Mayer Gruber thinks the Bible is funny, at least in parts. Take the story of Jonah, the feckless prophet who flees God’s summons to save a wicked city from destruction. Jonah avoids the task, gets swallowed by a “great fish,” and finally lands at his destination only to find his mission is no challenge.

“He utters a speech that’s about five words, and the people all repent,” says Gruber, a professor at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, Israel. “That never happens, right? In real life. Not only do all the people repent, but the Hebrew text actually says that the animals put on sackcloths, and that’s hilarious! I mean, can you imagine a bunch of animals putting on sackcloths as a sign of mourning? And, of course, it works. The city is saved. I don’t know how funny any of that is to us, but obviously it was meant to be funny. It was something that had to be rediscovered in modern times.”

In recent years, scholars have rediscovered humor in the Bible, and Gruber is currently on a lecture tour of the U.S. to relate his favorite examples. “The Bible,” he says, “it’s so serious. And they put it in a black binding. I mean, no one would ever read that if it were an ordinary book, right? There are things that we won’t laugh about because we all went to Sunday school and we were all taught that this is a very serious book. If you do laugh, you might get beat on your knuckles by your Sunday school teacher. See, these characters in the Bible, they didn’t go to Sunday school. So therefore, they laughed.”

Gruber says Sarah, Abraham’s wife, thought it was hilarious that God commanded her to have a baby at age 90. “The whole thing is really quite a funny scene, if not from our point of view, then from the actors in the story. I think that’s one of the things we’ve lost sight of.”

Gruber is an ordained rabbi, speaks 15 languages (many of them obsolete), and has written numerous books and articles in the field of biblical studies. He served on the faculty of Spertus College from 1972 to 1980. He’ll return this weekend for a lecture on the latest developments in the study of biblical humor. “First Jewish Jokes: Humor in the Bible” takes place from noon to 1:30 this Wednesday at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, 618 S. Michigan. Admission is $12, $10 for seniors (lunch included). Reservations are requested; call 312-322-1747. –Neal Pollack

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Carl Kock.