Laughter in the Bible? Absolutely!

Robin Gallaher Branch on the lighter side of the Bible

“The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy.”—Proverbs 14:10

“A cheerful heart is a good medicine.”—Proverbs 17:22

Lighten up! Laughter is an important, and often overlooked, literary element in the Bible. Perhaps Vincent Van Gogh's Still Life with Bible could have used more pigments from his floral paintings? Photo: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Vincent van Gogh Foundation.

I remember one day resolving to do arduous work in 2 Chronicles. Studiously plowing through the reigns of Solomon through Jehoshaphat, I came to 2 Chronicles 21:20 and laughed outright. The text reads, “Jehoram was thirty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eight years. He passed away, to no one’s regret, and was buried in the City of David, but not in the tombs of the kings” (italics added). Being a wordsmith myself, I smiled at this bygone scribe relieved at this monarch’s death. Evidently Jehoram was not well liked. The editorial statement provides a light touch—comic relief, if you will—to the Chronicler’s usually routine kingship formula.

As I study and teach, I find I read the Bible ever more slowly, and as I do, I smile more and more frequently. I listen for its humor. My emotions span sorrow, understanding or joy as I empathize with the characters who cross its pages. I chuckle at many passages, even while acknowledging the sadness they may contain. Consequently, I believe it’s possible to read many verses, stories and even books through the lens of humor, indeed to see portions of the Bible as intended to be very funny. An appropriate response is laughter. I’ve come to this conclusion: Humor is a fundamental sub-theme in both testaments.
 


 
Leonard Greenspoon’s lighthearted Bible in the News columns are available in a new digital collection.
 

 

Laughter in the Hebrew Bible

Let’s start with an umbrella verse, Ecclesiastes 3:4: “A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” The Biblical text, always practical, acknowledges human emotions and makes boundaries for their proper use.

God’s Laughter in the Hebrew Bible

Let’s look at God’s laughter. After all, he’s the creator.

Consider Psalm 37:12-13: “The wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them; but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that their day is coming.” Laughter here shows the impotence of the wicked and the futility of their plots and gnashings against the righteous. Why? Because, as the psalm answers, those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land and the Lord knows the wicked face a reckoning.

God directs the same kind of laughter toward earthly hotshots who think their power exceeds his. Psalm 2:2, 4 declares that when “the kings of the earth take their stand,” marshalling themselves “against the Lord … and against his Anointed One,” then “the One enthroned in heaven laughs.”

But Zephaniah 3:17 illustrates joy, a different aspect of God’s laughter and character, one more consistently expressed throughout the Biblical text: “He will take great delight in you … he will rejoice over you with singing.” My students often are amazed that the idea of rejoicing carries with it the idea of physical activity. The verse presents this possibility: God’s delight can entail joyful songs and public dancing.

Who Is Responsible?

One story that makes me laugh is the conversation taking place somewhere on Mt. Sinai between God and Moses. The recently-released Hebrew slaves are sinning by worshipping a calf made of gold and declaring that it, not the Lord, led them out of Egypt (Exodus 32:4-6). Neither God nor Moses wants these rowdies at this moment. Like a hot potato, responsibility for the former slaves passes back and forth between them.
 


 
Robin Gallaher Branch has written several Bible History Daily-exclusive character studies. Read her commentary on Judith, Barnabas, Anna and Tabitha.
 

 
The Lord swaps first, telling Moses the reveling Israelites are “your people” (v. 7) (italics added). But Moses quickly catches on. He declines association with them. As far as Moses is concerned, these people are not his! Morphing into intercession mode and speaking in what no doubt is a respectful tone, Moses rejoins, “O, Lord, why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?” (v. 11) (italics added). He reminds the Lord of his promise to his servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel to make their descendants “as numerous as the stars in the sky” (v. 13). This scene’s humor softens the chapter, which ends sorrowfully. The Israelites’ sin leads quickly to the deaths of many by plague, and thus the chapter ends (Exodus 32:35). The chapter’s structure incorporates dialogue, rebellion, crisis, and punishment.

