Seven Scholars Share Their Favourite Moments of Biblical Humour
Find out why N.T. Wright, Mariam Kovalishyn, and George Guthrie are chuckling while they parse those Greek and Hebrew verbs.
We rarely laugh when reading the Bible. Humour stumbles when it tries to transcend cultures—even when the cultures are contemporary. Throw in a two or three thousand year time-gap and things get even trickier.
That’s why we’ve asked seven outstanding biblical scholars to do an act of translation, to show us what is going on beneath the surface in some strange and amusing parts of the Old Testament and New Testament texts.
Here, seven biblical scholars share their favourite uses of biblical humour. Warning: If you’re part of that notable subset of the population that destines all puns to the seventh circle of hell, prepare to have your eschatology challenged. This (puns included) is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Phil Long—Professor of Old Testament, Regent College
Bodyguard or Executioner, Same Difference
In 1 Samuel 28, King David is in an edge-of-the-knife kind of situation—the extreme tension provides the set-up for the execution (hah!) of some fine gallows-humour wordplay.
David has gone over to the Philistines to escape Saul’s wrath, and has succeeded in duping Achish, the Philistine king, into thinking he would be his “servant for life” (27:12). In a not-too-surprising twist of fate, Achish goes to war with Saul, putting David in a precarious situation. Will he face Saul on the battlefield? Will he lift his hand against Yahweh’s anointed? Or will David turn on his Philistine host?
David and Achish clearly need to talk. When they do, the dialogue is full of veiled violence. It’s humourously grim.
Achish breaks the ice: “Understand that you and your men are to go out with me in the army.”
David responds: “Then you will see for yourself what your servant can do.” His phrasing is entirely non-committal and may have earned a wry smile from an ancient audience.
Achish’s next words would evoke smiles, if not outright laughter: “Very well, I will make you my bodyguard for life.” The humour lies in the fact that “bodyguard” is literally “keeper of my head,” and, of course, David has already collected one famous Philistine head (Goliath’s in Ch.17). Is Achish unwittingly offering to be the second? I’m sorry, were you here to guard my body or separate it from my head?
N.T. Wright—Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, University of St. Andrews
Tedious Old Testament Lists Should Make You Laugh. Not Sleep.
There is a wonderful passage in Genesis 14 which lists a lot
of unpronounceable kings and their countries and describes them making war on
each other. Then, as they are charging about the place, a lot of them fall into
bitumen pits. Try reading it out loud in church, and unless people are in
stitches by the end they haven’t seen the point—which is partly that God looks
down on all the stupid pomp and circumstance that petty humans get up to, and
lets them wallow in the result.
You get the same thing in Daniel 3, which lists all the self-important Babylonian officials—the satraps, the prefects, the governors, the counsellors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the provincial officials—and then repeats the list, making them sound like something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Then the king announces that everyone has to bow down and worship a golden statue “when they hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble”—a list of instruments which is repeated four times. We are meant to get the sense of an entire system puffed-up full with hot air, waiting for someone (Daniel and his friends) to come along with a little pin. The explosion, when it comes, is deadly serious, but the slapstick side of it is part of the point.
Take "Grappling with Galatians" with N. T. Wright, July 22–26 at Regent Summer Programs 2019.
Rosalee Velloso Ewell—Principal, Redcliffe College
That Time Your Friends Got You Incarcerated
Friends make us laugh, they make us cry, they are there for us. Usually, they’re not supposed to get us into prison.
Acts 16—the story of Paul’s journey to Macedonia—begins with a dramatic miraculous summons: “During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying: Come over to Macedonia and help us....”
Obediently, Paul and his companions sailed to Macedonia. But, despite the dramatic vision of a man, when Paul gets to Philippi, he’s led to meet a group of women, among them Lydia: They went “to the river to pray… and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia… was listening to us.” The Lord opens Lydia’s heart and she and her household are baptized. Lydia invites Paul and his companions over—“Come stay at my home”—ignoring cultural barriers of “us” and “them.”
Paul and his companions again try to go to “the place of prayer,” and again have an unexpected encounter—this time with a slave girl. Paul ends up casting out a spirit of divination from her, an act that eventually lands him in prison. Is this where that dramatic vision was summoning him?
The amusing contrast of Paul’s vision with the encounters he actually has turns into a deep and transformative friendship between Paul and that odd bunch of people who gathered by the river to pray. Many months later, in another prison, under persecution by civil and religious authorities, facing a very uncertain future, Paul writes to those friends in Philippi a letter of hope, joy and love.
There is humour in Luke’s narrative of Paul and the women, but it probes us to ask: What sort of friendships is God shaping and bringing together in our communities?
Take "Reading the Bible with the Global Church" with Rosalee Velloso Ewell, June 3–7 at Regent Summer Programs 2019.
George Guthrie—Professor of New Testament, Regent College
Jesus on Filtering Qamlas, Swallowing Gamlas
In Matthew, Jesus uses a prophetic play on words that must have been laugh-out-loud funny to the original audience. Speaking of the Pharisees’ preoccupation with legal minutiae, which went further than the requirements of the law itself, he noted, “You filter out a gnat while swallowing a camel!” (23:24). Leviticus describes certain types of flying insects as unclean, but according to legal experts of Jesus’ time, an insect smaller than a lentil, such as a gnat, would not contaminate a liquid (11:23). So those addressed by Jesus were preoccupied with trivia beyond even the applications determined by the “experts.” A camel, on the other hand, clearly was ceremonially unclean according to the Law (Lev. 11:4).
