Someone once said, "To laugh is to see things more seriously." This we certainly see is true at the Feast of Tabernacles as we rejoice.
Every year we look forward to rejoicing at the Feast with each other. Of course, the positive spiritual side of rejoicing is that we learn more about God's way of life, and the blessings and abundance that result with regard to the soon coming kingdom of God. We certainly rejoice over those things.
The remnant of Israel and Judah left in Jerusalem felt this in a big way. Nehemiah 8 says they experience "very great gladness", as a result of their newfound knowledge about the law and the Feast of Tabernacles.
Nehemiah 8:10-12 Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." So the Levites quieted all the people, saying, "Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved." And all the people went their way to eat and drink, to send portions and rejoice greatly, because they understood the words that were declared to them.
Nehemiah 8:17-18 So the whole assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and sat under the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness. Also day by day, from the first day until the last day, he read from the book of the law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a sacred assembly, according to the prescribed manner.
We see there that they greatly rejoiced. They were rejoicing over God's truth, over the knowledge of the coming kingdom of God, and over the knowledge of what the Feast of Tabernacles symbolized.
The Israelites had spent the greatest part of one day in praying and hearing Ezra read the written word of God, and at the end of the day they weren't weary at all, but were joyful. So the next day the leaders came together again to hear Ezra, which they found more emotionally and intellectually stimulating than any worldly pleasure they had experienced before. They were joyous and felt great happiness because the joy of the Lord was their strength.
In addition to our excitement for God's truth, we also rejoice in our fellowship with each other??the long awaited reunion with family and friends. We all enjoy sitting around a table at dinner enjoying conversation about a wide variety of topics from serious to humorous. We tell of lessons learned resulting from very serious trials and very humorous situations. Some quite embarrassing! Ecclesiastes 10:19 says, "A feast is made for laughter."
William K. Kinseer is credited with saying, "What I want to do is to make people laugh so that they'll see things seriously." There is a lot of truth in that. When we can laugh at our mistakes and overcome them, we have seen life more seriously.
The Bible is predominantly a serious rather than a funny book. Yet it would distort the Bible to ignore the humor that is present. Arranged on a continuum that ranges from the least intellectual—i.e., a slapstick type of comedy—to the most intellectual—i.e., irony and wordplay—we can say that the humor of the Bible tends toward the subtle rather than the overt.
Today, I want to explore the way God uses wit to teach lessons, i.e., to show the witty side of God's inspiration in the Bible.
Biblical wit is entirely opposite the political correctness of today's society, where nobody can openly enjoy someone else's embarrassing situation or comment and learn from it. As a society, we can't even laugh at others and ourselves any more. And, 90% of the humor that does come from the world is demeaning, silly, and cruel. God, on the other hand, shows us how to draw joy from wit and humor produced with the right attitude. That attitude is one of kindness and love toward each other.
Before we begin to look at the types of humor contained within God's written word, I'm going to generally define two terms??wit and humor:
Wit suggests the power to evoke laughter by remarks showing verbal felicity or ingenuity and swift perception, especially of the incongruous.
Humor implies an ability to perceive the ludicrous, the comical, and the absurd in human life and to express these usually without bitterness. Godly humor is always without bitterness and is always kind.
Humor is notoriously difficult to classify, and definitions of types vary. When talking about biblical humor it is helpful to realize that the range of wit is between lowbrow parody and the more serious highbrow satire.
Biblical jokes often abort because they loop back into the continuing story. Certain characters exhibit comical traits, especially when they repeat a pattern of behavior without developing. They're caricatured. Pharaoh repeatedly changed his mind the wrong way; Samson was ever impetuous, was continually duped; and Jonah insisted on a theology at odds with God's. A humorous situation must be immediately perceived. Thinking about it, or analyzing it, kills the humor.
Situation comedy consists of embarrassing, inopportune or simply humorous situations. The humor arises from plot, even though certain personality types account for some humorous situations. The highly unexpected event in which one or more people are caught off guard is an important subtype of the situation comedy.