Biblical Humor Through Innuendo

Consider Genesis 18:10-15, wherein God informs Abraham and Sarah they will have a son by “this time next year” (v. 10). Sarah openly laughs, thinking she is worn out and now will have sexual pleasure again (v. 11). After all, she is about 89! We learn later that Abraham, probably about 99, also thought along sexual lines. He believed God could give him and Sarah descendants and make them parents even though he—as a man—was “as good as dead” (Hebrews 11:11-12). The idea of fathering a child at his age struck him as funny.

Humorous Books in the Hebrew Bible

Whole books in the Hebrew Bible have strong elements of humor. An ongoing humorous element in the Book of Esther is the number of banquets it mentions. There number at least 10, thereby forming the book’s structure and carrying much of its action. One wonders: Do these rulers do anything except dine and wine and plot and whine?

We are meant to laugh and learn throughout the Book of Jonah. Yes, we can laugh at Jonah’s open disobedience of going west to Tarshish when God commands him to go northeast to Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-3); at Jonah’s “time out” to think about things in the belly of the great fish (1:17a); at his pouting, obstinate silence for three days while being digested (1:17b); at his being vomited by the great fish on dry land—somewhere probably in the Mediterranean world (2:10); at his terse, seven-word sermon to Nineveh (3:4); at his anger over the success of this sermon, the repentance of the entire city (4:1). But the laughter is sometimes tinged with sadness, for Jonah’s anger prevails and he never understands God’s compassion for those who do not know him and for their cattle (4:11). Indeed everything in the Book of Jonah—the sailors, sea, big fish, gourd vine, hot wind and the Ninevites—obeys God. Everything and everybody except one: Jonah. God shows his colors of compassion and mercy—and Jonah disdains them.
 


 
The BAS DVD Bible Stories: How Narratives Work and What They Reveal is a fascinating look at some of the most famous stories of the Hebrew Bible with professor Ziony Zevit.
 

 

Humor in the New Testament

The New Testament, similarly, abounds with laughter. Jesus must have been a compelling personality to keep the attention of crowds for days and the steadfast loyalty of at least twelve disciples for three years. In addition to being a riveting teacher whose words brought life, he was likely the kind of personality that was just fun to be around.

For example, a crowd numbering about 5,000 men followed him to a solitary place (Mark 6:30-44). Jesus’ teaching evidently made people forget to eat, bring food or worry about work.

In his classic work The Humor of Christ, Elton Trueblood lists thirty humorous passages in the Synopic Gospels. In one way or another, they’re all one liners, parables or stories Jesus told. Trueblood thinks Jesus’ audience would have laughed at the image of those who loudly proclaim their righteous actions to others (Matt. 6:2) because it was all too prevalent. An audience would have found the idea of rulers calling themselves benefactors ludicrous (Luke 22:25)—because the working folks knew all too well it wasn’t so. No doubt the audience chuckled when Jesus commended the vociferous, obstreperous widow for her persistent pestering of the unjust judge and cited her as a successful model of prayer (Luke 18:1-8).

Paul employs humor in his letter to the new church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). He addresses several problems reported to him. The problems—pride, exclusivity and attitudes of “I don’t need or want you”—could destroy the new church, for they counter the love Jesus taughtInstead of singling out by name troublemakers in Corinth, he allegorizes the situation in a humorous, non-threatening, open way: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, I don’t need you’” (v. 12:21). Paul affirms the need of all parts, and their need to function in unity, in the Body of Christ.

In the home of Jairus, a synagogue ruler, Jesus uses practical knowledge to break a tense situation. Jairus’ twelve-year-old daughter just died. Jesus, three of his disciples and the child’s parents fill the room (Mark 5:40). Jesus goes to the body, picks up the girl’s hand, says to her, “Talitha koum!” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!” (v. 41). The girl immediately gets up and walks around the room (v. 42a). Mark records the reaction of those in the room as “completely astonished” (v. 42b); in other words, they’re probably stunned and silent. Jesus responds with something practical: He tells them to give her something to eat (v. 43). A natural human reaction—when grief is turned to unexpected joy as when a dead girl is brought back to life—is something loud like laughter or shouting. Here, Jesus cracks a joke by reminding everybody that a girl who has been sick, experienced death, and is now alive is hungry! Of course she needs to eat! All twelve year-olds have ravenous appetites! This practical, timely and kind statement from Jesus breaks all the tension, pent-up grief and amazement present in the room among the girl’s parents and Jesus’ three disciples. I read this scene as Jesus’ cracking a joke. And the proper appreciation of a joke is laughter.
 


