Teaching the Bible
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
Literary Forms in the Book of Jonah
The Jonah narrative is an example of one type of literature found in the Bible namely story or rather, parable. Parable is often used to convey difficult religious concepts in a concrete and memorable form, usually through typical life situations. It is a useful teaching technique. While parables are not 'true' in a literal sense they can be regarded as 'true to life' by those who take God seriously. In other words they contain messages of God's truth which can help people to understand their world and the way they should live. Perhaps the writer of Jonah has gone rather overboard in the introduction of the swallowing of Jonah by a large fish and the miraculous growth of the plant, not to mention the animals of Nineveh all in sackcloth like the people! However, as part of the message of the book is the supremacy and power of God, the miraculous element does not seem so out of the ordinary.
It is vital that pupils are aware that the Bible contains different types of literature which require different types of interpretation. They need to be able to distinguish different genres of writing to avoid the dangers of misinterpreting material, which can result in misleading belief and actions. There is the danger of fundamentalism as well as editing out God. Having said that, when pupils are ready, they need to know that Jews and Christians do differ in the way they interpret the same passages; there will be those who believe that the book of Jonah is reporting real events and others who acknowledge it as parable. Understanding this helps pupils to see why different groups grow up within religions, because they interpret some material differently and therefore can hold differing beliefs.
- At what stage should pupils be introduced to different genres of writing?
- How far can young children go in differentiating literal and non-literal truth?
- What is the difference between literal and non-literal truth? Why is it so important for pupils to recognise it?
- What problems might teachers be creating for teachers of students at later Key Stages if they fail to introduce pupils to these literary differences at an early stage?
- Why should pupils be told that within religions believers do not always hold exactly the same beliefs, often because of differences in interpreting literal and non-literal truth in their sacred writings? What difficulties might arise for children in introducing these divisions within religions?
Judaism and Christianity has a tradition of prophets who were spokespersons for God. Through these prophets God communicated with Israel, guiding and instructing her.
Prophets are people who have a special relationship with God which enables them to tune into what God requires of human beings, politically and socially. In the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible their messages are often of judgement and doom but there is underlying hope in God's forgiveness if there is repentance. False prophets abound, always predicting what people wanted to hear. True prophets had and still have that bionic sight which sees beyond the immediate; they pick up sounds and reverberations long before others and speak out about future dangers before others become aware of them. Prophets are extra sensitive to political, social and scientific developments. They attempt to give a God-dimension and perspective to the human view of events and issues.
Is there still this prophetic function in society? Does God still call people to proclaim his messages? Is a prophetic role limited to people within a religious tradition? Do modern prophets see the bigger picture, the distant goal and attempt to tell others about where they are heading and where they should be heading? What are the topics they dwell on? How do modern prophets make their voice heard? Perhaps they are giving speeches, researching, writing books, articles, broadcasting, writing plays, poetry, stories, using the Internet and the Web, advising, even teaching in schools!
- Does our modern world need prophets? Why? Why not?
- Would modern prophecy have the same purpose as biblical prophecy?
- Do prophets always have a religious connection or can there be secular prophets? How might their messages differ?
- What particular topics might religious prophets be warning society about?
- How might a modern religious prophet be recognised?
- What medium would be effective for a modern prophet?
- What might hinder prophets from having a good reception nowadays? Did they ever have one? (Remember Jesus' words: "A prophet is without honour in his own land", and "He who has ears to hear, let him hear.")
The Jewish and Christian God - Universal and Omnipotent
The Jonah parable encapsulates important understanding about God for Jews and Christians.
- The distinctive feature of Jewish and Islamic belief about God was and is his 'oneness'. The very nature of God demands that only one exists.
- This was in sharp contrast to the multiplicity of gods of other nations in Old Testament / Hebrew Bible times.
- The Jewish God was the force above everything else and in control of everything. It took some time before the full impact of this belief was understood by the Jews themselves. This parable marks a moment when they came to understand their God was the God also of their enemies, of everyone.
- Consequently they had to accept that their God was concerned about everyone, not just the Jews. Their God had created everything and therefore valued everything. All creation had equal status before God and equal value. That was a hard lesson, especially if the date of the story was at a time when the Jews had decided they needed to cut themselves off from non-Jews in order to preserve their purity before God.
In the present time of many religions and nationalities competing for allegiance and power, the parable of Jonah's message is still relevant. In a world that is more than ever 'one world' but at the same time full of bitter divisions, the God-perspective as presented in this parable offers something to reflect upon.
With 'citizenship' high on the school agenda, this parable presents a God-view of what citizenship might mean in global terms, as well as local ones. With international relations always so delicately balanced, the evil yet repentant Ninevites give food for thought. With religious sects claiming God is on their side and on that basis at times holding the world to ransom, they with Jonah can pause for thought!
- Why is it important for early years teachers to be accurately informed about religious beliefs?
