I am leading a "family service" this Sunday, basically a church service for both adults and children. So I've been thinking about which "story" I should preach on (my idea is to tell the story with pictures to the kids first, and then do a short sermon that is somple enough for kids to understand too).
Anyway while choosing stories I started thinking back to what stories I remember hearing in Sunday school (or: in the diverse Sunday schools I went to, growing up as a missionary kid and switching countries and churches way too much). I realised all of a sudden: we almost only heard "boy stories" - e.g. David and Goliath, Joshua, Samson, Jonah.
What about the "girl stories"?
Now I know (I've been teaching Sunday school and religious education for a while now) that Sunday school curricula are a complex matter. We're not just "teaching stories", but trying to give an idea of the overall biblical narrative e.g. with the history of Israel and later the beginnings of the church. We are not just teaching "morals", but giving children biblical literacy. But especially with younger children we do teach stories, and "moral of the story"s, and biblical role models. E.g. last year a bloc in my 5th grade class was all about David.
I personally can't remember doing any "woman's story" in the Bible except Esther, maybe a bit of Ruth, Rahab on the edge of the Joshua story, Miriam with Moses. But mostly we learnt about male "heroes". Which on the one hand makes sense because the Bible, written for a mainly male audience in a patriarchal culture, generally does put more focus on the men. But on the other hand, the Bible is full of female heroes and examples as well - and we are teaching girls, not just boys, and women's stories are relevant to both girls and boys. And the stories of the women in the Bible have a right to be heard in their own right, and not just on the sidelines of a male-centred story.
When I started considering which women's stories I could tell e.g. in that family service, I realised some difficulties. Because of my project writing poems from the p.o.v. of women in the Bible I have a list of practically all of them. And going through it I realised that many of the Old Testament women's stories involve sex, violence, and sexual violence. Is this one reason why I heard so few stories from their point of view? Even those we do hear: Esther was pretty much forced to marry the king, Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth looks pretty innocent as long as you ignore the premarital sex bit (which most do). Dinah is raped, Tamar is raped, Sarah lets Abraham sleep with her slave, Leah and Rachel fight over their husband's affection...
As for violence: we have violent women like Jael (though I do think her story comes up sometimes?), then we have women suffering violence like Jephthah's daughter (which surprisingly appeared in one of my children's Bibles and I think that was a good inclusion).
And the other problem is that most women in the Bible are too strong. In the New Testament you have women apostles (Junia), deacons (Phoebe), prophetesses (Philipp's daughters) and church planters (Nympha). In the Old Testament you have women who outsmart the men (Tamar), disobey their husbands (Vashti, Esther, Abigail), and mostly get lauded for it. I love these stories, but maybe in certain churches they are too "dangerous"? If you want to teach gorls that they must always defer to boys and become submissive wives, maybe these stories will give them bad ideas. I never heard these stories in my baptist or brethren Sunday school (we did Acts when I was 8-9 and it was all only Peter and Paul). The Bible challenges traditional gender roles if you let it, and I suspect often, by leaving out the women, we have not let it challenge us.
When I first wrote out my list of women to write poems about, I reached only 45 (out of all my Sunday school knowledge, my father reading the Bible to us every night till I was 16, personal Bible reading and at that time 1 year of theology at uni). There are at least 200 though, and it's a pity we don't know them better. I think the fact that we often forget or overlook the women in the Bible contributes to their absence in the curriculum - and another generation misses out on a big chunk of the story.
I have noticed this with myself, by the way. 5th grade David, I did not include a session about e.g. Michal or Abigail or Bathsheba (well: rape and adultery for fifth-graders?!). 7th grade Acts, I did not talk about the women in the early church. Gospels we only did a crossword puzzle on Jesus' female disciples, that's it. And this Sunday I will preach on Zacchaeus - great story (I don't want to discount the men in the Bible, we can learn a lot from them) but why did I not choose Esther? (Honest answer: I have a message ready for Zacchaeus and Esther would take more work). So all of this, mind you, is self-critical, not just criticising my Sunday schools (I know how challenging teaching kids can be, and my Sunday school teachers all did a great job).
I think it's important to address this issue of "inclusivity"... because it matters what kind of role models we give girls, and that they find women they can identify with - and it is just as important for boys to learn that women's stories are relevant to them as well, to become aware of women's issues and see that women are just as important - as people and in God's plan - as men.
For me these thoughts and questions are a challenge to be more aware when I prepare classes and children's messages. Ever since the poetry project I am more aware of women in the Bible, but I have yet to transport that to my Sunday school teaching. I want to think about what messages I am giving about gender roles, womanhood, equality etc through the curriculum I choose and the stories I focus on. Fact is, when we teach children we always pick and choose and make a selection. We are not just "teaching the Bible" because we leave out details, skip some stories, make some more harmless, cut out the sex and gore.
Which is another question: I mentioned Jephthah's daughter who was sacrificed. I must have been 8 or 9 when I heard it. What stories are appropriate for what ages? Is it alright to "kiddify" violent stories like Noah or Joshua? Many of the Sunday school "boy heroes" are not that unproblematic. Take Samson, who had a violence problem and a women problem. Is this a good story to tell? Or does it depend how we tell it? But how can we tell these stories in an appropriate way for children and at the same time take seriously the original message? (Judges e.g. is very complex and I think the way I heard Samson's story in Sunday school was not appropriate to the original message it has in the Bible - because it was "kiddified", the prostitutes were cut out, a complex character was turned into a hero, and it was taken out of its context).
Anyway now I'm kind of considering switching ny doctorate topic to this... analysing Sunday school curricula or something.
What was your Sunday school experience? What women's stories did you hear about? What are "girl stories" in the Bible that we should hear more about?
I think we need to hear more stories like Shiphra and Puah, Naaman's slave girl, Philipp's daughters, the women at Jesus' crucifixion...