 
Read Robin Branch’s Bible History Daily feature “What’s Funny About the Gospel of Mark?
 

 
Robin Branch

Robin Gallaher Branch

Robin Gallaher Branch is professor of Biblical studies at Victory University (formerly Crichton College) in Memphis, Tennessee, and Extraordinary Associate Professor in the Faculty of Theology at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. She received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies from the University of Texas in Austin in 2000. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for the 2002-2003 academic year to the Faculty of Theology at North-West University. Her most recent book is Jereboam’s Wife: The Enduring Contributions of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women (Hendrickson, 2009). Contact Dr. Branch.

Posted in Bible Interpretation.

Tagged with , , , , , , .

Add Your Comments

29 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. JAllan says

    I have long thought that Christian moral teaching based on the LITERAL reading of His parables would have taken a different turn had the Gospel writers not dropped the “laugh track” from their manuscripts. Getting a camel (a non-Kosher beast, by the way) through the eye of a needle, literally or metaphorically, is inherently ludicrous, for example. Straining out gnats (which even today’s observant Jews strive to do, in order to avoid even ACCIDENTALLY eating non-Kosher insects with their salads) but swallowing camels (totally not Kosher) is, in Jewish culture, an obvious joke on the hypocrites, which would have made the crowd laugh.

    The best use of humor by Jesus, bordering on the offensive or “non-PC” in his culture, is in the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man of UNSPECIFIED race, religion, and ethnicity is robbed and left on the road for dead. The priest and the Levite pass by on the other side of the road, not only because of their lack of compassion, but to avoid touching blood, or possibly a dead man, which would have made them ritually impure and required a waiting time and a cleansing ritual before they could resume their duties (many poor people in His audience would have likely seen that behavior in their “betters”). In other words, their allegiance to their religious beliefs CAUSED them (or at least provided a valid excuse) to avoid helping a human being. One example of this attitude today is the hostile attitude toward health care reform by politicians who have a quasi-religious ideology telling them that IF people can only get help THAT WAY, then the people who need help should not BE helped.

    But the SAMARITAN, the man who was considered RACIALLY inferior, RELIGIOUSLY wrong and wicked, who would NEVER have been able to make himself ritually pure (or marry their daughters!) in the eyes of the most pious Jews in His audience; HE IS THE ONE praised by Jesus for his compassion.

    Jesus certainly taught His followers to obey the Torah to the best of their ability, but he also taught that the ETHICAL and humanitarian commandments have a higher PRIORITY than the ritual commandments, if they come into conflict (a lesson which later Diaspora Jews have also emphasized; the Israel Defense Force is open for business 7 days a week, and will respond to attacks even on Yom Kippur). And in this parable, He pointed out that even people who do NOT belong to the fellowship of the Torah know the most important parts of it instinctively, as part of being human, and can please the Lord more than uncompassionate, bigoted religious extremists. By the way, humanity’s suffering would be relieved, and the planet saved from much misery, with less population growth; are you listening, Cardinals and Holy Father?

  2. Rev. Nancylee R. Cater says

    My favorite humorous story in the Hebrew Bible is Moses confronting Aaron with the golden calf. Aaron stammers it wasn’t his idea — he just took the gold they brought “and I threw it in the fire, and our came this calf!” (Ex. 32:24) Cracks me up every time I read it! So glad to see scholars talking about humor in the Bible. God gives us freedom, and nothing is more liberating than laughter.

  3. CAROL says

    My favorite humorous story in the New Testament (Covenant) is at Cana when Mother Mary tells Jesus to help and he tells her it’s not time yet but he goes and has the head waiter fill the jars with water and when they taste it, it’s better than the wine they were drinking! After my husband and I had a trip to Israel a long time ago and tried the Cana wine– it really is funny.

