“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!” Job 38:4-5
I was going to title this piece “The Big Book of Biblical Humor” and then speculate on why there isn’t any, but if you google “humor in the Bible” what comes up are examples of sarcasm, irony and word play. I was much relieved to find the sarcasm.
I’ve been wondering about God having a sense of humor a lot lately, and I suppose feeling guilty about my somewhat warped sense of humor seeming to be the only thing that gets me thru some days. But it says in Psalm 2:4 that God “laughs” at the kings of the earth, and so I kind of want to take that literally. God weeps, but it appears He also laughs. We know He weeps because He bears our burdens (Ps. 68:19), and Jesus wept over Jerusalem, and so presumably His Father does as well–and so I want to take His laughter and sense of humor as literally as His tears and sorrow.
My sense is that along with their faith, a well-developed sense of humor, is how the nation of Israel has coped thru three millenia of persecution. I don’t think it’s any accident that well over half of our comics and humorists are of God’s chosen people. I wonder if the “merry heart doeth good like a medicine” of Proverbs 17:22 is another way of saying a good sense of humor is healing and restorative. However, I have also wondered if we are indeed created in the image of God, why does He not seem to have a sense of humor like us, and not being all that much of a biblical scholar I had mistakenly thought there was very little humor there–no knee slappers or gut busters–no didja hear the one about the Sadducee? Or perhaps, “Two Philistines walk into a bar. . .” I suspect much of the problem lies with my (our) expectations; we do not expect to see it there and so we don’t. However, Proverbs 21:9 appears to be a version of: “Take my wife. . .please. . .‘Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.’ “
I’d often thought that the story of God’s voice speaking thru Balaam’s ass was funny–but maybe it’s not supposed to be.
The evangelical circles in which I have moved tend to take the whole story of Jonah and the whale literally. However, it has been speculated that the book of Jonah is basically meant as a metaphoric tall-tale–and one loaded with divine sarcasm from beginning to end–a symbolic rendering of man’s myopic self-centered, self-destructive perspective when contrasted with Divine Grace. How many times have we headed to Tarshish only to end up in Ninevah–a place we were avoiding all along, and how many of us appear ready to be driven to our graves hating the Ninevites when God seeks to bless them as much as us? God keeps saying to Jonah, “Uh oh, that’s not what I had in mind.” But of course Jonah doesn’t get it untill the bitter end.
There is plenty of sarcasm in the Bible if you’re attuned to it. In I Kings 18 Elijah lays it on thick in mocking the priests of Baal. He even implies that their gods are busy taking a trip (journey) to the latrine.
Many years ago Pastor Joel gave several examples of biblical humor. The one that stuck with me is Jesus’ remark to his mother at the wedding feast at Cana. In effect, what He is saying is “Woman, why are you bothering me; my time as miracle-worker has not yet come.” Mary is worried that they’ve run out of wine and she wants her son to do something about it. If indeed that is meant as humor, it would qualify as sarcasm, and it feels a bit mean-spirited as well. But we know Jesus would not treat his mother that way and so it may really be a gentle chiding rooted in a family history that we know nothing about.
And what is the relationship of Joy, as a Fruit of the Spirit, to humor? Some laughter certainly seems a bubbling over of Joy. Unfortunately, I’m afraid much contemporary humor is mean-spirited. I think of the “sick” jokes that started appearing in the late-1950s. These stories were rooted in a hardness of heart found in jokes based on handicaps, disabilities or racial stereotypes. And, of course, the unfortunate “dirty'” joke has always been with us. I worry that a lot of what we think is funny is really a “gift” of the devil. What comes quickly to mind is Hollywood’s recent Hangover trilogy. I went to the second one looking for some laughs but what I saw was totally appalling–and I’m not very squeamish. Satan seems to have a way of stealing and using all of God’s gifts for his own nefarious purpose. An enormous abyss has developed separating the gentle humor of Jack Benny, Red Skelton and Bob Hope of the 1940s, 50s and 60s from the tasteless dreck Hollywood vomits out today.
I list humor as a “secular coping technique” in my book about coping with depression: The Unwelcome Blessing. I mention doctor/comedian Patch Adams, and also the journalist Norman Cousins who credited watching his favorite comedies with helping cure a chronic life-threatening illness. As for myself, there are times when I’m so tickled by some unexpected irony or joke that I lose myself in laughter, and I think suddenly becoming ego-less must surely be a gift from God.