The Beauty of Hebrew Poetry: Irony, Comedy, and Ambiguity in the Old Testament

I am writing this in response to the severe criticism the Old Testament has received both in the past (e.g., Marcion of Sinope) and in the present. My modest interest is to look at some aspects of the Hebrew text from a purely literary perspective, examining the sheer beauty of its composition, irony, humor and comedy, use of double entendres, etc.—in other words, to be blunt, I am going to present a different perspective on the Old Testament. Instead of regurgitating all of the nasty remarks made about its “evil” God, I want to present what the public at large may never have had presented to them. My presentation, I hope, will serve as an atoning sacrifice burning to illuminate the Hebrew text in a positive light. I must warn the reader ahead of time: the Old Testament may appear a bit more comical and may be taken less seriously once this information is digested.

            The Hebrew Bible (HB)—the term I will now use in place of Old Testament—has been called many different things. Richard Dawkins recently described its protagonist, YHWH, with a junkyard assemblage of nasty adjectives piled a mile high:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.[1] 

Dawkins does not stand alone in his views. In the second-century, the arch-heretic Marcion of Sinope argued that the God of the HB was an evil creator “god.”[2] Summarizing Marcion’s views of YHWH and the Hebrew Bible, Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) wrote:

“[F]or Marcion this stupid and wretched world, teeming with vermin, this miserable hole, was only an object of contempt, it is Marcion’s most derogatory criticism of the creator of the world when he repeatedly identified him with the world or in his exegeses substituted him for the world, equating the two.”[3]

Marcion notoriously went on to call human beings, the epitome of YHWH’s creation, “flesh stuffed with dung.”[4] Even in our own times, the famous philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, in describing the contents of the Bible, said “The total absence of humour from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all of literature.”[5] Fortunately for us, Whitehead cited no evidence or support from the Bible for his ignorant comment (in other words, this was his mere—contagiously wrong—opinion). In stark contrast, the philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard remarked, “Humor [is] intrinsic to Christianity” and, therefore, as Thomas C. Oden says, summarizing Kierkegaard’s views, “In the Kingdom of God, everything is comically upside down.”[6] According to Kierkegaard, one needs to ignore the philosophers and the “assistant professors” anyways; they are human beings “devoid of comic power.”[7] The professor, unable to comprehend humor in life and in the Bible, spends time doing nothing but writing “on paper and mistakes this for existence”[8] anyhow. Therefore, “[a]ll is phony—so let us laugh.”[9] Clearly, Kierkegaard found the Christian Bible (Hebrew Bible included) as being comical.

            In light of the previous comments made by famous people throughout the centuries—from theologians to philosophers to biologists—one sees how easily the Hebrew Bible has been, both in the past and present, denigrated, misread, misinterpreted, and fatally dismissed. For lack of space and anti-depressant medications, I will not cite the thousand other negative statements about the HB that I have collected and/or have heard throughout the years. Rather, I will dive right into the Hebrew material and attempt to salvage the remains of this “megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent” text. Without further ado—as the curtain rises and the popcorn is passed—I will let the Hebrew text laugh for itself…

The Book of Jonah: A Laughter-Inducing Comedy in Four[10] Parts (Part One)

The book of Jonah is arguably one of the most funniest, ironic tales in the entire HB. In the words of one writer, “The book of Jonah is funny from beginning to end.”[11] The book was most likely written sometime in the fifth or fourth century B.C.[12] There is “remarkable unanimity on the interpretation of the book among Old Testament scholars (a notably quarrelsome lot)” and it is agreed that “the story is fictional.”[13] In more relatable terms, the story is seen by most commentators as a kind of hilarious “parable.”[14] Allow me to set the mood (in a modern way).

            In sum, the story is about a reluctant prophet who gets a wild, late-night call from a guy named YHWH. YHWH tells Jonah to go to a great city named Nineveh and call it to repentance or else… Jonah, apparently with hearing aids not working, sets sail west to Tarshish instead of east to Nineveh. Knowing that YHWH would never destroy the city—as He had promised—Jonah, figuring that the ends justify the means, decided to simply chill while YHWH solved His own problems, with no human intervention. After an intense storm and a hellish stay at a 1-star hotel known as Belly-of-the-Whale, located right under the spa-like waves of the Mediterranean, Jonah gets evacuated via oral fire escape route (not blow-hole escape route, which he personally preferred) onto coastal sand. He thanks YHWH for saving him and decides, to heck with it, I’m going to Nineveh. After coming to Nineveh, he apparently is welcomed by everyone (beasts and flocks included). The king, hearing the message of doom, makes the dogs fast from their dog food and cats from their Meow Mix. After the cats put on sackcloth and refrain from pooping on the Sabbath in their litter box, YHWH relents and accepts the humbling of the entire (literally) nation. Meanwhile, Jonah ran low on his supply of Prozac, an antidepressant which YHWH miraculously had provided to him when Jonah spoke to rocks located in deserts. Once the Prozac went out, Jonah ceased being jolly and headed to the boonies. He sat outside the city of Nineveh and became suicidally depressed. He wanted to die. Then YHWH called upon his friend Jack who ran the local magic beanstalk. Jack grew a beanstalk to protect Jonah overnight. This made Jonah forget his depression. However, cunning as YHWH was, he called in the the snakes from the film Anaconda—they completely wiped out the beanstalk in a single evening. Jonah became depressed again only to have YHWH tell him that the joke was on him; YHWH loved Nineveh and would not destroy the city—for YHWH worked, apparently, for the Humane Society of Nineveh and loved the abundance of animals that it had within its walls. The end.