  4. Benjamin says

    This is a lovely article with some delightful examples, but there have been others who have written on this topic. In particular, I refer to the work of the late Rabbi Samuel Sandmel, in his book “The Enjoyment of Scripture” had a significant discussion of the use of humor in the Tanakh.

  5. JAllan says

    Jesus was lucky the “revenooers” didn’t catch Him at Cana! Which brings up the question, did the Romans tax homemade Jewish wine? I doubt it, but if anyone finds a receipt for alcohol taxes, please let us know.

  6. JAllan says

    Which reminds me of an old story. Father O’Malley was driving through Boston and was stopped by a police officer for speeding. The cop noticed his silver flask on the passenger seat, and asked what was in it. The priest replied that it was holy water, and the cop asked to check it. Opening the lid, he sniffed, then tasted, a fine Irish whiskey. Confronted with this evidence, the priest exclaimed, “Saints be praised! It’s a MIRACLE!”

  7. tim says

    Isn’t the story of Jesus kneeling, writing in the dirt, waiting for the stones to come against the woman caught in adultery, supposed to include maybe a zinger He wrote?

    Plus, the oft-missed detail that when the lone rock came whizzing by from the back of the crowd, the Lord says: “MOTHER!!”

  8. J says

    As a child brought up in a very straight laced family I was shocked when our new Minister cracked jokes from the pulpit! Many years later I was equally shocked by the portrayal in a television programme of Jesus having fun with his followers. Now in my late sixties I am so grateful that our God has a great sense of humour. It has carried us through many difficult times. Prof Robin Gallaher Branch has an knack of finding and pointing out what should perhaps be obvious and helps us to see humour in Scripture where we had perhaps not seen it before . Thank God for laughter.

  9. Larry says

    I “think” this was intentionally humorous: Early in Genesis, God explains how to make an altar, don’t make it fancy out of stones, and don’t add a staircase to get up to it, “lest your naked parts be seen on the way up”

  10. Paul says

    Larry, her interpretation is consistant with Exodus 20:25,26, in that she found humor in natural occuring scriptural formations. Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” is an example of an alter decorated with stones imported from elsewhere. Although I suspect it is true that the rulers then did not like to be laughed at as is the case today.
    In the Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 33b, we have the story of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai who was forced to study in self-imposed exile because the Roman authorities didn’t like his off-the-cuff remarks when responding to praises heaped on the accomplishments of the Roman Empire; “They made markets, they made bathhouses, they made bridges.” To which Rabbi Yohai responded, “What they made, they made for themselves. they made markets so they could set prostitutes there, bathhouses so they could enjoy themselves, bridges to collect a toll.”

  11. Mark says

    Thanks for the article Robin. Thanks also to the respondents. I was interested to read J Allen’s response with reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Whilst you do recognise the punch line, I think you have – in some ways missed the joke. Jesus does set up his listeners for a surprise by his use of the first two characters – both of whom his Jewish listeners would have readily identified with and whose actions they would have been surprised by (“impurity” is not an issue as they are headed away from the Temple and it is not a permanent state). We’re not really sure why they didn’t assist. I’d say fear might have played a big part in their response as it would mine – which is what Jesus is asking us to consider. Amy Jill Levine, published elsewhere in this publication, suggests that by having a Priest and Levite walk by that the audience would have then expected an Israelite. That the third character is a Samaritan is indeed surprising, especially if we consider that the accosted man might have been Jewish: after all enmity between Jews and Samaritans seems to have been mutual. I think we need to be careful that our humour is not at the expense of the other and doesn’t rely on anti-Jewish stereotypes.

  12. Julia says

    The greatest mirth I derive from Scripture, as a whole, is that God always has the last word over all our situations and all the other people in our lives.

  13. Grant says

    I wish I was able to read the Bible in its original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek). I’m sure a lot of humor is buried in the original lanugages that included alternate meanings and “double entendre”. The meanings of names also can be humorous at times. The account in Genesis 19 is a good example. God tells Lot, after he flees Sodom, to go to the mountains. Lot, however, in fear of fleeing to the mountains, requests to go to a nearby city. “Is it not a small thing?” he states. This has double meanings. It can be taken to mean that his request was a “small thing”, however the city he wishes to go to was named “Zoar” which name means “small thing”! Also humorous is that fact that Lot eventually leaves Zoar to go to the mountains anyway! God must have laughed!

