By Jake Dell
April 23 – Creation – Bibles handed out. Discussed what the Bible is. Is it good for counsel and advice? Tried opening to some random verses to find out. Most did not make sense right away. Hence, we saw that the Bible is not like a fortune cookie but requires study. However, there is one book in the Bible that will usually give good and quick advice: Proverbs. We read and discussed a few. We read Genesis 1 and compared it to a Mesopotamian creation myth. The differences were twofold: (1) Genesis declared creation good, and men and woman were made to have dominion over the earth, which means they were made for freedom; (2) There was no mention of the goodness of creation in the Mesopotamian story and human beings were made to serve the gods as slaves. Chocolate chip cookies served.
April 30 – Jesus Christ – Began again with Proverbs and a discussion of ethics. Linked this back to the goodness of creation in Genesis 1. Read the prologue to John’s Gospel, John 1:1-14. Linked this back to Genesis. Both books begin with “In the beginning….” John links Jesus Christ with the creation as the Creator Himself.
Discussed the gathered community of those who receive Jesus, who believe in His name. How is this community formed? By birth. New birth. Not a birth by blood (i.e., family, race, or clan), neither by the will of the flesh (meaning not by nature running her course, by natural reproduction), nor by the will of man (meaning like our parents, who willed to get married and start a family), but of God. God starts His new family in Jesus Christ. Sasha’s brownies served.
May 7 – Passover and Exodus – Prayer-books handed out. Discussed what it is to pray and how reading the Bible is a form of prayer. Read and discussed more proverbs. Read from Exodus 11-14 and re-enacted the Passover and Exodus. The old parish house became Egypt. We passed under the lintel and imagined the splattered blood of the Passover lamb. “It was a sign,” one of the children said. Yes exactly, it was a sign, like baptism. The sacraments are signs. And what is confirmation confirming? “Our baptisms,” they replied.
I asked, “If you were a slave and you wanted to be free, would the first thing you thought of doing be to kill a lamb and sprinkle its blood on your door?” Heads all shaking no. What would you do? “Run away, escape, hide.…” And then what? “We might get captured, get lost, run out of food.…” Yet God wanted to use a lamb. We’ll have to find out why. Keep reading.
Who else is a lamb? Jesus is the lamb of God. What passed over? The destroyer, a.k.a. God Himself in His judgment on the Egyptians. What for? To free His people the Israelites. Why did they need to be set free? Because they had become Pharaoh’s slaves. What did the Israelites do? They packed their things quickly and left. The also plundered their Egyptian neighbors for gold and silver as payment for 400 years unpaid wages as slaves. They didn’t even have time to let their dough rise, so they ate unleavened bread.
Here we processed from the old parish house to the church, from Egypt to the Promised Land.
Then what? They reached the Red Sea. (We marched right up to the baptismal font and stopped.) Did Pharaoh relent? No, he pursued them. He wanted revenge. (We imagined his armies at the closed doors of the church. One of the children described the church as a “safe space.”) Then what? The Israelites were stuck. A sea in front of them, an army behind them. (We were stuck too. The stone sea of the font and the communion rail cut us off from the promised table of plenty.)
How were the Israelites saved? Moses stretched out his arm and parted the waters and the Israelites walked over on dry land. As for us, we had no choice but to read the prayer from the “Public Baptism of Infants” in the prayer-book and invoke the God who “didst safely lead the children of Israel through the Red Sea, figuring thereby thy Holy Baptism…” Another sign. So, down into the waters of the baptismal font we went, then up and out as we crossed over on dry land — actually, it was red carpet — and then we came to the table of plenty.
Standing around the table (which was set for Holy Communion the next day) one of the children said, “It’s all connected.” Another said, “We’ve come full circle.” Another said, “Someone really thought this all through.” I said, “Here is freedom God’s way. He leads us to His table where now He feeds us.”
Then came several questions: “So, the Book of Exodus really was an exodus?” “Are all the book names like that?” (Some are, like Genesis, which means “beginning.”) “Who wrote the Bible?” (God did, by inspiring the hearts of its many authors.)
My puppy, Sauce, a regular attendee of the class, was sick to his stomach. Rice crispy treats served.
May 14 –I did a make-up class today for a student who was absent last week. It was followed by the regular class. My make-up student asked, “Why did God kill all the firstborn Egyptians? What did they do wrong?” Ah. The problem of collective guilt (which I described as I spill the milk and you clean it up). She’d asked a deep question and I gave her the answer, but I also told her that it will take a lifetime of growing in her faith to understand it. The simple answer is that we all die, firstborn, lastborn, untimely born, ancient Egyptians and modern Americans. But why? It was a nice segue to this week’s topic of Original Sin. The rest of the class arrived, and I put her question to the group. “Maybe all of them were responsible.” “Maybe God was trying to show them the consequences.” “But wait, were they all responsible?” I suggested we read Genesis 2 and 3 to find out.
