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Studying the Bible Across Age and Culture

The Bible is for everyone. We believe this. We affirm this, and we prepare curriculum resources for people of all ages to help them understand what the Bible says and means and why it matters for us. Nevertheless, resources that are prepared for a particular age range cannot possibly be entirely appropriate for every person of every culture or tradition — or even of every age — within that range.

In a church as large and diverse as The United Methodist Church, we know that there is a wide variety of theological perspectives, values, experiences, and traditions, even within racial/ethnic groups that appear to be homogeneous. How can we lead study opportunities in a way that allows each participant to see himself or herself in the biblical story? The model that follows particularizes the method to older adults, even though that grouping can be quite diverse itself. This model for study of a biblical passage can be applied in many different settings for a variety of participants.

The Bible Story
First, look at the biblical story of Moses. (Moses is one of the very few characters in the Bible whom we watch aging in every stage from birth to old age.) A Hebrew man and woman from the tribe of Levi married while enslaved in Egypt and had a son (Exodus 2:1-2). The Egyptian pharaoh had ordered the death of all Hebrew boys (1:15-22), so the mother hid her son for three months until she could hide him no more. She then put him in a basket and floated him down the Nile River (2:2-3). The baby's older sister watched and guarded the basket. Pharaoh's daughter, while bathing in the river, saw the basket and discovered the Hebrew child. She commanded a Hebrew nurse (the child's mother!) to come raise the child for her in her royal household (2:5-9). Pharaoh's daughter named the baby Moses (2:10).

Traditional Study
Typically, adult literature asks questions about the baby's need for protection from Pharaoh's decree of death. What would have happened if the baby had been killed by Pharaoh's troops or by the midwives? There may be questions about the sister's role in the story. How would this youth feel about saving her tiny brother? Would she be frightened? Was she a willing or unwilling participant? How did the Levite mother know to take the action that she did? What would you do to protect your child? What risks would you take?

Older Adult Bible Study
The fact that no older adult is presented in the text does not preclude considering how older adults can feel about Moses' birth and early life. Surely, there were unseen older adults about.

How might an old Hebrew man or woman consider baby Moses? The first reaction might be as a parent remembering when his or her own small child needed protection from all the dangers of growing up. On the other hand, the Hebrew older adult might react as a grandparent (or other older relative) whose child has a baby who must be protected. How would the grandparent counsel an adult child as a parent? Would he or she be there to support and help an adult child? Would an old Hebrew couple perhaps think about their own advancing age and consider the importance of the birth and survival of children to carry on their lineage? Would they now face their own deaths, fearing that no one would be there to follow?

Security is a vital interest of older adults. In the circumstances of the Hebrew slaves, children would represent protection, comfort, and survival. Older adults may question what will happen when they no longer can "earn their keep" and who will care for them.

What about the expectation of a long life? The older adult placing himself or herself in the Hebrew slave camp of ancient Egypt might ask God: "When I have been faithful to you all my days, why do you threaten my grandchild? Has my faith in you all these years been misplaced? Am I not supposed to have comfort in my old age?"

Modern-Life Applications
Numerous perspectives are, or could be, gleaned from the biblical story, such as parenting, grandparenting, raising grandchildren, having to give up a child for someone else to raise, carrying on the family line and family traditions, passing on the faith, having God's support throughout life, having the security of the family in old age, having help with important decisions. The story of Moses' infancy is ripe for discussion among older adults who have real life issues of their own to consider.

Crossing the Lines
These issues transcend the centuries; and, though they may be answered in different ways among different cultures, the questions can be remarkably similar. While it is essential to discuss the story from the perspective of the participants described in the Bible, it is also important and necessary to try to see oneself in the story.

  • A middle-class, middle-aged white adult might see herself as one of the birth mother's advocates (the midwives, for example, in Exodus 1:17-22).
  • An African American might focus on the themes of captivity and safety.
  • An Asian American might focus on the themes of fidelity to authority and the honor of the family system.
  • A Hispanic person might see himself or herself in the place of the protective sister or of Pharoah's daughter as extended family.
  • Youth could easily imagine the issues connected with being the sister (or brother) responsible for a younger sibling.
  • People from each end of the wage spectrum might relate to the story in terms of the realities of needing a "slave-based" economy and its implications for workers and executives.

Learning to cross the lines of application in a biblical passage allows a great depth of interpretation for all members of the community as well as enhanced insight for those who are helped to see the text from a new or unusual perspective. The Bible is, after all, for everyone and holds a wealth of truth for us all.

Marvin W. Cropsey is a Development Editor at The United Methodist Publishing House, Nashville, Tennessee. This article first appeared in Christian Education Week 2002; edited 2011.