Witty word power

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Humor in the Bible challenges us to rethink our assumptions

By Jason Hiebert

“The total absence of humor from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all literature,” writes Alfred North Whitehead, a philosopher and theologian from the early 1900s. This is a powerful, uncompromising statement. But is it true? Is there no humor in the Bible?

Non-Christians often think of the Bible as a dull, dry book about a stern, unsmiling God. Even Christians don’t recommend it for the laughs. We talk about how the Bible nourishes, strengthens, teaches and comforts us. But we never talk about how it entertains or amuses us. We agree that the Bible testifies to God’s love, compassion, sorrow, anguish, anger and joy—but does it reflect God’s sense of humor?

Certainly, God has a sense of humor. After all, it was God who gave me a nose big enough to hold spare change. That same God knows what it is to laugh at humanity. This is not laughing in a mean-spirited way, but laughing in the way we chuckle at the foibles of old friends or laugh at ourselves. This is also the laughter that challenges our powerful, uncompromising views (like the quote by Whitehead above) of how the world is and ought to be.

The reluctant prophet

For instance, take the image of the prophet. The prophet is someone you look up to: John the Baptist preaching repentance in the desert and Jeremiah warning of disaster and mourning the destruction of Jerusalem. The prophet is bold, powerful and righteous. But sometimes the prophet is Jonah.

Jonah runs from his assignment and when he finally does preach to Nineveh, his sermon is as anemic as he can make it. This prophet is reluctant, apathetic and indignant. The capstone of the story is when God spares the city. As you read Jonah 4:1-4, can’t you just picture it? Jonah, with his arms crossed and lower lip turned out, stamps his foot and fumes at a God who could dare to be so forgiving. The author is almost daring us not to laugh at the picture of a tiny, self-righteous prophet.

The punch line

Sometimes the Bible’s humor is almost too risqué for church. One example is Naomi’s plan to find a husband for Ruth, a foreign widow coming to Israel who is very much the outsider (Ruth 3:1-4). The strategy is this: Ruth will wait until Naomi’s cousin Boaz has worked all day and had his fill of food and drink. Then she will go lie down beside him, uncover his feet and sleep there until morning. Once Boaz wakes up, he’ll take care of everything.

If you don’t get the punch line, it might help to know that in ancient Hebrew culture, “feet” can serve as a euphemism for genitalia. So Ruth waits until Boaz has finished eating and drinking, and then she goes and uncovers his “feet.” And when he wakes up, sees himself uncovered and a woman sleeping beside him, he will assume he must have done something last night to obligate himself!

In this story, the foreign woman—the outsider—is the hero, and she “wins” by tricking the Israelite man – the insider – into thinking he’s slept with her. Is it right? No, but…well, it is kind of funny.

A humorous hero

A similar example, but with the imagery in reverse, can be found in Judges 3. Ehud, the judge, gains a private audience with Eglon, the enemy king. Ehud kills Eglon with a surprise attack, locks the door to the room and escapes to safety. A thrilling story, but how does Ehud buy time to get out of enemy territory? The Bible says that when Eglon’s servants found the door locked, they thought he was “covering his feet.”

Again, this is a euphemism: They thought he had dropped his robes (“covered his feet”) and was using the toilet. And so they waited for him to finish. And they waited. And waited some more. In fact, the Bible says they waited until they were embarrassed for him.

Picture it: The boss is in the bathroom, and the servants are all whispering to one another.

“It’s been three hours. Do you think he’s okay?”
“I don’t know. Go check on him.” 
“No, you check on him!” 
“I’m not going in there!”

Coming at the height of the action narrative, this comical aside seems to throw a little Austin Powers in with our biblical James Bond. What kind of hero gets away by hiding the body in the john?

Temple comedy

Jesus uses humor in his teaching, but his humor is often more pointed than that of Judges, Ruth or even Jonah. This is because Jesus is often joking with somebody specific in mind, and his target is almost always a group of legal experts (the priests) that is challenging his teachings and actions.

The best example of this is found in Mark 11:27–12:40. Jesus is in the temple courts with his disciples. It is almost Passover, and the place is packed with people from all over the known world. Jesus has been making quite a bit of noise over the past couple of years, and so the Pharisees and other religious leaders think this might be a good time to show this country bumpkin how the big boys in Jerusalem play.

As this group of important men strides purposefully across the temple grounds, more than a few heads turn to follow them. A small crowd stops to listen when the priests begin to talk with the wandering preacher and his group of Galilean followers.

First, the priests challenge Jesus directly. By what authority does Jesus teach? The typical answer is “I studied under Rabbi So-and-so,” but everyone knows Jesus hasn’t had any formal training. As soon as he admits it, the priests will shame him and run him out of town.

But when Jesus brings up John the baptizer, another rebel, he turns the tables on them. He gets the priests to admit that they don’t recognize spiritual authority even when it is completely obvious. Perhaps a few of the more insightful bystanders catch Jesus’ point and suppress smirks.

Outwitting the priests

Jesus then tells the story of farmers who rent a vineyard and rebel against the rightful owner. They beat, shame and kill his servants and his son. The farmers are punished, and the vineyard is given to others. Jesus doesn’t name any names, but everyone knows that the vineyard is Israel, and the farmers are the religious leaders. Now everyone knows what Jesus is implying. More than a few jaws are hanging slack—this fellow has some real chutzpah to challenge the priests on their home turf!

Jesus caps the argument by asking the Pharisees, “Haven’t you ever read the Scripture that says…?” Of course they have read it! Their job is to read the Torah, determine what the laws and passages mean and provide a framework for living within the requirements of the Law. By suggesting that they might not have read the text, Jesus underscores his actual point: They read the entire Torah over and over and over again, but never understand it. Unable to mount a comeback, the religious leaders slink off and regroup.

The legal experts come back later with a tricky question about taxes. Should Jews pay Roman taxes? They expect that Jesus will give an answer that they can either use to discredit or imprison him. Some of the people notice that a second confrontation is brewing. They sidle close to hear Jesus’ response.

Although the Pharisees intend to trap Jesus in his answer, he skips through the question and pulls them into their own snare. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” he says. Now you tell me: Did Jesus say “yes” or “no”? Everyone knows the question is a trap, and everyone knows Jesus has just scored another point. By now, people are probably turning their heads so the priests won’t see them laughing under their breath, but it’s obvious.

Tricks and traps

The Sadducees have one card left. It is a very thorny theological problem, stemming from one of the Jewish laws: If a man dies without having children, his brother is to marry his widow and have children with her, in his name. So if there are seven brothers, and they all marry the woman in turn (but none of them fathers any children by her), who will be her husband in the afterlife?

Jesus’ reply here is even harsher than what he says earlier: The priests don’t know the Scripture or the power of God. They are oblivious to the kind of life God provides, God’s power and God’s plan for humanity. Now the crowd doesn’t even try to stifle their laughter. The priests realize that they won’t be able to catch Jesus in his words, and they back off to consider other methods.

Don’t get me wrong—Jesus is completely serious in everything he says and does. But there is a way of joking that is appropriate and necessary, even at the most serious times.

No, let me correct myself: Humor is necessary especially at the most serious times, because it takes just a little wind out of our sails and reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously. Like Whitehead, we all tend to make powerful, uncompromising statements that feel definite and concrete. But the humor in the Bible reminds us not to trust in our status as the prophet, the insider, the judge or the expert. I know when I read these stories, they give my ample nose a good tweak.

Jason Hiebert is a 2007 graduate of MB Biblical Seminary. He lives and works in Fresno, Calif., where he and his wife, Ilone, attend The Grove Community Church.

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