Defining humour is very difficult or impossible. 1  So, a fortiori, defining “black humour” must be doubly impossible. Even delineating the boundaries of “black humour” is difficult. The coiner of the phrase, the surrealist André Breton,2  evidently saw it as anarchist and in a sense negative, pointing out the absurd and pretentious, but not offering any more constructive move.3 Yet Breton could write with approval:
[t]he subject has been handled with rare precision by Léon Pierre-Quint, who in Le Comte de Lautréamont et Dieu presents humor as a way of affirming, above and beyond “the absolute revolt of adolescence and the internal revolt of adulthood,” a superior revolt of the mind.

Revolt, though it must begin with rejection of something can move towards its replacement with something different. Thus black humour might point up and reject the weakness and failings of religion. Think of the ending of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Singing “always look on the bright side of life” during a crucifixion is surely black humour by anyone’s standard. But it is possible, for the viewer (whether or not the pythons encouraged this step) to use the recognition of absurdity and the emptiness of some religious ideas to generate a purer faith. If this is so then even a committed religionist can expect to find black humour in Scripture. Especially among the prophets.

Dry reeds (© Copyright Steve Daniels and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

I’ve been doing a series of podcasts seeking humour in every book of the Hebrew Bible. Twice I have disagreed with Robert Carroll, a friend and teacher. Who wrote an article on humour in the prophets.4

Bob Carroll had a lively and mischievous sense of humour, which delighted in pricking the balloons which we inflate around many ideas that we hold important. Often Bob’s speaking fitted the descriptive “black humour”. Yet, in his article he consistently denies its presence “among the prophets”.
I do wonder what is going on. I watched The Life of Brian with Bob and others in Glasgow when it first came out. We both recognised and enjoyed the black humour. Why could he not see it in Hosea? (I explore one example, drawn from Bob’s own article in my podcast Humour in the Bible: book 28: Hosea.)
Was Bob right to write:

Brilliant, almost Shakespearian wordcraft; gives the book of Hosea a linguistic quality which is not well served by seeking humour in it. No doubt there are a few smiles to be had from the book but its real power and appeal lie elsewhere.5

Concerning Hosea 13, he wrote:
This is the irony of the gap between pretensions and reality, and the incongruity may be seen by some readers as not lacking in humour. The biting sarcasm of ‘Ephraim herds the wind’ (12.1) or ‘they kiss calves’ (13.2) can be construed as humorous observations on the folly of social and political practices. Religious sacrifices and ceremonies conducted in the presence of skilfully made idols may easily be satirized by the simple description ‘they kiss calves’, and this simple but devastating critique is not without its humorous aspect. But trawling the minor prophets with nets designed to trap humour is a wearisome activity, especially when the poetry of the collections sparkles with other far more obvious features.
But is that all? As well as the beauty and power of the language, the ambiguity of “according to their understanding” in v.2 – does it mean they make the idols as well as they can, or that they understand this melting of metal as a “libation”? massekem can clearly refer to molten metal or to a libation… the biting irony that follows too seems to me blackly humorous. But not to Carroll.
What do you think? Is black humour also among the prophets?
  1. Depending on your credulity or stringency []
  2. Breton, André, and Mark Polizzotti. Anthology of black humor. City Lights Books, 1997. []
  3. André Breton, “The Lightning Rod” especially p.xiv. []
  4. Carroll, Robert P. ‘Is Humour among the Prophets’. Pages 169–189 in On humour and the comic in the Hebrew Bible. Edited by Yehuda T. Radday and Athalya Brenner. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1990. []
  5. Carroll, “Humour”, 180. []