Humour in the Bible 2.1: Humour in narrative texts – Introduction

Beginning by considering humour in narrative texts is an attempt to deal with what is probably the most straightforward case first. In everyday life we perceive certain events as funny. When recounting such events we tell them in ways that highlight their humour.1 There is little or no difference between the manner of such recounting if the event is real or fictional.2

However, different cultures regard different sorts of event as differently humorous. Translation can also introduce unintended humour, for example “false friends” often cause problems. When, pen manufacturer, Parker entered the Mexican market, its regular advertisements claimed their pens “won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” Rendering this as”No te embarazará chorreándose en tu bolsillo“, meant they were actually saying something like “It won’t leak in your pocket and get you pregnant”.3 So, it is not enough that a modern reader finds an event in a biblical narrative funny, we need also some reassurance that this humour was intended, or might have been recognised by the ancient audience. Thus even in spotting possible narrative humour we need to establish that several of the criteria discussed in the previous section are present.

Humour in narrative texts is potentially of two kinds:

  • Telling events which are considered humorous (I will claim below that several of the events described in the book of Jonah are examples)
  • While the events themselves may not be funny they can be told in ways that are humorous (the killing of Eglon by Ehud is an example discussed below)

Rather like the difference between irony by a speaker and “dramatic irony“, humour in narratives may also be either recognised, or not recognised, by characters in that narrative:

  • Both centenarian Abraham (Gen 17:17) and Sarah (Gen 18:12) spot humour in God’s announcement that they will have a child. That this laughter is not the sign of some other emotion like sadness4 is clear from the presence of several of our criteria in this text (see future post).
  • However Jonah never seems aware of the humour in his situations (though perhaps God does, which is at least a possible understanding of his last word in 4:11).
  1. Almost always – except when for some other rhetorical or social purpose we wish to deny the humorous nature of the event. For example, slipping on a banana skin is widely thought to be funny, however if a distinguished person so slipped, or if the person injured themself, we might wish to recount the event in a “straight” and non-humorous way. []
  2. Except, probably, that the author of a fictional narrative will probably feel free to use “larger than life” descriptions and the author of a factual narrative of a humorous event is likely to feel constrained to report the facts accurately as they know them. []
  3. Sandy Serva, Language Translations for Global Research, 26, 1, 2003, 51.

    There are many such stories, not all of them true, like the tale that GM had trouble selling the Nova in Spanish speaking countries, because the name sounds like “won’t go”, which is debunked nicely at Snopes. []

  4. See Culturalsavvy for laughter as a sign of sadness in Japan. []

One comment on “Humour in the Bible 2.1: Humour in narrative texts – Introduction

  1. Bob MacDonald

    Ah, the picture is of a banana peel and I thought it was a body walking uphill on a steep slope. You are definitely walking uphill, dear friend. But nonetheless, I will be following you as I pursue my translation project.