Laughing with the Bible

Humor in the Scriptures? Come on! The Gospel is serious matter, isn’t it? Yet, humor is there, sometimes clear, sometimes disguised, but the ‘third voice’—the reading of the text from the viewpoint of the author—can be very funny. We saw Balaam being topped by a she-ass, very amusing, but there is a larger example, more elaborate and veiled, but definitely funny. It is the entire Book of Jonah, the prophet-in-the-fish and the most productive way to read it might well be as a satire. Why?

An old Greek icon picturing the Jonah tale

An old Greek icon picturing the Jonah tale

Let us run through the story: Jonah was called by the Lord to go to preach repentance to the evil city of Nineveh. Immediately he fled to Tarshish, but the Lord called up a storm, and though Jonah kept sleeping, the sailors decided to threw the lots to know the culprit. That was shown to be Jonah, who confessed being a fleeing prophet. So, at his own suggestion they threw him overboard as a sacrifice, and the sea became calm. A big fish gobbled up Jonah, and he stayed three days inside, praying to the Lord. After being vomited on land, Jonah obeyed the Lord and went to Nineveh, preaching destruction on this huge city within 40 days. Immediately the king and whole city repented, fasting and clothing themselves in sackcloth, so the Lord relented and spared the city. That divine mercy angered Jonah to no end, he wished to die as he was ashamed that Nineveh was spared. He waited outside the city to see what happened. The Lord made a miracle plant that gave him shadow, which rejoiced Jonah, but when the morning a worm destroyed the plant Jonah again wished to die. He explained the Lord that he was very angry, but the Lord argued with him that a great city full of people was worth more than a plant.
A strange story but prophets are no strangers to miracles, so why call it a satire, what is ‘wrong’ with it? Actually a lot. First, it is shock full of miracles: calming the sea by sacrifice, three days in a fish, immediate repentance of Assyrians (of all people!), a miracle plant, etc. Then many of the details are ludicrous: the ship ‘thinks it would break’ (this has disappeared in most translations), the city is about 90 km x 90 km (three day’s journey in all directions), housing 120.00 people ‘who cannot discern between their right hand and their left’, and to cap it all, the king decided that also the animals of the city have to repent, fast and put on sackcloth, and they actually did!
The actual plan of Nineveh, about 15 km2, 1/150th of the size mentioned in the tale

The actual plan of Nineveh, about 15 km2, about 1/150th of the size mentioned in the satire

All this is the very amusing setting for a prophet who does not behave at all like a proper prophet should: he disobeys the Lord, goes West instead of East, remains asleep during the storm, and finally is angry because he so wanted to destroy a major city, but the Lord did not let him do it. A disobedient, mute, quirky and sullen prophet, who in actual fact was more successful than any of his colleagues, as he against his wish converts a world city after the shortest sermon ever, of any prophet, then and now: ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’, that is all. He builds a shelter, and then sits brooding in the shadow of the plant and wants to die when it disappears. He, in fact, continuously wants to die in the story rather than do what the Lord demands. At the start of the tale, even the gentile sailors are more pious and understand the Lord better than the prophet. Jonah, in short, is the caricature of a prophet.
Like Balaam’s ass-story, this is not historical but hysterical. For the people for whom this story was written, the third voice, the satirical tone must have been evident. That is was not a prophet’s book must have been crystal clear to them, as those are always messages from a prophet, not a story about a prophet (compare Jonah with all other prophetic books in the OT, and the difference is evident). If the book is a satire, then what or who does it satirize? Balaam’s ass satirized a foreign prophet because he was an embarrassment for later writers (probably Deuteronomist): they could not deny his presence nor his prophethood, so they made him look ridiculous. Jonah is another matter; in 2 Kings 14:25 Jonah is mentioned but without any reference to this story, and there is ample internal reason to posit the Book of Jonah much later than the reign of Jehoash in Israel, in fact some three centuries later in the 6th or 5th century BC. Indeed, the Book of Jonah sits well in the Second Temple period, after the return from Exile, at a time when hosts of prophets, self-claimed or called, manifested themselves, thinking very highly of themselves, acting as authority figures with or without any legitimacy. The Book of Jonah probably is not directly against one specific ‘prophet’, but more against the type, that had become a stereotype at that day and age.
One of the many, actually quite funny, images that the tale has generated

