Layout Image

A Question of Teaching

By Jim Wasserman

The changes were many when I left the practice of law to become a teacher, but central to both careers is the art of posing the proper question. Many other professions, including doctors, insurance adjusters and repairmen, involve asking about a multitude of matters, yet with these other fields the main purpose of inquiry is for the questioner to gain knowledge so they can better render assistance. In both trial law and teaching, by contrast, questioning is done for someone else’s sake. In court, I used questions to help reveal the facts in a manner I felt best served the jury (and my client) while in a typical class most of the questions I ask aloud aren’t designed to gain knowledge for myself but to help my students reflect and learn.

It is in this context that the story of Adam and Eve has taken on new meaning for me. You may recall that, after they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve, realizing their nakedness, cover themselves and hide when God approaches (Genesis 3). Now, hiding from an all-knowing, all-powerful entity seems pointless in and of itself, but what makes the situation really odd is that the all-knowing God then poses, as the first question ever uttered: “Where are you?”

He then proceeds to cross-examine the couple:

“Who told you that you were naked?”

“Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

“What is this you have done?”

So why the third degree? In my early Bible studies, I had puzzled over God’s need to ask questions here, but then always wrote it off as a literary device to add dramatic tension to the story. After teaching for a number of years, however, it now occurs to me: God does not ask for himself but, like a teacher, for the benefit of those being questioned, specifically to prompt Adam and Eve to reflect upon themselves and evaluate their actions. The first question ever uttered in the universe — “Where are you?” — is not a question of geography. It is one of epistemological distance: Where are you in relation to God?

God’s teaching by questioning continues after Eden. After expulsion from the Garden, Cain makes an improper offering to God (the sometimes overlooked second sin of mankind in Genesis 4). Here is the first sin of the second generation, and again God does not reprimand right away. Like a good parent of an adolescent, God understands that berating Cain for his misdeed will only just make him passively tune out (if not roll his eyes!), whereas gently asking him to self-reflect at least invites Cain to be a more active participant in addressing the problem. Thus, God proffers a series of questions for Cain to consider (“Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?”), hoping Cain will introspect, learn and grow.

The most famous questioning comes immediately after Cain slays his brother, Abel.

“Where is your brother Abel?” God asks Cain, to which Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

One gets the impression that both parties already know the answers to their own questions. The scene resembles the exchanges I sometimes have with students: “Where is your homework?” I ask, to which the student feigns a surprised, “That was due today?”

Every teacher knows that spoon-feeding answers is not “educating.” Nothing compares to watching students work through a question or problem and determining the right answer for themselves. Only when they veer too far off-course should a teacher step in to guide them back. This is classically known as the Socratic Method, but, as well, the book of Genesis could be a teaching manual for this.

If we are called upon to answer for ourselves in the afterlife, I don’t imagine it will be a prolonged trial. It will be a one-question test with no real surprises. Like many of my students, I’m looking for clues in the instruction, anticipating what the question will be and looking to be prepared to give a good showing of myself come test time.


Jim Wasserman is a native of Dallas, Texas. A former attorney, he became a teacher because “helping to prevent problems is better than cleaning them up afterwards.” Jim has published in law reviews, newspapers and journals, from fiction, to essays on education, to poetry. He currently teaches World Religions at Parish Episcopal School in Dallas, and is working on a textbook and stories to teach children about Media Literacy. Jim could not be anywhere near as successful or happy without the love and support of his wife, two sons or two cats.