Genesis 29 tells of Jacob arriving in Haran and meeting the pretty Rachel at the well, his masculine adrenaline starting to pump. He who had earlier been called "a quiet man, dwelling in tents" suddenly emerged as a weightlifting wonder, single-handedly moving the stone at the well that ordinarily could be moved only with the combined strength of the neighborhood shepherds.
It was an emotionally taxing experience for Jacob, who promptly lost his head, "kissed Rachel, and wept aloud." The excited Rachel ran and told her father.
Consider too the following unexpected events that left a man speechless when confronted unexpectedly with a woman lying next to him:
Jacob: "and in the morning, behold, it was Leah."
That I have a hard time understanding, and always have.
Boaz regarding Ruth: "at midnight the man was startled, and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet!" (Ruth 3:8).
Again, surprise! One was a bad surprise. The other was a good surprise.
Boaz fell back on the stock question, "who are you?" only to have the woman respond not only with an answer to the question but with a command to Boaz to hurry up and propose to her!
I know there are some of you young men in here that would love for that to happen!
People whose frustration reaches a breaking point can also make a humorous spectacle of themselves. One of the funny incidents in the life of Paul was the occasion when the Jews became so angry and frustrated at Paul's speech that the only way they could adequately express their pent-up rage was to wave their clothes and throw dust into the air. (And the image I have is of chimpanzees.)
Another branch of situation comedy is the humorous comeuppance of a villain.
In Esther 6, the career of Haman in the story of Esther is a classic case. Haman's parading Mordecai through Susa may well have pleased the Jews, but it was more than a little distressing to Haman, his wife, and his friends.
Later, Esther 7 tells of when Esther exposed Haman's plot to the king, the king stormed out in an exaggerated rage. Upon his return he saw Haman fallen on his wife's sofa. Although we know Haman was begging for mercy, the king assumed he was making a move on the queen. Haman's situation went from bad to worse. We can find humor in that when it is not happening to us.
The outrage is compounded, and any idea of Haman's to appeal for clemency was squashed. He was in a totally helpless situation, which he actually deserved.
To catch the humor of it all, we have to remember that this story belongs to a category of writing that we know as slave writing, which often possesses a mocking tone at the expense of an oppressive nation. We often see this in relation to the enemies of Israel.
Then there is the situation comedy involving the intoxicated. Today, they are quite often the brunt of humor; and the lessons learned are clear—if you drink too much alcohol you make a fool of yourself. Here's a secular example of a bar joke for comparison:
A completely drunken drunk goes into a bar and drunkenly tosses a single dart at a dartboard and hits a bulls-eye. The bar owner tells him that anyone who hits a bulls-eye gets a free gift and presents the man with a medium-size pet turtle. Two weeks later, the same drunk goes into the same bar and once again score's a bull's-eye with one dart. The bartender presents the man with another free gift—a wool sweater. The drunk says he doesn't want a sweater. He wants the same gift he got two weeks earlier. The bartender says, "OK, buddy, but that was two weeks ago, and, frankly, I don't remember what gift we were giving away two weeks ago."
The drunk says, "Well, I remember. It was roast beef on a hard roll."
We see there that the humor of the world tends to put down the individual and show their foolishness.
The Bible contains two examples of characters who "mouthed off" while inebriated and then had to face the repercussions in a startled moment of discovery the next morning.
One is Gaal, who the morning after a wine festival at which he had asked, "Who is Abimelech that we should serve him?" went to the city gate to have a view of the surrounding hills. He was terrified at the sight of Abimelech's warriors moving down the mountains, to which Zebul (who had informed Abimelech of Gaal's insulting words) first humored Gaal by claiming that he merely saw "the shadow of the mountains as if they were men." Then asked with equal humor, "Where is your mouth now, you who said, 'Who is Abimelech, that we should serve him?'" (You find that story in Judges 9).
We human beings tend to be all talk and no action, just like the citizens of the U.S. who sound brave, as long as the danger is 3,000 miles away.
Another loudmouth is Nabal, who was rude to David's men when they requested provisions. His wife Abigail intervened to pacify David, thereby saving him from David's revenge.
