The Art of Bibliodrama as Experiential Learning

In this article I want to give you an impression of the method by walking you through a bibliodramatic “lesson” developed for sixth graders. My explicit goal, from a content point of view, is to acquaint students with three things: 1. the major features of the family saga of Abraham; 2. a methodology of midrashic investigation; 3. the connection between an ancient text and modern life. At the end of this essay I will say something about the pedagogical goals and values implicit in the method itself. (For a far more complete discussion of this method, readers are referred to my book Scripture Windows: Towards a Practice of Bibliodrama.)

As facilitator with the text in hand, I begin by looking at the first mention of Abram and Sarai in Genesis 11:29-30, focusing on the figure of Sarai, “barren and childless.” After making sure everyone understands childless (ein valad) and barren (akarah)—both its English meaning and the Hebrew with its sense of being uprooted rather than sterile—I make my first bibliodramatic role assignment. “You are Sarai,” I say to the class. “What is it like to be akarah, to be childless and barren.” I validate the answers I hear and in so doing develop their trust that I am not seeking a single right answer but rather seeking to develop as many answers as possible. (This is, after all, one of my goals, that they understand the pluralistic nature of midrashic exploration, for midrash is fundamentally an anti-reductive methodology: the more the merrier.)

Then I move on to Genesis 12:1-3, distilling from those verses the implicit fact that Abram is being told he will become the father of a great nation. “Father,” I repeat, and then to the class: “You are Abram and you have just been told by G-d that you are to become the father of a great nation. What do you think about that? What are all the different thoughts you have about that?” And among them I hope to hear—and if I do not I will supply it—the concern about who is to be the mother of that great nation.

I recount their departure to Canaan, the famine, the trip to Egypt, the return to Canaan, and finally to Chapter 16, my next stopping place. We read verses one through three; I make sure we understand that Hagar is now a part of this clan, that though the norms of this society are somewhat different from ours, we can still understand the issues of surrogacy and adoption. And then I ask, “So Sarai, why now? Why after ten years do you make this suggestion to your husband?” And I may also ask Abram to tell me what Sarai’s proposal is like for him. And also, “You Hagar, what is it like for you when your mistress tells you to have a child with her husband?” I trust my readers can imagine the welter of possible answers that spring from these questions.

I then tell the class that in fact a child is born, a son, Ishmael, and though he may or may not know who his “real mother” is, he does know that Abram is his father. I then put out four chairs facing the class. I have prepared these chairs in advance, and each chair has a name on it: Abram, Sarai, Hagar, Ishmael; and I say to the class, “I want you to imagine that when Ishmael is seven years old, his father Abram, decides he wants to have a family photograph.” (No one minds the anachronism.) I continue, “He summons the most famous Canaanite photographer and explains what he wants. And the photographer asks Abram to arrange the family (the chairs) to present the family as he wants it to be captured.” The class is now looking at the chairs in front of them, which are arranged in a simple line, one beside the other. I say to the class, “You are Abram. Arrange the chairs the way you want the family photograph to look.” Slowly at first, and then with mounting eagerness, students come up to make their arrangements, and after each arrangement I ask one student, “You are Abram: what does this arrangement mean? Why is Sarai to your left and Hagar to your right?” To another student, “Why is Ishmael placed in front of you and Hagar behind Sarai?” Sometimes students cannot quite articulate why they have done what they have done; sometimes if I ask them to account for their positionings, they become self-conscious. In such cases, then, I do most of the interpreting, and though I suspect that in some ways the students may be showing something about their own family dynamics, I keep the focus entirely on the family of Abram, and I keep inviting different possible family arrangements. After each students presents his or her version and after the brief interpretation, I thank each of them as they sit back down.

Then—and before everyone has had a chance to do their photo arrangement—I say that the Canaanite photographer has to leave, but just before he does, Sarai approaches him and asks if she may have her chance to create a family photo arrangement. He says yes, invites her to arrange the chairs her way, and so we go off on round two. And then round three with Hagar, and finally round four with Ishmael.

By now, everyone is involved and even if a student does not actually get out of his or her seat to make an arrangement of the chairs, he or she is deeply involved. What students are learning at this phase in the lesson is how point of view determines meaning, which is something they know on one level but have perhaps never seen so fully demonstrated.

