Focus On Humor in the Old Testament

Written by leading scholars, the Focus On essays are designed to stimulate thought and to explore in depth topics of interest in the field of Biblical studies. New essays on specific themes, with links to related content within the site for further reading, are published throughout the year. All visitors to Oxford Biblical Studies Online can access these essays, but related content links in Previous Features are available to subscribers only. Please visit the full collection of Focus On essays.

Update Alert Service: to receive an email notice and details when a new Focus On article or site update is posted, sign up for Oxford Biblical Studies Online update alerts.




Humor in the Old Testament

Leonard Greenspoon

A man cries over a plant that is dying due to a worm infestation. A mother imagines that her son, late from battle, has been delayed because of a celebratory dalliance with one or more young ladies. A world famous (or at least ancient Near Eastern famous) seer is so blind to the presence of a divine messenger that he requires a donkey to open his eyes, literally and figuratively. A king of Moab is so grotesquely overweight that his slaughter requires extra effort on the part of a left-handed Israelite. A man meticulously plans his own reward and his enemy's demise only to discover that it is his enemy who is royally regaled, while he himself meets his end at the stake. A brilliant and beautiful young woman is married to a rich older man whose foolishness, and lack of inhibitions around alcohol, leads to a particularly painful demise—for him. The priestly brother of a heroic figure, when caught red-handed with the result of his apostasy, a Golden Calf, refuses to accept any responsibility, passing the blame to both the people (who overpowered him with their words and their jewels) and the calf itself, which miraculously emerged, fully formed, from the fire. The first human murderer, a fratricide no less, is condemned to wander in a land whose very name connotes settling down.

In my view, these are all examples of biblical humor. Whether or not they elicit a laugh, a smile, or even a groan from the modern reader, they were intended to evoke some such reaction from those who heard or read these narratives in their original context. Moreover, I contend, these eight passages, taken from all three divisions of the Hebrew Bible (Torah, Nevi'im, Ketuvim), do not even begin to exhaust the deep reservoirs of humor that lie right on the surface, or just below the surface, in the biblical text. Although no two scholars would produce identical lists of humorous passages in the Bible, the total number of such instances would certainly be in the hundreds.

If biblical scholars disagree on the number of humorous passages, which is a matter of interpretation, they also differ on the (necessary and/or optional) elements of humor, which is a matter of definition. After consulting standard resources on this topic and taking into account my own well-calibrated sense of humor, I have to acknowledge that there is no (single) definition that successfully captures all instances of what is widely (if not universally) acknowledged as humor. At best, we can arrive at descriptions of humor—but this is something that, in my view, is best left to the end of the analysis rather than its beginning.

We will, therefore, turn to a fuller explication of the examples mentioned above. In presenting them for analysis, I am immediately faced with a quandary: In what order shall I present them? Into what categories shall I place them? Many such "categories" suggest themselves. For example, we could distinguish between humor directed at an individual with whom we laugh as opposed to one at whom we laugh. We could classify the stories by "types": some that depend upon a play on words; others can be fully appreciated within their immediate context; a third type appears to require knowledge of an entire book or perhaps of the whole Bible. Rather than wrestle with these thorny issues, I have decided to discuss each example in the order in which it shows up in the Hebrew Bible. An arbitrary solution, no doubt, but it does have the advantage of "tradition."

Genesis 4: The first human murderer, a fratricide no less, is condemned to wander in a land whose very name connotes settling down.

After having murdered his brother and pointlessly seeking to pin the blame anywhere but on himself, Cain is condemned by God to "become a ceaseless wanderer on earth" (Gen 4:12; here and elsewhere [unless otherwise noted)] biblical citations are taken from the Jewish Publication Society's Tanakh). The root of the Hebrew verb "to wander" is "n-w-d." Cain himself uses the same expression in v. 14, as part of his argument that his "punishment is too great to bear." After receiving a protective mark from God, we learn that Cain "settled in the land of Nod" (v. 16). Even those with no knowledge of biblical Hebrew are likely to discern that the proper name "Nod" derives from the same root as the verb "to wander."

What sort of settling (down), we may well ask, is Cain likely to experience in a land whose very name connotes (constant) wandering? Indeed, even though Cain's son is reputed to be the founder of the first city, a marker of settled life, most of Cain's descendants, those who dwell in tents, for example, seem consigned to the nomadic life style bequeathed them by their forbearer.