            While such a recreation of the story of Jonah may sound superficial and wildly inaccurate, the point and comic force of the story is essentially translated into modern American English (all 21st century jargon and culture included). Moreover, I will attempt now to do some justice to my “retelling” of the story. Allow me to examine the actual Hebrew text on a more “serious” note, keeping in mind, however, that the text we are dealing with is actually humorous!

            Like many books in the Bible, there is a certain sense of familiarity that should be felt when the story of Jonah is read or heard; the tale has the “once upon a time” feel to it. In fact, John A. Miles, Jr. in his article Laughing at the Bible: Jonah as Parody points out that Jonah is not merely ironic comedy—it is parody, that is, a text that makes fun of another canonical text (in this case, the “canonical text” would be prophetic literature, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, in the Bible itself). “It is crucial to the functioning of parody that the literary style or styles be laughed at be so standardized as to be immediately recognizable.”[15] The book of Jonah is not only a familiar-sounding genre, it is purposefully making fun of the standard conventions known to the hearers and readers of the tale.

            The first indicator that something odd is going on in Jonah is found right at the beginning. The book is allegedly about a word of YHWH that comes to “Jonah the son of Amittai” (יֹונָ֥ה בֶן־אֲמִתַּ֖י).The root word from which “Amittai” comes is אֱמֶת ([emeth] “truth,” “reliability,” “faithfulness”). “Amittai” is the Hebrew for “truth” with the first-person common singular possessive suffix, making it “my truth.” Thus, Jonah is literally the “son of my truth/reliability” (and we all know how “reliable” Jonah ends up being!). But all that is merely the tip of the ironic ice berg: the book of Jonah has bigger fish to fry.

            Most Hebrew readers[16] would have been familiar with “prophetic calls.” When Moses was “called” by YHWH, for example, he responded by saying that he was tongue-tied and couldn’t possibly speak on YHWH’s behalf (Exodus 4:10). Then there was Isaiah who said that he was a man of “unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). And, once again, there was a certain Jeremiah who pulled the whole “I-can’t-talk” stunt on YHWH when he went all Moses-style on God: “I do not know how to speak…” (Jeremiah 1:6). One can easily see how reluctant the prophets were to accept YHWH’s call to ministry. What does Jonah do when YHWH tells him to go up to Nineveh to declare its wickedness to the residents there? He sets sail! But where to? Nineveh lies east of Israel/Palestine; Jonah sails from Joppa, which means he heads out west.[17] If that is not hilarious then I do not know what is! One expects, as in the previous prophetic calls mentioned, a reluctant but eloquent acceptance of the call to prophesy. The readers expect reluctance, but not this kind, which is mixed with defiance and rejection. Miles likens this to Moses throwing water on the burning bush[18]—Jonah is obviously taking his “reluctance” a step too far in the wrong direction. Moreover, the expected response of the prophet to YHWH is utterly missing from the text. Miles, again, suggests that this is as insane as being at a wedding in which the groom remains silent after the minister asks, “Do you take x as your lawful wife?” The expected response is that the prophet reluctantly accepts and responds to YHWH’s call. In Jonah, that does not happen.

            What adds more humor to the text is the exaggerated size of Nineveh. Nineveh is described as being a “three days’ journey.” If a day’s journey is roughly 17 miles, then Nineveh would have been roughly fifty miles in diameter (or circumference)![19] “[T]he city turned out, on being excavated, to have a circumference of about 7 1/2 miles and a breadth at its widest part of about 3 miles.”[20] In other words, the author of Jonah “was talking about an imaginary city, which he had never seen.”[21]

            Later on in Jonah, when he is finally in the belly of the great fish, he literally (not metaphorically!) experiences something no poet imagined could be experienced: weeds, waves, and water. Poets use a sort of “poetic canon” when writing poetry. The HB could use metaphors such as the author of Psalm 69. “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck” (69:1 NIV). Readers immediately know that, most likely, the author was not experiencing literal waters up to his/her neck. The author was using a poetic canon familiar to the readers. However, in Jonah,

“The author of the Book of Jonah deliberately disregards this poetic canon for comic effect. Jonah’s situation is not comparable to the situation of a man swallowed by a great monster. This is Jonah’s situation. His troubles are not like waves washing over his head. His troubles are waves washing over his head.”[22]

The author or final editor of Jonah inserted a psalm in chapter two which is a praise song offered to YHWH for delivering the prophet. According to the text, Jonah is literally experiencing “the belly of Sheol” (2:3). One immediately thinks of “the belly of the whale.” While “the belly of Sheol” was most likely intended to be read as a poetic metaphor, in Jonah, the imaginary becomes reality—herein lies the comedy. In Psalm 69 and 84 we have the “most concentrated water and pit imagery of the psalter.”[23] But the book of Jonah takes things even further: it concentrates the imagery more and…makes it actual reality. If the point of poetry is to use vivid imaginary metaphors, Jonah goes above and beyond our expectations. If one expected to see buildings collapsing on a 3D screen in theaters but ended up witnessing controlled demolition, one would be pleasantly surprised, to say the least. In Jonah, the readers are expecting poetic imagery—and they end up getting so much more! For a second we thought we were hearing Jonah pray to YHWH using metaphors—“seaweed wrapped around my head,” “the heart of the seas”—but it was not to be: Jonah was really choking on seaweed and waves. It took more than an invitation from YHWH to get Jonah to cough up the truth (pun intended).