I Samuel 25:36-37 "And in the morning, when the wine had gone out of Nabal, his wife told him these things, and his heart died within him, and he became as a stone."
We see the humor because here he was boasting and then the reality hit him. Just picture the expression on Nabal's face, as his jaw dropped and he froze.
Some comic literature locates humor in character rather than plot. The picaro (i.e., the likeable rogue), for example, is a comic type. Picaros have a knack for getting themselves into difficult situations, but their resilience and good-heartedness wins our sympathetic laughter rather than our loathing. The trickster is a common variation on the theme.
In Genesis 24, Jacob and Laban are the classic instances of the trickster in the Bible, and when the pair got together during Jacob's 20-year sojourn in Haran, the sparks flew as both tried to outwit the other. Laban began his grand enterprise of taking advantage of a wealthy relative as soon as Abraham's servant arrived to claim Rebekah. Upon meeting Rebekah at the well, Abraham's servant lavished jewelry on her, after which she ran home with the news and the obvious evidence of wealth glittering in everyone's view. Knowing the character of Laban in the story, you can just see his tongue hanging out at the obvious evidence of wealth.
When Laban saw the ring and the bracelets on his sister's arms, he was suddenly hospitable to Abraham's servant, saying obsequiously, "Come in, O blessed of the Lord; why do you stand outside?"
Years later when Jacob arrived, Laban remembered the financial standing of his family. Scripture records: "When Laban heard the tidings of Jacob his sister's son, he ran to meet him, and embraced him and kissed him, and brought him, to his house ... and Laban said to him, 'Surely you are my bone and my flesh!" There again, you see his mind working toward gain.
This is only the beginning of tricks. It is followed by the incident of the substitute bride, with Jacob ending up serving Laban 14 years rather than 7 for Rebekah. There is also the battle over Jacob's wages. The seesaw battle of wits becomes a humorous mockery of materialism. We see how greed can make a person a fool and a scoundrel.
Another picaro and trickster is Samson. While we remember him primarily as the archetypal strong man, Samson also has a comic career. He enjoys playing tricks on people, telling riddles that people can't answer, "getting even" (as when he used the foxes to torch the Philistines' grain fields), escaping from apparently certain captivity (by walking off with city gates or allowing himself to be bound with ropes and then snapping them in a feat of strength) and telling lies (like the deceitful replies to Delilah when she asks the secret of his strength). There was humor in the ridiculous answers (lies) that Samson gave Delilah.
Samson was a man of poor character and poor judgment because he thought he was invincible and knew better than God. His pride destroyed him.
Let's look at satiric humor as we go through the different types. Listen to this timeless secular joke containing satiric humor:
A guy joins a monastery and takes a vow of silence. He's allowed to say two words every seven years. After the first seven years, the elders bring him in and ask for his two words. "Cold floors," he says. They nod and send him away. Seven more years pass. They bring him back in and ask for his two words. He clears his throat and says, "Bad food." They nod and send him away. Seven more years pass. They bring him in for his two words. "I quit," he says. "That's not surprising," the elders say. "You've done nothing but complain since you got here."
Satire is the exposure of human vice or folly through either rebuke or ridicule. A great deal of Old Testament satire is at the expense of a foreign oppressor and has the mocking tone of slave literature. Exodus 1 and 2 contain major examples.
Pharaoh obviously thought women were below him and a nuisance, yet the story repeatedly showed women outwitting him. When he commanded the midwives to kill the Israelite males at birth, they replied satirically that they were foiled in the attempt "because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are lively and give birth before the midwives come to them." How can one woman be any livelier than another? I think they are all quite lively when they are giving birth!
In the story of Moses' rescue, Pharaoh's own daughter contributed to the welfare of the future deliverer of a rival nation, while Moses' mother got paid for taking care of her own son. (It seems God has fun when He delivers His people.) We see this repeatedly throughout the entirety of the Bible.
Equally mocking is the list of hospitable acts that Jael performed for Sisera as he fled from Deborah's army.