The above chair exercise may take as long as fifteen or twenty minutes depending on the size of the class. In facilitating a Bibliodrama, I find that it is useful to always leave some hands in the air so that the process does not reach a point of exhaustion. However, I want to make sure that everyone has a first turn before anyone gets seconds.

I thank all the students. I thank the imaginary Canaanite photographer, and I move on to the next part of the story. “Many years pass,” I say. “Ishmael grows to young manhood and then, quite unexpectedly, Sarai is told that she will become a mother and have a child of her own. Which, in fact, she does. And she bears Abraham a son, Isaac.” And now I turn a fifth chair to face the group with Isaac’s name on it; again I have prepared this beforehand. It is a dramatic moment in the class; and even though hands may be raised of students now wanting to reconfigure the family in the light of the new arrival, I do not (usually) go in that direction.

Instead I say: “Let me read to you what happens next.” I turn to Chapter 21, explain about the feast that Abraham throws for Sarah and Isaac, and then I read verses 9-14: “And Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had born to Abram playing…” Here I pause, and we look at the Hebrew word translated as playing (in some versions “mocking”) and notice how it is related to Isaac’s name. “Playing, laughing—yitzchaking around, like horsing around—and Sarah said to Abraham, ‘Cast out that slave woman and her son, for the son of that slave woman shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.’”

“You are Abraham,” I say to the class: “What is that like for you?” And we explore this moment bibliodramatically in Abraham’s role, and then I ask Hagar and Ishmael what this moment is like for them, and finally I ask Isaac. And after again exploring and validating the range of feelings and responses, I move the chairs myself, with Sarah and Isaac on one side, Abraham in the middle, and Hagar and Ishmael on the other side; and then slowly I turn Hagar’s and Ishmael’s chairs so that the names can no longer be seen. “Banishment,” I say. “Garesh” in the Hebrew, and I ask them to hear Hagar’s own name in the word, the ger, the stranger, the estranged one.

I am moving now towards the conclusion of my lesson. “Only once after this,” I tell the class, “do Ishmael and Isaac meet again in the Torah, and that is at the grave of their father, where Sarah is also buried.” And I bring the class to Chapter 25:9, “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him…” I wonder aloud what the two half brothers might be thinking and feeling as they bury their father—and here I will turn Isaac’s chair and Ishmael’s until they are facing one another.

Sometimes students will offer their own thoughts; sometimes students want to sit in the chairs and talk to the other sibling; sometimes I have the students write what one character or the other is feeling, or wants to say. Sometimes I have them do a torn-paper midrash project to represent this scene. (See Jo Milgrom, Homemade Midrash, for a description of this invaluable method.) But my point in this drama is not to play out the scene. Usually there is too little time left and I have a final demonstration I wish to make.

I remind them that Isaac is the father of the Jewish people, for descended from him are Jacob and from Jacob the children of Israel. And from Ishmael? I ask. Some already know and I make sure all do, that Ishmael is seen as the progenitor of a great nation also, the Arabs, who in time become Islam. In other words, each son traces his lineage and legitimacy back to Abraham.

And where, I ask, where are these two brothers still facing one another? And now we come into the present historical moment and we are seeing how the relationship between Isaac and Ishmael in the Bible connects to the political relationships in Israel.

The bell rings at this point and we disperse.

I want to end by itemizing some of the values implicit in the bibliodramatic approach. The first is the way it exercises what I would like to call imaginative empathy, the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes. The second is pluralism which the many-voiced nature of the bibliodramatic exploration demonstrates by showing and validating that there is no one right answer. Third, the method offers empowerment because it helps students find their own voices and visions and versions of the biblical text and recognize the validity of their points of view. Fourth, it is tradition-centered, because in creating contemporary midrash the teacher puts the student into the ancient Jewish conversation about text and meaning. Bibliodrama places students in the same context as the classic commentators, looking with them rather than just to them as interpreters of text. And finally it is a method that promotes literacy by placing the study of particular Hebrew words or phrases in a context charged by the experiential.

Needless to say this essay outlines only one of a multitude of possible ways of using Bibliodrama in the classroom. ♦

Peter Pitzele, Ph.D., developed Bibliodrama for the pulpit and the classroom 25 years ago. He travels across the U. S. and to Canada, Europe, and Israel sharing his methodology with a new generation of students of the Bible. He can be reached at
Peter Pitzele, Ph.D.
The Arts in Jewish Education
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Summer 2008