One of the many, actually quite funny, images that the tale has generated

For later ages the butt of the satire has disappeared as times had changed, and canonizers of the Old Testament, another three centuries later, read it as a parable, using the beautiful prayer as a lead (which, when read closely, does not tally at all with Jonah’s situation inside the fish), or the great declaration of mercy: … ‘for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, One who relents from doing harm’ (Jonah 4: 2b). The Mishnah commentaries from shortly after that time attest to this interpretation. But for them, too, the message was more important than any ‘historicity’. Also when Jesus referred to the ‘sign of Jonah’ he used the storyline as a symbol for his death, not any historic event.
So we can, I think, stop wondering how a fish can keep a person alive, why the Assyrians never mentioned anything about a monumental mass conversion, how Nineveh could be 8100 km2, why a prophet would stimulate the great abomination of human sacrifice etc. We do not recognize the satire any longer because we do not have this kind of ‘prophet’ any longer, but we surely can draw other kinds of lessons from the satire. With the Rabbinic scholars we can read it as a parable. First, the lesson of universalism: the gospel is for everyone, even for those Assyrians, even for people who ‘cannot discern between their right hand and their left’ ( the last line of the book). Second, God’s mercy on the basis of repentance, though we leave out being gobbled up first by animals, I think. Third, the importance of having a prophet, and respecting his call; here the sailors are our example, who tried to save Jonah even when he did not want it himself.
As a prophet Jonah has been an inspiration for great art as well: Michelangelo's Jonah

As a prophet Jonah has been an inspiration for great art as well: Michelangelo’s Jonah

But the satire is still there, and pertains to us as well. The butt of the satire is the self-centered authoritarian, the one who is terribly important in his own eyes, who wants to have all the honor and the glory, who wants to have his hour in the limelight, but does not really measure up to his duties, who does not behave according to his stature, who has little compassion with his lowly fellow men. We do have a lot of those in our age; everyone can make her or his own list. Both media and politics form the main seduction here: the celebs who have little to show but just manage to stay on screen, pick your own. But also political leaders who have betrayed their cause in order to remain in power need to be satirized thoroughly; from my own lifelong interest in Africa I have quite a list…
Among the Dogon masks are serious business, important in their religion. Yet, also in mask rituals, people are satirized; on this photo a mask of a ''seeer', important and yet very funny in his particular dance.

Among the Dogon masks are serious business, important in their religion. Yet, also in mask rituals, people are satirized; on this photo a mask of a ”seeer’, important and yet very funny in his particular dance.

Finally, humor in the Scriptures. Does God laugh? I think He does, quietly, and as discreetly as the humor in the stories of Balaam and Jonah are presented, packed as they are inside a compelling story. (For those, who want scriptural support, read Psalms 70,5; 40,17; 37,13 and Eccl. 3,4). He surely avoids loud laughter, but may very well engage in a soft chuckle. Laughter is the most human of all actions (apes do not laugh, as far as we know, for the rest the differences are small, though I am not so sure about dolphins) so why deny the celestial sphere the most liberating and energizing of all emotions, humor and laughter. Thus, inside the Church, I feel proud of our tradition of Mormon humor, for the ‘Leavening’ as one collection calls it, for the cartoonists, we need and—I hope— also deserve. A General Conference without the audience chuckling at least at some moments, is an opportunity wasted. Our late Dutch GA, elder Jacob De Jager, was an example of humor in talks—I still fondly remember his great talk about people in a balloon—but the memory of Golden Kimball is still a dear and cherished one. We need more of these, always. I look forward towards a hearty celestial laugh with the author of the Book of Jonah, but I especially would enjoy a conversation between him and ‘Golden’, what a treat!
Also white people are satirized: this Dogon mask represents the author, good for a hearthy laugh by all Dogon!

