Focus On Humor in the Apocrypha

Focus On Humor in the Apocrypha

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Humor in the Apocrypha

Leonard Greenspoon

For Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, the books of the Apocrypha are an integral part of their Old Testament. Many Protestant translations of the Bible also include the Apocrypha, grouped together between the Old and the New Testaments. Jewish Bibles, at least those of the past two thousand years, contain no apocryphal material at all.

This latter practice is somewhat ironic, since all of the books that make up the Apocrypha are Jewish in origin, dating from the two or three centuries just preceding the Christian era. But, whether or not the Apocrypha are part of your Bible, they are a good read—inspiring, if not inspired. Dramatic tales mix with wisdom poems, biting satires of idolatry, and moving historical narrative to insure that there is rarely a dull moment for those who peruse this literature.

Not surprising—not surprising to me, at least—the books of the Apocrypha also display a wide range of humor. As with "biblical" humor in general, not every reader will agree about every passage deemed humorous by one or another interpreter.

But there are some passages, in fact some rather large sections of apocryphal material that, in my view, are just plain funny. Take, for example, "Bel and the Dragon," an addition to the book of Daniel that is typically found at the end of the expanded text in all Greek manuscript traditions. The premise: "Now the Babylonians had an idol called Bel, and every day they provided for it twelve bushels of choice flour and forty sheep and six measures of wine" (v. 3, New Revised Standard Version [used in the following biblical citations]). What happened to this vast store of food? Bel ate it, of course—at least that's what all good Babylonians, from the king on down, thought: "Do you not think that Bel is a living God?" the king queried Daniel, "Do you not see how much he eats and drinks every day?" (v. 6).

It turns out that all of this food, properly prepared, was left every evening in the temple of Bel, the door of which was shut and sealed. Every morning, when the door was opened, the food was gone. And yet our hero Daniel was stridently unconvinced by this seemingly open-and-shut evidence: "Daniel laughed, and said: 'Do not be deceived, O king: for [Bel] is only clay inside and bronze outside, and it never ate or drank anything'" (v. 7).

In order to prove his case, Daniel set a trap, for he knew that "beneath the table" in the temple the priests of Bel "had made a hidden entrance, through which they used to go in regularly and consume the provisions" (v. 13). So, one evening, in the king's presence, Daniel had ashes strewn on the floor of the temple, which was then sealed by the king himself. Unaware of this, the priests, along with their equally ravenous spouses and offspring, sneaked in that night—that night was, for them, not different from any other—and devoured all of "Bel's" food (vv. 14–15). When the door was ceremoniously opened in the morning, the king, as well as the people and priests who had assembled, saw in the ashes "the footprints of men and women and children" (v. 20).

The king, naturally enough, was enraged. The priests and their families were killed, and the temple was destroyed. We, as readers, are thoroughly entertained; at the same time, our faith in "the living God, who created heaven and earth and has dominion over all living creatures" (v. 5) is buttressed.

The Babylonians had, as it were, another deity up their collective sleeves; namely "a great dragon" (v. 23). If these stories are taken as being in chronological order, the king must have been loath to give up his traditional beliefs, for he said to Daniel: "You cannot deny that this is a living god; so worship him" (v. 24). Daniel, challenging this pseudo-deity, asks permission from the king, which is granted, to "kill the dragon without sword or club" (v. 26).

"Then Daniel took pitch, fat, and hair, and boiled them together and made cakes, which he fed to the dragon. The dragon ate them, and burst open" (v. 27). We, as readers, are likely to burst also—not burst open, but burst out in laughter at this cross between The Food Network and Animal Planet.

But there is more. The king, who is accused, on the basis of these incidents, of becoming a Jew, is constrained to allow the rabble to throw Daniel into the lions' den (a clear reference to a similar, and—as it turns out—far more serious event in the book of Daniel, chapter 6). Just as this was happening in Babylon, the prophet Habakkuk in Judea "had made a stew and had broken bread into a bowl, and was going into the field to take it to the reapers" (v. 33). But, in an action reminiscent of Ezekiel's prophetic movements from Babylon to Jerusalem, "the angel of the lord took [Habakkuk] . . . by his hair" and "with the speed of the wind set him down in Babylon, right over the den." (v. 36). Is this intended to be dramatic and magisterial or pseudo-serious and laughable? In my view, the latter is the desired tone, as can be seen from Habakkuk's shouted remarks to Daniel: "Daniel! Daniel! Take the food that God has sent you" (v. 37). This salvation by take-out fast food is a far cry from divine deliverance elsewhere, even if Daniel intones the expected platitudes: "You have remembered me, O God, and have not forsaken those who love you" (v. 38).