            Finally, Jonah ends with some incredible theological lessons: even animals need to fast for their sins and repent! The absurdity of this notion is lost only on those who believe Jonah to be a factual historical document. Miles writes, “No prophet in the history of Israel ever suggested that a penitent king fast from water or impose such a fast on his animals or, strangest of all, arrange for his animals to repent of their sins and dress in sackcloth.”[24] To make matters all the more hilarious, the historian Herodotus (484-425 B.C.) allegedly reported that the Zoroastrians did, in fact, expose dead people to dogs and crows for “mourning.”[25] While the Ninevites may not have been Zoroastrians, the practice of animals “mourning” (not identical but somewhat similar to the idea of repentance) would have made the hearers laugh all the more. In the end, the episode is to be seen as zealously bizarre. While you were laughing, YHWH accepted the cow’s repentance and changed his mind about destroying the city of Nineveh, thus making Jonah “the most successful, if not the only successful, prophet in history.”[26] He who laughs last, laughs loudest. “Jonah is a comic figure: he does everything wrong, almost, yet through him the Lord God of Israel does everything right.”[27] This, perhaps, is the point of the story.

The Book of Jonah in 3D (Part Two)

            The book of Jonah is funny when one reads it in translation. But beneath the English text lies the Hebrew vorlage—and the Hebrew is bouncing with laughter. In the next few paragraphs I would like to examine the subtleties of the Hebrew text; things that only a Hebrew reader would be made privy to. These make the text all the more hilarious and give it a more “folklore” feel.

            One of the poetic devices used in Hebrew Jonah is onomatopoeia (i.e., words that imitate natural sounds). For example, in English we say things like “The dog barked.” The word “bark” sounds, well, like a dog barking. In Jonah (1:4), while YHWH is casting up a storm, the boards of the ship begin “cracking” and “breaking.” The phrase used to describe this in Hebrew is חִשְּׁבָ֖ה לְהִשָּׁבֵֽר ([chishevah lehishaver] “[the ship] thought it would break”). Jack M. Sasson writes that the author of Jonah attempted to capture “the sound of the planks cracking when tortured by ragging waters.”[28] The author is using what would have been the equivalent of a 3D screen to get the audience to really experience the tale of Jonah; not only were the audience hearing the story, they were hearing the very planks crack.

            In the Hebrew text (2:1) the “whale” is described as being a דָּ֣ג גָּדֹ֔ול ([dag gadol] “big fish”); this creates a wordplay between the adjective and the noun in which the consonants are reversed.[29] Another wordplay appears in 3:6. Jonah’s message to repent reaches the king of Nineveh. He believes the message and tells Nineveh’s inhabitants from his “throne” (כִּסֵּא [kisse]) that they must “cover” (כָּסָה [kasah]) themselves with sackcloth. The verb כָּסָה (“to cover”) may also imply “redemption” (as it is used in such contexts).[30] The author, thus, was doing double-duty: creating a play on words and choosing a word that implied the redemption of Nineveh. One last wordplay that I would like to look at occurs in the next verse (3:7). In this verse, the king of Nineveh sends out a “decree” (טָ֫עַם [ta’am]) which includes the imperative for animals and humans not “to taste” (טָעַם [ta’am]) food and water. The choice to use the word טָ֫עַם for “decree” is somewhat strange as this noun comes from the verb טָעַם which (mostly) means “to taste.” However, the author’s intent was not to use expected words all the time; he was a poet and professional pun-maker—hence the pun.[31] Another poetic device used by the author is alliteration. In 2:3 the phrase “in the belly of Sheol I called out and you heard” reads מִבֶּ֧טֶן שְׁאֹ֛ול שִׁוַּ֖עְתִּי שָׁמַ֥עְתָּ. The last three Hebrew “words” are שְׁאֹ֛ול שִׁוַּ֖עְתִּי שָׁמַ֥עְתָּ (she’ol shivvati shamata).[32] Notice the repetitive use of the “sh” sound which one could see in my English transliteration. Again, the author is employing every tool in his/her toolbox to make Jonah a work of fine literature comparable to Shakespeare. My favorite poetic device is what some scholars have termed the “gotchya! technique” of Hebrew literate. YHWH tells Jonah to proclaim to Nineveh that “Nineveh will be overthrown” (3:4) if the city and its inhabitants do not repent. The word for “overthrown” is נֶהְפָּֽכֶת [nehpachet], which is a participle[33] from the root verb הָפַך [hafach]. The root word הָפַך could also be translated as “turning” (instead of “overturning”) in the sense that the Nineveh would turn [from their sins].[34] The irony/ambiguity here is that Jonah is, from the one side of his mouth, declaring the annihilation of Nineveh, and yet, from the other side of his mouth he is proclaiming that Nineveh would actually repent! So which is it? In forty days will Nineveh be “overturned” or will Nineveh “change” and “repent”? (The Hebrew text allows room for both translations and, poetically, demands that both exist together.) In fact, one recent scholar W. Dennis Tucker Jr. calls this verb (i.e., הָפַך) “central to the plot of Jonah.”[35] At the end of the day, it was YHWH who played the joke on Jonah—it was a gotchya moment. YHWH was laughing, as Jonah finally understood in which sense הָפַך was to be taken: God was not overturning the city; no, the city was turning to God! It seems, therefore, that the book of Jonah, far from being a dreary tale of gloom-and-doom, on par with Sodom and Gomorrah, is actually a humorous fictional tale about how much YHWH loves plants and animals—and even (evil and foreign) Ninevites.

