Humor in Genesis, and in the Gospels

Every week during the school year, I turn out a set of notes for the Jacob Hirshleifer UCLA Faculty Tanakh Study Group; it’s a duty I took over from Jack when his health would no logner allow him to handle it. For a while, I was editing out the references to individuals (and the weekly Jew-joke at the end) and posting the notes here, but gave that task up as too time-consuming; the notes assume more familiarity with the text, and with Hebrew, than can reasonably be assumed for the RBC audience. (More, for example, than I would have if I weren’t part of the group.)

This week, though, something came up that I thought might be worth sharing. We were discussing Gen. 18:9-16, where the ninety-year-old Sarah laughs at God’s promise that she and her ninety-nine-year-old husband were about to become the parents of a son. God is annoyed, which raised two questions: whether the God of the Torah had a sense of humor, and whether the humans who wrote and compiled it did.

The existence of the camel and the giraffe, it was noted, answers the question about the Creator, but not about the sensibility of the authors of B’reishit (the Book of Genesis) and the rest of the Torah. That then links to another question: Did the authors and redactors of the Torah have a sense of humor?

We were hard-pressed to find humorous passages in the Torah itself: that is the Five Books of Moses. The rest of the Hebrew Bible (the Prophets and the Writings) lightens up somewhat: Esther and Jonah are both comical – it has been said that Sefer Esther is the first instance of the Purimspiel, the satirical play that traditionally follows the ritual reading of the text on the Feast of Purim – and there is a suggestion that “the prophet Elisha” is a parody of Elijah. (That would make me feel much better about the forty-two children torn to bits by bears for making fun of “Elisha’s” baldness.)

The Talmud is full of comic passages: for example, the list of restrictions and exceptions that render unenforceable the rule of stoning to death the stubborn and rebellious son is deliberately drawn out to the point of absurdity, and includes a slightly obscene discussion of the precise extent of pubic beard that would make a child old enough to be held responsible for his actions but young enough to still qualify as a “son” who can be stoned for disobeying his parents.

This reminds us that the Torah is an Israelite document, while the Talmud is a Jewish one.

Not that the Torah, or even B’Reishit itself, is entirely devoid of humor. One nominee might be the story of Dinah: the massacre is carried out on the third day after the circumcision of the bridegroom-to-be and his kinsmen, “when they were still sore.” [This may not seem funny to you, but I recall myself at age 14 howling with laughter.] Jacob’s trickery over the speckled livestock certainly has a Reynard/B’rer Fox flavor to it. But overall, Moses (on the traditional attribution) cannot fairly be ranked with Fielding or Petronius or Mark Twain among the masters of humorous prose.

If we take the Gospels as Jewish documents of the Talmudic period, the contrast with the Torah is also stark; R. Yeshua’s sly wit appears again and again, tempering his anger. Some of it, alas, is largely untranslatable. Consider Luke 11:37-39:

And as he spake, a certain Pharisee besought him to dine with him: and he went in, and sat down to meat.

And when the Pharisee saw it, he marvelled that he had not first washed before dinner.

And the Lord said unto him, Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness.

“Ravening”? Howzzat again?

To make sense of this, it’s important to recall that Jesus would have addressed his (Jewish) disciples in Aramaic, a relative of Hebrew, rather than in Greek. The word St. Luke uses is ἁρπαγῆς (arpages), which seems to refer to the action seizing something greedily, like a pirate or a wild beast. So “ravening,” which before it came to mean just “very hungry,” had the meaning of “tearing into something,” as a lion tears into a lamb, or a raven into carrion, isn’t a terrible translation. But it also doesn’t make much sense in context. At least not in English.

In Hebrew, the word that is the opposite of “kosher” – ritually clean and therefore fit to eat – is טְרֵפָה “tereyfeh,” familiar as the Yiddish or Yinglish “treyf.” But the literal meaning of טְרֵפָה is “ravened”: i.e., torn by wild beasts. That is, the archetype of un-kosher food is carrion, or, as we would say, “roadkill.”

