Retelling the Journeys of Abraham

How do you make a 4,000 year old story relevant to modern grade-school students? I faced that question while preparing to share Genesis 12-25 with a camp full of elementary school students. Somehow I needed to bridge the historical and cultural gaps between the story material and my audience, while treating the sacred story with the respect it deserves. What follows is how I tackled this task. I hope it benefits you as you retell meaningful stories.

the moon through the trees at nightSince this story is taken directly from scripture, I wanted to be especially sensitive to the exact wording. I began studying different translations of the passages, attempting to find a translation that would be friendly to a young audience. I eventually settled on Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase (The Message). Even this text seemed beyond the easy grasp of my hearers. Both the geography and the culture were foreign to my American audience. Adding to this foreignness were multiple appearances by minor characters with tongue-twisting names.

The process of reading multiple translations had one major payoff: the motif of the Abraham stories became clear. Abraham’s ultimate journey is not one of geography; it is one of faith.

I decided to move away from a retelling of the story that aimed for near-complete verbal accuracy. Instead, I wanted to clearly communicate the motif. Once the motif became clear to me, the structure of the story soon followed. The conflicts that Abraham experiences are tests of his faith (even if only in an implicit manner) and these conflicts are punctuated by promises from God and at least two major covenant ceremonies. Simply put, an outline of the life of Abraham can be generated based on Promises and Problems:

Promise – “Leave your home. I will bless you.”

Problem -­ Abraham decides to leave home and experiences a famine.

Problem – Abraham goes to Egypt and lies about his wife; then he returns to Canaan as a rich man.

Problem – Abraham and Lot separate. Lot captured by foreign kings

Promise – The Voice reaffirms the promise with a mysterious covenant ceremony.

Problem – Hagar is pregnant and disrespects Sarai

Promise – God reaffirms that Abraham will become a father of many nations, but not through Ishmael. A new kind of covenant ceremony given.

Problem – God’s plan to judge Sodom and Gomorrah

Problem – Abraham settles in the land of Abimelech and Abimelech takes Abraham’s wife.

Problem – Abraham told to sacrifice Isaac.

Promise – God spares Isaac and promises faithfulness to all Abraham’s descendants.

Promises fulfilled – Sarai dies and buried in the land of Canaan, Isaac marries Rebekah, and Abraham dies and is buried in the land of Canaan.

Now for the practical matter of how to divide the stories: I needed material for three twenty-minute sessions, and I wanted to end the first two sessions with a cliff-hanger. My printed copy of Abraham’s journey was 15 pages long, so I simply looked for a conflict I could use as a cliff-hanger on pages 5 and 10. Page five provided me with a covenant ceremony and a mysterious light source. Page ten contained a death threat for King Abimelech. Both of these cliff-hangers left the audience ready to hear more at the next session.

Since the covenant ceremonies were playing an important role in the motif of the story, and since these ceremonies are not native to modern culture, they needed extra explanation. The first covenant ceremony (and cliff-hanger) provided me the opportunity to explain the significance of cutting animals in half, and the implied oath that if God does not keep His promise to Abraham, then God says he will allow Himself to be torn apart like the sacrificed animals now dead before Abraham.

Now that my story’s structure was clear, I wanted to eliminate confusing geography and names, so my story contained only seven personal names: Abram/Abraham, Sarai/Sarah, Lot, Pharoah, Hagar, Ishmael, King Abimelech, and Isaac. In order to be sensitive to God’s transcendence, I used the epithet “The Voice” to refer to God. This title is intended as a sign of respect that provides an appropriate amount of other-worldliness and mystery for the Divine Being. I kept my list of geography short as well, focusing on Canaan, the Negev (which I also called the “Great Southern Desert”) and Egypt. To also assist my hearers in making the transition from the very modern world of Texas to the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, I began each session by instructing my hearers: “Close your eyes and take a journey with me. We are traveling through both time and space. We are moving 4,000 years into the past, and nearly half-way around the world. Picture the great Tigris and Euphrates rivers on your far right and the Mediterranean Sea on your far left. As you zoom in on the land in the middle, open your eyes.” By the end of the weekend, that “land in the middle” had become a real place for both the teller and the audience.

Stan Ward is a storyteller and leadership coach in Texas.

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