Exodus 32: The priestly brother of a heroic figure, when caught red-handed with the result of his apostasy, a Golden Calf, refuses to accept any responsibility, passing the blame to both the people (who overpowered him with their words and their jewels) and the calf itself, which miraculously emerged, fully formed, from the fire.

Few narratives are as memorable, or from a theological perspective as damning, as the account of the Golden Calf. The Israelites, made impatient and uncertain by Moses's extended stay on the mountain, demanded that Aaron, Moses's brother and apparently the interim leader, "make us a god who shall go before us" (Exod 32:1).

A more stalwart Aaron might, we can imagine, have put up some resistance; this Aaron, however, did not. Immediately, he commanded that everyone—man, woman, and child—"take off the gold rings that are on [your] ears." The crowd dutifully obeyed (vV. 2–3). Thereafter, we are told, Aaron crafted the offending and offensive being: after taking all of the gold rings, he "cast [them] in a mold and made [or, perhaps better, crafted] them into a molten calf" (v. 4). Not unexpectedly, the crowd exuberantly exclaimed: "This is your god [or, see Tanakh footnote, These are your gods], O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt" (v 4).

Lest we be in any doubt concerning Aaron's acquiescence to this entire affair, we need only look at his next action—"he built an altar"—and his next announcement—"Tomorrow shall be a festival of the LORD!" (v. 6). All of this constitutes, from the biblical perspective, a straightforward account of the extent of Aaron's complicity in this entire affair.

Does Aaron then come clean when confronted by his enraged brother at the latter's return from the mountain? Not exactly. He does admit to caving into popular pressure—but even in doing so—"You know this people is bent on evil" (v. 22)—he tried not so subtly to separate himself from the rest of Israel. He also admits to asking the people for their gold, at the same time notably truncating the scope of his original request (v. 24; cf. 2).

For Aaron, this is as far as he will go in his admission of guilt. Even though the biblical text had earlier narrated in some detail the active role he took in fashioning the calf, now, it seems, it all happened spontaneously, as if by magic: "They gave it to me," Aaron concludes, "and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf" (v. 24).

Moses' reaction to this painfully obvious obfuscation? We do not know, for Moses' attention was immediately drawn to the menacing nature of the people, who "were out of control—since Aaron had let them get out of control" (v. 25). Although this does not constitute an explicit condemnation of Aaron nor a direct rejection of his lame efforts to separate himself from the production of the calf itself, Moses' observation ("since Aaron had let them get out of control") is surely an implicit judgment on his brother's failure to exercise leadership over the people—and, more pointedly, over himself.

Numbers 22: A world famous (or at least ancient Near Eastern famous) seer is so blind to the presence of a divine messenger that he requires a donkey to open his eyes, literally and figuratively.

Balaam's reputation is attested in nonbiblical record in addition to the narratives in the book of Numbers. He was an individual who could see further, deeper, and clearer than other mere mortals. For this reason, he was summoned by the Moabite monarch Balak to curse the Israelites. And for this reason, Balaam refused to accede to this royal request without God's permission.

When God did at last give his okay, Balaam "saddled his [she-]ass and departed" (Num 22:21). For a man with such a vaulted reputation for the clarity of his eyes (or eyesight), Balaam was bested on several occasions by the ass upon which he rode. Three times (vv. 23, 25, 27) she caught sight of the angel of the Lord; poor Balaam saw nothing. Finally, in swift order, God opened the ass's mouth (v. 28) and Balaam's eyes (v. 31).

As was the case with Hagar (in Gen 21), the sight that God bestows on humans allows them to see things as they truly are. Make no mistake about it: Sarah cajoled Abraham into sending Hagar away as a means of dismissing her former handmaiden and  Hagar's child. Balak summoned Balaam to curse Israel. But with divinely given foresight, we, the reader, along with chosen characters within the Bible, learn—and see—that the puny plans of mortals can always be thwarted by the overarching perspective of providence.

Judges 3: A king of Moab is so grotesquely overweight that his slaughter requires extra effort on the part of a left-handed Israelite.

Not for the first time in the Hebrew Bible, or the last, the names given to characters are fully in keeping with at least some of their major characteristics. This is certainly the case with the two protagonists in the account found in the second half of Judges 3. We first encounter the story's hero, the judge Ehud, a left-handed man from the tribe of Benjamin (Judg 3:15). In passing, we can observe how unusual it is that the Hebrew Bible describes an individual as right- or left-handed.