            So what exactly is the moral of the story? Are all Jews as xenophobic as Jonah? Is God a moral monster? Did Jonah even exist? To answer the last question, I’d like to bring to mind one of my personal favorite examples demonstrating that Jonah is a work of fiction. Towards the end of the book of Jonah, Jonah is depicted as sitting alongside a now-withered plant with the hot desert sun beating upon his head and with a YHWH-appointed “east wind” blowing upon him. What is profoundly humorous is that the “east wind” was only hot in Palestine; for it was the east wind in particular that “comes immediately off the desert with unrelieved heat.”[36] As Edwin M. Good succinctly put it: “Since our author had probably never been to upper Mesopotamia, since he was writing for Palestinians, and since he obviously does not labor over geographical verisimilitude, we need not inquire after the effect of an east wind at Nineveh.”[37]In America there is no Everest; likewise, in Nineveh, there was no east wind. The “east wind” was a figment of the author’s imagination—just like the entire tale. In a similar fashion, the God which Dawkins criticizes exists only in the mind of an illiterate person who fails to maintain the distinction between comic poetry and historical fact. As for the other questions, the comic irony of Jonah should have been made quite obvious by now. Jonah is a tale which catches the readers by surprise (as it should). It ends by demonstrating that YHWH is a loving and forgiving God; one whose mercy and benevolence is extended upon even the sinful foreigner. YHWH cares for repentant Nineveh (animals and pets included) and he cares for angry, xenophobic Jonah. But the point of the tale, it seems, is that the antagonist (one who evasively remains ambiguous, or maybe even non-existent) is probably to be identified with you, the reader. The reader is the one who is the “bad guy.” The reader assumes that YHWH would do such a thing and is then left eating his/her own thoughts…

Elusive Poetry and Ambiguous Rhymes

            The Hebrew Bible is full of ambiguity. We have already looked at the ambiguity surrounding Jonah’s use of הָפַך in 3:4. But the comedy of Jonah is not the only place where one finds ambiguity: the HB is prone to using ambiguous language to make you think you understand what’s going on, only to make you realize, later on, that the joke was on you (gotchya!).

            Such ambiguity exists in the infamous tale of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. It is a familiar text to most readers and I believe using it will play on your prejudiced preconceptions. Outside of religious circles, the Abraham and Isaac event is seen as the most cruelest event in the history of human sacrifice. Let me digress for a minute to relate a story that may contribute to this writing. Years ago, when I was a nursing student, I spent some time doing clinicals at a psychiatric ward known as Eastern State Hospital. In one of the “lectures” given to us during one of my sessions there, the instructor made a passing remark about mentally ill people who hear voices. In her examples, she brought up how Christians believe Abraham was doing the “will of God” when he was about to sacrifice (here she read “murder”) his only son because “God” told him so. In her opinion, if people were sane enough to think that was not crazy, then surely such people could excuse all of the actions done by patients locked up at Eastern State. Her point being that religious people are nuts. Abraham was mentally impaired, probably schizophrenic in her opinion, and needed to be at a psychiatric ward and not in the Bible. I remember thinking that my instructor got the story wrong. Did she not see that it was mocking human sacrifice? Maybe I was the one who was nuts and needed to be locked up at a psychiatric ward… As one can tell, the Abraham-Isaac narrative of Genesis 22 is not a popular text outside of psychiatry lectures on schizophrenia (behind closed, academic doors). Given the fact that many people outside of the church absolutely find Genesis 22 abominable, I would like to look at it from a slightly different, more sympathetic perspective.

            In Genesis 22, God tells Abraham to head up to Mount Moriah and sacrifice his only son. Abraham packs his bags, takes along his son Isaac and some servants, and heads out. After three days, Abraham tells his servants to wait for them while he and Isaac would go up to the mountain to worship. “We will worship and then we shall come back to you” (22:5). The Hebrew text, as the English, clearly foreshadows that Abraham would not sacrifice Isaac. He tells his servants וְנָשׁ֥וּבָה אֲלֵיכֶֽם (“and we shall return to you all”). Already in the beginning of the narrative, one is told the obvious: Abraham would come back with Isaac.

            Abraham and Isaac head up to the mountain. Then we have a very interesting dialogue that occurs sandwiched between the two occurrences of the phrase “and the two of them walked together.” In between the two enigmatic phrases—“and the two of them walked together”—we find this dialogue:

“But Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘My father?’ And Abraham said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ And [Isaac] said, ‘Behold, the fire and wood [are here] but where [is] the lamb for the sacrifice?’ And Abraham said, ‘God will see to it [in regards to] the lamb for the sacrifice, my son’ (Gen. 22:7-8, my trans.).