Another addition to Daniel, "Susanna," features humor, although of a different sort. The story of Susanna is found at the beginning of the book of Daniel in some traditions, just before "Bel and the Dragon" in others. The former position seems more appropriate, at least dramatically, since it is in this story that Daniel is introduced as "a young lad" (v. 45). The tale of Susanna pits the virtuous Susanna against two dirty old men (elders of the people, no less) who, thwarted in their efforts to seduce the maiden, falsely accuse her of having an affair with a young man, who, having hidden in her garden, "came to her and lay with her" (v. 37).

The elders, making good on their threat, testified falsely against Susanna, and it is their word, not hers, that was believed. Alas, she was condemned to death. In the nick of time, "God aroused the holy spirit of a young lad named Daniel" (v. 45), who took it upon himself to clear Susanna of these false charges. He did so by separating the elders and then asking each one, "Under what tree did you see them [that is, Susanna and her supposed lover] being intimate with each other?" (v. 54). The first elder replies, "Under a mastic tree" (v. 54), to which Daniel (in v. 55) responds, "the angel of God . . . will immediately cut you in two." Where's the humor here? Not in the English, but in the Greek, where the terms for "mastic tree" and "cut" are so similar that they reveal intentional word play for ironic effect. The second elder replies, "Under an evergreen oak" (v. 58), to which Daniel (in v. 59) responds, "the angel of God is waiting with his sword to split you in two." In Greek, the terms for "evergreen oak" and "split" are so similar that they too reveal intentional word play for equally ironic effect.

Indeed, "innocent blood was saved that day" (v. 62) and "from that day onward Daniel had a great reputation among the people" (v. 64). Among the arsenal of Daniel's divinely bestowed weapons, so we learn, was a finely tuned ability at word play in addition to legal acumen that tripped up the elders on such a minor point, perhaps the only portion of their perjured testimony about which they had not concocted identical accounts.

For sustained satirical condemnation of idols and their worship, it is difficult to beat the "Letter of Jeremiah," purportedly sent by the prophet at the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E., but dated by scholars to a period at least three centuries later. Almost every one of the letter's seventy-three verses exposes the absolute folly of relying on an idol to do anything.

Here are some examples: The tongues of idols "are smoothed by the carpenter, and they themselves are overlaid with gold and silver; but they are false and cannot speak. People take gold and make crowns for the heads of their gods. . . . Sometimes the priests secretly take gold and silver from their gods and spend it on themselves, or even give some of it to the prostitutes on the terrace" (vv. 8–11). "For just as someone's dish is useless when it is broken, so are their gods when they have been set up in the temples" (v. 17). "They do not notice when their faces have been blackened by the smoke of the temple. Bats, swallows, and birds alight on their bodies and heads; and so do cats. From this you will know that they are not gods; so do not fear them" (vv. 20–23).

So it goes: "Having no feet, [idols] are carried on the shoulders of others, revealing to humankind their worthlessness. And those who serve them are put to shame because, if any of these gods falls to the ground, they themselves must pick it up" (vv. 26–27). "They are made by carpenters and goldsmiths; they can be nothing but what the artisans wish them to be. . . . Who then can fail to know that they are not gods?" (vv. 45, 52).

And there is more: "When fire breaks out in a temple of wooden gods overlaid with gold or silver, their priests will flee and escape, but the gods will be burnt up like timbers. . . . Gods made of wood and overlaid with silver and gold are unable to save themselves from thieves or robbers" (vv. 55, 57). And finally, in imagery that reminds me of The Wizard of Oz, we have this evocative verbal attack: "Like a scarecrow in a cucumber bed, which guards nothing, so are their gods of wood, overlaid with gold and silver. In the same way, their gods . . . are like a thornbush in a garden on which every bird perches; or like a corpse thrown out in the darkness" (vv. 70–71).

Indeed, the amused readers, from the Hellenistic period and beyond, of the Letter of Jeremiah will agree with its final words, which in context are something of a comic understatement: "Better therefore is someone upright who has no idols; such a person will be far above reproach."