Judges 4:18-24 And Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said to him, "Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; do not fear." And when he had turned aside with her into the tent, she covered him with a blanket. Then he said to her, "Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty." So she opened a jug of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him. And he said to her, "Stand at the door of the tent, and if any man comes and inquires of you, and says, 'Is there any man here?' you shall say, 'No.'" Then Jael, Heber's wife, took a tent peg and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, and it went down into the ground; for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died. And then, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael came out to meet him, and said to him, "Come, I will show you the man whom you seek." And when he went into her tent, there lay Sisera, dead with the peg in his temple. So on that day God subdued Jabin king of Canaan in the presence of the children of Israel. And the hand of the children of Israel grew stronger and stronger against Jabin king of Canaan, until they had destroyed Jabin king of Canaan.
Following this account, Deborah and Barak summarized this conflict in a song with mocking satiric elements.
Judges 5:1, 24-31 Then Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying: "Most blessed among women is Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite; blessed is she among women in tents. He asked for water, she gave milk; she brought out cream in a lordly bowl. She stretched her hand to the tent peg, her right hand to the workmen's hammer; she pounded Sisera, she pierced his head, she split and struck through his temple. At her feet he sank, he fell, he lay still; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead. The mother of Sisera looked through the window, and cried out through the lattice, 'Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarries the clatter of his chariots?' Her wisest ladies answered her, yes, she answered herself, 'Are they not finding and dividing the spoil: to every man a girl or two; for Sisera, plunder of dyed garments, plunder of garments embroidered and dyed, two pieces of dyed embroidery for the neck of the looter?' Thus let all Your enemies perish, O Lord! But let those who love Him be like the sun when it comes out in full strength. So the land had rest for forty years."
In quickly summarizing events, we see the mocking and sarcastic overtones of the whole scenario. First, she covered him with a rug or blanket. When he was cozy, he said, "Pray give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty". A little water? Why would he ask for a little water while wrapped in a rug? "A captain deserves better," she thought. "He asked water and she gave him milk, she brought him curds in a lordly bowl". At this point we already catch the mocking and sarcastic overtones of the dialogue. Jael's next act of hospitality was to "put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workman's mallet," crushing Sisera's head.
To complete the mockery, the poet multiplies the terms for Jael's actions ("struck," "crushed," "shattered," "pierced") and for its effects (Sisera "sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead,").
This, in turn, is followed by the mocking picture of Sisera's mother gazing through the lattice as she waited for her warrior son's return; as well as the fantasy that ran through the minds of the "wisest ladies" of the Canaanite court about the warrior's delay being caused by their "finding and dividing the spoil". We can easily imagine their wringing of hands in lustful and greedy anticipation of the wealth they dreamed would be dropped at their feet. But the reality was totally opposite to what they believed had happened.
Old Testament taunt songs likewise belong to the category of satiric humor. Isaiah 44:12-20, for example, heaps up scorn on the pagan who fashions an idol from wood, that he has also used for fuel, and then bowed down to the idol, saying, "Deliver me, for you are my god!" We see the absurdity in the things people will worship.
Even funnier is Elijah's taunting of the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel: either Baal "is thinking about something else, or he is on vacation, or maybe he is asleep or needs to be awakened."
I Kings 18:27-29 And so it was, at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, "Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened." So they cried aloud, and cut themselves, as was their custom, with knives and lances, until the blood gushed out on them. And when midday was past, they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice. But there was no voice; no one answered, no one paid attention.
Some of the satiric cutting remarks in Proverbs also make us chuckle but they also make a serious point.
An example is the excuses of the lazy person when the alarm wakes him in the morning: He says,
Proverbs 22:13 "There is a lion outside! I shall be slain in the streets!"
An exaggerated version of the lazy person yields the picture of the sluggard who...
Proverbs 19:24 ...buries his hand in the bowl, and will not so much as bring it to his mouth again.
The portrait of the nagging spouse is likewise humorous:
Proverbs 27:15 A continual dripping on a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike.