“Was Eden a real place?” That was the first of many more questions during this, the liveliest of the classes to date. Well, look at the text. Were Ethiopia and Assyria real places? (Gen. 2:13-14). What about the Euphrates River? (Gen. 2:14) Yes, these are real places. Seems like the text itself is saying Eden was a real place. “Maybe Eden got destroyed,” someone said. Maybe it did. I told them we won’t have time for the Flood story.
“The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground….” What is dust and dirt? Stumped them! It’s death and decay. “Ohhh!” So, what was man made from? “Dead stuff!” Man is mortal. Death was in the first man’s bones, or at least the possibility of dying. Yet God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Man was made for life.
“The Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat.…” I asked them what trees do. “They grow.” “They make fruit.” What is fruit? “Food!” So, food comes from trees and trees are planted in what? “Soil!” “Earth!” “Dirt!” And what is dirt? “Dead stuff!” So, trees make food for life from dead stuff.
“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it.…” The first rule. The first law. Who spoke the first law? “God.” With what did He speak it? “Words.” And what did He use to create the world? “Words.” And in the beginning was what? “The Word.” And the Word is Who? “Jesus.” One of them asked, “What language does God speak?” Hebrew, I said, without missing a beat.
“…for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” So now we’ve come to the reason for death. “But they didn’t die right away…” That’s true, they didn’t. Did you think they would? Did you think the tree would kill them? Remember, trees turn death into life. Skipping ahead, “the woman saw that the tree was good for food….” So, we know the tree wasn’t poisonous.
A volley of questions followed most of which they answered for each other. “So why did they have to die?” “Because they broke the rule.” “Was it like a test?” “Why would God make a test?” Why do you take tests? “To show what I know.” Why do you play sports? “To win.” But you need another team to beat, right? “So, you need good and evil, to show what is good?” But there is no evil yet and still everything in creation was good. Time to move on to the making of the animals.
“And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone….” Now, for the first time, something is “not good” in creation, and it is the absence of the woman that is deemed to be “not good.” Furthermore, none of the cats or dogs or cattle or sheep or fish turn out to be “an help meet [good enough] for him.” But the man did name all the animals. In fact, God “brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them.” What was Adam doing? Did he give them names like Spot, and Bo, and Sauce? “No, he was saying what they were.” And if the man could say what each animal was, what does that tell you about the man? “That he knows things.” By naming the animals, Adam showed God that he knew things. The man was making knowledge. (Turns out he didn’t need a tree to make him wise.)
Now, for the creation of woman. “The Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof. And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.”
“Wait, so the man was made from dirt and the woman was made…” “From the man!” “From his rib!” From his flesh. From something living. Life from life. So, the man was made from dead stuff, but the woman was made from something already alive. (Thus, Adam would name her Eve, “because she was the mother of all living.”) “Was Adam like a tree?” Brilliant question! Have you ever heard the old Christmas carol “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree?” No? Listen for it next Christmas.
OK. So, to re-cap. So far, we’ve had the first what? “Law.” And then what? “The first knowledge.” And who makes knowledge? “The man.” And what did he use? “Words.” So, what did we just read? Stumped them again. Look at the way the text is set. What does it look like? “A poem.” A poem. Yes. Exactly this is the first poem. What kind of poem was it? “You mean like a haiku or a sonnet?” No, I mean who was it written for? “Eve.” Why was it written? Blank stares. It was the first love poem. Adam wrote the first love poem for Eve.
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
“So, he was saying she was the same as he was?” She was the same kind. You are like me, he was saying. “She was same species… woman… of man. Human.” Yes, exactly. He was saying the woman was human. (Not everyone has understood that since, but Adam knew.)
“And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” Any sign of evil yet? “No.” Everything is still good? “Yes.” Let’s keep reading.
Genesis. Chapter 3. “Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made…” Another volley of questions. “Was the devil in the garden?” “Did God make the devil?” Does it say devil? “No.” “But who made the snake?” God did. “Did God make the snake evil?” Remember Genesis 1. What did God call everything? “Good.” So, the serpent must have been good too. Good, but subtle. Someone said, “The serpent is a test” and a debate ensued. “If it was a test, and the serpent was just doing what God wanted him to do, why did God punish the snake?” (She’d read ahead.) “It couldn’t be a test then, because that would make God…” It would make God what? Capricious? Yes, it would.
And so, the man and the woman ate the apple. “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.”
“Before they were not ashamed. Now, they are.” Yes. They’re making their own rules now, deciding for themselves what’s right and what’s wrong.
“…and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God.” Had they died? Not yet. But something had died, their friendship with God. What kind of death is that? “Emotional?” Yes. And what’s another way of saying that? When you’re happy you’re in what? Good… “Good spirits!” Yes. Good spirits. So, if this was an emotional death of their spirits, it was a what? “A spiritual death?” Yes, a spiritual death. “But they still die, die.” Keep reading.
Now to bring it home. It had been a lively hour so far and Mrs. Bellin had just arrived with the pizza. Everyone was feeling punchy, just in time for the blame-shifting curses of Genesis 3:14-19!