While assiduously avoiding even the semblance of showing favoritism, I must admit that the book of Judith is among my favorite pieces of apocryphal literature. And it is also a book that lays out its humorous context at its very beginning: "It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh. In those days Arphaxad ruled over the Medes in Ecbatana. He built walls about Ecbatana with hewn stones three cubits thick and six cubits long; he made the walls seventy cubits high and fifty cubits wide. . . . Then King Nebuchadnezzar made war against King Arphaxad" (1:1–5). How many are the historical, architectural, and geographical blunders? Let me count them: Nebuchadnezzar was, of course, king of the Babylonians, not the Assyrians. Nineveh was destroyed some years before Nebuchadnezzar became king. A ruler of the Medes (or any other ancient people) named Arphaxad is not known from any other source. Ecbatana, although admittedly a fairly grand city, hardly enjoyed fortifications of the massive size described here.

Are these unintentional historical slips, demonstrating a prodigiously precarious knowledge of major figures and locales? Such an explanation cannot be taken seriously, any more than these verses can be. The author of Judith intentionally and with humorous effect sets out these inaccuracies to let readers know that what follows is not to be understood as a sober account of human dealings. Rather, he (or she) uses these obvious and easily correctable mistakes to alert readers to the thoroughly ironic nature of what follows.

Thus, for example, the march by Nebuchadnezzar's reputed general, Holofernes, takes the leader and his army through a swatch of the Ancient Near East that is both geographically confused and, on many occasions, terra incognita. This latter aspect is nowhere more evident than in the naming and setting of Holofernes' ultimate goal, the town of Bethulia—its identity and location unknown except for its appearance here in the book of Judith. Moreover, we may ask, how is it that Nebuchadnezzar could succeed in capturing so well guarded a metropolis as Ecbatana, yet end up with his armies stalled before a small, poorly defended outpost like Bethulia? Did the Babylonians—I mean the Assyrians—so quickly lose their military prowess? Or is it not the case that we are to recognize that the safety and security of a people and its cities are guaranteed not by the physical strength of their armies and fortifications, but rather by their faith in and reliance on God?

And, as it turns out, a woman, a woman who is herself a fully and ironically drawn character, embodies that faith and reliance. The efforts by the general Holofernes to seduce the apparently gorgeous Judith are, as is pretty well known, the very actions that bring about his own demise. As they engage in an extended series of nocturnal repartee, Holofernes, thinking only of the pleasure that surely awaits him, fails to sense the irony implicit in so much of Judith's language, as when, for example, he takes her references to "my lord" as applying to himself rather than to Judith's clearly drawn referent, the Lord God. Thus, at 11:5, Judith avers to Holofernes: "Accept the words of your slave, and let your servant speak in your presence. I will say nothing false to my lord this night." Indeed, Judith would say nothing false to her lord, the God of Israel; for Holofernes, on the other hand, her lord could be none other than General Holofernes himself.

Elsewhere, Judith is also able to use Holofernes' sense of self-importance to great ironic effect. For example, just before the climactic scene when Holofernes loses his head to Judith (well, I guess I'm engaging in a bit of ironic wordplay myself), Judith confides to Holofernes as her supposed lover who is offering her wine: "I will gladly drink, my lord, for today is the greatest day in my whole life" (12:18). To Holofernes, Judith's elation could refer only to the consummation of his lustful desire; for Judith, it was the consummation (in the sense of destruction) of Holofernes' life that she ardently looked forward to.

Indeed, it was he, and not she, who was so weakened by wine that he was rendered incapable of mounting any defense against the heroine's knife. In like manner, the general's death so weakened his soldiers that they could not even consider any further offensive actions against the beleaguered city of Bethulia.

Did Nebuchadnezzar truly command an army of Assyrians, with his general miserably failing to take the small town of Bethulia? Not likely. Did the author of the book of Judith intend its readers to take this narrative as an historically accurate account? Again, not likely. Is the portrayal of Israel's God as "great and glorious, wonderful in strength, invincible" (16:13) accurate? Absolutely. And the seriousness of this message is in no way diminished—it is in fact enhanced—by the humorous way in which it is recounted.

Another of my favorite apocryphal tales is the book of Tobit. Its convoluted narrative can be succinctly, if unsatisfactorily summarized in this way: Among the Jews living in Nineveh was a man named Tobit, whose piety led to his poverty, which was accompanied by his blindness. His son Tobias goes on a quest to collect some funds his father had deposited. Along the way he meets Sarah, daughter of Raguel and Edna, whose potentially happy married life had been repeatedly stymied by a demon. Aided by the angel Raphael, Tobias is able to collect the money, free Sarah from her demon possessor, marry Sarah, and heal his father. Ultimately, then, piety is rewarded, but not without any number of adventures fomented by foes of all sorts.