In Proverbs 26:17 on the subject of social pests, the situation in the simile is comical.
Proverbs 26:17 He who passes by and meddles in a quarrel not his own. Is like one who takes a dog by the ears.
Proverbs 26:18-19 Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, Is the man who deceives his neighbor, And says, "I was only joking!"
As though following this advice, the Bible is careful with its humor. Thus we see the witty inspiration of God in the Bible in careful and balanced presentation.
Ecclesiastes 10 also has a few humorous sketches: the shortsighted person who does not consider the consequences of his actions, the dunce who makes work harder, the person who puts on a good show but overlooks the obvious, and the fool who is worn out by his own folly.
Ecclesiastes 10:8-10, 15 He who digs a pit will fall into it, and whoever breaks through a wall will be bitten by a serpent. He who quarries stones may be hurt by them, and he who splits wood may be endangered by it. If the ax is dull, and one does not sharpen the edge, then he must use more strength; but wisdom brings success...The labor of fools wearies them, for they do not even know how to go to the city!
We see that satire applies to the use, especially in literature, of ridicule, sarcasm, and irony in exposing and attacking vices or follies.
We are all very familiar with humorous sarcasm. Dr. Lawrence J. Peter, author of the Peter Principle said, "Sarcasm is the sour cream of wit." It seems present around us in the world much of the time. We tend to enjoy it vicariously. But, when it comes our way we don't like it, because it hurts.
The comedian Emo Philips quipped this gem:
"I got into a fight one time with a really big guy, and he said, "I'm going to mop the floor with your face." I said, "You'll be sorry." He said, "Oh yeah? Why?" I said, "Well, you won't be able to get into the corners very well."
That is the type of sarcasm this world uses.
Sarcastic speech is not common in the Bible, and without hearing speech intonation, it's hard to detect. A clear example of God Himself using sarcasm is found in Amos 4:4-5.
Amos 4:4-5 "Come to Bethel and transgress, at Gilgal multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days. Offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving with leaven, proclaim and announce the freewill offerings; for this you love, you children of Israel!" Says the Lord God.
Notice how God attacks their actions as the manifestations of their wicked hearts. God's sarcasm is directed against rebelliousness and all other sin. God does not humiliate, but He humbles. There is a major difference! And the difference is in the attitude of the one expressing it.
The book of Job contains several examples, beginning simply with the designation of Job's acquaintances as "friends" and "comforters" when they mainly attacked Job and rendered his life miserable by their presence.
With this as a context, Job called his friends windbags: "Shall words of wind have an end?"
The voice from the whirlwind also resorted to some sarcasm. As God asked Job 80 scientific questions that were obviously beyond Job's comprehension, He interrupted the biology test to declare to Job, "Surely you know!" and again, "Do you know it, because you were born then, or because the number of your days is great?"
Job 40:1-2 Moreover the Lord answered Job, and said: "Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it."
Job 40:6-9 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: "Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me: "Would you indeed annul My judgment? Would you condemn Me that you may be justified? Have you an arm like God? Or can you thunder with a voice like His?
Job 40:15-17 "Look now at the behemoth, which I made along with you; he eats grass like an ox. See now, his strength is in his hips, and his power is in his stomach muscles. He moves his tail like a cedar; the sinews of his thighs are tightly knit.
Job 41:1-4 "Can you draw out Leviathan with a hook, or snare his tongue with a line which you lower? Can you put a reed through his nose, or pierce his jaw with a hook? Will he make many supplications to you? Will he speak softly to you? Will he make a covenant with you? Will you take him as a servant forever?
Job 42:1-6 Then Job answered the Lord and said: "I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You. You asked, 'Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?' Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Listen, please, and let me speak; you said, 'I will question you, and you shall answer Me.' I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes."
The effect of God's sarcasm is clearly seen as kindly but pointed. Yet, it is so pointed, it gets the point across.
Jesus could be sarcastic too. On one occasion He observed that He had to make His way to Jerusalem.