This is a somewhat wooden and literal translation of the Hebrew text. As regards the punctuation, the Hebrew had none. Moreover, the Hebrew text does not even have vowels! Speaking of this problem, James L. Kugel writes, “[T]he Hebrew text of the Bible contains a great potential for ambiguity. Not only are the vowels in a word usually left to be figured out by the reader, but the beginnings and ends of sentences are not marked: biblical Hebrew had neither capital letters nor periods at the ends of sentences.”[38] Given the fact that we have no punctuation—we simply must “guess”—one could easily translate the last phrase as Kugel suggests, “God himself will provide. The lamb for the burnt offering [is] my son [Gen. 22:8].”[39] Instead of reading the Hebrew text of 22:8 as one single sentence, we divide the text into two sentences, giving the world a different translation. Moreover, since the phrase immediately following this ambiguous text is “and the two of them walked together,” one could translate this as an idiom for “and the two of them agreed.” For two to walk “together” on the same path, the two must agree (as the prophet Amos [3:3] suggests). In other words, this text may be conveying several different things. On the one hand, the text suggests, as I pointed out in the beginning, that Isaac would not be sacrificed. On the other hand, the text may also point in the direction of Isaac agreeing to be sacrificed to God (this reading flies in the face of Genesis 22:5, which is why I do not buy such a rendering). Despite the translational and interpretive difficulties, it should be quite obvious by now that the text is not as easy as one would be led to believe. If I am correct, the fact that Genesis 22:8 is found between the two idioms for “agreeing,” I believe that the ambiguous text is structurally meant to be read in a particular manner; a manner which we may or may not have yet discovered. At the end of the day, whether our translations (and interpretations!) are right or wrong, the text remains as elusive as it ever was. And that is precisely its beauty.

            Speaking of particular structures to Hebrew poetry and prose, I would like to put on display one of my own favorite examples of what the linguist Loren F. Bliese calls “structural symmetry.” Bliese writes that “Hebrew has structural symmetry that helps to identify peaks or points of prominence.”[40] (Such structural symmetry I hypothesize is found in Genesis 22.) Bliese demonstrates how the book of Hosea the prophet is structured in a very particular way. For one, the book of Hosea is divided into five parts (I: 1.1-3.5; II: 4.1-7.2; III: 7.3-8.13; IV: 8.14-11.7; and V: 11.8-14.9).[41] The central part of the book has five poems (7.3-7; 7.8-16; 8.1-4; 8.4-8; 8.9-13). Not only that, but “the central poem has five lines, and the central line has five words with ‘my-God’ the middle word…”[42] Hosea 8:2 is seen by Bliese as being the crescendo of the prophetic book; 8:2 is the “peak” of the book. He writes that the verse has “the numerical device of of having twenty-two letters”[43] which equate with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The structural symmetry does not stop there. The two middle letters of the verse, which I have marked in bold font (the Hebrew yod), are representing the initial letters of the holy name (ha-shem): לִ֖י יִזְעָ֑קוּ אֱלֹהַ֥י יְֽדַעֲנ֖וּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל. Even non-Hebrew readers can see that every Hebrew word in the text has the Hebrew yod (י) in it, making the verse have five yods total. The holy name (YHWH; Hebrew is יהוה) appears twenty-two times in the book, contrasted with the antagonist, Israel, which occurs forty-four times in the text.[44] More structural nuances could be brought forth; however, this is more than enough to demonstrate that the HB is more than just barbaric literature produced by illiterate desert nomads hallucinating under the influence of low sodium levels, dehydration, and psychedelic drugs.

            The book of [First] Isaiah is yet another text full of ambiguity. Isaiah 27:12 is one such place for ambiguity:

וְהָיָה֙ בַּיֹּ֣ום הַה֔וּא יַחְבֹּ֧ט יְהוָ֛ה מִשִּׁבֹּ֥לֶת הַנָּהָ֖ר עַד־נַ֣חַל מִצְרָ֑יִם וְאַתֶּ֧ם תְּלֻקְּט֛וּ לְאַחַ֥ד אֶחָ֖ד בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

“In that day, YHWH will thresh from the flowing Euphrates to the Wadi of Egypt, and you, Israel, will be gathered up one by one.”

The word שִּׁבֹּ֥לֶת ([shibbolet] “ear of grain” or “flowing stream”) could mean two different things (set in bold in the Hebrew text above). First Isaiah has given us a somewhat ambiguous verse that could be interpreted in several different ways. On the one hand, one could translate the verse as referring to the harvest of Egypt or the waters of Egypt. But, as J. J. M. Roberts points out, the author intended for the text to have both meanings retained; that is, the text contains a word with double entendre (i.e., double-meaning). “The ambiguity should not be eliminated; it is intentional.”[45] Different elements in the verse point in different directions. The two verbs used לָקַט ([lakat] “to gather [a harvest]) and חָבַט ([chavat] “to beat, to thresh”) point towards interpreting the text as taking shibbolet to mean “ear of grain.” However, the use of “stream” and “Wadi of Egypt” point in the opposite direction; that is, shibbolet should be taken to mean “flowing stream.” Roberts produces the following translation:

On that day Yahweh will thresh out

from the ears of grain/from the stream

of the Euphrates as far as the Wadi of Egypt

And you will be gathered up one by one, O Israelites.[46]

Once again, an author was purposefully being ambiguous for the sake of literary beauty. And Isaiah has many more such verses; I will look at one more.

