Archive for the ‘Prophets’ Category

Humour in the Bible 2.2: Humour in narrative texts – Telling funny events

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The book of Jonah is interesting in a number of ways, not least how it continually subverts our expectations. It is found among the prophetic books (in both Hebrew and Greek canons) yet contains only five words that we could classify as prophetic speech. Jonah son of Amittai appears to be a known and true prophet (from 2 Kings 14:25) yet his first action on receiving an instruction to preach from Yahweh is to run in the opposite direction. The prophet regularly speaks sound theology, usually using a pastiche of quotations from other biblical texts, yet thus he puts himself in conflict with Yahweh at every turn of the story.

Not only does the narrative subvert expectations, but it displays many of our criteria, suggesting that we should expect to find humour here:

  • incongruity – see above
  • lighthearted mood – not found
  • surprise – as well as the surprise generated by the shocking incongruities of the prophet’s behaviour, we are also surprised by the size of everything (“big” gadol is used more often per 100 words in Jonah than in any other Bible book) 1 and by unlikely events e.g. an eloquent prayer of thanksgiving “from the belly of the fish” (Jonah 2:1) a plant that grows in a night to provide shade (Jonah 4:10)
  • ingenuity- Yahweh, the God of heaven who made sea and dry land (Jonah 1:9) shows considerable ingenuity in his efforts at the end of chapter 4 to get his prophet to understand that his mercy is as justifiable as it is generous
  • inelasticity – despite the divine persuasive efforts Jonah remains stubbornly determined that death is preferable to mercy
  • puncturing pretension- Jonah’s human pretension to “know better” than the creator?
  • hyperbole – fish swallows man (Jonah 1:17), animals fasting in sackcloth (Jonah 3:7)…

Despite this powerful concentration of cues that the text is intended to be humorous, there is little in fact in the telling that is funny. The remarks above that are “funny” are mine, not from the text of Jonah. The text does not picture Jonah with fish guts draped around him, though Jonah comes close to this in his prayer (Jonah 2:5), we find animals in sackcloth humorous, the text merely implies this picture rather than drawing it. If Jonah’s repeated death-wish is funny (as students invariably found it when I have read those passages) it has more to do with the tone of voice of the reader than the tone of the words.

The telling of Jonah is not humorous, the narration is “straight”. Yet the events described move from melodrama to bathos. In chapter 1, a gallant Jonah is willing to place his life in jeopardy to save the lives of some pagan sailors he has only just met, and is thrown into the stormy sea. A few verses later he is sufficiently comfortably lodged in the belly of the fish that he can pray a prayer that is full of deep irony (which “Jonah”2 cannot have intended, but which the narrator can hardly have missed. For example:

v.3 ” You [Yahweh] cast me into the deep…” Jonah was thus cast because he disobeyed instructions from Yahweh that did not necessitate a sea voyage

v.4 “I am driven away from your sight…” Jonah was not driven, but ran

v.8 “Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty…” Jonah, who (Jonah 1:9) worships Yahweh has forsaken loyalty, while the idol worshipers are now busy offering sacrifices to the one true God (Jonah 1:16)

Although not told in a humorous way, the events are humorous, for example the repentance that implicates animals in sackcloth (even if forcing them to fast is cruelty).

In Jonah (as in some other biblical narratives)3 the telling is deadpan, but the events told are humorous.

  1. At 1.4 per 100 this is twice the next book, Haggai, which has 0.68 per 100. []
  2. The character. []
  3. For example the death of Eglon. []

Digital commentary for the 21st C

At the conference I attended in Sydney recently one of the stimulating conversations I enjoyed was around ways to present Bible commentary in a digital medium for non-specialist readers in the 21st C. The Amos – Hypertext Bible Commentary was already beginning to show its age even when it was first published in a stable peer-reviewed edition.

[The pictures and other design elements were planned for a 800×600 screen, and mobile phones were not considered as a delivery system.]

Move forward a decade and responsive design (that will work on both hires screens and on portable devices) seems basic, and indeed one must envisage mobile devices as most likely the hardware of choice for accessing such a work.

This leads to the interesting possibility of packaging the commentaries as apps, and thus potentially breaks the funding barrier. Few people in the developed world or even middle class people elsewhere would balk at spending a couple of dollars for a Bible commentary.

The other interesting idea came from a presentation on visualising biblical studies ideas, and the thought that it would be nice to have a drill down menu that worked a bit like Prezi.

I like the idea, but am having trouble “seeing” how it might work. The Prezi below is my attempt to play with this concept… What advantages, disadvantages, alternatives, possibilities etc. do you see?

Camouflage Equivalence: another example

Back in April I somehow missed Bryan Bibb’s interesting post Camouflage Equivalence1 it focuses on places where translators:

…seek to obscure rather than reveal the meaning of the original. He [Robinson] defines the term as “rearranging the semantic elements of the original… in a plausible way that disguises their dynamic meaning” (p. 6).