Luke 13:31-33 On that very day some Pharisees came, saying to Him, "Get out and depart from here, for Herod wants to kill You." And He said to them, "Go, tell that fox, 'Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.' Nevertheless I must journey today, tomorrow, and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem.
On the surface, you do not notice the sarcasm. But the reason why he said that a prophet could not perish elsewhere than in Jerusalem was probably because of the fact that many of the prophets had been slain there. Jesus was pointedly sending the message to the Pharisees that they were murderous against those whom God sent to Jerusalem. So, Christ may have said this—tongue in cheek—to express how much safer it was outside of Jerusalem, since Jerusalem was the primary domain of the Pharisees.
Jesus' sarcasm was directed at the wickedness of the Pharisees and its effect, rather than any individual. But the point got across to these individuals.
On another occasion, when Jews stood with stones in their hands ready to throw at Him, Jesus said, "Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?" We see that sarcasm applies to expression frequently in the form of irony that is intended to cut or wound the actions of evil intent, perpetuated by wicked men. Sarcasm is inappropriate for Christians to use to put down or humiliate other human beings. But Christ showed us how to use it in the right way.
Let's look at irony. Irony underlies virtually all humor in the Bible.
With his knack for just the right words, Dr. Lawrence J. Peter said,
"Irony is when you buy a suit with two pair of pants, and then burn a hole in the coat."
Verbal irony involves saying one thing while meaning its opposite. It is based on incongruity, and in its humorous reaches it often involves pretending an obvious impossibility to be possible or asserting something that is obviously contrary to facts.
When Jacob ran away secretively from Laban, with his family and herds after years of hostility between the two, Laban finally caught up with the group, hoping for some type of retaliation. He said with mock hurt, "Why did you flee away secretly, and steal away from me, and not tell me; for I might have sent you away with joy and songs, with timbrel and harp?"
Laban was the epitome of the straight-faced deceiver. In the incident of the substitute bride, when Jacob awoke the next morning to find Leah in his bed, Laban suddenly became the helpful travel guide, explaining native customs to a foreigner. He said, "It must not be done so in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn." The information was obviously true, but a little belated. (That is an understatement!)
Two examples of verbal irony. When Moses confronted Aaron with his offense in carving the golden calf "with an engraving tool", Aaron's explanation of how it all happened is a classic. Let's read the account:
Exodus 32:21-24 And Moses said to Aaron, "What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?" So Aaron said, "Do not let the anger of my lord become hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, 'Make us gods that shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.' And I said to them, 'Whoever has any gold, let them break it off.' So they gave it to me, and I cast it into the fire, and this calf came out."
What a lame excuse! (That is all I will say about that one...)
There is also the case of King Saul, assuring Samuel that he had destroyed the Amalekites while lambs and oxen that had been spared form a musical backdrop:
I Samuel 15:13-15 Then Samuel went to Saul, and Saul said to him, "Blessed are you of the Lord! I have performed the commandment of the Lord." But Samuel said, "What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?" And Saul said, "They have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and the oxen, to sacrifice to the Lord your God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed."
That was verbal irony! Even though there is such great seriousness in the situation, we see great humor in how lame the excuse is that is given.
Dramatic irony is created when the audience's superior information is in contrast to that of one or more characters in a story, and this too can result in humor. Biblical humor and wit often intermixes a variety of types of irony.
Look at the case of the Israelite judge Ehud's slaying of the Moabite king Eglon, recorded in Judges 3:15-30. Eglon whose name is literally translated the "fat calf", and is described as very fat, oppressed the people of God through exploitation.
Ehud's dagger punctured the obese king blade, hilt, and all. The fatal blow caused Eglon's bowels to loosen, which, in a sense of high dramatic irony, allowed Ehud to escape while Moabite guards waited around judging by the odor that their king was relieving himself.
We see the situation as disgusting and violent, but there is an element of humor in it because of the ridiculousness of the whole situation and the human reasoning involved.
Ehud magnified the comedy through verbal wit as well. He told Eglon he has a "word" for him??the dagger, of course. The pun involves another wordplay: the Hebrew expression for the weapon's two "edges" has the basic meaning of "mouths". The dagger's "mouths" surely have a "word" to say to the king. The double entendre embodies the joke.
