Are Prophets for Real?

It is important to begin this lesson by asking students, “What/who are prophets?” Young people and adults alike tend to restrict their thinking about prophets to people who were long dead and who are specially Christian. They also tend to see the role of prophet much like that of a fortune teller…predicting future events. We need to help them adopt a broader perspective around the concept of prophetic witness. There are powerful prophets who are living and who belong to diverse faith traditions. Even more important, the role of prophets is not to predict the future, but to speak truth to power and invite people to reconsider their own role in bringing about God’s vision.

We have tended to fall into the trap of “predictive thinking” during the season of Advent. We take a lot of biblical stories (Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Testament), and we weave them together to create a story that is easy and uplifting to tell at this time of year. We can preserve what is precious and touching our Advent stories while also taking care to share accurate information about prophetic witness, when it was written, what is actually pertained to, and to whom it is really making reference.

It may make sense for your group to talk about “modern day prophets” (real and fake), famous or those who we know. What message(s) have they sent/shared? What have you learned from them?

Prophets are not fortune tellers, and their primary purpose is not to predict the future. Their primary purpose is to speak and bring messages of truth to those who have gone astray, lost their vision, or grown weary in doing good.

Judgement (The Former Prophets)

Scripture Readings: Judges 6-8 (the story of Gideon) & Isaiah 2:1-5 (Advent lectionary)

Student Learning Outcomes:

  • Students will understand what a prophet is and what a prophet does.
  • Students will make the connection between prophets of the Old Testament and those prophet voices today.
  • Students will explore what God’s vision is for us today.

Teaching Points:

We tend to be aware of the “major” and “minor” prophets, but most people don’t realize that the prophetic corpus is actually larger even than those volumes. In this podcast, we will introduce people to the concept of the “former prophets” and revisit the reality that a great deal of the Hebrew Scriptures date from the period of exile or after (even stories that seem to be about much earlier times/events).

The former prophets are Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. Please note that the delineations (i.e. I&II Samuel) are not original to the writings.

Looking at the book of Judges can help us redefine the concept of prophecy and the role of prophets. In it, we see Israel go through times of being unfaithful, season of repentance, and times of liberation/peace in a cycle that plays out several times. The “judges” who participate in their liberation/return to peace play a prophetic role: hearing God’s voice, calling out the sin of the people and inviting them to turn around (“repent”) and return to embracing God’s intention for them (which tends to play out in military terms).

The Book of Samuel tells stories of Saul and David, ultimately describing the period we call the United Monarchy, a time when Israel was said to be unified under a single king. There is some question around whether Israel was ever truly united under a single king, but that is probably beyond the purview of today’s discussion.

The Book of Kings tells stories of Solomon’s accession to the throne, his reign, his death, and the splitting of the Kingdom of Israel when his son, Rehoboam, becomes king. It goes on to describe the kings of both Israel (Northern Kingdom) and Judah (Southern Kingdom) during the period we call the Divided Kingdom.

Discussion Questions:

  • When you hear the word “prophet” what comes to mind?
  • Who is a modern day prophet? Can an everyday individual be a prophet?
  • What do you know about Isaiah, a prophet in the Bible?
  • What were messages the prophets were sending during this time?
  • The lectionary reading for the First Sunday in Advent is a familiar passage from Isaiah in which the prophetic voice speaks of a future in which the weapons of are very deliberately fashioned into tools for cultivation and growth. Is it accurate to see this prophetic vision as a prediction of the future? What other understanding might we have of such a passage? How do we embrace this vision of a peaceful and growth-oriented world amidst so many stories of violence, death and conquest?
  • What do you think Isaiah would have to say to our world today?
  • What vision do you have for the future? (of the church, youth group, community, world, etc.) How does having a hopeful vision change the way you live daily? Or does it?
  • What is it that we are waiting for/hoping for during the season of Advent? How might that change/grow if we place it against the backdrop of the prophetic witness of the Hebrew Scriptures?