Also white people are satirized: this Dogon mask represents the author, good for a hearthy laugh by all Dogon!

17 comments for “Laughing with the Bible

  1. Cameron N.
    July 6, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    Definitely agree that humor is a good tool used by the Lord. President Monson clearly appreciates it. My wife often has humorous moments of revelation which I interpret as the Lord showing affection for her. For example, she had procrastinated some preparation and turned quickly to the scriptures for a random verse of guidance–she then read “Prepare quickly”

    I love the story of Jonah. Whether literal or metaphorical or both, it teaches so many lessons and i often laugh at parts of it. In particular, ‘doest thou well to be angry for the gourd’ is a powerful lesson that also makes me chuckle. How often do we adults behave as a young child pouting about not getting our way, while ignoring the purpose of our efforts and existence?

  2. July 6, 2014 at 4:17 pm

    I was first introduced to the idea hat Jonah is supposed to be funny, my freshman year at BYU, and I still don’t find it funny. I do appreciate the info that it may have been written to satirize false prophets. If true, let’s work it out of curriculum.

  3. July 6, 2014 at 8:12 pm

    Laughing with the Bible, I think, is ok.

    Like when the trio of visitors tell Abraham that he and Sarah, both getting up there in age will have a baby. I’m sure they thought it funny (maybe).

  4. Travis
    July 6, 2014 at 8:49 pm

    I need a little help on the Psalms references. David refers to himself as poor—is that the subtle humor you meant, since he was a king rolling in wealth? But surely he meant poor in spirit, and with no irony.

  5. ji
    July 6, 2014 at 10:58 pm

    Let’s not work Jonah out of the curriculum yet — the Savior during his mortal ministry made reference to Jonah…

  6. Walter van Beek
    July 7, 2014 at 5:33 am

    Humor is a powerful teaching tool, Much of the humor is a play with words, I think, in the Psalms case, As for Sarah, she was the one that laughed, and was shown wrong, so humor, irony and satire are always two-sided: it is a stick that points to the other, but the other end of the stick is pointing straight at yourself.
    I fully intend to keep Jonah in the curriculum; indeed (#2, 5), The point is to ask the most productive questions to the text. It is not a question of Jonah to be portrayed as a false prophet, because he is as real – and successful – as can be. Mind you: converting a city with one short sentence! But it is a reminder that prophets are human, and that we tend to inflate ourselves when charged with authority, real or not. Do we not have a wonderful text in the D&C starting with: ‘The sad experience …?’
    Jesus did use the Jonah story as well, but mainly as a sign and symbol, being buried and resurrected. No historical accuracy needed here. And a sign and symbol it is, for us as well.
    Walter van Beek

  7. July 7, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    Jonah (whether satirical parable or history) is one of the best antidotes to common religious feelings of self-righteousness and “justified” anger. We need to talk about it more, but get people to stop focusing on the whale issue (thanks kids’ s book, and/or Pinocchio) or history issue, both tangential to its main point.

    I’ve tried to flesh this out and illustrate it in a podcast here, and related posts here and here.

  8. Jennie
    July 7, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    Walter, thanks for this post, especially for spelling out how Jonah can be considered satire.
    Ben S, thanks for the links to your posts and podcast. Can you point me to current commentaries about Jonah that support your ideas about Jonah as satire? I would like to read more.
    Last week at the panel discussion at Zion’s Books in Provo, one of the panelists (Adam? Joe? David?) said they were working on or had published an article on Jonah as satire. Does anyone know of this?
    The panelist also spoke about paying attention to what Jonah prophesied: “Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown.” Not “If you don’t repent, Ninevah shall be overthrown.” The people can only hope that God will change his mind if they repent. When they do repent and Ninevah is saved, Jonah’s prophecy actually fails. The panelist placed this story in a discussion of what we might make of “failed prophecy,” but my notes didn’t capture all of that.

