for her ‘rival’.
In the intervening decades, children’s books have, by and large, undergone a complete change in this regard. No longer are princesses subjected to creepy talking frogs in the way they were when I was little. The way history is taught is much more attuned to the perspectives of women and enslaved people. But Bible stories for children continue to perpetuate a view of the world where forced marriage and forced childbearing are normal, divinely sanctioned and inevitable.
In 2021 I began a research project to examine the theme of forced marriage in Jerome Berryman’s Godly Play stories. I started by reading up on current definitions of forced marriage from the United Nations, UNICEF and the UK legal system. I discovered that forced marriage is often presented as some distant problem ‘other’ people have. People who are not Christian, are uneducated, or are perhaps only recently arrived in modern democratic countries. However, the reality is that while forced marriage is ostensibly banned in the UK, it is ignored or tolerated by our immigration courts and many aspects of our legal system in practice. And according to the research, it is also true that many Christian communities around the world, some of them in the West, still force people into marriages they don’t want and didn’t choose.
The exact ways people are forced into marriage vary, but there are tell-tale signs. Firstly, the isolation of one or both of the spouses from their support networks, possibly by having them travel far from home. Lying, concealment and surprise are also very common – it is difficult to avoid a marriage you weren’t even aware was being planned! A person might be told the other spouse has consented when this isn’t the case. Also, the understanding that going through with the marriage is required if you are to remain part of the family or the community makes agreeing to the marriage the only possible decision a young person can make – losing your home and all your support is always traumatic and can lead to destitution. The younger you are, the more difficult it will be to see any alternative.
There is, of course, a lot of forced marriage in the Bible. That was the cultural context within which both the Old and New Testaments were written. But then, those cultures also enslaved people and had many other traditions we have done away with since. But the Bible is also very honest about the ways marital relationships played out. Take, for example, the story of Isaac and Rebecca in Genesis 24. Old Abraham decides that his son needs a wife. After all, he is 42 now and his mother has just died. So, without consulting his son, Abraham sends for a cousin from Mesopotamia. The servant is to negotiate the marriage and come back with the young woman in tow. The servant does this, and surprises Isaac at work with a bride. Isaac agrees. What else can he do? Rebecca has agreed to travel with a strange man to meet another strange man in a strange country. She won’t ever be going home. She did have a choice about the trip, but not about the marriage.
This is a strange story to tell children today in the UK in the 21st century. It is not a romantic tale of young love. It is a story of forced marriage which includes every red flag. Travel and isolation, surprise and concealment, and the fact that neither spouse has any opportunity to really consent because they are placed in a situation where they can’t say no either. They are getting married because their parents have decided that they will.
There is a second reason I find this story disturbing. Whereas Genesis is very clear about how the relationship works out for Isaac and Rebecca, we don’t tell children that story. Or if we do, we tell them about Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright as a separate story, as if it involved different people. But the fact is that the biblical story describes Isaac and Rebecca being pushed into marriage. Rebecca is only pregnant once, and has twins. And when the twins grow up, each parent has their favourite, splitting the family into 2 competing pairs. In the end, the weaker pair defraud the stronger pair in what amounts to elder abuse. It’s not a nice story. And then Jacob has to leave and he and Rebecca never meet again because she dies while he is still living far away.
The story of Jacob’s own marriages in Genesis 29 ff is, frankly, awful. Neither of his high status wives consents to marry him, and neither of the enslaved women they decide he has to marry consents either. They are all deeply unhappy. In this episode of the tale, Jacob himself is deceived into marrying the ‘wrong’ woman. And this is also a story we tell young children in Sunday school. This family also goes on to be deeply abusive, with sons selling each other into slavery and committing ethnic cleansing. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, you haven’t read all of Genesis.
From these scenarios, it’s fair to say that Genesis takes the view that you can force your offspring and relatives into marriage, but you probably shouldn’t because it doesn’t lead to happy families. But when we tell these stories as Bible stories to young children, we don’t tell them in this way. They are systematically pruned and curated to present a quasi-fairy tale scenario where heterosexual marriage arranged by the older generation with no regard for young people’s feelings or wishes is something Godly, moral and Christian, …. or used to be? Have right and wrong changed? Telling these stories to children who are too young to fully understand what marriage entails, but who do understand that it has a sexual element, is a curious tradition. Why not tell children the whole story if we feel compelled to tell them the beginning of it? And why would a young child be interested in these stories anyway? Why not stick to Jesus’ parables, or stories of Elishah’s miraculous doings in the book of Kings?
Godly Play’s stories of marriage are especially replete with forced marriage tropes, but they are examples of the way modern Western Christianity continues to push a profoundly outdated and oppressive narrative on young children without thought to the implications. At a time when we are finally grappling seriously with safeguarding and child safety within the Church, why are we still using stories which so clearly contradict the messages we now try to instil in children regarding their personal boundaries, their rights to respect and consideration, and the importance of sexual consent? Read the full research article here.
Cath Kennedy is a WRoCAH funded Phd student at the University of Sheffield. Her research examines the popular children’s Bible resource, Godly Play using Text World Theory and empirical real reader methods. She has also written about other forms of children’s Bible resources, and the child temperance movement of the mid-19th century. In her free time she goes on long walks, listens to popular fiction audio books, and plots her next research project.
As with all our guest posts, views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.