Resources: (Podcast)

Moses and the Exodus

Scripture: Exodus 1-12, specifically Exodus 2:1-10 and 7-12

Intro: As we continue on through this Bible exploration, we will explore Moses and be reminded of the story of his extraordinary life and how his experiences are meaningful even for us today.

Teaching Points

  • These chapters in Exodus very quickly transition from a scenario in which the tribes of Israel (all of Jacob’s progeny) are rich and powerful and possess huge territory and assets to a situation in which they are subjugated under the rules of Egypt and subjected to hard labor and slave-like conditions. Even so, we see that certain strengths are attributed to the Hebrew people: strength in childbirth, cleverness, and resourcefulness.
  • The exodus becomes one of the great liberation narratives of the Jewish tradition and remains powerful today. However, most scholars accept that it is not anchored in history, primarily because we have substantial historical records from Egypt at this time and there is no record that makes reference to these events or people. There is also a lack of archaeological evidence that such a huge group of people actually traveled this part of the world during this period. We might consider that the events of the exodus may have happened in some way but on a much smaller scale than is described.

Discussion Questions

  • Start the lesson time with this question: Have you ever been talked into something that at first you didn’t want to do, but in the end you were happy you were talked into it? (assuming it was a positive thing)
  • Before you begin to read the scripture, ask students what they remember about Moses’ life.
  • As a legendary story, what is cool (or beautiful) about the story of Moses’ birth and upbringing?
  • When the time comes for Moses to return to Egypt and free the people, it takes about three chapters (Exodus 4-6) for God to convince Moses that he possesses the gifts and speaking ability to be the agent of liberation. What might we make of the fact that Moses is an unwilling participant in the story?
  • Have you ever been hesitant to follow God’s call on your life? (This may simply be someone asking you to serve in some way.)
  • In what ways do we experience God’s “persistence
    in inviting us (repeatedly) to answer our call?
  • Exodus 7-12 is one of the great showdowns of the biblical narrative. What do you think about the repeated times that God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart”?
  • You may have learned about the 10 plagues as children. Is there anything that troubles you now about this story? If you had the opportunity to teach this story to children or new/non-believers, how would you do it?
  • There is enduring internationalist theology anchored in this story. Who needs liberating today? What does it (or would it) look like to be Moses in our own time? Who have been Moses figures in the liberation movements of our more recent history? How were their stories similar (or different) to this legendary story?

Isaac and His Sons

Introduction: This is the 6th blog/podcast in this series where we dive into the Bible to open up conversation around the idea of Fact vs. Truth. I want to remind everyone that we started by discussing that the truth of the message of the Bible continues to be alive today. It is important to always ask, how does this relate to our world today.

Also, it would be a good idea to start a list, if you are doing this on your own or as a group, of characteristics we are learning about God and humans. This helps us keep our focus on the message and not the minute details.

Student Outcomes:

Students will discuss the factors that play out when there is favoritism.

Students will understand the story of Isaac, Rebekah and their sons

Students will discuss the meaning of covenant and how we may all be called

Scripture: Genesis 25:19-34 & Genesis 27:1-40

Teaching Points:

In order to make sense of these stories, we must first understand that they were written well after the events they purport to describe. By the time these stories were committed to writing, Israel had already experienced several significant events that shaped their desire to tell a coherent narrative about their origins.

Helpful dates:

  • 1050 BCE to 930 BCE – dates during which Israel is believed to have been a united monarchy, although many scholars question whether this ever actually occurred
  • Around 930 BCE – Israel splits into the Northern Kingdom (capital: Samaria) and the Southern Kingdom (capital: Jerusalem) with different kings and different social structures.
  • Around 740 BCE – The Northern Kingdom falls to Assyria. This profoundly shapes the way that they are viewed by their counterparts in the Southern Kingdom and, over time, changes their culture.
  • Around 587/586 BCE – the Southern Kingdom falls to the Babylonians, the temple in Jerusalem is destroyed, and many of the people are exiled from the land
  • Around 539 BCE – the Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great, allows many Israelites to return to their homeland and return to some measure of their own cultural and religious practice
  • The stories we find in the book Genesis were most likely edited and compiled in the 6th and 5th century BCE (that’s the 500’s and 400’s) which means that the people were telling retrospective stories about their tribes, unification, later division, exile and return
  • While leading a high school SS class on this, I found it helpful to talk about our own country’s history as it has been passed down in just a few hundred years. How is the facts that are learned about Christopher Columbus and the early pilgrims taught? While students learn some facts, it is filtered. This will help them understand how these stories, too were passed down filtered by human experiences.

Discussion Questions:

  • Opening Question: Do you ever think that your parent(s) have a favorite? Why? How does it make you feel?
  • Understanding when these stories were written and all that had transpired, what sense can we make of the narrative in which two twin boys are battling in the womb of their mother, Rebekah?
  • Throughout the story, Rebekah and Isaac have clear favorites and deal rather unfairly with their children. Is this to be taken literally? What might the authors be telling us about their understanding of these two men (representing the “chosen” people and the “others”)? Who did they see as superior or more enduring?
  • As Christians, what do we make of this notion of a “chosen” people? How does that affect our present-day relationship with our Jewish siblings?
  • Do we still feel we are a “chosen” people? How might the way we interact with other people are the measures we are willing to take to ensure our own advantage and success?
  • Is it possible that this ethos pops up for us in our sense of being American and the way we relate to other nations? Where can we see that in politics, social media and public rhetoric?
  • How is the promise God made to Abraham still playing out in this story?

Resources:

Father Abraham

Introduction: There are no fossil record, extra biblical support, or other historical evidence for any of the stories in Genesis or Exodus. (As opposed to early New Testament texts, for which we have ample supporting texts written by other folds outside the tradition.) So, the genealogies provided may or may not have any measure of historical accuracy to them, and they are certainly not reliable for establishing timelines or supposed time elapsed. So, it is assumed these stories were passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition in order to reveal how people thought about God and how they imagined their own origins and development. So, it might be a good idea if you are leading a group to start a chart of what we are learning about the character of God and of humans

Student Learning Outcomes:

  • Students will understand the story of Abraham and Sarah
  • Students will explore what we learn about human nature through this story

Scripture Reference: Genesis 22:1-19

Teaching Points:

We are introduced to Abraham in the final verse of Genesis 11; his story begins in earnest in Genesis 12. It begins with a command and a promise that God will make a great nation of him and his family.

A few points will bear some explanation:

  • God makes a covenant with Abraham (Abram)to make a great nation of him, but God takes a long time to deliver on that promise. In the meantime, Sarah and Abraham take matters in their own hands in multiple ways. Sometimes these efforts have heartbreaking consequences, and we can learn a lot about our own human nature from these stories. (i.e. Hagar/Ishmael)
  • God is not always consistent in God’s response to human beings. Sometimes God seems quite frustrated and judgmental (i.e. when Sarah laughs), while sometimes God is quite forbearing (i.e. in his tolerance of Abraham having a son with Hagar and God’s later care for Hagar and Ishmael).
  • Once Abraham finally gets his promised son with Sarah, we encounter this bizarre and disturbing story in Genesis 22, in which Abraham is “tested” and asked to sacrifice the very son for which he has waited so long. It may help us contextualize this story to know that first-born children were sacrificed in many of the surrounding cultures as a way to gain favor and power with various deities.

Discussion Questions:

  • Springboard Question: Have you ever wanted something really bad, but had to wait awhile to get it? Please share.
  • What do we learn about human nature from the stories of Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael? Can you think of situations in your own life when you have taken matters into your own hands? Maybe were impatient about something? What happened?
  • What troubles you about this story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22? What are some traditional interpretations of this story? What do those interpretations suggest about Abraham? About God? Do you agree?
  • If child sacrifice was likely prevalent in the surrounding cultures at this time, how might it help us to reinterpret this difficult story?
  • Does understanding the historical context of this story change your thinking about the story?
  • Do you think God requires sacrifice from us? Are there other/better ways to think about loyalty/faithfulness?
  • Abraham was called by God even though he was flawed. Where do you think God is calling you?