So, according to Luke, Jesus accuses his Pharisee opponents of having kosher dinnerware and treyf hearts. Now that’s a put-down.

Luke’s Greek makes a different wordplay, accusing the Pharisees of rapacity: i.e., greed.

As far as I can figure out, there’s no way to get any of this humor into English; “a mouthful of piety and a heart full of roadkill” would be faithful to the sense, but far from literal.

Comments

  1. sd says

    Yep – humor, at least of the verbal variety and especially of the subtle verbal variety, is hard to translate. Thus its common (almost unavoidable) to view texts from other cultures as more dour than they in fact are. Or, if not dour, just plain stupid. There are actually some funny parts in the Odyssey, for example, but its almost impossible to get them without the gloss of footnotes. Meanwhile its clear that the comedies of Aristophanes are “supposed” to be funny. But they come across as really bad and really stupid (but not in a good way!) humor. 1000 years from now Seinfeld will read as weird and complicated melodrama, while Jackass will appear to be comedy – just very bad comedy.

  2. Betsy says

    Wow. You just refreshed the impression I had from participating recently in a joint Christian-Jewish scriptural study: It must be so awesome to understand these books in the original language.

  3. ACLS says

    This article from the comedy blog Splitsider seems relevant. http://splitsider.com/2010/09/does-good-comedy-have-an-expiration-date/
    I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Torah and/or Bible were filled with bits of humor, but we’re so removed from the original living contexts of the work that it makes no sense to us that way. The deadly seriousness that modern fundamentalists approach the work with seems ironic, since they’re clearly not in on the joke. (It’s depressingly easy to think of some future religion of Seinfeldism that just doesn’t get it at all.)

  4. NCG says

    What does the R. in R. Yeshua stand for? Jesus had a first name he was embarrassed by? Rodney? Roderick? Reginald?…

    (not that there’s anything wrong with those names.)

  5. Mark Kleiman says

    NCG’s question and Filler’s (correct) answer illustrate why it’s hard to re-edit the notes that go out to the group for a wider audience.

  6. Basilisc says

    The Joseph cycle is full of irony and turnabout – the victim getting long-awaited revenge on his brothers, the failed seduction that turns into a rape accusation, the dreamer making good by interpreting dreams. I bet the social and ethnic irony (the arrogant brothers become befuddled Canaanite hicks when they visit Egypt, where the arrogant Pharaonic functionary who torments them turns out to be – their brother!) was greatly appreciated by contermporary audiences. And the Judah story that serves as an interlude to all this also has its moments – you can imagine the look on Judah’s face when Tamar shows up with his staff and ring!

    The Balaam story with the talking donkey (the original wiseass?) is also kind of droll.

    Admittedly, none of it would have played well at the Concord. But I agree with those who say we can’t really get humor without a deep, deep understanding of the rhythms and double-meanings of the original language.

  7. Basilisc says

    For an example from our times, “Seinfeld” was a huge flop when it was dubbed into German and shown on German TV. Not surprisingly – how do you translate “yada yada yada”?

  8. fred says

    Eli: “Public beards”? Was that a typo or a joke?
    I have never heard pubic hair referred to as a beard but it fits and strikes me quite funny.

    Revised Standard translates the cup and dish full of “…extortion and wickedness.” I recall another passage or translation refering to the outside of the cup being clean outside but inside a “cesspool”. That imagery seems the meat of the matter, carrion and fly blown meat at that.

  9. Scientific Lurker says

    One of my rabbis told me that the Book of Jonah is one big satire, with the clue being the large number of times “gadol” is used for “big”, as opposed to other words that were more commonly found in the Tanakh to describe big things. “Gadol” apparently carries a connotation of “No, really, I swear, it was this big!

  10. Betsy says

    Whited selpulchre … another more sober way of saying it … but I could be missing something. Anyone?

  11. SamChevre says

    Just speaking for myself, I miss the Tanakh study notes.

    In Genesis, I’d agree that the whole Judah-Tamar soap opera seems to me to be intended as funny.

  12. says

    In her book on Numbers Mary Douglas treats the story of Balaam and Balak as (satirical) humor. And the entire Hebrew Bible is full of wordplay which gets lost in translation.