            Shakespeare was not the only poet who could rhyme words and paragraphs; Isaiah could do so too. In 30:16a, Isaiah writes:

וַתֹּ֨אמְר֥וּ לֹא־כִ֛י עַל־ס֥וּס נָנ֖וּס עַל־כֵּ֣ן תְּנוּס֑וּן

“And you all said, ‘Not so! Upon horse[s] we will speed.’ Therefore, you shall speed [indeed]!” (my trans.)

The people are saying “upon horse[s] we will speed” (‘al-sus nanus). The prophet sarcastically remarks, “You shall speed indeed!” (tenusun); thus creating a rhyming play on words.[47] In this case, the people who wished to “speed” on horses would be speeding/fleeing from their pursuers!

            Hebrew poets used another common trick of the trade: they would employ words in the second verset which sounded similar to words in the first verset. One finds such “poetry” in the famous Amos passage about the basket of summer fruit. Amos 8:2 begins with YHWH showing Amos a כְּל֣וּב קָ֑יִץ ([keluv kayitz] “basket of summer fruit.” YHWH then proceeds to tell Amos that the קֵץ ([ketz] “end”) is near. The connection between the “summer fruit” and the “end” is non-existent; a non-sequitur in English. However, in Hebrew, the two words sound alike—thus creating a wordplay.

            I have looked at many features found within Hebrew literature in general. I have attempted to include examples that were both interesting and communicable; it was my intention to make sure that non-Hebrew readers would benefit from reading this paper. For the most part, I looked at the text without spending much time on context. However, all scholars know that context is, for the most part, everything. Historical context comes first when one tries to understand an ancient text. Because context is everything, and because I am attempting to demonstrate the beauty of the Hebrew Bible, the next verse that we will look at is one of my personal favorites; one which clearly demonstrates the importance of historical background information for our ability to be able to appreciate a text. While there are many such texts—in fact, all of them!—I will merely cast my eye upon Song of Solomon 1:9.

            If I were to have Richard Dawkins read Song of Solomon 1:9, he would, most certainly, find it repulsive. The verse reads thus:

לְסֻסָתִי֙ בְּרִכְבֵ֣י פַרְעֹ֔ה דִּמִּיתִ֖יךְ רַעְיָתִֽי

“To a mare among the chariots of Pharaoh have I likened you, my darling!”

A modern American living in the twenty-first century would never dare tell his wife or girlfriend that! A wife whose husband called her a “mare” would probably file for divorce due to “verbal abuse.” The next time you are having dinner with somebody, bring up this verse and ask your guests to talk about its “literary beauty.” I have done this before. In fact, in preparation for writing this paper, I purposefully went out and read this verse to friends over lunch. One friend remarked that he took the likening to a mare to mean that the darling in the text probably had “shiny, black hair” just like the hair of a mare among the chariots of Pharaoh. In other words, she had a “nice mane!” Had Richard Dawkins read this text, he would have added another word to his description of the Old Testament God: zoophilic. “Yes,” he would probably say, “The God of the Old Testament wanted males to compare their lovers to mares for mares were the epitome of sexual attraction in His sickening zoophilic desires!” And, apart from historical context, one could interpret the verse to mean anything.

            Robert Alter succinctly comments on this verse:

“Pharaoh’s chariots were drawn by stallions, but the military stratagem alluded to has been clearly understood by commentators as far back as the classical Midrashim: a mare in heat, let loose among chariotry, could transform well-drawn battle lines into a chaos of wildly plunging stallions…The lover speaks out of a keen awareness of the power of figurative language to break open closed frames of reference and make us see things with a shock of new recognition… [T]he sexual attraction she exerts also has an almost violent power to drive males to distraction, as the equine military image powerfully suggests.”[48]

The lover is comparing his darling to a mare among the chariots of Pharaoh because the lover is keenly aware of his darling’s ability to draw attention to herself. She does not merely draw attention in a benign manner; she creates terrorizing chaos amongst those who dare encounter her. She is able to violently seduce even those who imagine themselves as going to war with her. Apparently, the Bible is not only funny at times and ironic: it has some highly-erotic literature within its covers also.

            At the beginning of this paper, I quoted some people who really disliked the Bible, the Old Testament in particular. What this paper, I hope, demonstrated is that the HB is not as dull, dry and serious as some think it is; rather, the HB has plenty to laugh about. While this paper does not address all of the “dirty laundry” which one finds in the HB, it does correct one aspect which seems to drive some people’s thinking in particular: the Bible is boring and dull. Contrary to this popular belief, one held even among the educated religious laity, the HB remains a perplexing text with plenty of tricks up its sleeve.

