How do we know when something is humorous? What cues and markers tell us that something is meant to be funny?
Humor, particularly in older works, can be particularly difficult to detect. All one has to do is watch an older comedic movie or television show, even one from a few years ago, to understand that what strikes one generation as funny, may not hit home with another. In sitcoms like Seinfeld or Friends, for example, some of the jokes remain remarkably relevant, while others now make us uncomfortable or are even unrecognizable. The familiar laugh track helps to cue the audience that the something was intended to be amusing. Yet, what may have been funny twenty years ago does not always remain so, and we may also find ourselves laughing out of cue. How much more difficult is it to detect humor in a text that was authored thousands of years ago?
The book of Jonah is an ideal text to ask such questions of. Many scholars today consider this ancient text to possess humorous qualities. Among its more comedic episodes are a giant fish swallowing a runaway prophet, cattle in mourning, and a plant with the ability to grow large enough to provide shade within a day. More particularly, much of what Jonah does throughout the book can be plausibly read as funny. For example, when Jonah flees from God in the opening chapter after being commanded to go prophecy to the notoriously evil city of Nineveh, he flees by sea (Jonah 1:2). Yet only a few verses later, Jonah openly declares to his shipmates that he is fleeing from “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9, emphasis added). Modern scholars suggest the incongruity between Jonah’s actions and words have a comic effect. Later in the story, the Ninevite king dramatically rises from his throne and declares everyone to repent, fast, and put on ashes and sackcloth, a common mourning practice in the ancient Near East; indeed, even the animals fast and put on mourning clothes (a far less common practice, Jonah 3:8)! For modern scholars, these and other extraordinary events characterize the book as humorous, sometimes formally placing Jonah within the genres of satire or parody.
Yet, early interpretations of Jonah that read the text as humorous are few and far between. It was not until the modern period that we see the rise of such readings as normative. As late as the eighteenth century, political philosopher and revolutionary Thomas Paine describes Jonah as “a fit story for ridicule, if it was written to be believed.” In particular, Paine takes issue with the possibility of miracles and accounts for their existence in Jonah in order “to render the belief of miracles ridiculous, by outdoing miracles, as Don Quixote outdid chivalry.” In other words, the miracles in Jonah are so preposterous that the very concept of miracles is put into question. While Paine does not entirely understand the book as humorous, he does highlight the same elements contemporary biblical scholars recognize as constituting humor. Additionally, he writes that if the book was intended to be believed, it would be fit for laughter. Paine’s criticism begs the question: is the book of Jonah humorous because our modern sensibilities find certain elements absurd, or was the book originally intended to be humorous?
While many scholars interpret Jonah through a comedic lens, there are other contemporary scholars who question whether genres like parody, comedy, or farce were a part of ancient Israelite literature, much less the Bible. They suggest, moreover, that formal categories of satire or parody do not quite fit the book of Jonah, since it is not clear who is being satirized or parodied—Jonah, the sailors, the king, or all three? Understanding Jonah as humorous significantly alters how we understand the purpose of the book and its meaning. Yet without a laugh track, how can we be sure that we are genuinely detecting humor in this ancient text?