Cain & Abel…Cities Civilizations

As we continue our journey through Genesis, our next stop is with the age-old sibling rivalry of Cain and Abel. This may be one of the most relevant stories for teens to relate to! (Not the killing part, of course!) But we have probably all, at some point, been frustrated with a sibling. (You may help an only child relate by talking about an extended family member, like a cousin.) And that is a great place to start the discussion and time of sharing. Think of a story of your own you can share, then ask them to do the same. But we will dive deeper than the surface story.

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Have an understanding of how the main characters could be a representation of how cities and growing communities came about.
  • Acknowledge the pitfalls of jealousy
  • Discuss the character of God and human as we learn from this story

Biblical Reference: Genesis 4:1-22

Teaching Points:

  • It has been suggested that this story is an epic tale of the rise of civilizations (cities) and the end of agrarian nomadic communities. Using this idea, Abel represents the nomadic farmer who was “killed off” (metaphorically speaking) by settled communities that built walls and chose to develop the land.
  • The text tells us where Cain settled, that he had sons, and that his sons also settled cities. There are other details included (i.e. development of tools and musical instruments) that suggest the focus of the story was intended to be broader than simply a conflict between two brothers.
  • This is one of the stories that has been used to justify racism and slavery by suggesting that certain people (ethnic groups, skin tones, etc.) bear the “mark of Cain.” We would do well to acknowledge the ways that scripture can be harmfully interpreted to exclude or subjugate others.
  • Understand the phrase “mark of Cain” and how it has been used

Discussion Questions:

  • What is the root cause of the conflict between Cain and Abel? Do you think God shows favoritism for Abel’s offering without any justification?
  • Do you find anything else in the story unfair?
  • Why would God go to so much trouble to protect Cain when he was guilty of murder?
  • The “mark of Cain” has been used in a way that has been hurtful to many people. How would you respond to someone who would use this scripture in that way?
  • Do you think God shows favoritism today? Why or why not?
  • How can we avoid these interpretations of Bible passages?
  • Let’s review what have we learned about God and ourselves through the lessons so far.

The Flood

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Students will understand that the flood narrative can be found in many faith/secular traditions.
  • Students will better understand the attributes of God (mercy, grace, justice, etc.)
  • Students will be able to see how the Flood Narrative could be used today to justify violence.

Scripture Reference

Genesis 6:1-9:17

Teaching Notes

  • Always begin a lesson with a broad question to help students become engaged with your lesson.
  • For this lesson you could ask, “Have you ever been made fun of for something? Have you ever been made fun of for your faith?” “Has anything(an injustice) ever made you so angry you wanted to do something about it?”

Teaching Points

  • This is one of several places in the Bible where reference is made to supernatural, non-human beings that sound more to our ears like Greek mythology than Christian Theology. In Genesis 6, we read about Nephilim, beings born out of the union of male deities and female humans. It is interesting to note that discussion of the flood narrative usually glosses over this strange point. Remember that at this point in history, the Hebrew people were not yet monotheistic (believers in a single god).
  • As with the create narratives, we see two flood narratives interwoven into these chapters. As such, there are several conflicting details as to the duration of the rain, how long the floodwaters lasted, and how long Noah and his family must wait for dry land to appear.
  • The flood narrative is a known piece of mythology that exists in other religious traditions and secular writings. For example, Tablet Evleven of the Epic of Gilgamesh: https://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/tab11.htm There may well have been a historical flood in the Babylonian region that led to the writing of several tales to explain its cause and purpose; however, it most certainly did not actually cover the surface of the entire earth and did not wipe out every living creature/human being.

