Growing up, I heard a lot about Joseph. His coat. His dreams. His betrayal. His plight in prison. Then there was God’s sovereign hand in Joseph’s unexpected climb up the Egyptian power ladder that resulted in incredible provision for his family. These stories were colorfully and memorably shared to us as kids and referenced as we grew, reminding us “God works all things together for good” (Rom. 8:28).
But wedged in the middle of Joseph’s redemptive narrative is a big problem: Genesis 38. This is a chapter we like to fast forward, the way Dad dives for the remote when a family movie presents an unexpectedly mature scene. This chapter is all about Judah, Joseph’s big brother (and the one who famously suggested they sell their irritating baby brother into slavery), and his interactions with a prostitute that turns out to be his daughter-in-law Tamar. In other words, yikes. Or as Kevin DeYoung says in his kids’ book, The Biggest Story, “Judah did such dumb stuff, we don’t even want to talk about it.” I love the way DeYoung handles this for kids—neither exposing kids to an unsuitable brain-pretzel nor side-stepping the acknowledgement of grievous sin.
Even still, DeYoung’s wise treatment of Genesis 38 for kids begs the question: When should we talk about the prickly passages—particularly the ones that don’t resolve as neatly as Joseph’s?
During the teen years (which is a prickly passage of another sort), engaging with the awkward, upsetting, or mind-boggling parts of Scripture is important. Shepherding teenagers through hard passages will bolster their personal discernment as they navigate awkward, upsetting, and mind-boggling scenarios in their lives, it will engage their curiosity, and it will strengthen their spiritual muscles for a lifetime of faith.
Bolster personal discernment
When I first encountered Genesis 38, I was a teenager spurred on by independent reading plans and encouragement to “stay in the Word,” which meant the Bible’s content was no longer thoughtfully curated for me. The familiar Joseph narrative featured what seemed like an R-rated commercial break, and I had no idea what to do with it besides shove the thing under the rug. Meanwhile, at school, I overheard other shocking tales of sexual exploits. These were harder to shove under the rug because they so often hung in the air around me.
Shepherding teenagers through hard passages will bolster their personal discernment as they navigate awkward, upsetting, and mind-boggling scenarios in their lives, it will engage their curiosity, and it will strengthen their spiritual muscles for a lifetime of faith.
Many of our young people are in a similar boat, but there is good news: facing difficult texts can equip them to face difficult situations and issues. When we come alongside a high school or middle school student and help them process difficult things in the Bible, we are simultaneously discipling them to process other difficult subjects, and we are positioning ourselves as trusted advisors who are unafraid of sticky subjects. Both can contribute greatly to bolster a student’s personal discernment: they have seen hard stuff handled with integrity, and they have gained a mentor who makes it a habit to talk with them about the hard stuff.
Teenagers are notorious for both their big questions and their superhuman ability to sniff out anything phony. While an adult who dives to fast forward past the tough stuff will quickly lose credibility, an adult who is willing to tackle intense questions and cling to authenticity in the process is a great resource indeed. Instead of subverting a teenager’s curiosity about the Bible, we have an opportunity to engage it and capitalize on it by training them to interpret the Bible with integrity. As any educator knows, teaching at the point of need is the most powerful opportunity. There’s no better time to equip a believer to interpret the Bible and investigate context than when he or she is asking the biggest questions—and there are strong odds that’s during the teen years.
Strengthen spiritual muscles
However, as any seasoned believer can attest, being equipped to interpret Scripture doesn’t mean we find all the answers to our questions. Thankfully, both the Bible and our churches are filled with people who had to choose to follow the Lord in the midst of the unknown. This is likely the position from which King David is writing when he penned, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (Psa. 139:6). Engaging teenagers’ questions—especially the unanswered ones—lays an important foundation for longterm faith. Rather than placing their hope in answers, young believers have the opportunity to place their hope in our God of mystery.
They’ll also experience the unparalleled joy that occurs when our mysterious God makes himself known. What a treasure to dig into Genesis 38 and begin to see that this turn of events was God’s strange provision not just for Judah, but for the Lion of Judah—Jesus himself. (Jesus’s lineage in Matthew 1 demonstrates that Jesus is a descendant of Perez, one of the twins Tamar conceived with Judah.) In the more familiar Joseph narrative, God used the sin of Joseph’s brothers to preserve their family by offering grain during a time of famine. In the Judah narrative, God used the sin of Judah to preserve the family of God—by offering the Bread of Life.
As students endure the difficulties of adolescence, we can tell them, “God works all things together for good” (Rom. 8:28)—but we can also shepherd them through prickly passages that prove it. The difficult parts of the Bible can bolster their discernment, engage their curiosity, and strengthen them in their faith, in which they can cling to the end of the story: “Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered” (Rev. 5:5).