Final Thoughts on Hebrew Poetry and Literature

            I want to finish by looking at a few other scattered things that I personally find somewhat beautiful about the Bible. I will point out these examples in no particular order. Most of us have heard of the tale about the snake in the Garden of Eden tempting Adam and Eve. In the Hebrew, this tale has an interesting wordplay. The serpent was more עָר֔וּם ([‘arum] “crafty”) than all the other animals (Genesis 3:1). He deceived Adam and Eve and they realized (3:7) they were עֵֽירֻמִּ֖ם ([eirummim] from עֵירֹם [eirom] “naked”). When we come to the tale of the Tower of Babel, we find something similar going on. However, this time, the play on words has to do with a play upon a proper name. In Genesis 11:9 the etymological explanation given for the proper name בָּבֶ֔ל (Babel) is that YHWH בָּלַ֥ל ([balal] “confused”) the language of the land. What is even more humorous is that such an etymology is quite fictitious—Babel is actually a word that comes from the Assyrian Babilu, which is “a compound of bab, gate, and ilu, god, the gate of god.”[49] A final wordplay that I want to look at is one that occurs in Amos 5:5. The reason I chose this one is simply because it is (a) a wordplay and (b) a deliciously, memorable mouthful. Amos 5:5 reads: הַגִּלְגָּל֙ גָּלֹ֣ה יִגְלֶ֔ה ([haggilgal galoh yigleh] “Gilgal will surely go into captivity”). The proper name Gilgal uses two consonants which occur in the Hebrew verb “to be led into captivity” (the “g” [ג] and the “l” [ל]).[50] Thus the author here creates a play on words that no Gilgalian inhabiting Gilgal would ever gloat over.

            One could go on and on about Hebrew wordplays in the Old Testament. In fact, Immanuel M. Casanowicz lists 502 such wordplays in his article Paronomasia in the Old Testament.[51] Given this fact, it is my opinion that the Hebrews did pretty well in terms of producing quality literature. Instead of seeing the Bible as merely a conduit of some absolute truth coming from the lips of a holy and serious God, it is high time we began treating it as literature—literature that one could (actually) read and enjoy.

            What should one leave with after reading this? First, we must approach the Hebrew Bible as a work of art—as any other ancient piece of literature. Unlike the “assistant professors” of this world, who are “devoid of comic power,” who lack a human sense of humor, the HB actually has plenty of human in it. There is plenty to laugh about. If the HB God exists, He certainly has a sense of humor. Second, the HB is prone to making us see our own prejudices (as the Book of Jonah showed us). “[W]e display not only our self-righteousness but our aesthetic blindness, our thick inability to recognize a good story when it hits us between the eyes.”[52] Let us not be like Whitehead, Harnack, or Dawkins—our aesthetic vision must not go blind too soon. Third, and finally, I believe that we must not hang our hopes on that which is historically factual—nobody reading Immanuel Kant expects his abstract philosophy to be grounded in the actual for it to convey ethical truths and absolutes (think categorical imperatives, Kingdom of Ends, etc.). Jonah does not have to be factually true for it to retain its punchy, parable-like value. In fact, one could argue that Jonah is a parable—just like a parable on the lips of Jesus. I believe that the problems with the Hebrew Bible that many of us have come down to our inability to perceive truth differently. So many of us are focused on that which happened, that which most likely happened in history. We confuse truth for history; we use the terms interchangeably. History has to be true; but truth seldom has to be grounded in history. This is not a matter of vice versa. On the contrary, history is often full of lies, contradictions, murders, crimes, etc.—all things untruth. Truth is grounded in something universally human, soulfully abstract. If we would only create a more thoughtful approach towards history and truth—an approach that finds the cracks and crevices in the nuances that fill the gulf between truth and history—we would learn to laugh again, to value the comic, the ironic for what it is; we would appreciate the past not because it is grounded in history, but because history is grounded in it. And maybe, just maybe, the Harnacks and the Dawkinses of this world may begin to laugh again…

            שְׂחֹוק֙ עֹשִׂ֣ים לֶ֔חֶם

            “A feast is being made for laughter…”

                                                Ecclesiastes 10:19

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Special thanks to Will Kynes (Whitworth University) and Scott R. A. Starbuck (Gonzaga University) for offering their suggestions.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Poetry. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1985.

Blackman, E. C. Marcion and His Influence. London: S.P.C.K., 1948.

Bliese, Loren F. “Symmetry and Prominence in Hebrew Poetry: With Examples from Hosea” in Ernst R. Wendland (ed), Discourse Perspectives on Hebrew Poetry in the Scriptures. UBS Monograph Series. No. 7. New York: United Bible Societies, 1994.

Cary, Phillip. Jonah. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: BrazosPress, 2008.

Casanowicz, Immanuel M. “Paronomasia in the Old Testament.” Journal of Biblical Literature 12, no. 2 (January 1, 1893): 105-167.

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Mariner Books, 2008.

Good, Edwin M. Irony in the Old Testament. Sheffield: Almond Press, 1981.

Harnack, Adolf von. Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God. Translated by John E. Steely and Lyle D. Bierma. Durham: The Labyrinth Press, 1990.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Humor of Kierkegaard: An Anthology. Edited by Thomas C. Oden. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Kugel, James L. How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. New York City: Free Press, 2007.

Miles, John A. Jr. “Laughing at the Bible: Jonah as Parody.” The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Jan., 1975): 168-181.

Ramirez, Frank. “A guy walks into a bar…A judge walks up to a king: humor in the Hebrew Scriptures.” Brethren Life And Thought 57, no. 1 (March 1, 2012): 80-92.