  13. Larry Lennhoff says

    Also, the reaction of the Hebrews when they are about to be caught at the Reed Sea is stereotypically Yiddish “Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt, that you brought us out into the desert to die!” Also second the idea that the Baalam story is humorous – the greatest Gentile prophet of all time, and his donkey is more spiritually aware than he is.

    Lots of Hebrew wordplay involves repetition that is often boring in English. The Fox chumash is a nice tool for trying to get a feel of the rhythms of the traditional Hebrew.

  14. says

    In Genesis 40, when Joseph interprets the cupbearer’s and baker’s dreams, he tells the cupbearer, yisa’ Faro et roshekha, “Phaorah will lift your head”, i.e., you will be honored. Then he tells the baker, yisa’ Faro et-rosh’kha me-‘alekha, “Pharoah will lift your head off of you”, i.e., you will be decapitated. The narrator introduces the fulfillment of both prophecies by saying va-yisa et rosh sar ha-mashkim v’et rosh sar ha-’ofim b’tokh ‘avadav, “Pharoah lifted the heads of the cupbearer and baker among his servants.”

  15. NCG says

    Mark, apologies for my boneheaded question!! I figured it out when I woke up this morning and hurried upstairs to retract, but I was too late.

    It’s true though that I had no idea that Jesus was considered a rabbi by (some?) Jewish people. So, where does He rank?

    And don’t feel you have to dumb down your notes for me. There are lots of things I don’t know diddly about, and it’s a good thing too. Physics. Philosophy. Languages other than English and Spanish. I like knowing that it’s out there somewhere and I could get into it if I wanted to. (Just not here! Haha. I’ll call you during office hours instead…)(Not really.) If you don’t want to do them, that’s another thing.

  16. Mark Kleiman says

    NCG: No apology needed. Jesus’s disciples sometimes (e.g., Peter in Mark 11:21) address him as “Rabbi” (which might be translated as “teacher,” but is probably closer to “master” in the master-and-apprentice relationship). Jewish literature has very little to say about Jesus, for understandable reasons. No one I know refers to him as Rabbi Yeshua; I do so to assert his place in the rabbinic lineage as a follower of Hillel (whom he repeatedly quotes). Referring to him as der Nezerener Rebbe is another somewhat untranslatable joke.

    Fred: Yes, “public” was a typo for “pubic.” (The original note was drafted in MsWord, and I suspect an auto-correction.)

  17. says

    I can’t quote chapter and verse, but I’m pretty sure that, when asked to show a sign in the heavans, Jesus said unto the faithful “If there is a red sky in the morning it will rain. If there is a red sky in the evening it won’t.”

    Now that joke is neither miraculous nor divine, but it’s a joke.

  18. says

    Sorry for my laziness. Do to the Google (light unto the gentiles) I can quote chapter and verse. It happens to be a very famous passage

    “The Gospel according to
    St. Matthew
    16

    1. The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would show them a sign from heaven.

    2 He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red.

    3 And in the morning, It will be foul weather today: for the sky is red and lowering. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?”

    http://www.bartleby.com/108/40/16.html

  19. says

    Mark,

    That’s brilliant. Made me laugh out loud. I like your suggested modern reading of St. Luke. Dwight MacDonald eviscerated the RSV. I think you’ve given me a great example to counter the relentlessly pompous ‘modern’ translations.

    I miss your minutes from the Study Group. I found them fascinating, provocative and witty. More, please.

    Peter

  20. joel hanes says

    I too have always greatly enjoyed the notes when you’ve gone to the trouble to post them
    (and I understood the R. Yeshua reference, and I enjoy such references when I don’t
    get them at first reading and have to think for a second or two.)

    And now to go read the story of Dinah for the first time in donkey’s years …

  21. ferd says

    A good actor first finds the meaning in the script, then gets that meaning across to the audience. If I read the script, it comes out meaningless. When Jack Nicholson reads it, bingo, now THAT’s what the author meant. Picture Walter Matthau delivering the clean cup, ravening interior lines, maybe.

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