Friedman on Humour in the Hebrew Bible

The Owings Mills Times has a small news report on a lecture Richard Friedman gave at a local synagogue. Here are some excerpts:

Friedman said it is difficult to get away from humor in the Jewish culture because it is part of the religion.

“It’s an integral part of our lives,” he said.


Jokes abound in the Torah, the five books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, Friedman said. The humor is especially obvious if the books are read in Hebrew. The Hebrew language lends itself to puns, he said.

The three pages of the Bible that are devoted to Jonah strike Friedman as the funniest. He said in Hebrew there are 35 puns in the story of Jonah.

The cast is composed of Jonah, who doesn’t want to do God’s bidding; a whale, who has to tote a poetry-writing prophet in his gut for three days and three nights, and a town full of repentants, people and cows who go around in sack cloth and ashes.

Jonah feels betrayed because he told the people they had 40 days to repent. God forgave them after only three days. After all, he did have his reputation as a prophet to consider, Friedman said.

Jonah leaves in a tiff, and goes to sit on a hill to sulk. In the end, Jonah learns a lesson about taking himself so seriously. The repentant people, not to mention the cows covered in ashes, are just as important as he is.

Friedman said jokes help people stay involved, whether they are attending a lecture or reading the Bible.

“Jokes are fun, they are a part of life, and they serve a purpose,” Friedman said. “They give comic relief when the lecture or book gets boring.”

I think that the humour in the Hebrew Bible is one of its most neglected features (see my previous post on this topic here).

Richard E. Friedman is the Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia, and Katzen Professor of Jewish Civilization, Emeritus, at the University of California, San Diego. He has written a number of books, including Who Wrote the Bible? (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997; Buy from | Buy from, The Hidden Face of God (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996; Buy from | Buy from, and most recently The Bible with Sources Revealed (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005; Buy from | Buy from The latter is a translation of the first five books of the Bible — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy into English, differentiating textual sources by type styles and colors.

This entry was posted in Bible, Hebrew, Humour, Old Testament. Bookmark the permalink.