  14. Krzysztof says

    Yeh.
    Also to call “Moses” the author of “….the servant of God,Moses died there in Moab” (Deutoronomy 34:5) is super laughable.

  15. david says

    Then there’s the saying that proves we can make God laugh. “Tell God your plans. He loves to laugh.”

  16. David says

    I now you don’t mean it like this but that picture is offensive to Jews. We are very careful with our sacred books out of respect (I have spoken to Christians and been surprised that they don’t even have a concept of not taking the Bible into the bathroom). Anyway, NOTHING goes on top of a Bible in Jewish Law (especially the khumash–the Pentateuch. To do so is very disrespectful. And in the picture you have there the only book lying down with English books on top it is the… khumash! Please remove the picture in the interest of comity. Thanks.

  17. Dan says

    How about Acts20:9-12…Paul, talking his head off, puts a guy to sleep who then falls from the 3rd floor window and dies. Paul rushes down, raises him from the dead, then runs back upstairs, breaks bread, eats and resumes talking until dawn…at which time the others take the formerly dead guy home to rest…ROTFL!!!

  18. yossi says

    Hi,

    I totally agree with you Robin, among most human reaction, laughter takes definitely a central point in human behavior to harshness. I came across this Poker Bible, with content that exactly proves this, http://www.titanpoker.com/bible.html
    wdyt? is this sacrilege?

  19. yossi says

    Hi Robin,

    I totally agree in that humor conveys no disrespect to religious matters, on the opposite, it reaffirms that the religious matter is a serious one, but all human ventilate pretty well through humor, something that exemplifies this I saw at http://www.titanpoker.com/bible.html

    thnx
    Yossi

  20. Grant says

    In the Visual Bible’s book of Matthew video, Bruce Marchiano does a wonderful job of portraying a joyful Jesus
    who plays and wrestles with his disciples even as he acts out parables with them. Also he brings out the humour
    In the sermon on the mount — imagine the concept of someone with a beam of wood in their own eye! And trying
    to see around that to advise someone else with a sliver in theirs. So obviously humorous, but so often missed.

  21. diana says

    Thank you for sharing this.
    Jonah is my favorite book when I need to remind myself that resistance towards doing the right thing is futile when you have God guiding your life. His childish reactions are so funny. Like a normal 10year old told to clean up his room.
    The Bible is serious work but God did gift us with laughter so humor must be part of His Word.

  22. Catherine says

    When I see some of Gods creatures on Discovery channel how funny looking they are I say yes God does have a great sense of humor Amen!

  23. Mary says

    Thank you for pointing out the humor in the bible. My old bible is 62 years old and never once in any service I attended did a minister point out any humor associated with it. I can now point out to my grandchildren that God found great humor in creating man which he passed on to them.

  24. James says

    Robin,

    Love your stuff. Been doing the same for the past decade. Check the product on our website http://www.biblelimericks.com. Of course, I’d like to hear your comments and suggestions for improvement.

    Jim Burgoon

Continuing the Discussion

  1. links: this went thru my mind | preachersmith linked to this post on August 22, 2013

    [...] Humor in the Bible: Laughter in the Bible? Absolutely! [...]

  2. 5 Minute Bible | Humour in the Bible elsewhere linked to this post on August 24, 2013

    [...] If you have been enjoying my series on humour you may be interested in an article at BAR:  Laughter in the Bible? Absolutely! I think Branch suffers from the lack of criteria and I’d be less confident of some of her [...]

  3. Does God Have a Sense of Humour? - The Imaginative Conservative linked to this post on January 25, 2014

    [...] New Testament, claims a professor in Biblical Archeology magazine, “abounds with laughter.” One wonders if she’s using the Latin Vulgate, the King James [...]

  4. links: this went thru my mind | preachersmith linked to this post on July 26, 2014

    […] Bible & humor: Laughter in the Bible? Absolutely! […]


Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.


Enter Your Log In Credentials

Change Password

×