In the story of Ehud's assassination of Eglon, the writer in effect exchanges a grim wink with the reader at the expense of the doomed victim. We know, as Eglon does not, that Ehud, a left-hander, is carrying a homemade weapon on the unexpected right side, where it escapes detection.
Ehud's words, like his sword, were double-edged, with his mention of a "secret message" for the king. The king was so impressed by the solemnity of the moment that he arose from his seat to receive the "secret message from God," which turned out to be a dagger in his fat belly.
The scene vented hostility toward Moab through its satire of the royal court and its flawed security, and Ehud's role as deft trickster would no doubt entertain any carnal Israelite audience. When comedy is aimed at a victim, it is only amusing to those who are aggressive or hostile toward the butt of the humor. The audience's attitudes, as well as motives, (e.g., laughing with verses laughing at) are important to consider in identifying humor.
That is a key principle in humor: Is it humor that is derived from enjoyment with somebody or is it humor directed at somebody? The difference between a Christian and a worldly person, when it comes to humor, is that a Christian laughs with rather than at another person.
We are known by the good or bad fruit we produce—some of which comes from our mouths.
Matthew 12:33-37 "Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."
Some of the humor in the Bible revolves around the names of characters. We should remember that in the biblical world names were viewed as defining a person and were something that a person either lived up to or had to live down.
The birth story of Jacob and Esau stresses the laughable aspects of the event, and the names of the brothers, based on events at their births, are approximately equivalent to "Hairy" and "Grabby" in our modern day translations. The name Isaac, meaning "he laughs," is based on the occasion when Abraham laughed in God's face when God predicted the birth of a son in Abraham's old age.
Sarah overheard God telling Abraham that his elderly wife would bear a son. Sarah laughed. When God challenged Sarah's apparent disbelief, she denied having laughed only to be contradicted by God.
The humor of Sarah's laughter here can be explained by three factors:
1.) A sense of the incongruous. The incongruity is the idea that a postmenopausal woman can conceive.
2.) A relaxed or lightheaded mood or attitude. The mood of the scene was festive and Sarah was uninhibited, thinking she was unnoticed (she didn't know how far God's ears reached).
3.) An effect of suddenness or surprise. In conjunction with the 3rd element we find a normal physical reaction??that of facial expression. We can easily picture the spontaneous shocked look on her face. The joke was unexpected??Sarah caught the conversation by accident.
This episode is related to where Sarah says, after giving birth, "God has made laughter for me; every one who hears will laugh over me". The implication is that Sarah's incongruous situation would be a source of humor to anyone.
A joke or humorous situation must be immediately perceived. Thinking about it or analyzing it, as we are doing here, kills the humor.
I mentioned Nabal and David earlier with regard to situation comedy. Nabal was as unfortunate in his name as in his personality and premature death. In Hebrew, the word Nabal sounds like the word for "fool." So when Abigail meets David, hoping to placate him after her husband's insult, she says,
I Samuel 25:25 "Please, let not my lord regard this scoundrel Nabal. For as his name is, so is he: Nabal is his name, and folly is with him!"
In a way his wife Abigail was saying, "Nabal is his name and folly is his game."
Jesus is a humorist, as I mentioned before. Humor exploits the observation of the absurd, the incongruous, and the comical, often poking fun at the foibles of human life. Wit is the quick perception of cleverness and ingenuity. Both humor and wit delight in deviations from what is expected or what is required in various social situations. They are often expressed by means of verbal subtleties, indirection, and clever turns of phrases. Consequently, humor and wit do not translate well from one culture, age, or language to another—as we see in the example of Nabal.
Context can also encourage or stifle our perception of humorous absurdity. When we read the biblical writings, preserved by centuries of interpretation and analysis, we often miss the light touches, sly remarks, witty expressions, and comical elements in them.
If there is a single person within the pages of the Bible that we can consider to be a humorist, it is without doubt Jesus.