Discussion Questions

  1. What do you make of the suggestion that God could no longer tolerate the being God had created?
  2. What is God’s primary complaint against the people of the earth? Do you have any objection to the idea that God would decide to wipe out every living creature?
  3. What can you learn about the way the people of the time viewed/understood their God/gods? Assuming a tragic event had occurred in this part of the world, why do you think people told the story this way?
  4. What are some traditional interpretations of the flood narrative? How do those/or do they? fit into this new information/perspective?
  5. Imagine if you did not grow up in the church or hearing Bible stories, what objections do you think you would have with the story?
  6. How does it change your understanding to realize that this same flood narrative exists in other religious traditions and secular writings?
  7. What does this narrative tell us about God?
  8. What do we learn about human nature through Noah and those around him?
  9. What do you think is the point of the story?
  10. Take a look at Matthew 5:43-48. Compare Jesus’ words to what we just read.
  11. Have you ever heard of people using God’s name today to justify violence? Are they justified?

What the what?!

How often do you give teens or young adults the opportunity to ask the really hard questions? I mean the really hard questions about faith/the Bible. We are about to embark on a study this school year that will help you, especially those youth leaders, like myself, who have not been to seminary, dive into a Bible study that will allow the Bible stories teens learn as children to collide with the knowledge they gain in middle and high school.

We MUST give them a safe place to explore and ask questions now before they leave us. So often we see young people leaving high school and leaving their faith. I believe there are several reasons for this fleeing, but one excuse is that they never make faith their own. The church does not give them the opportunity to grapple with their faith and really question it. Teens so often are afraid they are going to hurt our feelings if they question us, so they just go along to make the adults around them happy, giving us all the canned answers to our questions.

Throughout the school year, I will be teaching a high school Sunday school class along the way, they will be my “field study group” as we develop questions. There will be podcasts for you to listen to and/or to share with your group and this blog will give you questions to ask. It doesn’t matter if you are a youth leader, Sunday school teacher, small group leader, or young adult, we hope that this study will help you navigate through the Bible in a new and exciting way, and in the end, we pray that it will help you draw nearer to God and strengthen your faith. If you chose, these studies can all be done one after another, or pick and choose the ones that fit into other studies you are doing.

Here is how I recommend you begin week one with your group:

Start with expectations during the study of the group. What are the expectations of the students/teens of one another and of the leader? What are your expectations as the leader?

How would you describe the Bible to a non-believing friend?

Establish it wasn’t meant to be a science or history book.

Look at 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Ask the following questions:

  • When Paul wrote this, what did he mean by “ALL” scripture? (OT, the gospels were not considered scripture yet.
  • What does it mean to be “inspired” by God? Has God ever inspired you? Has the Bible?
  • The Greek word “theopneustos” is being used here and translates to “inspired by God.” See if students can guess the meaning of this compound word: “theo” (God) and “pneu” (to breathe out).
    • Interesting that scholars think Paul made this word up because it is not found anywhere prior to Paul using it here. What are some words that have been made up in our language in the last 5 years? Why are new words made up?
  • When else have we read in the Bible about God breathing? (Gen 2)
    • We are going to get to this story next week, but why is God’s breath talked about in Genesis? (God breathing life into man.)
    • How is God breathing life into man similar to God breathing into the authors of scripture?
    • What about His breath actually breathing into scripture?
    • Is scripture alive? (You want them to get to a place where they see that it is alive and relevant in our lives today.)

What Biblical stories did you learn as a child that now you think, “What the what”?  -start a list-

Ask if anyone can (or maybe see if they can work in groups) write out a Biblical timeline (this only works if you students have grown up in the church).

There are plenty of resources available, but I have found Making Sense of the Bible by Adam Hamilton helpful and the basis for this lesson.

Let’s start this journey together with our young people. You don’t have to have all the answers or agree with everything we discuss in the podcast/blog. The important point is to just open up the discuss and allow teens the opportunity to ask questions and make their faith their own.