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Cross-Currents in the Book of Jonah: Some Jewish and Cultural Midrashim On a Traditional Text

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The book of Jonah, which was once read by scholars with an impossibly straight face, is now regularly read as satire. In this article I look at how these satirical readings at once release humour and constrain it, by tailoring humour to a pedagogic purpose and heaping all our laughter upon the prophet's head. Jonah criticism, in Bakhtin's term, has been oppressively monologic, promoting YHWH'S perspective and the religious ideology of the reader, and using Jonah's words merely as evidence of his particularism and selfishness. The prophetic caricature is sinister and the laughter hollow, for Jonah is styled as the clownish Jew, resisting God's universalistic innovations and comically tripping over the truth of Rom. 3:29. Arguing that such readings are guilty of the sectarianism and myopia they criticise, I look for more nuanced ways of reading the text. The models I use are parody, dialogism and carnival, and the sources I look at range from the Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer to Herman Melville's Moby Dick. These readings tend to highlight ambiguity and disjuncture at the level of the word (for example the twisting word ) and between the voices of Jonah and God. Read dialogically, I maintain, the book loses its sing-song childish quality and easy morality and becomes a far more interesting, subversive, and genuinely comic text.


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