Such a description serves two functions here: first, as a play on words—Ehud's tribe, Benjamin, literally means the son of the south, or right. (Ancient Israelites oriented themselves with the Mediterranean Sea behind them and East was straight ahead; so, the south was to their right.) Thus, it would not escape the notice of the reader that here was a "son of the south" or "the right hand" who was left-handed (the Hebrew for this phrase is literally "constricted as to his right hand," an expression that magnifies the play on words).

Second, because Ehud was left-handed, he strapped his sword to his right thigh. A minor detail, we might think, but crucial to the story and its outcome. We can easily imagine that the Moabite king's bodyguards, who would certainly have checked out anyone seeking admittance to their monarch, performed only a perfunctory check on Ehud, never thinking that the weapon would be on his right, rather than the expected left, thigh.

It is especially the name of the Moabite king, Eglon, that would have immediately attracted the attention of an ancient reader (his name first appears in v. 15, after the reference to the Benjaminite Ehud). Eglon comes from the same Hebrew root as the word for a fatted calf, often one prepared for sacrifice. And, of course, sacrifice is exactly what Eglon becomes at the hand of Ehud. The extended, rather gruesome description of Ehud's plunging of his sword through layers of Eglon's fat could not have failed to make the comparison clear.

Indeed, Ehud did have a "secret message" for the king—but not the one the Moabite ruler expected (vv. 19-22)! His sacrifice weakened the resolve of the Moabite army; its destruction allowed Israel to enjoy a period of peace and prosperity. Whatever moral qualms we may have about celebrating the downfall of an enemy, biblical writers seemed to draw upon just such incidents to display what might be termed the wicked side of their humor.

Judges 5: A mother imagines that her son, late from battle, has been delayed because of a celebratory dalliance with one or more young ladies.

Just after the one-on-one sacrifice or combat described in Judges, the author or editor of this biblical book provides both a prose (chapter 4) and poetic (chapter 5) account of a great battle that took place between the Israelites and the forces of the Canaanites. The Canaanite commander was Sisera; the Israelites were led by the prophet Deborah and her reluctant general Barak—in passing, we should note that although Barak, whose name (which means "lightning" in Hebrew) conveys a take-charge attitude, was in fact willing to lead the troops of Israel only if Deborah would go with him.

But the hero of his narrative is neither Deborah nor Barak, but a woman named Jael. As the battle turned against him, Sisera stormed into Jael's tent, seeking refuge and safety. Here is what he got instead (Judges 5:26–27):

She [Jael] struck Sisera, crushed his head,
Smashed and pierced his temple.
At her feet he sank, lay outstretched,
At her feet he sank, lay still;
Where he sank, there he lay—destroyed.

Although modern readers might well think of this lengthy, albeit poetic, description as rhetorical overkill, I think it brought a real sigh of relief, and a knowing smile, to ancient readers.

A broadening smile, if not more, would have been elicited by the continuation of the narrative. Sisera's mother looks anxiously out of her window, wondering what could be keeping her son ("Through the window peered Sisera's mother, behind the lattice she whined [or gazed]"(v. 28). She imagined that, after the Canaanite victory, he was spending much of his time with "a damsel or two" (v. 30). Indeed, her son had been passing a bit of time with one particular damsel—Jael, by name—but, as a result of that encounter, he would not be returning home, as his mother imagined, loaded with treasure.

Because being killed by a woman added "insult to injury" (see also, for example, the lamentable fate of the unlamented Abimelech, as described in Judges 9), these scenes, in my opinion, would have exposed Israel's enemies for what they were: powerless when on the attack against God's people. This is made clear by verse 31: "So may all Your enemies perish, O LORD!"

Again, we find expression of the idea that God often turns the carefully planned endeavors of humans toward his own ends. And again, the people of Israel are given leave to exult in the defeat of all of their enemies through the downfall of one of them.

1 Samuel 25: A brilliant and beautiful young woman is married to a rich older man whose foolishness, and lack of inhibitions around alcohol, leads to a particularly painful demise—for him.

Another woman figures prominently in the next example, which also features some highly significant—and, I would assert, ultimately rather humorous—names. Abigail (to whose name we will return shortly) cannot but recognize the aptness of her husband's name: "Please, my lord [that is, 1 Samuel 25:25).

Whether we translate the name as "boor" or, as I would prefer, "fool" (or maybe even better a "foolhardy" person), it is certain, as his exasperated and desperate spouse admits, that Nabal truly exemplified his name in all of its nuances and connotations. He is described as a very wealthy man who heedlessly and egregiously insults David, David's family, and David's retinue. Only the beauty of Abigail's body and of her words manages to forestall David's full-scale attack on Nabal.