- What picture and understanding of the Jewish and Christian God do you think is usually presented to pupils by Key Stage 1 teachers?
- Where can Key Stage 1 teachers get their ideas of Jewish and Christian beliefs about God from e.g. personal learning or research, the residue of learning from school or Sunday school? What are the benefits and pitfalls of each method and how can they check that their knowledge is accurate?
- What are the special dangers of passing on inaccurate information in RE?
- How much do you think young children can understand about beliefs about the nature of God? How can we be sure not to underestimate their ability?
- Arguably, a belief that God takes sides in human warfare reflects a diminished understanding of the nature of God. What other reactions to modern situations reflect a limited understanding?
- Why do some religions and even nations claim exclusive rights on God?
God's justice and mercy
The Jonah story challenges pupils to reflect on the nature of human justice in comparison with God's justice as presented in this narrative. Justice is often a rallying cry in today's world. However, what is often understood by justice is that offenders are caught, judged and sentenced to pay them back for their offence. In other words, it is a revenge type of justice. The message of the Book of Jonah is that God's judgement does not stand alone but is linked with and balanced by mercy. Where repentance takes place, God's judgement is mitigated by mercy.
- People are often quick to seek justice in terms of revenge. Why?
- What is meant by the saying, 'There but for the grace of God, go I'?
- From the number and type of accounts in the newspapers, it would seem that modern society delights in others' sins? If so, why?
- In a society where 'strong' decisive action is seen as a virtue is mercy seen as weakness? Is mercy unfashionable? Why?
- What does it mean to say that people generally have lost a sense of ultimate accountability for the way they have lived their lives? Do you agree?
- What elements do - or should - make up the concept of justice as applied to schools?
- How can justice be tempered with mercy in the school situation? Is it a realistic goal?
In an age when human knowledge appears almost omniscient, it becomes more difficult to keep it in a true perspective. It is important to recall the vulnerability of the human condition and to recognise that however much humans do know and understand, people must remember their limitations and never lose the humility to acknowledge these. Even the super power of the Ninevites could not pretend to know God's ways. (See 'Who knows?' in Jonah 3:9, which stresses that God cannot be manipulated by humans.) For those who believe in God, an element of mystery will always surround him and life itself. For those who do not believe in God, space must be left for all that humans do not know and may never know. Human beings should be wary of bestowing divinity upon themselves or believing they speak for God. A certain perspective needs to be kept on the human persona and its achievements with an appropriate and necessary humility encouraged. Young pupils should be presented with the proposition that adults are not gods. They are fallible, ignorant and potentially evil as well as possessing many positive qualities.
- What understanding do children have of the status of adults?
- Children can be credulous, especially of teachers. What responsibility does this throw on the RE teacher?
- Where can children meet humility in the school environment? Is it valued? What is the role of teachers when they convey the value of learning?
- Does the increase of a secular society encourage belief in human omnipotence?
- What might be the advantages and disadvantages of such a belief for society?
- 'Achievement' at all levels and of all types is a key goal in society. To what dangers might this give rise?
- The world still has super-powers. Does the educational system contain super-powers? In what ways might they be tempted to over-flaunt their power, as the Ninevites did?
The Human Condition
Little time is given in the school curriculum to exploring what it means to be human. And yet it is vital that pupils begin to understand the human experience. This parable offers a chance to delve into the way people are. The parable of Jonah highlights the temptations, opportunities, decisions and choices which confront people and reactions to these challenges and responsibilities. Jonah typifies the individual's encounter with evil from within and round about. In contrast, Nineveh represents communal sin. Whatever the sins of the individuals, the sum total for the whole city makes it a very sinful place! That sin means that Nineveh is heading for disaster until God tips off Jonah who eventually points out the danger that they have got themselves into. They have the sense and humility to accept their reprieve through repentance. Although the parable appears to present an extreme picture of the way individuals and groups operate, there is something of Jonah in each individual and something of Nineveh in all communities!
The God dimension of the story makes it clear that everyone individually and corporately has to be accountable and God's redemption and acceptance is on offer if the need is acknowledged. Human beings can change their ways in spite of all that opposes the good in them. However, the human condition does not seem to change with time, and that is why the Bible remains relevant in spite of its age.
- What insights does the story of Jonah give into human nature?
- Can you find any parallels between Jonah and an individual today?
- Which modern cities could be said to take after Nineveh?
- What responsibility has the individual within a group for a group's behaviour?
- What makes it difficult for groups to recognise their negative ways?
- Bad sometimes seems more powerful and attractive than good. Why might this be?
- What resonance might the redemption message in the parable have for people today?
- Some people say that these days people's behaviour is explained and excused rather than redeemed. Give some examples of attitudes to 'misbehaviour'. How do you respond to it and why? How true to your experience is it that nowadays, people's behaviour is explained and excused rather than redeemed?
