Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review
As her title states, Melissa A. Jackson proposes to read the Hebrew Bible through the lens of both comedy and feminist interpretation. The book begins with an introduction that briefly outlines her approach and methodology followed by a longer introduction to comedy that deals with definitions, features, and functions. The heart of the book consists of nine chapters, each centered on a biblical woman or a group of women: the matriarchs, the women of Exod 12, Rahab, Deborah and Jael, Delilah, David's wives, Jezebel, Ruth, and Esther. She has chosen narratives that feature a female character, and she reads these stories through literary-critical methods with occasional reference to the possible historical-cultural situations of the communities out of which the stories arose. All of her characters have been subjects of feminist inquiry and all, at least from Jackson's perspective, have a compelling comic side as well (p. 4). Jackson is not just looking for a funny incident here, a joke there. Instead, she argues that humor is pervasive (p. 5) in the Hebrew Scriptures. She intends to prove her point by the weight of cumulative evidence. She seeks to demonstrate that each female figure is the hero in a comic episode, and, since her nine chapters do cover a significant portion of the text, the conclusion that humor is pervasive will inevitably follow. The success of her thesis lies in her ability to convince her readers that all of the episodes are, indeed, funny.
Her first chapter, An Introduction to Comedy, addresses the complicated definitions of such terms as laughter, comedy, and humor. In the end, Jackson does not employ a narrow and fixed definition of comedic terms, but instead takes a broad and flexible approach. She then recounts a brief history of comedy and its relationship to tragedy. This chapter also addresses the features of comedy, outlining comedy's literary devices (characterization, plot, wordplay, irony, reversals, repetitions, and surprises) and psychological and social features (including complexity, a high tolerance for disorder and ambiguity, focus on materiality, the construction of an anti-hero, and egalitarian impulses). The next section looks at comedy's psychological and social functions (including boundary drawing, instruction, subverting and preserving the status quo, and aiding survival). Jackson draws on historical, philosophical, and literary studies of comedy, and there is much in this chapter that could provide a framework for future studies of comedy in scripture.
Jackson concludes her introduction by responding to the various objections that her study might elicit. Perhaps the most serious objections note the vast disparity between the biblical world and our own. In every definition of comedy there is the acknowledgment that Comedy is tied inextricably to its originating culture, time, and context (p. 29). Therefore, any study of comedy in the Hebrew Bible risks both mistakes in translation and also the imposition of categories on the text that are both anachronistic and alien. Of course, as Jackson notes, this risk is inherent in almost any approach to the Bible. However, the fact that comedy is deeply situational and subjective will continue to challenge Jackson's interpretations as her work proceeds.
The book makes its best cases for comedy when it addresses stories that have been called humorous in the past. The matriarchs can be characterized as tricksters, at least to some extent, and there is a certain comedic effect in their stories of deception and triumph (ch. 2); Ruth is also a trickster and her story is a bawdy harvest tale (ch. 9); Esther can be understood as a carnivalesque farce (ch. 10). In fact, all of Jackson's arguments are deeply reliant on previous scholarship, and much of what she presents is not new. What she lacks in innovation, however, she gains in comprehensiveness. Not only does her scope render her book a good resource for anyone interested in comedy in general and these female figures in particular, it could also be used with much success in the classroom, even the undergraduate classroom. For example, chapter two presents various definitions and examples of trickster figures; in chapter six, the many different assessments of Delilah's character are collected together. The thesis is clear and consistent, which enables student readers especially to engage and debate.
The weakest cases for comedy are some of her more original proposals. It is hard to see Michal's and Bathsheba's stories as anything but tragic (ch. 7). Not only do these stories lack the classical narrative arc of comedy (comedies end in marriages or some other kind of celebration), there is nothing that strikes this reader, at least, as funny. For example, Jackson states that Palti(el)'s portrayal is humorous (p. 147); yet, I have always found this brief episode in Michal's story poignantly sad. Jezebel (ch. 8) may be a joke, but one that relies on misogyny and xenophobia. To be fair, Jackson does occasionally acknowledge that the comedy may be hard to find in some of these more violent narratives, and she does explore with nuance the ways in which the comedy depends on how the social boundaries are drawn with regard to gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and nationality. But if she is relying on critical mass to demonstrate the thesis that comedy is a pervasive feature of the Hebrew Bible, these questions undermine her larger project.
Jackson's book ends with two concluding chapters. The first pulls together her argument about comedy in the Hebrew Bible, and the second then links feminist interpretation to comedic understandings. In the first (ch. 11), she continues to build on her nuanced readings of violence and foreignness in the stories. The final statements about the earthy, embodied, redemptive power of laughter make a general case for comedy as the heart of Israel's sacred Scripture. In the second conclusion (ch. 12), Jackson explores nine points of contact (p. 234) between her two lenses. Here and throughout, she does demonstrate how productive such collaboration can be.
Jackson stops short, however, of a truly subversive collaboration. One of the affinities between comic readings and feminist approaches is the centrality of context and subjectivity. Jackson notes that Feminist critique takes a positive position on the subjectivity of context and encourages scholars to utilize it, rather than to repress or deny it (p. 238). Yet, Jackson never really explores this subjectivity, and, when she discusses context, she moves into historical criticism and attempts to construct the original setting of the story. Jackson carefully retains an objective, scholarly voice even as she discusses the ways in which feminist interpretation and comedic readings both undercut the claims of objectivity. In this way, she may be criticized for failing to take seriously the very affinity that she highlights. To return to an example I note above, Palti is not objectively funny, nor is there any data that would allow us to hear the reactions of the original audience. The only context to which I have access is the contemporary context. Palti is not funny to me; but Palti is funny to Jackson. It is feminism's deep awareness of the subjectivity, experience, context, and social location of the reader which is absent in Jackson's work. Jackson presents some interesting and compelling readings of biblical women at the intersections of comedy and feminist interpretation. But both comedy and feminist interpretation are about risk, and Jackson could have risked more.