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The hippo

by An assembly from the Culham St Gabriel archive

Suitable for Whole School (Sec) - Church Schools

Aims

To explore hippos and the problem of evil and suffering in the world.

Preparation and materials

  • Find some images of hippos (check copyright) and have the means to display them during the assembly.

  • Gather various facts about hippos. A selection of these is given below, but it is worth having quite a few to convey what a truly amazing animal it is.

  • If possible, locate an image of ‘Behemoth and Leviathan’ from William Blake's illustrations for the book of Job, 1825 (check copyright). See, for example, at: www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?cgroupid=999999961&workid=1060&searchid=9209&tabview=image

  • You may wish to have readers for the hippo facts in Step 2 (optional).

Assembly

  1. We cover many important themes in our assemblies – for example,  . . .  – but, you have probably been asking yourself, why is there never an assembly about hippos? Hippos are wonderful animals and have, in fact, played a crucial role in the history of philosophy and theology.

  2. First, a few facts about the hippopotamus.

    Readers to take their positions to read out the facts below, if doing so.

    – The hippopotamus is equally at home on land or in the water. In fact, its name means ‘river horse’, even though it looks more like a pig than a horse.

    – It is the third largest land mammal, after the elephant and the white rhino. It can grow to 5 metres long, but, because of its short legs, its height is only 1.6 metres. It can weigh up to 3.5 tons, which is about the same as two whole classes of GCSE students balancing on a see-saw. (Do not try this!)

    – One of its postures of aggression is a huge, open-mouthed yawn, displaying long, razor-sharp incisors and tusk like canines that can be up to 70 cm long.

    – Hippos eat mainly grass. Having spent most of the day resting or sleeping in water, they emerge to feed at night and consume about 40 kg of grass, mowing a 50-cm swathe through it as they eat.

    – Their skin exudes red drops of fluid that once led people to believe they were sweating blood. It is, in fact, an oily substance that helps to keep their skin moist and healthy.

    – A hippo can stay underwater for 5 or 6 minutes, though some sources claim that it can manage a maximum of 25 minutes, during which time its nostrils close and its ears fold into recesses to keep the water out. Sleeping hippos rise to breathe, resurfacing as automatically as breathing itself.

    – More agile than it looks, a hippo can gallop at 18 miles per hour, but more usually it trots along jauntily at half that speed. It has a tight turning circle and can climb steep banks, but won't jump and is unable to step over obstacles.

    – It can suckle its young on land or underwater and newborn hippos often climb on to their mothers' backs to rest.

    – Hippos have been seen in mountain rivers at heights of more than 5,000 feet above sea level.

    – Fossil remains of hippos have even been found in England.

  3. These fascinating animals have also played a significant part in the history of philosophy and theology. Here's an example from the Book of Job in the Old Testament. No one is exactly sure when this book was written, but it explores a theme that has been of relevance from the dawn of human consciousness right to the present day: the problem of evil and suffering.

  4. Job was a good man, a fine member of the community and blameless in all his conduct. Then, for no reason that he can understand, he is struck down by a series of awful calamities. His family, his prosperity, his health are all taken from him. 

    In a series of dialogues with his friends, who are all anxious to provide answers, they explore all the conventional explanations for why Job should be suffering. They often return to the suggestion that Job must have done something wrong to deserve all this. Job insists on his innocence and longs to meet God face to face to demand an explanation and justice.

    Finally, in Job chapter 38 and onwards, God himself makes an appearance, answering Job out of a mighty whirlwind. God's answer is not so much a logically developed argument as a devastating revelation of human puniness in the face of God and the wonders of his creation. 

    Job is made to face up to the limits of his understanding and recognize, with awe and humility, the majesty and complexity of the world that God has created. Having surveyed the natural world from snowstorm to constellations, God conjures up an image of a mighty creature called Behemoth (Job 40.15–24, NIV):

    Look at the behemoth,
    which I made along with you
    and which feeds on grass like an ox.
    What strength he has in his loins,
    what power in the muscles of his belly!
    His tail sways like a cedar;
    the sinews of his thighs are close-knit.
    His bones are tubes of bronze,
    his limbs like rods of iron.
    He ranks first among the works of God,
    yet his Maker can approach him with his sword.
    The hills bring him their produce
    and all the wild animals play nearby.
    Under the lotus plant he lies,
    hidden among the reeds in the marsh.
    The lotuses conceal him in their shadow;
    the poplars by the stream surround him.
    When the river rages, he is not alarmed;
    he is secure, though the Jordan
    should surge against his mouth.
    Can anyone capture him by the eyes,
    or trap him and pierce his nose?

    Many scholars believe that the behemoth is none other than our friend the hippopotamus. 

    Show William Blake's illustrations from the Book of Job, if using.

  5. Sometimes, when we humans think that we understand everything and can pass judgment on God and what he ought and ought not to do, we need to be reminded of our limitations. We may be clever, but there's nothing like standing next to a hippopotamus to get ourselves into perspective. 

Time for reflection

Prayer
Dear God, 
Grant us a deeper sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers and sisters to whom, like us, you have given this world to call home. 
We realize that we have been high-handed and cruel in the way we have treated them in the past. That is why the Earth's song is so often turned into a groan of sorrow.
Help us to recognize that all these creatures also live for themselves and for you – not just for us. 
Like us, they love the goodness of life and serve you better in their way than we do in ours. 
Amen.

(Adapted from a prayer by Basil of Caesarea, fourth-century bishop and doctor.) 

Hymn

'All creatures of our God and King' (Come and Praise, 7)

Publication date: February 2014   (Vol.16 No.2)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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