Saturday, January 30, 2021

Mining the Minors: Jonah (19)

In the last five months I have written slightly under 26,000 words and 19 blog posts about the book of Jonah. That’s less than many, but more than most. Needless to say, I take the story of the rebel Israelite prophet very seriously indeed. Jesus viewed it as historical, and that seems to me the way it ought to be regarded.

Nowadays we are being told Jonah is actually a comedy. My idea of comedy basically begins and ends with Dick Van Dyke and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Jonah most definitely is not in that vein at all.

So did I miss the boat, so to speak? Is laughter really the best medicine? While the view of Jonah as satire, parody or farce is not common in the churches in which I normally circulate, a few liberal Bible scholars with degrees and big reputations have written to that effect, and we should probably take at least take a few paragraphs to consider their position.

Recent Theories

The academic discussion of humor in the book of Jonah seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. In her paper “Rethinking Humour in the Book of Jonah: Tragic Laughter as Resistance in the Context of Trauma”, L. Julianna Claassens inventories those writers who make the case for it: John A. Miles, Jr. (1975), John C. Holbert (1981), J. William Whedbee (1998), Yvonne Sherwood (1998), and most recently, Mark Biddle (2013). I cannot find a scholarly reference to humor in Jonah that is more than 45 years old.

Claassens assumes the validity of much of this scholarship, but theorizes that any humor to be found in Jonah arises out of a sort of psychological defense mechanism against national despair, rather than serving as an example of some heretofore-undiscovered Jewish literary genre. (In fact, Dr. Adele Berlin argues that “genre” is itself an Aristotelian concept, and that there is no reason to assume biblical literature can be “neatly pigeonholed into the slots which are called genres”, a point which, if true, makes much of this discussion moot.) Claassens’ thesis may or may not be valid, but I think before we start theorizing about why there is humor in Jonah, maybe we ought to first try to establish whether it really is there at all.

Jokes, Satires and Parodies

The recency of this important biblical discovery seems to me a little at odds with the way the alleged humor in Jonah is characterized by the aforementioned writers. Those who insist most vigorously that the Hebrew author of Jonah was aiming to be deliberately and repeatedly funny do not credit the man with unusual subtlety of wit. Whedbee calls the book of Jonah a “joke”, Holbert calls it satire, and Miles calls it parody. Fairly strong language, that. And yet Old Testament scholars, Christian, Jewish and secular, have been commenting on the book for more than 2,000 years without drawing particular attention to its drollery or badinage. That’s a strange thing if indeed the book’s humorous qualities are so readily identifiable to modern scholarship.

It is also hard to miss the fact that the later Jonah-as-satire writers all quote each other liberally, probably because only relatively recent and “progressive” scholars think and analyze scripture the way they do. More on that point in a moment.

A Closer Examination

In fact, on closer examination, the case for parody made by Miles, who appears to have started the ball rolling, turns out to be extremely weak. Adele Berlin responded to Miles in this 1976 Jewish Quarterly Review article. While Dr. Berlin does not believe the book of Jonah to be historical, she does examine each of the five cases of alleged parody in Jonah raised by Dr. Miles at some length, and she leaves nothing standing. Miles may say a few useful things along the way, but with respect to humor, he fails to make a single point that sticks.

Holbert, who has been saying the same things about the book of Jonah for forty years, talks about the “cows of Nineveh mooing to God for mercy”, a prophet who has “out Billy Grahamed Billy Graham”, and refers to him “possibly sucking his thumb in desperation”. Holbert’s own writing style is modestly amusing, if you like that sort of thing, but I can’t find a single example of comicality he proposes to have found in the text of Jonah that isn’t obviously read into it by Holbert himself. His solitary reference to Hebrew linguistics has nothing to do with humor.

Whedbee calls Jonah “a caricature of a prophet, whose parody of prophetic words and images intensifies the satirical effect”. I can only speak for myself, but far from finding Jonah a caricature, I find him in myself on a regular basis (as does Holbert, one of the only useful things he says). Jonah, to my mind, is one of the most relatable characters in the entire Old Testament. Apparently comedy is in the eye of the beholder.

Of all the commentators on Jonah who stress its satirical elements, it is Yvonne Sherwood whose erudition is probably to be taken most seriously. But even Hebrew scholars can come up with some very strange notions. For example, Sherwood writes, “The ship, fearing her wrecking, becomes literally a nervous wreck.” But it should be perfectly obvious Jonah 1:4 says nothing of the sort. Sherwood’s attribution of emotional incontinence to an inanimate object (the ship) is a commonplace anthropomorphism, not dissimilar to when we describe torrential rain with poetic language like “The heavens wept”. The Hebrew language, and therefore the Bible, is rife with anthropomorphisms, and such turns of phrase need not be intentionally comic at all. Moreover, the punnish humor Sherwood finds in the verse hinges on an English idiom (“nervous wreck”), not a Hebrew one.

Lastly, Mark Biddle writes, “The image of cows fasting, clad in sackcloth, sitting on the ash heap, repenting, and praying to God is the very best definition of absurd comic incongruity.” This only works until you go and read the actual verses from which Biddle fashions his high comedy (Jonah 3:7-8), and you realize it is not the writer of Jonah’s description of what happened, but rather an order given by the king of Nineveh to his people. The comedy is in Biddle’s fevered imagination. It is simply not there in the narrative.

Pen to Parchment

In summary then, it should be obvious that I have not been able to review every example of alleged humor in the book of Jonah, as the combined academic musings on the subject are hundreds of pages long and prohibitively expensive to acquire (and, in Sherwood’s case at least, virtually incomprehensible to the layman). So perhaps there exists evidence of intentional comedy in Jonah out there in the world of scholarship that I have yet to encounter. But what I have seen put forth to date (which should, if the academic careers of the critics mean anything to them, be the very best examples of alleged comedy available to make their case) turns out to be remarkably unconvincing. The examples of humor offered for our consideration are either unfunny or absent from the text entirely.

Let me concede that the Holy Spirit of God moved men of vastly different dispositions to put pen to parchment for our benefit, and their personalities often leap out at us from the pages of scripture. You will never confuse James with Luke, Paul with John, or even Moses with Solomon. It is not unlikely that the writer of Jonah enjoyed poetic language, clever metaphors and vivid imagery. He wrote with evident gusto and flourish. Nevertheless, there is a distinction to be made between a historian who tells his story expressively, and a humorist using as his canvas a scenario he has invented from whole cloth.

I also cannot help but notice that the higher critics who view Jonah as satire have another trait in common: almost all make it evident they view the book as fictional. For example, John Holbert writes:
“I have loved the book of Jonah from the first time I read it. It never crossed my mind that it might have a shred of historical truth in it.”
Well, yes, that certainly makes a point. Basically, if Holbert believes in the inspiration of scripture, it is not quite in the same sense some of our readers might. And that goes a long way toward explaining any modern scholarly propensity to read the book of Jonah as humorous. If you have ruled out the miraculous by default, then it’s very difficult to see the story of Jonah as much more than a neat, fantastical tale with a moral. In many cases, the humor Jonah’s critics enjoy in the book is not a Bible student’s appreciative chuckle over a clever bit of wordplay, but rather a derisive snicker of unbelief.

The Last Word

I’ll let Adele Berlin have the last word:
“Jewish tradition regards the Book of Jonah with such reverence that it is read at the afternoon service of the Day of Atonement, hardly the appropriate occasion for a parody of the Bible.”
I can’t help but agree with her. I suspect the sudden appearance of jokes, satire and parody in the text of Jonah after all these centuries has far more to do with the presuppositions of the modern academic than with the intentions of the ancient writer.

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