Noah? Right…

Replaces a post lost during Web host problems.

[Update, 2021: Sadly, now that Bill Cosby has been called out by the #MeToo movement, I’d no longer show this video to children.]

The subject for today’s lesson in the fourth and fifth grade Sunday school class was Noah. While the lesson plan in the Timeless Themes curriculum was pretty good, I knew immediately that I was going to scrap it — I knew I had to figure out a way to incorporate Bill Cosby’s comedy routine on Noah.

After taking attendance, we started out with some pre-assessment: “What do you know about Noah?” Some of the children knew quite a lot, and told what they knew in some detail and with pretty good accuracy. “So you pretty much know what the Noah story is,” I told them, “now let’s look at a video.”

The children loved the fact that I brought a laptop into class. “My dad has one of those!” “So does my mom, but I think hers is bigger. Do they make a bigger one?” With a group of this size — we had six children today, though sometimes we get ten — I much prefer having the children cluster around a laptop, where they have to deal with each other’s physical proximity, than sit back and stare at a big screen. I brought the video up. “My mom doesn’t let me watch Youtube.” I told the girl that her mom was wise because most of the stuff on Youtube was crap. “Make it full screen!” said several of the children in a chorus.
The children laughed at all the right places — they got almost all the jokes (except the reference to the 1960s TV show “Candid Camera”).

After the video, we did our usual check-in. Several of the children had a lot to say: what happened with their sports team, too much homework, what’s going with their friends. They had so much to say that we had to go around the circle twice. I didn’t time it, but we could have spent eight to ten minutes on check-in — which is fine with me, since it helps us reach one of our four big learning goals, viz., to have fun and build community. While the children were checking in, I was both listening to them and mentally assessing how much of a sense of community they have developed: they are doing quite well given their age and the amount of time they get to spend together. It helps that this is an easy-going group of kids, and it also helps that we have a really top-notch teaching team.

Then I pulled out my copy of the Harper Collins Study Bible, and began reading them the Noah story beginning in Genesis 6. I pointed out that there are two different Noah stories in the Bible; thus Genesis 6.11-22 repeats some of the material in Genesis 6.1-10 (7-8 is pretty much the same story as in 13-14). I pointed out that one way to tell the difference between the two stories is that one writer refers to “the Lord” and the other writer refers to “God”; these are translations of the Hebrew Elohim and Adonai. “Oh I know Elohim,” said one girl, “I went to summer camp at the Jewish Community Center and they said Elohim instead of God.”

We kept reading the story, and I asked if anyone knew what a cubit was; one boy did (fourth and fifth graders tend to know lots of things of this sort): “It’s from the tip of your finger to your elbow.”

Is this story really true? I asked them. “No!” came a chorus. One boy said that he had read a book that tried to demonstrate that it could really have happened, and explained in some detail, but said he doubted that it could be true. I expressed my skepticism of that theory, too. But even if the story isn’t literally true, it’s still a good story, I argued. They kept wanting to argue about whether the story was literally true or not. I asked them if they thought TV shows were literally true. “No! Of course not!” But you still watch them? “Yes! They’re fun!” So why couldn’t we say the same thing about the story of Noah. It’s pretty weird in places, but it’s a good story. I said that I thought that some of the people who originally wrote the story didn’t think it was literally true, but that it was a powerful story nonetheless. Having seen the Bill Cosby routine helped them move this discussion forward — this Bill Cosby guy had thought the story was good enough to put on TV, and even if he played it for laughs you can tell that Cosby actually has a lot of affection for the story.

The children remained remarkably engaged. The curriculum book provided a shortened version of the Bible story, but I kept reading straight from the Bible. The children were quite willing to listen to bits of the Bible, as long as the bits weren’t too long, and as long as they could talk about them as we read. Some of the children were more engaged than others — the boy who knew about cubits was really interested in the whole story, and kept asking really good questions and making really good comments — but they were all engaged at some level.

We kept going right up until five minutes before the class was scheduled to end. The children had been watching the clock, and asked when they were going to get snack. I had completely forgotten to bring a snack — I never remember to bring a snack — but some of the other teachers on this teaching team are really good at bringing good snacks and the children have come to expect them. Fortunately Christi, my co-teacher, found that the religious education assistant had left us some chocolate-flavored mini-rice cakes. The children were thrilled to eat them even though they were probably a little stale. Never underestimate the power of snacks.

As they were eating snack, I read them the last, and most problematic, bit of the Noah story — Noah’s drunkenness and nakedness. I explained how this may have been a way to explain why the people of Israel were allowed to conquer the land of Canaan, and some of the children understood that — but most of them understood the other things I was trying to get across, that the Bible is a complex and often very strange book, and that it is worth their attention. Perhaps I even piqued their interest a little.

While they were still eating, I did some quick review. “What happened in the story? What did Noah do? What’s a cubit? What’s a covenant?” — all questions on topics we had covered in the course of the lesson. Then the children’s choir director appeared outside our door — the children’s choir rehearses in the room as soon as we get done — so I had to end the lesson. “It was good to see you all!” I said as they left in a mad scramble to find their parents, and it really had been good to see them all.