Lessons Learned From Debating Biblical Texts

Prayer BOok and Hymnal

With a growing need to find ways in our society to have thoughtful and respectful conversations about difficult issues, I look right to our middle school students for inspiration and some guiding principles. In a recent chapel, our middle school debate team debated the story of Abraham being called to sacrifice his son Isaac. At issue was whether Abraham acted faithfully. As part of the process, a Rabbi visited with the debate team and taught them to read the text in a way that looked at a myriad of possible interpretations. The students learned first hand the practice of Jewish Midrash.

The middle school students observing the chapel were able to see a debate that was handled with poise and respect. The debate was full of passion from each side, but the tone was not arrogant or self-righteous. As the students debated, you could hear in their voices a greater appreciation for the complexity and mystery of God, because each side probed the biblical text to prove their point. The biblical story could not be put into a clear black and white category. The motives of Abraham could not be defined because the multifaceted nature of Abraham’s faith could not be captured in a simple description. The students who were observing the debate came to understand that belief in God is messy and does not have any easy answers. In the end, the side arguing that Abraham was faithful won, but it really did not matter, because both sides argued gracefully and passionately with respect for each other. 

Biblical texts were written with the intention that they would be debated and that through the process the reader would wrestle with life’s most important questions. If a biblical text rooted in a long tradition could be looked at from a variety of angles, why couldn’t the Constitution, a musical score, or a scientific hypothesis being studied in the classroom be seen through the same lens. If a debate about a highly complicated theological issue could be debated with such poise and respect, why can’t the pressing issues of our time such as immigration, health care, and gun control be debated in the same way? Reading, interpreting, discussing, and debating Biblical texts provides students in this formative time of adolescence some valuable skills necessary to engage in healthy, constructive, and meaningful conversations.

Norman Hull


About the Author

The Rev. Canon Norman Hull is the K-8 Chaplain at Campbell Hall in North Hollywood, California. He has served as a parish priest and chaplain during his 22 years of ordained ministry. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College in 1985 and CDSP (Church Divinity School of the Pacific) in 1995.