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.

The religion section of most bookstores includes an amazing array of Bibles. In our free eBook The Holy Bible: A Buyer’s Guide, prominent Biblical scholars Leonard Greenspoon and Harvey Minkoff expertly guide you through 21 different Bible translations (or versions) and address their content, text, style and religious orientation.

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 religion section of most bookstores includes an amazing array of Bibles. In our free eBook The Holy Bible: A Buyer’s Guide, prominent Biblical scholars Leonard Greenspoon and Harvey Minkoff expertly guide you through 21 different Bible translations (or versions) and address their content, text, style and religious orientation.

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).
 


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


 
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 taught. Instead 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.
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on August 21, 2013.
 


 
Robin BranchRobin Gallaher Branch 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).
 


 

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  • David says

    Robin Gallaher Branch, a truly excellent piece of writing, you did. Thank you.
    It was just what I was looking for to answer my question: “Why do people believe that G_d has no sense of humor?”

  • Jahshn says

    Be of good cheer my bother.You will have your chance now to see if your house will stand. I have word that you testing cometh and will not tarry.And to be sure if you a in America then you are in Egypt, Look and see that Ephriam hath brought Egypt and his Gods with him. Pyramids adorn every city and Horus’s eye is incorparated in every county ,state and judicial building on the lay out and landscaping and to be sure the bulls are worshiped here in Austin,Tx we also have the Frost bank you can see its in the form of molech whom they make their Children to pass through the fire the catacombs are also set up under the city for tombs and when Our Lord passes Through they will bring to bones of kings and princes whom the have slain .The Frost tower is an owl whom they worship here along the river i seen in oct hooting like owls as calls to each other all along the water ways chanting witches” is he gonna die is he gonna die die.” To Christians who came upon their pagan idol worship.Also the glass inthe tower is a bluish glass thats only found in one other building the world its sister in New York 3 to the 3 power 33 or 3times square times square. Thr Chrysler building a idol also and the boiller next to it is Prometheus a idol and time dosent permite me to Go over the whole sceam but you can believe there are eight mabey more Buildings and stucture dedicated to Demons and the worship of them. Not to mention the goddess of liberty on a build suppose seperated by law church and state.But it okay with everybody in America that the Babylonian transvestit be given a temple that whar it is a big temple to a hermaphrodite a bearded he she with teets and Armenianes on Washington and the city set on point according to heights measurment grooves, bodys of water and refective ponds, graven images, to water gods tree nymphs the doller is a witch craft tile set up as a spell to bring us back in unity with Egypt “one” the chain on the pyramid,horus,magi and the the other bound the star of David,Ephraim and Manassas and eagle,armed forces a little owl in the hidden place as the hidden hand.This is that same cult of temple worshipers stephen peach to before they stoned him Said you stiffnecked fool ye aways did resist to Holy spirit who say we wouldnt have killed the prophets i f we had live in our fathers day
    said you are witness that you are the children of them that killed the prophets that the blood from righteous Able and all the prophets till now upon your heads they killed Christ the murdered Christian being the military arm of the Catholic Church till Pope got spooked then they took Pope captive in 1798 during thr french revelation.The first beast reciving it deadly wound Rev 13 and then and now serve the 2 beast coming out of the sea two horns like a lamb but speaking like a dragon exercising all the authority of the first beast and propping up the first beast making an image to it setting the mark it is the Protestant Church Tha Angelican Crusades that left all the true Church and Her doctrine burnt one the countryside my peo people burned at the stakes in England and by those puritan frauds that have a zeal in out apperances and works of the flesh

  • Kirk says

    My guiding/guardian angel came to me in a dream one night to explain my mind was troubled because I was taking myself too seriously. She said God doesn’t take your mistakes any more seriously than you took those your little 3 year old child made – in fact, if you’ll recall, you were charmed and amused at his sincere but mistaken ideas. You may be an adult but never believe you are too old to be more or less than a beloved child of God. So lighten up, look in the mirror… and laugh!
    I tried It. It works.

  • Art says

    To me the funniest part in the Bible is when Jesus goes on a long talk ending with “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Then Phillip says “But when do we get to see the Father?” I always picture all the other apostles looking quietly at Phillip while Jesus closes his eyes and drops his head.

    I also picture Jesus quietly eating His meal after appearing to the apostles post-resurrection. Then He looks up to see everyone staring at Him with their jaws dropped. What the Bible doesn’t tell us that as Jesus sees everyone gaping at him He says “What?”

  • seth says

    One of the funniest lines in the whole tanach is exodus 14:11.
    The setup: Egypt, then as now, was well-known & famous for its tombs. The Old Kingdom pyramids were already centuries old by the time of the Exodus. The Egyptians are pursuing the Jews; any other people, having just seen all the miracles of the plagues, would beseech G-d & Moses for another. Not us; we say, “What?!? There weren’t enough tombs in Egypt? You had to take us out here to the desert to kill us?” The line could be in any Jewish comic’s current standup routine. Sarcastic. Nasty. Smartass. Hysterical. Obviously us.

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