What’s so funny in the Bible?
Dr. Steve Bishop came to the Seminary of the Southwest in 2004 and currently serves as the Associate Professor of Old Testament. Dr. Bishop's interests include poetry in the Hebrew Bible and literary translations of it in English as well as the influence of Hellenistic though on Hebrew wisdom literature.
The Bible doesn’t have any outright jokes that I’m aware of. You never read “A Levite, Idumean, and Samaritan walk into a bar . . .”. Yet there are several different types of humor in the biblical text.
Humor comes in many varieties: puns, satire, jokes, slapstick, caricature, irony, parody, sarcasm, and riddles to name a few. Most of the humor in the Old Testament is only obvious in the original language. Since much of the humor is in the form of wordplay and pun it is difficult to capture in an English translation. For instance, 1 Kings 11:26 tells us that Jeroboam’s mother’s name was Zeruah. This is in all likelihood an intentional caricature of her because the name means “leprous”, her name was probably Zeruiah, which means “fruitful”. But since Jeroboam is the king who inaugurates the demise of the northern kingdom the author likely saw his mother’s name as an easy target for lampooning.
Since humor is culturally and linguistically grounded we may identify passages as humorous that may not have been to the writers of the Bible. For example, when Abraham goes to purchase a cave to bury his wife Sarah he approaches a Hittite named Ephron and asks the price of the land (Gen. 23). Ephron insists that he will give the land to Abraham and he in turn insists that he will pay the full price of the land. Then Ephron says, “My lord, listen to me; a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver—what is that between you and me?” Abraham then pays him the four hundred shekels. Perhaps this was the way negotiations took place, but to me it is cause for a chuckle.
Perhaps the most noted occasion of humor in the Bible is found in the book of Jonah. A runaway prophet gets swallowed by a big fish, sits in the shade of a miraculously fast growing tree, and finally gets so frustrated with God and the weather that he begins talking about dying. When God sends a worm to eat the bush that is protecting Jonah from the heat of the day he has had enough. “But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”” (Jonah 4:9). Can’t you just see Jonah scrunch up his pouting face and in his best kindergarten voice threaten to hold his breath? The prophet is a comical character in this final exchange with God.
Finding humor in the Bible is possible if we are attentive and allow for the occasional wink and nod from the text. Though the Bible is a serious book our reading should always be open to moments of levity.