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Humour in the Bible?

Evan R. Lewis

 This text is adapted from the script of
a Parish Education session


Around forty years ago NZ Presbyterians and Methodists decided to produce a joint faith statement,  in connection with the move towards church union.   Its one,  carefully inoffensive,  clause that has stayed in my memory was:

The Bible contains everything necessary for salvation.

I would like to think that includes humour.   How healing would the Bible be if it contained nothing at all for us to smile at?   Our task at this moment is to check out the scriptures for jocular material,  and consider the implications of what we find.

This may not be easy.   The biblical literature is from 1900 to 3000 years old.   Can we be sure of recognizing and understanding a joke 3000 years old?   On the other hand,  is there a danger that we will see humour where none was intended?   It gets complicated.   So my approach is to look for writing that could be of humorous intent,  and then start asking questions.

Likely texts will be fictions.   They will not need to be taken as sober historical reporting,  or actual personal experiences.   And they will contain an element of surprise or shock that gives them point  –  something beyond all ordinary expectation,  ridiculous,  exaggerated,  or irrational.

A prime candidate,  of course,  is the book of Jonah.   That is certainly fiction.   And it shocks by describing a prophet who is about as un-prophet-like as you could get.   When God commissions him he tries to run away.   And at the end of the story he is still telling God what God ought to have done.   Of course it's humour.   But good humour often has a purpose,  a target situation.   We may guess,  but we don't certainly know,  just what state of affairs was being commented on by the creator of this story.

You will probably be aware of the common scholarly understanding that there are four strands of tradition wound together in the opening books of the Bible.   They are generally referred to as  'J',  'E',  'D',  and  'P'.   These strands can be untangled with a fair degree of accuracy.   'D'  won't confuse us because it is confined to Deuteronomy,  as far as the Pentateuch is concerned.   'P'  is the contribution of the final Priestly editors.   It is to be found in Genesis 1,  which is their charter as it were.   Leviticus is 'P'  material.   'P'  provides quite a bit of genealogical material elsewhere,  which we tend to skip over anyway.   The  'P'  editors also modified some earlier story material which they considered sensitive from the priestly and temple point of view.   An example is the Flood story which they supplemented because,  in the original version,  it had a non-priest performing sacrifice.   (To provide sacrificial animals Noah was first said to have taken seven pairs of unclean animals into the ark.   For the priests one pair was enough.   Noah wouldn't have performed sacrifice.   However their edited version left both options in.   They also wanted to say that this was the moment when God gave permission for humanity to consume meat.   According to the priestly story in Genesis 1 we began as vegetarians.)

We will take note of  'E'  shortly.   'E'  is not always easy to separate out from 'J'.   However the point I want to make at the moment is that there is little or no sign of humour in  'D',  'E',  or 'P'.   In this respect 'J'  is so different from the others that it is hard not to agree that its author was being,  at the very least,  somewhat lighthearted   in his presentation of the story of human beginnings.   'J'  is the key Old Testament section which demands to be considered in our context.


I myself am persuaded by arguments that  'J',  the earliest part of the Bible to be written,  was a document prepared for King David.   Any respectable kingdom needed a national story to give it a divine foundation and to legitimate its ruler.   David,  the ruler of a new and successful kingdom,  must have instructed his scribe  to prepare an appropriate document.   The scribe was not working altogether in a vacuum.   He showed considerable knowledge of older Babylonian models,  and he would have had tribal traditions to draw upon.   Insofar as he gave his opus a historical form we need to remember that any event he wrote about would have happened three hundred years or more before the time in which he himself lived.   He presumably gives us some elements of historical memory,  but he,  and the tradition he listened to,  were also free to exercise creative imagination.   David wanted a good story.

If you can find a list of likely 'J' material it would be good to read the whole of it,  with our question in mind.   But in any case have a look at the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Genesis  –  the garden of Eden story.   And then visit Numbers 11 for the story of the Israelite craving for meat,  and Yahweh's response.   After that go to Numbers 22 to 24 for the obviously humorous story of Balaam and his talking donkey,  and the disappointment of Balak.

Hebrew religion began as the religion of tribal Israel.   Tribal Israel was powerfully committed to a God of social justice.   This was in contrast to almost every other religion of the region.   The others were for those at the top with little concern for the exploited peasantry.   Hebrew religion had to be different,  even Hebrew religion as written up for royal David.   David knew he had to respect the peasant sensitivities of most of the people  –  especially in the north.   Humour might well enter as an expression of the difference between egalitarian,  justice-centred,  religion and traditional top–down religions.

I am amused by the apparent incompetence of the god.   Yahweh made the human,  and then felt sorry for it and decided to provide an off-sider.   So he tried all those animals,  but none of them worked.   The human somehow wanted something more.   Then Yahweh did something really dangerous.   He split the human into a male and a female.   Now what was going to happen?   The creative possibilities of sex belonged strictly to the gods.   It had been no part of Yahweh's original plan to introduce sexuality to the human world.   And why did he put the tree of knowledge inside the garden  –  and draw particular attention to it with a  'Don't'  command?   What happened next was inevitable.

By the way,  'J' does not really think of this as a terrible disaster,  THE FALL.   That kind of thinking scarcely appeared in the Hebrew scriptures.   It showed up only near Christian times,  a thousand years later.   What happened really had to happen so that,  with a lot of hard work on Yahweh's part,  everything could come to a happy ending in David's time.   That comment suggests another kind of interpretation.   Perhaps it wasn't divine incompetence.   Perhaps it was a devious ploy on Yahweh's part to make things come out the way he wanted.   In that reading Eve is the real heroine of the story.   She was the one with the spunk to do what needed to be done,  to get human history started.

