I held as many as four part-time jobs at once to make ends meet the year I dropped out of seminary. One of those jobs was a teacher’s aid at Sunday school, and by “aid,” really all I did was pass out paper and crayons, snacks, and pulled grabby kids off each other. The actual teaching part was not my responsibility.
For kids five and under, there’s not a ton of theology to impart beyond reading from a colorful kid’s Bible. After snack time, the kids assembled themselves on the floor while the teacher sat in a chair and held up the book so everyone could admire the pictures. Starting at Genesis and working from there, the teacher prefaced every lesson with, “Now pay attention, boys and girls, because these stories are from the Bible, and every one of them actually happened.”
Perhaps my English degree is to blame for feeling uncomfortable by that assertion. Even in high school I learned the difference between true stories and stories that communicate truths. Though I’m far from a biblical scholar, I think most of the Bible stories fall into the latter category. It’s not a conflict for me to take the truths about God and about humanity from a literary piece while accepting that the story itself may not have happened exactly as it’s written. The exception would be the stories about Jesus, whom even secular historians believe was a real person. If he was truly God in the flesh, then it’s not hard to believe at all that he calmed a storm and rose from the dead.
For some of my atheist friends, the stones of future deconversion were laid when they were taught at a young age that every Bible story was literally true. More often than not, the first stone overturned was the story of creation when presented with evolution facts in science classes. And in many sects, if one part of the Bible is proven untrue, then the whole thing falls apart.
I don’t share that ideology. There are a myriad of genres from Genesis to Revelation, all functioning as puzzle pieces of a larger story.
In my Jewish Study Bible, which I still refer to often in my personal study, there are footnotes that say many rabbinic scholars doubt that this battle took place, that archeological evidence doesn’t support this exodus. But these admissions have not shattered Judaism. If anything, they help it thrive because there is never a shortage of debate and discussion to have about the ancient history of its ancestors.
I would so much rather be a people of the Book than a people of the Facts. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that Judaism, historically speaking, has not needed every word of the texts to be literally true in order to learn from them.