  9. Tiger
    July 7, 2014 at 7:11 pm

    One day I wondered if the scriptures ever depicted Jesus with a sense of humor. As I skimmed through the New Testament, I found a statement uttered by Jesus that literally had me laughing out loud: Matthew 15:10-14. (Verse 14 was the punch line.) Jesus probably wasn’t laughing when he said it, but the imagery is starkly humorous, in my opinion.

  10. Walter van Beek
    July 8, 2014 at 3:39 am

    Thank you Ben for the link and the podcast. And Jennie, good to see that others are busy with it also. The basic text is David Marcus ‘From Balaam to Jonah; Anti-prophetic satire in the Hebrew Bible’, Brown University 1988. The notion ‘anti-prophetic’ has to be interpreted in this title with some -satirical?- caution.
    # Tiger I believe you are absolutely spot on. But do include verse 17 The English and Dutch translations all are made ‘chaste’; it should not read : Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated’ but in stead of’ ‘eliminated’ is actually reads ‘ends up in the loo’.
    These texts are surprisingly ignored in the Church!

  11. July 8, 2014 at 4:34 am

    God without a sense of humor? Inconceivable! Meat? You want meat? Fine… quail to the armpits, enjoy!

  12. John Roberts
    July 8, 2014 at 9:03 am

    Ecclesiastes 3:4 “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance”

    Psalm 2:1-4 “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.”

    Psalm 37:10-13 “For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be: yea, thou shalt diligently consider his place, and it shall not be. But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace. The wicked plotteth against the just, and gnasheth upon him with his teeth. The Lord shall laugh at him: for he seeth that his day is coming.”

  13. James Olsen
    July 8, 2014 at 10:08 am

    Elder F. Enzio Busche in his biography Yearning for the Living God describes the experience of being woken up in the middle of the night to cast a devil out of a missionary. Tired, groggy, and confronted with an experience he’d never before encountered, he felt anxiety and fear creeping over him. He then describes that crucial moment of opening himself to God and allowing the Spirit and love to flood his soul. At that point, he says the whole scene – a very anxious gathering of the mission president, his wife, several missionaries – became humorous. He literally felt like he was laughing inside. For him this was a critical lesson: humor is of God. Satan has no sense of humor. And humor can be a powerful tool in helping us to achieve a shift in perspective that allows us to partner with God rather than succumb to fear.

  14. Tiger
    July 8, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    #10 Walter, Lol! (My mission was in England, so I understood that perfectly.)

  15. July 8, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Jennie, on a shorter more popular level, see the treatment by Stephen McKenzie in How to Read the Bible: History, Prophecy, Literature–Why Modern Readers Need to Know the Difference and What It Means for Faith Today
    . It’s a fairly common interpretation. The JPS Torah Commentary volume on Jonah covers it as well, though ultimately finding it unsatisfactory as an overall genre. (As I recall, it doesn’t settle on one, only points out the problems with all the proposals.) I’m not at my house/library, so that’s the best I can do for now.

  16. a.
    July 9, 2014 at 2:57 am

    The world is not complete without you putting Balaam’s ass in a blogpost, lesson or talk… You managed it again! ;-)

  17. Walter van Beek
    July 9, 2014 at 3:26 am

    Good for you Tiger, to learn from the English. Thanks Ben for the reference on McKenzie – indeed, I was not strolling far from accepted wisdom here – and John Roberts for the texts. Yes, #16, a, I hope to squeeze in Balaam’s ass whenever I can, but the next blogs will be about different topics. The main point sits well with The Gods that Weeps, Terryl Givens’ most recent book.

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