Incidentally,  after the northern kingdom,  Israel  (which was closer to its tribal roots)  split from Judah,  the northerners were unhappy with aspects of  'J'  –  its very pro–Judah tone,  as well as its 'hammy' way of depicting Yahweh.   So they undertook some revisions and additions,  which are now labelled  'E'.   In 'E'  Yahweh doesn't 'pop in' on people in a material fashion.   He comes in dreams and visions.   The dreaming bits in the Joseph story belong to 'E'.   And there is no humour in 'E'.   The account of Abraham being challenged to sacrifice Isaac is an 'E' story,  and there is nothing funny about that.   What we have in the Bible now is not pure 'J',  but 'JE' –  'J' as edited in the northern kingdom of Israel perhaps a hundred years after  'J'  was composed.

Though my case for humour in the Old Testament rests essentially with 'J',  you could certainly consider other possibilities. 

So,  what about the New Testament?

It is a bit disappointing to find that there isn't a single book in the New Testament whose author is tempted to make his point with humour.

But we can think about Jesus himself.   He didn't write any New Testament books.   He is inadequately represented to us by the gospel writers.   Matthew,  Mark,  Luke,  and John offer us what suits their own interests.   They have reshaped older traditions about Jesus  (which had been changed in the traditioning process anyway)  and happily created their own.   Still,  something reaches us,  even through their writings,  to make us feel that we are to some measure in touch with a different,  unique,  person.   We are led,  then,  to wonder about the parables of Jesus.

But,  of course,  we know the parables only as they have been passed down over two or three generations,  and then picked up by the gospel writers  (including the Gospel of Thomas)  to make their points.   The first rule,  then,  when we try to move back from a gospel presentation to something closer to the story Jesus may have told,  is to cross out everything that offers the evangelist's interpretation,  as well as the evangelist's idea of the situation that called the parable forth.   Take the story,  and only that.   Even then we will suspect that its wording has been coloured by what the writer,  or the tradition,  decided the parable meant.   However we have to do what we can with those pruned parable stories.

We know that these stories are fictions.   What we need to ask now is whether they contain the element of shock or surprise that may suggest they have  (or had)  a humorous dimension.

On the Jericho Road      (Luke 10:430-35)
      Commentators point out that the hearers would have guessed the ending as the story unfolded.   They would have expected  a priest,  a levite,  ...  and an Israelite,  one of the ordinary people.   That would have been a perfectly good teaching story about the need to care for the unfortunate.   The peasant hearers might well have seen themselves as the Israelite.   But Jesus didn't say  priest – levite – Israelite.   He said  priest – levite – Samaritan!   That was the shock – the joke if you like  –  though I don't know whether the first hearers laughed,  or simply let their mouths fall open.

Luke set the scene to explain the 'joke' before he told it  –  one of his bad habits.   But the bare story,  like any good story,  has a range of possible applications.   It leaves us free to choose according to our circumstances.   It could indeed teach compassion.   It could be a dig at the clergy.  Or it could be a warning not to stereotype people:  why should we take it for granted that a Samaritan could not have compassion for a Jew?

The mustard seed      (Matthew 13:31f)
      The prophet Ezekiel,  who was a priestly exile to Babylon,  declared  (17:22-24) that God intended to plant a little cedar twig and grow it into a great tree  –  a picture of God's intention to restore Israel to glory.   The story Jesus told compared God's plan to the planting of a weed seed.   Shock enough.

Incidentally,  as the story was told and retold in the tradition it began to pick up features of the Ezekiel version – the great tree providing shelter for the birds of the air.   This blunted what Jesus had to say,  and ultimately misunderstood him.

The leaven      (Matthew 13:33)
      In Jewish eyes leaven was impure,  and for that matter women were a source of defilement. The story seems to bring a satisfactory end through unwelcome means.   A surprising comparison.

The prodigal son      (Luke 15:11-31)
      In spite of what Luke would like us to think the father is hardly a symbol for God.   He has acted like a fool.   The hearers of a story about an older and younger son were not surprised to hear of the misbehaviour of the younger.   But scriptural comparisons  (Jacob,  Joseph,  David)  would lead them to expect the younger to be the winner in the end.   However even Luke could not actually say that the elder shut himself out.   In the story the father equally loves and welcomes both his sons.   The old expectation of the triumph of the younger is not really how things end up.

Careful analysis of almost all the parables,  even as reconstructed from their gospel presentations,  brings out puzzling and unexpectable features.   Jesus did not tell stories with obvious and predictable moral conclusions.   Jesus was in his own way a humorist.

In conclusion

The enquiry for humour in the Bible points us to two major candidates.   It interests me greatly that these are linked with the two great creative moments in the Jewish and Christian tradition,  both of them moments of social liberation.

It is true that David's kingdom was not itself liberation.   It was actually the end of the line for tribal Israel.   But David's foundation document honours the claim for social justice that was fundamental to tribal Israel.   Humour,  especially good humour,  is a mood indicator.   David and those close to him must have felt on top of the world  –  at the height of his success.   That has a lot to do with the light–hearted character of David's foundation document.

The contribution of Jesus was not Christian theology,  for goodness' sake!   That is just a re–hash of the old temple theology.   Jesus could not have imagined it,  and would not have wanted to.   The gift of Jesus was  "the kingdom of God among you".   It was an actual effective response among his people to the insecurity and pain of their life situation.   It worked while he was with them.   That has something to do with his humour  –  which was almost incomprehensible to those who came after.


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