Known by His Works

Bret Saunders

Editor's Note: This is the second part in a series on the relationship between education and fatherhood. Read part one here, and watch for more in the weeks ahead!

As mentioned in my last post, education means shaping and filling, admonition and nurture, law and story. That should sound familiar as the two basic components of covenant faithfulness, and the best place to see this is the book of Deuteronomy--which also features God's fatherhood over Israel as a central theme.[1]

In considering Deuteronomy, especially with a view to education, our attention will rightly be drawn to the Shema (6:4-9). Here Moses describes an educational methodology that strikingly matches what the New Testament readers would have understood by Pauline paideia (Eph. 6:4)--the way our identity in God floods every crevice of life, like sunlight at noon. In this nurture, the knowledge of God must mark key times, actions, and places; and the important divisions of ordinary life must fall under God's dominion. Education requires a liturgy that testifies to God's claim--and his name--on all of our person, all of life, all of space.

But when Moses tells fathers to teach "these words diligently to your children," what is he referring to? Deuteronomy begins:

"These be the words which Moses spake unto all Israel on this side Jordan in the wilderness..."

Inspired by God (1:3), Moses first retells the history of their initial approach to the promised land, God's provision of judges, the people's faithless rebellion in the wake of the twelve spies' report, God's curse for this rebellion and their subsequent wandering in Edom and Moab; he retells the defeat of Sihon and Og, all the way to Beth-peor and the commissioning of Joshua.

The first three chapters of the book are therefore a retelling of the story, so the young Israelites born in the wilderness may see afresh "how that the Lord thy God bare thee, as a man doth bear his son, in all the way that ye went, until ye came into this place" (1:31). God has marked out a faithful remnant to fill and subdue again, starting with their new Eden (1:39).

Chapter four narrates the covenant renewal ceremony in a passage heavy with commands, warnings, and promises; then in chapter five Moses rehearses the Decalogue. For our purposes, what stands out are concerns about covenantal memory and generational transmission:

"Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them to thy sons, and thy sons' sons" (4:9).

Here at the intersection of the first and fifth commandments, where culture is rooted in cult, education is essential to the success of dominion (cf. 4:10, 23, 25, 40; 5:16, 29, 33).

As I have said, the two essential parts of education are storytelling and law, which are both captured in the movement from the prologue to the first commandment: 

"I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. Thou shalt have none other gods before me" (5:6-7). 

God says, this is who I am, as known by (the story of) my works, and this is what you shall do to be what I have named you. God commands their love, expressed from their hearts in specific forms of worship and life, because he first earned it as the author of their story (4:37; I Jn. 4:19).

Likewise, before we human parents ever issued the first 'no,' the first punishment in the wilderness of life, our children had wallowed in a thousand hours of cuddling, feeding, and comforting. Children learn because they love, because they are loved. Story, culture, and relationship all provide the context for law.

I have been presenting Deuteronomy as a compendium of formation and instruction by father Moses from Father God. Now, moving backward a little in the Pentateuch, I want to highlight the role of storytelling in the context of symbolic memorialization. Much of Israel's God-ordained religious practice was situated around symbolic objects and actions. There were rituals like Passover and the firstborn male consecration; there were cult artifacts like Joshua's pile of stones and the jar of manna. But all this symbolism would be pointless without storytelling. God hardened Pharoah's heart "that thou mayest tell in the ears of thy son, and of thy son's son, what things I have wrought in Egypt . . .; that ye may know how that I am the Lord" (Ex. 10:1-2). Later, God explains the reason for Passover as follows:  "[W]hen your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service? That ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord's Passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses (Ex. 12: 25-7; also 23:15)." The stories would keep the record of God's salvation near and fresh and bolster the faith of leaders (Ex. 17:14). God admonishes parents, especially fathers, to interpret symbols, maintain ritual practice, and take the effort of telling the stories that give heart and flesh to what would otherwise fade into formalism. Without stories, how shall our sons and our son's sons know the personality, the identity, of the God who rules their space and time? 


One might expect that if parents became busy and distant, if the attention spans and curiosities of their children shrank, then the monuments would fade into the landscape while the rituals faded to mumbling and religious robotics. If that happened, then the people would be God's in name only. We can guess that something like that happened, because "there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel" (Judges 2:10; cf. Ex. 32:1). Described here is the ignorance, the vacuum, that prepared the way for idolatry; but the vacuum was pumped by the withering of ritual and the silencing of stories. The fathers' failure to educate recoiled on their children.

We know that fathers were primarily, though not exclusively responsible because God issues the storytelling mandate in terms of "sons" and "son's sons." The same is implied by Psalm 78:1-11:

Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth.

I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old:

Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us.

We will not hide them from their children, shewing to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done.

For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children:

That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children:

That they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments:

And might not be as their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation; a generation that set not their heart aright, and whose spirit was not stedfast with God.

The children of Ephraim, being armed, and carrying bows, turned back in the day of battle.

hey kept not the covenant of God, and refused to walk in his law;

And forgat his works, and his wonders that he had shewed them. 

Here we witness both the importance of hearing the law and story from a father-figure and also, as fathers, the importance of telling our children. Except they are in a sense not our children, but belong to the previous generation ("their children"). 

Why are the fathers of the present thus effaced? Because, in a way, we are just the messengers. We should resist the anxiety to put a personal mark on our children, at least if that means some quality "uniquely myself." Our burden should be to leave to our children the Great Story, the perennial Wisdom, the Everlasting Man. What's more, we should maintain, as the Psalmist does, tremendous hope in unseen fruit, far beyond our lifetime and personal influence. 

Though functioning as conduits of tradition, we do so through our unique personal presence.  Law cannot be dictated from a distance; rather, adherence to law is bought with a nurturing presence. We have already seen that ritual observation-interpretation assumed parents walking and talking with their children--assumed, in other words, what we call "teaching moments." We are the steward-investors of God's love for our children, presenting that love through story and law. 

Psalm 78 assumes this too, along with what I would call the main "tool" of biblical education--mimesis or imitation. When parents attend services, pray, catechize, admonish, and narrate, they invite observation from young eyes down the row. Do they pray with real anguish, heart, and faith, or the easy swing of rote expression? Do familiar characters, events, and details still sting their imagination and kindle wonder? What gets the sharp edge of our attention and energy? Where does our thinking most readily go in trials of varying degrees? 

Note the Psalmist's call to "shew to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done." How tragically ironic would it be to tell God's praises without showing praise, to tell of his works without wonder? 

The end of the passage implies a painful honesty about storytelling. We are handing down from fathers to grandchildren the bad news that some of our fathers did not keep the faith. They broke covenant (idolatry), disobeyed, and forgot God's works (ingratitude). Do not imitate them, we must say. Right storytelling requires humility. The story of God's electing grace includes how our ancestors cheated on God. We may not skip those chapters, whether from church history or American history. Hard honesty about one's fathers is good training in confession, because it compels children to acknowledge an objective standard and invites them to show humility before the standard. 

We would, unlike some of our fathers, be "steadfast with God." 


Previous Posts

1. Education and Fatherhood


[1]  Ralph Smith makes this case in Hear, My Son (Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2011), discussing the pervasiveness of the fifth commandment. 

Bret Saunders is Associate Professor of Humanities at John Witherspoon College.