The idea, like the term used to describe it is really helpful. It neatly describes those places where translators soften the offense inherent in Scripture. The NIV regularly does this when a more “literal” translation leads to theological difficulties. One example is the rendering of ha’almah in Is 7:14 as “virgin”. Whether ‘almah can carry this meaning is at least debatable. As far as I can see the logic of Isaiah’s speech however demands a present focus and a translation like “young woman”. NIV has exercised camouflage equivalence.

I am less convinced by Bryan’s example. He claims that the ambiguous language (full of sexual double entendres) in Ruth 3 contains at least one such camouflage equivalence translation in almost all English Bibles. “Uncover his feet” in Ruth 3:4 is (Bryan thinks evidently, I’d say possibly) a euphemism. While most translations diminish the sexual tension in Ruth 3, where there are a string of words and phrases like this one that might carry sexual connotations, sometimes a foot is just a foot! The whole point (I think) of using that concatenation of ambiguous, possibly sexual, terms in Ruth 3 is surely to remain ambiguous. To uncover what the text deliberately leaves veiled but suggested is as “bad” as to cover what the text reveals…. So, “uncover his feet” (NIV, NAS, NRSV) gets it right neither camouflage, nor sex for the sake of shocking the horses, but a good serviceable translation.

On the other hand in Psalm 90:2 common translations are split, some opt for camouflage equivalence:

NET Psalm 90:2 Even before the mountains came into existence, or you brought the world into being, you were the eternal God.
NRS Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

While others dare to reveal the clear implication of the Hebrew:

NAS Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were born, Or Thou didst give birth to the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God.
NIV Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

For both verbs yalad and hul speak of procreation and birthing, and though yalad might refer to the father’s role hul cannot, but clearly refers to birthing.

  1. I had also missed Douglas Robinson’s book, Translation and the Problem of Sway, from which he apparently got the fine phrase. []

Getting Bible Commentaries without a library

A few years back I posted a video showing how to get to the relevant pages of a Bible commentary using Google Books. Since then the video hosting service I used has removed the video, and Google has changed their interface. So, here is a renewed one.

What this means is that any serious Bible student can get at the latest and best biblical studies without a library and from wherever they happen to be.

Commentaries are the lifeblood of serious everyday Bible Study, as they present the results of extensive reading packaged and simplified.

Publications from 2013

I’m not sure I listed these here, and I do want to brag about the quantity, I’ll leave you to judge the quality ;)

2013

“The Troubling Theology of Jeremiah” In Global Perspectives on the Old Testament, edited by Mark Roncace and Joseph Weaver. . Pearson Education, 2013.

“A Masculine Reading of the Book of Esther” In Global Perspectives on the Old Testament, edited by Mark Roncace and Joseph Weaver. . Pearson Education, 2013.

“The Book of Amos and the Day of Yhwh.” Colloquium 45, no. 2 (2013): 154–169

Andrew T. Abernethy, Mark G. Brett, Tim Bulkeley, Tim Meadowcroft, ed. Isaiah and Imperial Context: The Book of Isaiah in the Times of Empire. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013.

“Living in the Empire: What Purposes Do Assertions of Divine Sovereignty Serve in Isaiah?” In Isaiah and Imperial Context: The Book of Isaiah in the Times of Empire, edited by Andrew T. Abernethy, Mark G. Brett, Tim Bulkeley, Tim Meadowcroft. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013.

Bier, Miriam J., and Tim Bulkeley, eds. Spiritual Complaint: Theology and Practice of Lament. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013.

“Does Jeremiah Confess, Lament, or Complain? Three Attitudes Towards Wrong.” In Spiritual Complaint: Theology and Practice of Lament, edited by Miriam J. Bier and Tim Bulkeley. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013.

Launching two books

Twin colloquia in 2011, held only days apart, gave birth to twin books, only weeks apart in 2013. My task at the launch last night was to bridge between the two. The model of a small, sociable gathering of scholars at various stages of their careers around a focused topic which leads (after a period of editing and polishing) to the publication of a book has been very productive for Laidlaw and Carey with several such works appearing over the last few years.

Spiritual Complaint

We live in a society that has chosen only to see what is desirable. The sick and disabled are hidden away from public sight in hospitals. Poverty, famine and epidemic are kept at bay and viewed through glass on screens of our choosing or through the windows of the vehicles in which we travel. Lament is privatised, locked away behind closed doors, or in hearts that are carefully cloistered from the view of others. Except on rare occasions when lament briefly invades the public sphere and the pain or loss are experienced (perhaps vicariously) by many in the public tragedies that Elizabeth Boase, Steve Taylor and Stephen Garner explored in the book Spiritual Complaint. Several contributors to this volume considered what has been called the “loss of lament”. For this privatising of lament happens even in church, and it is a loss.

