Sunday, 17 January 2010

Humour in the Bible (3)

The Book of Jonah is the funniest book in the scriptures.  The entire tale is a set-up.

1. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against it.  Jonah isn’t interested in this job prospect.  He runs away from God.

2.Jonah boards a ship bound for Tarshish.  God creates a storm which almost sinks the ship. The ship’s captain awakens Jonah, and tells him to call upon his god.

3.The crew casts lots to discover which person should be held accountable for the storm.  The lot fell on Jonah.  He fesses up that he is running away from God, and tells the crew to throw him overboard.

4. That being done, the storm ends.  It’s not the end of Jonah.  The Lord made a great fish to swallow him.  Jonah is in the belly of the fish for three days.

5. Jonah prays in the belly of the fish.  The fish vomits Jonah up on to dry land. God again offers him the Nineveh gig.

6. Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches judgment.  Led by the King of Nineveh the people repent.

7. God changes his mind and decides not to destroy Nineveh.  Jonah throws a hissy fit and whines at God for sparing Nineveh.

8. Jonah leaves the city and sits down to see what would happen. God makes a special big plant to shelter Jonah.  Jonah is happy.

9. God makes a special worm to attack the plant, which dies. Jonah is unhappy.  He wants to die. He is sad that the plant died.

10. God asks Jonah “if you can be sad over the death of a plant, why can’t you understand that I would be sad if I’d had to destroy Nineveh.

It’s all so implausible, and that’s what produces the comedic effect.

Literalists miss the meaning of the story in their insistence that it all truly happened just as the book says it did.  They ooh and aah about the miracle of the fish, and insist that Jonah must have been in the belly of the fish for three days, because “the bible says so”.

That literal reading fails to see the great humour of the book.

Those of us who treasure it as a bit of biblical fiction can giggle with glee at the humour, and understand that it’s all a satire which is directed against the notion that God only cares for people of one particular religion.

We are quite content to assert that the book of Jonah is entirely a work of fiction, for we understand that fiction is a most wonderfully subtle way of telling us things that are profoundly true.

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