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

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. []