In a similar way our society, that worships success and consumption, cannot deal well with lament’s sibling, complaint. To complain is seen as enmity. In church, ideologies which reduce the maker of heaven and earth to a convenient charm pulled out and stroked when help is needed, like a superior sort of rabbit’s foot, and theologies which urge us to “name it and claim it”, while “marching into the land”, reduce the Mysterium Tremendum to a glorified 24/7 Santa Claus. Yet other, more “liberal”, theologies reduce God to an impotent watcher. Each of these, in their own way, reject complaint – the godlings that we invent must be praised, and their pride might be hurt by complaint.

So, in our world, and in our churches, lament and complaint are hidden away or stifled. What this means is that we have no room also for confession in either of its guises. For if we cannot lament the wrong, and complain – appealing for redress – then neither can we acknowledge (confess) our part in ruining the world. If we cannot bring, before its creator, the pain and suffering endured by creatures, nor complain at the sovereign’s inactivity, how can we truly acknowledge (confess) God’s nature and power?

So the first colloquium was titled Spiritual Complaint. For the movement from recognising wrongness (lament), to demanding that something be done (complaint), till – at the end – we can also acknowledge our part in the wrong, and celebrate the God who is beyond the wrongness (confession), is deeply and fundamentally spiritual.

 

Isaiah and Imperial Context

The second book Isaiah and Imperial Context has a tighter academic focus. Unlike the first it did not blend biblical scholars, pastors, liturgists and practical theologians but gathered only scholars working on the prophetic books of the Old Testament.

This book also however seeks to open a window on the sad and suffering world we inhabit. As we learn to recognise and perhaps heal the wounds of past empires, we are also learning to recognise, and must seek to heal, the wounds caused by present-day imperialism. If those glass panels keep lament safely at bay, they also give us a view of the otherwise distant bombs, drones and rioting crowds that are the signs of empire.

 

The book of Isaiah with its so distinct and different imperial contexts, as the book Isaiah and Imperial Context seeks to reveal, offers resources for life and spirituality in a post-colonial and yet at the same time newly imperial world.

Christian thinking on gay issues

The series is not finished yet, so I can recommend it without grinding any axes, but for any Christian wanting to work out more clearly where they stand on any or all of the moral and theological issues surrounding LGBT people and activities this series of posts1 by Preston Sprinkle offers an excellent resource. The writing is sympathetic, gentle and leavened with a touch of humour. His conclusions may not be mine2 but I am enjoying3 the journey and appreciate the tone of the series so far.

  1. Thinking towards a book :) []
  2. Who knows? Neither of us seem to have completely made up our minds yet! []
  3. If that, as they say, is the right word. []

Dumb and dumber, or how not to use a blog

I’ve been unusually quiet here for a while now for two reasons.

The first is dumb. Something has “broken” this installation of WordPress and half the editing features don’t work. I have to turn off JavaScript, and save the post, to change from Visual to Text mode, but neither way will “Add Media” work, I have to FTP and handcode to get pictures… all that makes blogging hard work. But I’m dumb, I haven’t made the time to either start again (like I did in 2009) so I suffer through :(

The second reason is dumber! I have been busy writing, two deadlines loomed. One of them was a chapter about the genre of the prophetic books.1 Somehow, being busy and having a looming deadline I did not do the sensible thing and post here (much) about the ideas.

That was dumber, because I am not longer in daily contact with scholars from other disciplines in a real common room. Thus I did not hear a physical New Testament colleague say ftf: “That’s a bit like the discussions around the topic of the genre of the gospels.” That piece of wisdom only hit this morning, when I saw that Euangelion Kata Markon had posted a kind notice (HT James McGrath) to my 5 minute Bible podcasts on introducing genre and prose & poetry.

As I wrote in a comment there:

I am now kicking myself. Disciplinary boundaries so often do us a disservice! I should have thought of the probability that there was discussion of the nature of the genre of the gospels. But I didn’t, and I don’t sit regularly in a scholarly common room, so no one pointed it out to me as I wrote my article on the genre of the prophetic books.. I really should have blogged it as I wrote, then someone would have pointed to your stuff and I’d have been able to weave those discussions into mine, but I submitted the article on Monday :(

  1. Basically I am arguing that, rather than any other genre description like “career biography”, “sayings collection” or even “presentation of a prophet” , it is helpful to think of them as “prophetic fictions”. []

Describing the genre of prophetic books

I have finished a first draft of a chapter (for a forthcoming book) in which I seek to defend and illustrate my idea that the genre of prophetic books might best be understood as “prophetic fictions”. (Using “fiction” as I think Alter does to signal a concern for the artistry of presentation rather than as a synonym for “untrue” ;)

I think this idea works several attempts to define the genre together keeping (some of) the best features of each, I also believe it has interpretative power.

BUT I no longer have colleagues down the corridor whom I can bully into reading and criticising my work :( If you would be willing to read nearly 5,500 words and to comment on the flow of the argument or other features that might help me sharpen or improve the chapter I would be really grateful. I am not so much after specialist knowledge as help strengthening the presentation of the ideas.