It is, I suppose, an open question as to the occurrences and nature of humor in this work. Nonetheless, I agree with those who discern humor in the names of many of the characters, especially the human ones: thus, throughout much of the book, the "Tob" (= good) element in the names of several characters is highly ironic, since very little, if anything good happens to them and much that seems evil results from their good intentions and actions. Edna, Raguel's wife and Sarah's mother, bears a name that means "pleasure," which is highly ironic for a woman whose life has been spent, at least up until Tobias's arrival, midst unhappiness and disappointment. On the other hand, the angel Raphael (with the verb from the root "to heal"), and his alter ego Azariah (with the verbal root "to help") are aptly named throughout the book.

A more thoroughgoing irony can be seen in Tobit's name. His very devotion to God led to his falling out of favor with one of the kings, Sennacherib. Tobit's insistence on burying a fellow Jew led to his blindness. The account of this incident is most interesting: "That same night I [Tobit] washed myself and went into my courtyard and slept by the wall of the courtyard, and my face was uncovered because of the heat. I did not know that there were sparrows on the wall; their fresh droppings fell into my eyes and produced white films" (2:9–10). There is no doubt that this is a tragedy and, moreover, one compounded by the fact that it resulted, at least indirectly, from his carrying out the honorable act of ensuring the burial of a fellow Jew. Nonetheless, I count myself among those who cannot resist the feeling that there is something inherently funny about this story. Of all the ways to go blind, this has got to be among the very strangest!

Elsewhere there are also comedic moments, possibly inserted to relieve the tension of the narrative. For example, directly after Tobit goes blind, his wife began to earn money as the family's breadwinner. As a result of her apparently hard work, she once received a young goat as a tip. Tobit assumed that she had stolen it or was at least aware of its theft. When Tobit realized his mistake, he "became flushed with anger. . . . Then she replied to me, 'Where are your acts of charity? Where are your righteous deeds? These things are known about you!'" (2:11–14). We can only imagine Tobit's feelings at that point; alas, his wife was anything but soothing!

Later in the story, when Tobias meets and marries Sarah, her family assumes that he will die, as had all of her previous bridegrooms. Thus, in the middle of the night, Sarah's father, Raguel, arose and went and dug a grave (8:9b). For the reader, who knows that it is the demon not Tobias who has suffered, this may well appear as slapstick, for in fact Raguel is needlessly working on this grave. In this instance, the humor may well heighten the seriousness of the prayers that bracket this activity. And finally, perhaps, we are left to puzzle out how the horrid odor Tobias produced ("he took the fish's liver and heart . . . and put them on the embers of the incense" [8:2]) had such a dramatic effect on the demon ("he fled to the remotest parts of Egypt" [8:3]), while Tobias and Sarah were completely unaffected by the stench.

As is the case with humor in the Protestant Old Testament (and Jewish Bible), there are no hard-and-fast rules that allow for its detection in the Apocrypha. However, in many instances, as we have seen, only a very inattentive reader could fail to detect and appreciate the scathingly satiric remarks addressed to idol worshippers (outside of Israel and, alas, within Israel as well). There is no doubt that word play is also used to comic effect by some of the writers of apocryphal literature. Here we must allow for the fact that we don't always know the original language of all the apocryphal works nor are all of them preserved in their original language.

The book of Judith provides a beautiful example, or rather a number of beautiful examples, of how an author provides readers, through the use of irony, with the key toward a correct understanding of his composition. The author of the book of Tobit was considerably more sparing in his use of humor, although several of his uses raise issues, which are serious enough, about the nature of the relationship between God and humans.

Let me close where I began, with an invitation to readers to set aside time to go through the Apocrypha. In the process, I urge you to set aside preconceptions about the appropriateness, or lack thereof, of humor in connection with the word of God. Even there, or perhaps especially there, there is room for the knowing laugh and even the appreciative guffaw.


  • Coogan, Michael D. ed., The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha. New Revised Standard Version, 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Moore, Carey A. Daniel, Esther, and Jeremiah: The Additions. Anchor Bible 44. Garden City N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977.
  • Moore, Carey A. Judith. Anchor Bible 40B. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985.
  • Moore, Carey A. Tobit. Anchor Bible 40A. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1996.

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Subject Entries and Commentary

Irony and Humor
Daniel and Additions to Daniel
Letter of Jeremiah
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