There is a subtle, good-humored quality to his mind that is unmistakable and that emerges very clearly if we take time to extract his humorous sayings from the seriousness that also pervades His words. Jesus was a master of wordplay, irony, and satire, often with an element of humor intermixed.
The most characteristic form of Jesus' humor was the preposterous exaggeration. The recorded speeches and conversations of Jesus give us many humorous brief sketches:
People cleaning the outside of a cup but not the inside before drinking.
Straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.
Lighting a lamp and then putting it under a basket.
Going to an all-night party without sufficient oil for the small hand-held lamps of Jesus' day.
Trying to remove a speck out of someone's eye with a log in their own eye.
A camel passing through the eye of a needle.
We see absurdity in all these examples from a human standpoint. But the lessons in them are life changing.
The story of the healing of the man born blind makes wonderful use of irony, wit, and sarcasm. When the Pharisees interrogated the man, they challenged him to praise God and discredit Jesus as sinner.
John 9:25 "Whether He is a sinner or not I do not know. One thing I know: that though I was blind, now I see."
When the Pharisees ask (for a second time) how the healing occurred, the man answered,
John9:27 "I told you already, and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become His disciples?"
Later, when Jesus asked the man if he believed in the Son of Man, and he responds, "And who is He, sir?" Jesus answers,
John 9:37 "You [a man born blind] have both seen Him and it is He who is talking with you."
We see there how well the humor of Christ drives home the point in a subtle, but humorous, way. The story ends by underscoring the irony that those who could see have chosen blindness, while one who was born blind has received sight and come to faith.
Humor in the Bible celebrates the goodness of God, the world God created, and the life God gives.
God entered the world as a baby born to humble, struggling parents, is unrecognized by all but a few, and brought redemption to human beings by being crucified. Rejecting wisdom and signs, God chose to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached.
Stephen Leacock said, "Humor may be defined as the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life, and the artistic expression thereof. The essence of humor is human kindliness."
In Romans 12:10, the apostle Paul tells us to be "kindly affectionate to one another." This is certainly a vein in the right type of humor a Christian should have.
Either to under-emphasize humor or over-emphasize humor distorts the Bible. Although God's word is a predominantly serious book, one of its techniques for expressing character-building lessons is its humor. As we have seen, the humor of the Bible is not of the hilarious type, but of the subtle and intellectual type for which the term wit is often an accurate designation. The Bible is careful with its humor and God expects His saints to do the same.
Biblical situation comedy comes to life in embarrassing, inopportune or simply humorous situations that show the foolishness of our endeavors.
Biblical satire manifests itself in ridicule, sarcasm, and irony in exposing and attacking vices and follies of sin.
Biblical sarcasm many times shows itself in the form of irony that is intended to cut or wound, evil actions of wicked men. When God uses sarcasm it is for the purpose of humbling someone, not humiliating them.
Biblical irony exposes itself by pretending an obvious impossibility to be possible, or asserting something that is obviously contrary to facts, to show the paradox between God's truth and the human reasoning of this world.
The humor of the Bible is appropriate and teaches us to use our humor at the appropriate time, for the edification of our audience, (i.e., to make them happy and more knowledgeable).
Ecclesiastes 3:1-4 To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, And a time to die; A time to plant, And a time to pluck what is planted; A time to kill, And a time to heal; A time to break down, And a time to build up; A time to weep, And a time to laugh; A time to mourn, And a time to dance;
The Feast of Tabernacles is a time to be joyous! So we must be joyous and not let others irritate us. We should see the humor in our frustrations with ourselves and with others, not only here at the Feast, but also throughout the year.
God's wit is a positive means to bring learning and joy to our lives as Christians. But here at the Feast, our true joy doesn't come from the laughs we have with others, although it does enhance the Feast, if done in an appropriate and balanced way.
Our true joy comes from the realization and appreciation of what God's plan of salvation means to us! It comes from our hope and expectation of the coming kingdom of God. As we read in Nehemiah 8:10: "The joy of the Lord is your strength!"
The Berean: Daily Verse and Comment
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