Who did Adam blame? “Eve!” Who did Eve blame? “The serpent!” What was the snake’s punishment? “To lose his feet!” “To crawl on the ground!” The boys briefly debated the evolution of snakes and centipedes. The girls told them that wasn’t the point.
What was the woman’s punishment? “To be sad and have children,” one of the girls said. And? “…thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.…” “Wait….”
Oh, this passage causes everyone so much grief.
From where did Eve come? “Adam.” Which part? Did she come from his head? “No.” “That would have put her in charge.” His feet? “No.” “That would mean she had to serve him.” From which part then? “His side.” “They were supposed to equals.” “They were supposed to be friends.” Indeed. But now man is making his own rules and become a law unto himself. Women and animals have suffered ever since.
And what was the man’s punishment? “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Death. Back to the earth. But not before a life of toilsome labor. What does the “the sweat of thy face” sound like? “Slavery.” And what was man made for? “To rule.” “To have dominion.” “Freedom.” And what has he become? “A slave.” Just like in the Mesopotamian creation myth. Who else were slaves? “The Israelites.” Who freed them? “God.” When? “At Passover.”
We’d come full circle again.
There were three more quick points I had to make as the hour ran out. First (as it was a day of firsts: the first law, the first poem, the first marriage, and the first sin), why not end with the first prophecy? “To the serpent God said, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” The rest of the Bible’s story is now set up. The offspring of the serpent will do battle with the offspring of the woman, and one day, one of her seed will appear to destroy all the works of the other seed and undo all the damage that’s been done. Who might that offspring be? “Jesus.” (The answer in confirmation class is almost always, ‘Jesus.’”)
Second. The first sacrifice and the very beginning of religion. “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them.” Those skins weren’t just off the rack. God had to kill an animal to make those clothes bespoke, and, ever since, man has been using religion to cover his crimes. At the heart of every primitive religion is an altar upon which a living creature (man or beast) must be killed in atonement. The table in our very own St. Peter’s Church is a memorial — and only a memorial — to that bloody rite. But God sacrificed one of His creatures to clothe his two errant children, whom He still loved with a Father’s love, because the world can be a cold place.
Third. There is no way back. “So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.” “Paradise lost,” one of the girls said. (I think I must have a very smart class!) Why was it so important that they not eat and live forever? “Because then evil would be immortal,” one of the boys said. “And then evil would win,” one of the girls said. Exactly so. But is that tree of life gone for good? I’ll tell them next week.
Sauce couldn’t make it to this week’s class because it was later in the day than usual, and he was taking his afternoon nap.
May 21 – The Tree of Life – Revelation 20-22. The beginning and end of history. A hot, miserable day. I brought Sauce and gave him a chew. Set out a batch of chocolate cookies that I’d baked this morning. A mother arrived early, and we chatted. 2:30 p.m. came and I began class. Down one student and another Zoomed in.
We reviewed last week’s class. I can see why the catechisms of old were in Q&A format. It’s an excellent way to reinforce what’s taught. For instance, in every class I’ve asked, “What is confirmation confirming?” By this the last class they can all respond in unison, “Our baptisms.” I suspect that the problem (and what made catechisms of yesteryear boring) was not the scripted answers, or even the memorization, but of not giving the children the chance to put the answers into their owns words.
Throughout this class I’ve emphasized words. God used words to create. That same Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Words are the constituent parts of Adam’s knowledge. When reading a passage of Scripture, my question to them always was, “What does this say?” That was their prompt to put God’s wordsinto their own.
This week we jumped back and forth between the beginning and end of things. I reinforced the lessons of Genesis 1-2 that chronicle the very beginning of time and history. At the end of Revelation 20 I told them to draw a line in their Bibles and make a note in the margin reading, “The end of history.” Everything after is eternity.
But what happens at the end of history? Death dies. Could John Donne have put it better? But where did that death come from? From man and his sin. And what does the death of death mean? It means hell’s destruction. It means the relationship between the man and the woman is restored. It means the man is no longer a slave. It means the serpent might even get a second chance. After all, sin must serve God’s purpose, or it serves no purpose at all. Yes, even your worst mistakes don’t have to remain so.
In eternity there is another tree. “It’s not the same tree as the other two,” one of the students noted. She’s right. Paradise was truly lost. But this other tree, the tree of Revelation 22, the Tree of Life has healing in its leaves. In eternity there will be what? I asked. “Healing,” they replied. “And no more pain.” And God will wipe away our tears.
I left them with final image. “Trees make what?” I asked. “Fruit.” Fruit from what? “The earth, from death.” Can you think of another tree, in addition to these three? Silence. What was the Cross made of? “Wood.” And where does wood come from? “Trees.” From the death of the old Adam to life in the new, the Cross is the tree of life.
The Rev. Jacob W. Dell is the vicar of St. Peter’s Church, Lithgow, New York. This article original appeared in the June 2022 issue of Keynotes, the St. Peter’s parish quarterly.
 Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and Other (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 14-15.