When Abigail tells Nabal what she did, he is anything but happy. The biblical text records that shortly after the events recorded above, "the LORD struck Nabal, and he died" (v. 38). It is not long thereafter that David proposes marriage to Abigail, and she accepts (vv. 39–42).

Moreover, "n-b-l," the root of this word, appears as two nouns that also define this Nabal. One of these nouns often appears in the expression for "wine skin" (and is used once this way in this very chapter). Thus it is that another of Nabal's less than admirable traits, so we learn from this chapter, is that he was a drunk. So drunk was he after the feast that Abigail knew she needed to wait until the morning, until he had sobered up, to tell him of her intervention with David. The biblical expression here is that she waited "until the wine had gone out of Nabal" (translated less literally in the JPS Tanakh as "when Nabal had slept off the wine") or, we might say, until the wine skin that was Nabal was emptied of its contents.

The second noun from "n-b-l" is a feminine form ending with the Hebrew letter "he." With the vocalization (that is, vowels) I am thinking of, the word means carcass or corpse. Surely, Nabal was a "dead man" when he crossed David as he did. The same consonants also make up a noun meaning "foolishness," the very noun that Abigail used to describe her husband in her plea to David. Reading back then, we can sense a double play on words, as it were, by the narrator of this account.

Moreover, let's face it: all was not well with Abigail, either. Her name appears to be made up of the words for "my father" and "joy." But what kind of joy did her father actually provide her with? It seems that he was able to overlook all of Nabal's, well, Nabal-ness, focusing instead on his wealth.

But at least his daughter's marriage to David was a source of joy to her, right? After their madcap romancing, one might think so. Alas, the biblical text itself disabuses us of that hope. No sooner had she became his wife than "David also married Ahinoam of Jezreel"; as a result, "both of them became his wives" (v. 43). This nuptial announcement is immediately followed by the notice that "Saul had given his daughter, Michal, David's wife," to another man (v. 44). Surely, Abigail had traded up, as they say, from Nabal to David. But there was no reason to think that domestic tranquility would be the result!

Jonah 4: A man cries over a plant, probably a gourd, that is dying due to a worm infestation.

In the opinion of many biblical scholars, Nineveh. Jonah himself was displeased that the citizens of Nineveh repented their evil ways, thus averting God's wrath.

The prophet withdraws to a spot outside of the city, where God causes a plant—possibly a gourd—to sprout up so as to provide Jonah with shade during the heat of the day. But the following day God caused the plant to wither and the sun to beat down ever hotter. Job was "deeply grieved about the plant. . . so deeply that [he] want[ed] to die" (Jonah 4:9). At this point the LORD observed: "You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow. . . . And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons" (4:10–11).

The image of a prophet, sobbing over the loss of a single plant, is not—under most circumstances—a scene likely to elicit smiles, much less laughter. But in this context, some such reaction is perfectly appropriate, inasmuch as we are brought thereby to appreciate the depth and breadth of God's concern for all his creation, from a small plant to a great city and beyond, infinitely beyond.

Esther 5–7: A man meticulously plans his own reward and his enemy's demise only to discover that it is his enemy who is royally regaled, while he himself meets his end at the stake (or, on the gallows).

This extended example includes many features of humor that we identified earlier: God's thwarting the best-laid plans of an all too proud human, the pivotal role of a female, and careful attention to words and wordplays, to name a few. Like Jonah, the book of Esther is filled with a number of plots and subplots, the humor of which is not always immediately evident.

Very briefly, the tale narrates the marriage of Esther, a Jew, to Ahasuerus, king of Persia. This monarch learns of Esther's religion only after Haman, the story's villain, plots to annihilate the Jews, including Esther and her guardian Mordecai, who (like Haman) serves the king. Among the numerous subplots is the personal hatred that Haman bears for Mordecai, whom Haman conspires to hang on "a stake [or gallows] fifty cubits high" (Esther 5:9–14).