Roberts, J J M. “Double Entendre in First Isaiah.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 54, no. 1 (January 1, 1992): 39-48.

Tertullian. Adversus Marcionem: Books 1 to 3. Oxford Early Christian Texts. Translated and Edited by Ernest Evans. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Tertullian. Adversus Marcionem: Books 4 to 5. Oxford Early Christian Texts. Translated and Edited by Ernest Evans. Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Tucker, W. Dennis Jr. Jonah: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text. Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible Series. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2006.

Radday, Yehuda T., “On Missing the Humour in the Bible: An Introduction” in Yehuda T. Radday and Athalya Brenner (eds), On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible. Bible and Literature Series, 23; Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 92. Sheffield, Almond Press, 1990: 21-38.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Mariner Books, 2008), 51.

[2] For a good introduction to Marcion’s thinking see Adolf von Harnack, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, trans. John E. Steely and Lyle D. Bierma (Durham: The Labyrinth Press, 1990). For a less sympathetic approach towards Marcion’s theology see E. C. Blackman, Marcion and His Influence (London: S.P.C.K., 1948). The writings of Tertullian are a gold mine, considering most of what we know come from Tertullian’s Adversus Marcionem. For a good translation see Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem: Books 1 to 3, Oxford Early Christian Texts, trans. and ed. Ernest Evans, vol. 1, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972) and Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem: Books 4 and 5, Oxford Early Christian Texts, trans. and ed. Ernest Evans, vol. 2, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).

[3] Adolf von Harnack, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, 71.

[4] Ibid., 72.

[5] Cited in Yehuda T. Radday, “On Missing the Humour in the Bible: An Introduction” in On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible, eds. Yehuda T. Radday and Athalya Brenner, Bible and Literature Series, 23; Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 92 (Sheffield, Almond Press, 1990), 21.

[6] Cited in Søren Kierkegaard, The Humor of Kierkegaard: An Anthology, ed. by Thomas C. Oden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 35 and 36 respectively. For those who are ignorantly unconvinced that Kierkegaard seriously (!) found Christianity hilarious, read this book and your party-pooping skills will no longer have any effect…

[7] Ibid., 4.

[8] Ibid., 40.

[9] Ibid., 37.

[10] I made up the number “four” for the heck of it—it sounded good. Actually, the book has four chapters. Maybe I subconsciously broke it down into four that way, who knows?

[11] Frank Ramirez, “A Guy Walks Into a Bar…A Judge Walks Up to a King: Humor in the Hebrew Scriptures,” Brethren Life And Thought 57, no. 1 (March 1, 2012), 89.

[12] Edwin M. Good, Irony in the Old Testament (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1981), 39.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 40.

[15] John A. Miles, Jr., “Laughing at the Bible: Jonah as Parody,” The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Jan., 1975), 170.

[16] I will use “reader” and “hearer” interchangeably.

[17] Ibid., 171. “The point is that is that if one sets sail from Joppa, as Jonah does, he is sailing west, and Nineveh lies in the east.”

[18] Ibid., 172.

[19] Good, Irony in the Old Testament, 47-48.

[20] Ibid., 48.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Miles, Laughing at the Bible, 174. Italics original.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 176.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 177.

[27] Phillip Cary, Jonah, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: BrazosPress, 2008), 17.

[28] Cited in W. Dennis Tucker Jr., Jonah: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text, (Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible Series; Waco: Baylor University Press, 2006), 19.

[29] Ibid., 47.

[30] Ibid., 74.

[31] Ibid., 76.

[32] Ibid., 51.

[33] נֶהְפָּֽכֶת is, more specifically, the Niphal feminine singular participle from הָפַך “to overturn.”

[34] The Qal form of הָפַך usually connotes destruction, as in the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative (Genesis 19:21, 25, 29). However, in the Niphal (as the form appears in the Jonah text) the usual connotation is one of “changing [one’s heart],” implying “repentance” (Exodus 14:5; 1 Sam. 10:6, Isaiah 60:5; 63:10; Jeremiah 2:21; 31:13; Psalm 66:6; and Hosea 11:8). See Tucker, Jonah, 70-71. For a similar interpretation see Good, Irony in the Old Testament, 48-49.

[35] Ibid., 70.

[36] Good, Irony in the Old Testament, 52.

[37] Ibid.

[38] James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York City: Free Press, 2007), 125.

[39] Ibid. For further discussion, see also 123-126.

[40] Loren F. Bliese, “Symmetry and Prominence in Hebrew Poetry: With Examples from Hosea” in Discourse Perspectives on Hebrew Poetry in the Scriptures, UBS Monograph Series, No. 7, ed. Ernst R. Wendland (New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 67.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] J. J. M. Roberts, “Double Entendre in First Isaiah,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 54, no. 1 (January 1, 1992), 40.

[46] Ibid., 41. Italics original.

[47] See Good, Irony in the Old Testament, 124.

[48] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1985), 193.

[49] Immanuel M. Casanowicz, “Paronomasia in the Old Testament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 12, no. 2 (January 1, 1893), 117.

[50] Ibid., 119.

[51] See pages 123-163 for the entire list.

[52] Phillip Cary, Jonah, 18.

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