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The Bible as an Unexpected Source of Humour

Street Preachers Don't Always Use Bible Humor - Michael Tracey
Comedy, parody, sarcasm, wordplays, puns, irony are not the first Bible elements that spring to mind as literary devices, but they’re all there, and more.

According to Practical Dreamers Drop-In Centre‘s Evan R Lewis ‘checks scriptures for jocular materials’ making connections, noting what was funny 3000 years ago, may not seem such today. He argues comic texts must be fictitious, not sober historical reporting, containing surprise or shock that make a point beyond expected ridiculous, irrational or exaggerated behaviour, which is the essence of basic comedy. Jonah is a prime candidate, he argues: it’s parody, funny because here is a prophet behaving in an un-prophet like way telling God what God should have done.

Old Testament Sarcasm, Derisive Amusement

Friedman’s and Stern’s 2000 paper, Humor in the Hebrew Bible, published in Humor: International Journal of Humor Research categorises humour permeating the Hebrew Bible, albeit much of it subtle. The notion that even God laughs occurs in several Psalms. In 37:13, ‘My Lord laughs at him, for he sees that his day is coming’. In 59:9, ‘But as for You, God, You laugh at them, You mock all nations’. This is sarcastic, derisive amusement. Friedman and Stern agree with other observers, Biblical humour shows how evil is ludicrous/wrong, and punishment leads to mockery.

Two sarcastic complainers to Moses about 40 years in the wilderness: ‘ Is it but a small thing that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, but you also have to lord over us?’ (Numbers 16:13).The point is that land flowing with milk and honey was Israel, the Promised Land, not Egypt, from which they had escaped. It continues: ‘Was there a lack of graves in Egypt, that you took us away to die in the wilderness?’ (Exodus 14:11).

David fled from Israel after hearing Saul wanted him dead. He went to Gath, where afraid King Achish would kill him, he pretended to be insane. He scribbled on doors, saliva dribbling into his beard. Achish cried out: ‘Do I lack lunatics that you have brought this one to carry on insanely in my presence?’ (Sam 21:15-16).

When the Israelites were engaging in idol worship, they cried to God about Philistines oppressing them. God replied (Judges 10:14), ‘Go and cry to the gods you have chosen, let them rescue you in the time of your torment’. When Elijah competed with the followers of Baal who didn’t respond, he said sarcastically: ‘Call with a loud voice, for he is a god. Perhaps he is talking, or he is pursuing enemies, or he is relieving himself…’ (1 Kings 18:27).

Irony is Another Way of Showing Humour

Irony is a comic device employed when Jacob and Laban tried to outwit each other; Elijah and Isaiah used it to mock idolatry. Joseph sold into slavery by his own brothers, found himself 22 years later in a position to save them from famine. The Egyptians drowned children in the river; God drowned Egyptians in the sea.

The Israelites moaned that manna from heaven was not enough, they longed for the meat they had in captivity. God gave them meat till ‘it is coming out of your nose and makes you nauseous’. (Numbers 11). The Book of Esther has Haman hanged on the very gallows he prepared for Mordecai.

Much humour is wordplay, which rarely translates into English humour. In Genesis (6:11-14) the word shachath means mankind’s decadence before the Flood; in verse 17 the word describes the destruction brought by the flood, thus linking decadence with destruction.

Plays on people’s names are commonplace. God ordered Abraham to name his son Yitzchak (Genesis 17:19) because he and Sarah laughed when told that she, an old woman, would have a son. The Hebrew word tzachak means ‘laughed’. The word dildul means weaken or deplete; it sounds very close to Delilah (Judges 16).

Exaggeration and Lampooning

Exaggeration is rife. The Israelites in the desert wailed that in Egypt they had pots of meat and free fish, melons, cucumbers, leeks, onions and garlic (Numbers 11:5). As slaves, it’s unlikely, so their exaggerated claims are comical. ‘Your nose (appech) is like the tower of Lebanon, which overlooks Damascus’ (Song of Songs 7:5). A prominent nose was even then, not a sign of beauty.

According to Friedman and Stern, Proverbs ‘lampoons fools, lazy people and quarrelsome women by using comical caricatures’. ‘A constant dripping on a rain-stormy day and a quarrelsome woman are alike’. (Pro 27:15). ‘Like a thorn that goes into the hand of a drunkard, so is a parable in the mouth of fools’. (Pro 26:9). ‘Like a dog that returns to its vomit, so does a fool repeat his folly’. (Pro 26:11).

The imagery of a land plagued with jumping frogs is ludicrous, hence comic. Abraham’s attempt to buy fairly a field and cave to bury his wife is comical, revealing how people do things for show. God made an ass out of Balaam who attempted to profit from his gift of prophecy, by revealing to his donkey things the man couldn’t see.

That the Old Testament is full of humour based on wit, sarcasm, irony, wordplays, comic imagery, names and situations may surprise some people, but linguistic devices allow God and the Bible to speak to humankind’s love of humour.

First published at Suite 101, 19 July 2010.

Photo: Street Preachers Don’t Always Use Bible Humour – Michael Tracey

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