Although there is little humor evident in this summary, readers, especially those familiar with the account, know that everything Haman plans against his enemies will ultimately be done to him. Thus, midway through the story (6: 1–11), the king, suffering from insomnia, has his officials read some official state documents to him (was he hoping that they would be so boring that he would immediately fall asleep?). As it happens, the very passage they read told how Mordecai had saved the king from an assassination attempt, already related to us readers in Esther 2:21–23. It happened that Haman was walking (skulking?) by at that very minute and so the king queried him: "What should be done for a man whom the king desires to honor" (6:6). The biblical text explicitly notes that Haman presumptuously assumes it is he whom the king has in mind when he replies: "For the man whom the king desires to honor, let royal garb which the king has worn be brought, and a horse on which the king has ridden and on whose head a royal diadem has been set; and let the attire and the horse be put in the charge of one of the king's noble courtiers. And let the man whom the king desires to honor be attired and paraded on the horse through the city square, while they proclaim before him: This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor" (6:7–9).

Those in the know—that is, modern readers of this biblical book—are already laughing as Haman goes into such vivid detail to describe what he is sure is in store for him. Readers who aren't already in on the joke are not far behind, for they read: "'Quick, then!' said the king to Haman. 'Get the garb and the horse, as you have said, and do this to Mordecai the Jew, who sits in the king's gate. Omit nothing of all you have proposed'" (6:10). This reversal of fortune is not lost on at least one of the characters in the story itself: Zeresh, Haman's wife, who declares (6:12): "If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish stock, you will not overcome him; you will fall before him to your ruin."

This is the same Zeresh who only a little while earlier was urging Haman to construct the gallows for Mordecai. We are then not surprised, and might even enjoy more than a moment of pleasure, when we learn that it was not Mordecai, but Haman himself, who was hanged on the stake or gallows (Esther 7:9–10). Standing fifty cubits high (approximately 75 feet, the height of a six-story building), this would have constituted a very public execution of the once powerful villain—How the mighty have fallen!

Mordecai was promoted, and, we suppose, Esther and Ahasuerus lived happily ever after. Hopefully they all, as well as we, remember the lesson of this story, to which can be applied the words of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2: "The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts." This message, a serious one to be sure, nonetheless can bring a knowing chuckle to those who fully comprehend that there is nothing capricious in such reversals of fortune.

In reflecting upon the common features that link these examples, as well as the unique characteristics of each, I am led to a number of provisional conclusions. First, the points made through biblical humor are frequently quite serious and can often be related to material found in other sections of the Bible. This is especially true when the core issue or issues relates to the nature of God, the nature of humans, and their oft-times mutually frustrating relations.

Next, the wisdom and/or bravery exhibited by women and other "outsiders" is often expressed or acted out at the expense of those who appear to wield the most power. This is in keeping with the frequently articulated theme of biblical humor that demonstrates and reflects God's infinite ability to disrupt the plans of finite humans, especially the seemingly powerful. To the extent that we as readers identify with the once-victimized, now-vindicated, we are allowed, perhaps even encouraged, to take more than a modicum of delight in the downfall or reversal of fortune suffered by the once-high-and-mighty now laid-low.

Moreover, in the telling of these humorous tales, names often play a significant role in carrying the story. In order to pick up on associated wordplays, or more subtly nuances, a literal, broadly speaking formal, version is more helpful to those without direct access to the original languages than a functional, free rendering.

In sum, biblical humor is certainly not stand-up comedy nor is it especially cerebral either. Rather, it is participatory and fully in keeping with the overall themes and emphases of the Hebrew Bible. No biblical readers should be quizzed accusatorially when observed laughing at (or, better, along with) the Good Book. Rather, this question might be posed, gently of course, to those who read cover-to-cover without even a smile on their face: Why aren't you laughing—at least once in a while?

Bibliography


  • Brenner, Athalya, ed., Are We Amused?: Humour About Women In the Biblical World. Library Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies. New York and London: T & T Clarke, 2003.
  • Hyers Conrad. And God Created Laughter: The Bible as Divine Comedy. Atlanta: Westminster John Knox, 1987.
  • Radday, Yehuda T. and Athalya Brenner, eds. On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible. Bible and Literature Series 23. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990.
  • Whedbee, J. William. The Bible and the Comic Vision. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Subject Entries and Commentary


Irony and Humor
Esther
Cain and Abel
Aaron
Balaam
Judges
Samuel

Photo credit: Ms 139/1363 fol.31v Samson slaying the lion and Ehud stabbing Eglon, King of Moab, from 'Le Miroir de l'Humaine Salvation' (vellum), Flemish School, (15th century) / Musee Conde, Chantilly, France / Giraudon / The Bridgeman Art Library International.

Oxford University Press

© 2014. All Rights Reserved. Privacy policy and legal notice