The story of Jonah is one that we may feel we know quite well. In all likelihood, we do probably know the major movements of the narrative. But take a few minutes to read the book (it’s only four very short chapters and took me less than 10 minutes) and allow yourself to be surprised by what you find. Any good details you forgot? Anything you never noticed before? Isn’t this book funny? My personal favorite line: “[Yes, God, I am] angry enough to die.” Dramatic!
Some key details in this story can really change its emphasis for us. To begin with, you already know that as we begin to look at prophets we are moving toward a major event in Israel’s history: the exile. I sent out the introduction to prophets and exile last week because it continues to be important for our stories. Nineveh, for one, is not a random city, but the capital of Assyria. The Assyrians are enemies of the people of Israel, laying siege to some of the major cities and sending large groups of people into exile.
Imagine this for a moment. One of the leaders and prophets of your people is asked by God to preach to your enemies for the sake of their salvation. You can begin to see why Jonah didn’t want to preach to them, knowing they would turn and repent, and knowing that God would relent. This is a point that is often missed in the children’s storybook version. Why is Jonah upset that the people of Nineveh are willing to repent? Why is he upset that God relents and does not punish them? Because the people of Nineveh are enemies of the people of God.
When talking to the children about this story, we might begin by asking them: Who are our enemies? Why and what do we want for them? What does God want for them?
The story of Jonah is remarkable, it’s teachings–Repentance, God’s full grace, God’s love for all people–are at the center of the Law and the teachings of Christ. Perhaps think of the Good Samaritan or Jesus imploring the people “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” Talk about a book with a prophetic challenge!
Hear the Word
There’s a reason that the story of Jonah is used so often with children. It’s narrative is dramatic and catchy. Children can understand the desire to run away from authority figures and they can make sense of the prophet’s desire to do something other than what he was asked.
This story is great for a dramatic retelling, acting out, reading and comparing storybooks from our library, or having a teacher tell the story as a storyteller.
Older children can probably spend most of their time during this class working with the story. See suggestions below for how to spend your class time hearing the story (under “read, mark, and inwardly digest”).
Respond to the Word
- Read, Mark, and Inwardly Digest: by reading the Biblical text together or writing a skit based on the major movements of the book. You might divide up the chapters and each group work on a chapter and present them. Alternatively, print a copy of the book of Jonah out for each child, read the story together, and ask them to mark key movements, funny lines, and details about God. Discuss what stood out to each child and create a one page word map or poster of the book with some of the major quotations.Jonah’s Prayer
- Enemies: As suggested above, spend a bit of time talking about who our enemies are. Children might focus on interpersonal enemies (a bully at school). Older children might be able to identify some of the social and political factors that have lead to labelling certain groups as enemies. Discuss what this story has to say to us today. Perhaps your students disagree with the book of Jonah. That’s fine too. Be prepared to hear and experience the challenge of the story.
- Jonah’s Prayer: Jonah’s prayer in the belly of the whale is titled “A Psalm of Thanksgiving.” These titles are added later and are not “original” to the text, but the title makes an interesting point. The line opening the prayer: “I called to the Lord out of my distress” appears in no fewer than three Psalms (18, 118, 120). What does Jonah say in this prayer? Why is it called a prayer of Thanksgiving? Jonah has just been swallowed by and is currently interred in the gross belly of a large fish. (I’m convinced that I need a remark here about my use of the word interred, usually used to describe the place of burial for the dead. The story of Jonah prefigures the story of Christ–three days in the belly of the whale/sheol, just as Christ descends to the dead for three days–and as such this movement is similar to a burial. Jonah in some sense descends into certain death, plunged deep in the waters of the sea and the belly of a fish).
- A little bit of Midrash: After Jonah’s prayer, the text tells us that “God spoke to the fish” and the fish released Jonah to the shore. Wonder together about what God said to the fish. Create a cartoon depicting God’s conversation with the fish.
- Jonah Crafts: Younger children can create any number of Jonah crafts (they are very popular). You can find some suggestions on the Old Testament Story Responses board on the Christian Education Pinterest page (Jonah and the whale song available here).
Close with a Feast and a Prayer