- Is belief in God necessary in order to find redemption?
Life's surprise factor
In our busy world, utmost effort is often put into carefully planning all the details of life. This is both necessary and laudable. However, it goes too far if people begin to believe that life is completely programmable and no space is left in the human psyche for the unpredictable, the accident, the unplanned, the surprise. Detailed planning encourages the belief that individuals do have complete control over their lives and that makes it all the more difficult to cope with the real nature of life which will certainly present the unexpected in both good and bad forms.
The Book of Jonah regularly comes up with the surprise factor which challenges preconceived ideas and requires coping skills. Pupils need to realise that however much life appears to run to a prepared timetable, they need to be ready psychologically for the emergencies, the disasters, the disappointments as well as the unplanned pleasures. Perhaps some children are being overprotected from the reality of existence. Others will have already experienced too much of the anguish that life can throw at them. While people might desire a cotton-wool existence (and it may seem attractive sometimes) throughout biblical narrative is the warning of the need to remain alert and ready.
- What is appealing as well as disturbing about the 'surprise factor' in life?
- How do surprises make people rethink presuppositions? What benefits might the unexpected event have?
- Think of some examples of 'overplanning life'? What dangers do they create?
- Is it possible to prepare children for the unexpected? Give some examples.
- Do you think modern children are likely to be less or more resilient to life's surprise element than children of earlier times?
- Do television and video-games often contain a surprise element. Do you think they influence children's perspective on reality? If so, why and how?
- Is the surprise factor the same as chance? Where might God fit in?
Humans and Animals
The Book of Job presents an interesting perspective on the relationship between humans and animals - a subject of abiding interest to children. Rather than just focusing on the large fish's belly capacity, it might be worth considering how animals and humans are linked in the king's decree (Jonah 3:7-9). Here man and animal both had to show their repentance before God, emphasising the inter-connectness between the natural world and humankind.
The example of disasters in our own time, such as Foot and Mouth disease, illustrates how closely human well-being is tied up with the animal world. As a result, there are now perhaps some early signs of a movement away from exploitation towards an acknowledgment of interdependence. Certainly this is reflected by recent developments in the theology of the natural world and animals.
- Why might the king have included animals in his decree about repentance?
- Is it in the nature of real animals to repent? If they cannot sin, do they need to repent?
- In what ways are animals and humans interdependent?
- In what ways are animals exploited nowadays? What does that tell us about human beings?
- What benefits might result from humans giving animals a fairer deal?
- What is meant by 'venerating all life'?
- In what ways are theologians taking more interest in the relationship between God, the natural world and animals nowadays?
Jonah presents a wonderful character for pupils to explore. They can really come face to face with human weaknesses and desires:
It is Jonah's self-interest which forces him to flee in the opposite direction from God. He pretends to himself that he can run away from his responsibilities and he feels he knows what God is up to. He suspects that he would be thought to be a false prophet, because he knows God will not end up destroying the Ninevites and will change his mind and save them. He doesn't want to look and feel a fool, even for God! After his experience in the sea and fish, he himself changes his mind and agrees to obey God. But that doesn't bring peace of mind...
Jonah is angry because he was right about God changing his mind and so he tells God 'I told you so!' But in his anger, Jonah reveals what he knows about God's nature. He has understood a lot about God but not enough to trust him fully. Jonah is disillusioned. God seems to have let him down and anyway...
Jonah did not really want the Ninevites saved! Why should such an evil nation be saved? Jonah expected God to accept his own repentance but not that of foreigners. Why did they deserve God's kindness and mercy after the way they had behaved? Surely God's concern should be with the Jews. Why bother about foreigners? After all, their sin was obviously much worse than his own...
- Sulkiness and self-pity
Jonah was brought to the depths of despair. Self pity took over as he convinced himself his life was worthless and he would be better off dead, perhaps because he had not really got his own way and could not see eye to eye with God. He must have felt everything was against him when the plant withered and exposed him to the sun! Poor Jonah! He needed God to feel sorry for him and not for those evil Ninevites! Jonah must have felt even worse when God really put him in his place by saying he had neither built the city nor grown the plant so he had no reason to complain! Jonah was having to learn that God's generosity could not be limited or controlled by humans.
- In what way did Jonah let self-interest take the place of trust?
- What other ways can you think of in which self-interest can spoil people's lives and limit their responsibilities?
- Was Jonah justified in his anger? Is there such a thing as justifiable anger?
- People sometimes say that they are angry with God? What do they mean?
- Was Jonah being self-righteous in not liking the wicked Ninevites?
- Why do people tend to think foreigners/ people that they do not know are not as good as they are?
- How true to life is Jonah's reaction to God's reprieve of Nineveh? How justified was he and how might he have reacted?
- Why can it be difficult to rejoice with others when good comes their way?
- Why is sulking such a negative emotion? Can it serve any purpose?