We currently teach the Sunbeams, which means that our “lessons” are mostly eating snacks and sitting backwards on your chair, but the teacher (protip: I’m in charge of snacks, not content) does sometimes use Church videos to captivate these three-year olds’ attention.
This week, they watched a video in which Jacob works for 7 years to “earn” wife Rachel, but is tricked by his father-in-law to marry the heavily veiled Leah instead. One of the girls was SCANDALIZED, reader. She looked like she was watching Real Housewives of Ancient Israel. And it IS a scandalous story. Everything about Jacob is sus, as the youths say. But you wouldn’t know it from watching these Church videos. Instead, he’s portrayed as always morally right, the righteous victim. I’m sure someone in CES fretted over how to make this story more bland, but there’s only so much you can do with the source material.
Just to be clear, the Church’s version is not a nuanced, scholarly interpretation of Jacob, and if you’ve ever read these stories from the actual Bible (not from some dumbed-down Church lesson), you know what I’m talking about. Jacob is sketch as hell, making morally dubious decisions down the line. Loki has nothing on this guy. He’s a manipulative usurper, constantly struggling against his older twin brother, and he doesn’t play fair. Being tricked by his father-in-law is frankly a comeuppance, and he totally gets even later anyway. And Rachel’s hardly above the fray either. She steals, she lies, she sabotages others, she is also tricky. They are a match made, well, somewhere. His parenting skills are so bad that his sons are ready to commit fratricide and actually sell their own brother into slavery. He’s not great, but he’s interesting. He wrestles with an angel who grabs him by the nuts, for crying out loud. That’s one of those weird Bible stories we don’t hear a lot about.
When we taught the story about Jacob tricking Esau out of his birthright, a boy in class was appalled at Jacob’s behavior when his brother asked for some of his stew. He gasped, “He didn’t share!” I think that kid got the nuance despite the video trying to make it sound like Jacob was above reproach.
So why does the Church portray Jacob as if he’s above criticism? For whatever reason, it feels like a temperament issue that is common in conservatism, particularly in our culture war embattled current day. We have to portray people as black and white, heroes above reproach or villains beyond redemption, and there’s no middle ground, no shades of gray, no situational ethics. We can’t teach accurate history in schools because it might make people see that we should quit revering human beings and recognize the pain people cause each other. We are terrified that people will start questioning authority. The problem is that it’s completely unrealistic and unhelpful to view things in this flat manner.
The Church video also blames God for Jacob’s polygamy in a completely apocryphal interpretation of the Bible that is not fooling girls, whether they are three years old or fifty-three. The Bible does not give any justification for Jacob having multiple wives because none was needed; polygamy was not only socially acceptable, it was a status symbol and cultural norm in that very ancient society. Why does the Church decide to claim that God specifically authorized it when the Bible doesn’t say that? Well, we all know the answer to that question. Since people don’t actually read, the makers of these videos (CES, I assume) can pretty much claim anything they like without being challenged, and in fairness, it’s doubtful most of them even know better.
Additionally, the Church video glosses over the fact that wives were property being bought in that culture as if that’s a morally neutral thing to do. It’s as if it never occurred to anyone writing or editing these videos that some of the viewers will be girls and women who might find a neutral stance on that to be unsettling compared to our own self-perception as sentient human beings with agency. Fine, don’t make the lesson about that, but can we not agree that sexual slavery is not morally neutral?
Years ago, Carter Hall did a post comparing fans of Superman with fans of Spiderman, explaining that older generations preferred a perfect hero, one with godlike powers who was impenetrable, but younger fans wanted a hero who was relatable, with personal troubles, who made mistakes and had to work things out. It seems that maybe those fanbase temperaments coincide with culture war preferences: some prefer that we paint people as impossibly perfect heroes to look up to, while others consider everyone flawed but relatable and want students to discuss moral quandaries more deeply, realizing it’s up to us to do better because we know better. While that may not map perfectly onto political groups, it does parallel preference trends as revealed in some of our current public debates.
While a video for Primary children may not need to go into these thorny details with a flawed so-called “hero” like Jacob (the Joseph Smith martyrdom video was probably even worse), I hope the adult curriculum at least addresses some of the questionable aspects of his personality, but I suspect that maybe it’s all Superman comic books all the way down.
- Do you find the Old Testament curriculum to be a useful discussion or not?
- How would you tackle thorny issues such as “heroes” who do terrible things but are still blessed?
- What would you do to explain outdated cultural norms that are incredibly bad like genocide, slavery, incest and sexual violence?