Lost in legal nonessentials, the Pharisees missed out on the obvious in what they claimed as authority for their teaching and practice. The “punny” thing, however, is that Jesus sets up the analogy with a delightful play on words: The Aramaic words for “gnat” and “camel” sound very similar, the former being qalma (or qamla) and the latter gamla. Imagine a Pharisee bent over a drink or a pot of soup, straining to get the tiny speck, that nagging gnat out, while a camel’s front legs and head are sticking out of his mouth! If you get the picture, you have to smile.
Take "Reading the Bible for Life: The Art and Joy of Hearing the New Testament"with George Guthrie, June 5–8 at Regent Summer Programs 2019.
Iain Provan—Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies, Regent College
Jump Ship! The Bilge Overflows with Irony.
The book of Jonah provides one of the most effective examples of humour in the Old Testament. “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it,” God commands his prophet (Jonah 1:2)—but “Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish” (1:3). In the ancient world, this is just about as far as one can go in the opposite direction. “Get up and go,” God tells Jonah in the Hebrew—but Jonah goes down to Joppa, down into the ship (both in v. 3), and down into the ship’s hold (v.5). His lack of piety contrasts starkly with that of the pagan sailors, who end up fearing the Lord greatly (v. 16). They know better than Jonah, who claims to “worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land” (v. 9), but is trying to escape from him on both. The sovereignty of God over the sea is soon demonstrated, as a great fish astonishingly shows up to rescue Jonah from his watery grave. He thanks God for saving him (2:7-9), but he takes a very different view when God later saves the people of Nineveh, who repent—hilariously and unexpectedly—upon hearing Jonah’s ridiculously brief sermon (3:4). By the end of the book, Jonah—“displeased and … angry” (4:1)—is the only creature who has not repented, including the Assyrian cows (3:8)! The humour presses home the message that the people of God are characteristically much less interested in the lost than God is—the God who is “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity”(4:2). They prefer judgment to redemption, whereas God’s preferences are the other way around.
Take "Psalms: Spiritual Guides for a Christian Journey" with Iain Provan, June 24–28 at Regent Summer Programs 2019.
Mariam Kovalishyn—Assistant Professor of New Testament, Regent College
James’s Pun Cuts like a Knife.
I’ve been working on James again this past year while I’ve been on leave, and I’m struck by his brilliant set-up in chapter 2. In the first half, he encourages his readers to consider how the law of neighbour love affects our human propensity for partiality, commenting, “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’ you are doing right (kalōs poieite)” (2:8). He observes that they likely aren’t, but it’s a good encouragement to keep on with loving their neighbours.
A few verses later, he gives a similar set up, but with a different outcome: “You believe that there is one God. Good (kalōs poieis)! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (2:19). The only difference from the earlier verse is the change from second plural to second singular, otherwise, it sounds the same. But this time, well, even the demons believe, and they shudder to prove it. What are you doing about your faith?
By setting them up with the parallel encouragements, James pops their bubble and subverts their self-satisfaction. They are left wondering whether they can possibly "do well" when they judge themselves in a self-satisfied way by checking off theological points that do not include a practical love of neighbour.
Take "New Testament Foundations" with Mariam Kovalishyn, July 22–August 2 at Regent Summer Programs 2019.
Sven Soderlund—Professor Emeritus Biblical Studies, Regent College
Where Did You Say Baal Was?
Many of us remember the grand old story of Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:16–40). In order to test who was the real god, Baal or Yahweh, Elijah throws down the gauntlet to the people gathered on the mountain: provide two bulls, one for me and one for the 450 prophets of Baal, and let the god who answers by fire be declared the real god.
Eager to take up the challenge, Baal’s prophets prepare their bull and dance around the altar calling on the name of their god from morning till noon. But as the narrator tersely puts it, “There was no response; no one answered.”
Confident in his position and determined to derive maximum dramatic effect from the scene, Elijah begins to taunt the prophets of Baal. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god, isn’t he? Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy or traveling.”
At least that’s how conventional translations have normally represented Elijah’s taunt. But how about that reference to Baal being “busy”? Busy in what way? Busy writing memos, having breakfast, conversing with a friend?
Probably none of those things. The verbal root underlying Elijah’s choice of word means “to draw aside” and Jewish exegetes were quick to understand this as a euphemism for being indisposed, that is “busy at the privy!”
Now it may be hard to imagine a self-respecting prophet like Elijah being so crude as to refer to a foreign god having gone aside to defecate. Or is it? Perhaps those old prophets were more earthy than we give them credit for. And why not? A little sassy humour in confrontation with the false prophets didn’t hurt his case. In the end, Elijah’s God did answer by fire and the prophets of Baal were left shamed by their god, who perhaps was busy relieving himself.
Still staunchly not tickled? We encourage you to check out Drew Lewis’s more extended dive into the somewhat Rom-com humour of Ruth—featuring what may just be ancient literature’s first “meet-cute.”
N.T. Wright’s contribution is taken from “Does God LOL,” Darton, Longman & Todd (26 June 2013). It is used by recommendation of the author, and with the permission of the editor and publisher.