Jewish Humor… In the Bible?
God writes a lot of good comedy, it’s just that he has so many bad actors.”
The purpose of the Bible is not to entertain, but to instruct and so its subtle humor serves a purpose-to show people what ought to be in comparison to what exists.
Some examples of humor in the Bible include:
When Miriam made fun of Moses’ black Cushite wife, God gave her leprosy, in effect saying, “Miriam, you like white so much? I’ll give you white!” (Numbers 12:1-10).
In the book of Numbers, the Israelites complained that manna was not sufficient and demanded meat. God’s punishment was to give them meat until, “It is coming out of your nose and makes you nauseous” (Numbers 11:19-20).
The book of Esther contains much humor and irony. The people who are “on top” at the beginning of the book end in not-so-fortunate circumstances. For instance, Haman and his sons were hanged on the gallows Haman had prepared for Mordecai. Conversely, a more humble woman becomes queen and hero.
In the gospel accounts of his life, Yeshua (Jesus) says to the religious leaders of the time: “You strain a gnat and swallow a camel” to point out their inconsistency and hypocrisy.
Consider God’s comeback to Job’s cries of frustration: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4). Or, in other words, “When you create your own world, then you can tell me how to run mine.”
Elijah’s remarks to the prophets of Baal are steeped in sarcasm and irony (1 Kings 18:27):
“Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened.”
When David found out that King Saul wished to kill him, he fled from Israel and went to Gath. Fearful that Achish, King of Gath, would have him killed, David pretended to be insane. When his servants brought David to him, Achish said (1 Samuel 21:14b-15a): “Why do you bring him to me? Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this one to act the madman in my presence?
Names are very important in the Hebrew Scriptures. God told Abraham to name his soon-to-be-born son, Yitzchak (Genesis 17:19) because Abraham and Sarah laughed when hearing that she would give birth to a son.
It is written (Leviticus 19:4): “Do not turn to the idols (elilim).” The word for deities is usually elohim. The word elilim is connected with the Hebrew word al which means not or nought (see commentaries of Ibn Ezra and Rashi). A similar word is used in Job (13:4), “rofeh elil” to mean worthless.
Laban said to Jacob (Genesis 30:28): “Designate (Nakvah) to me your wages and I will give it.” The word nakvah means designate or specify. However, this word has exactly the same spelling as nekevah, which means female. This is a clever pun and refers to the fact that previously Jacob worked for females, i.e., he worked a total of 14 years for the hand of Rachel.
Boaz told Ruth (Ruth 2:12): “May the Lord reward your actions and may your payment be full (shlemah).” The word for full, shlemah, is spelled the same as Shlomo (Solomon) in Hebrew. One of Ruth’s most famous descendants was Solomon (see Midrash Ruth Rabbah 5:4). Jesus said to his disciple Peter, “On this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Peter, or Petra, means rock.
The Book of Proverbs describes the contentious woman and the woman who lacks discretion in a clever manner. “As a gold ring in a swine’s snout, so is a beautiful woman from whom sense has departed” (Proverbs 11:22). “It is better to live in a desert than with a contentious and angry woman” (Proverbs 21:19). “It is better to live on a corner of a roof, than in a house of companionship with a quarrelsome wife” (Proverbs 25:24).
The fool is also described in graphic ways: “Like a dog that returns to his vomit, so does a fool repeat his folly” (Proverbs 26:11). Finally, the indolent individual: “The door turns on its hinges, and the lazy man on his bed” (Proverbs 26:14). “The lazy man buries his hand in the dish; it wearies him to return it to his mouth” (Proverbs 26:15).
In the gospels, Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:24).
When Balaam called himself (Numbers 24:16): “one who hears the sayings of God and knows the knowledge of the Most High,” God showed Balaam that his own donkey saw things that Balaam did not. The ass saw an angel standing in the way, but Balaam saw nothing. Balaam beat the donkey for not moving and God made the donkey speak like an intelligent individual (Numbers 22:28-30): “What have I done to you that you have beaten me . . .?” Balaam said, “Because you have mocked me; if only there were a sword in my hand, I would now have slain you.” The ass replied, “Am I not your donkey upon which you have ridden all your life until this day? Have I ever been wont to do such a thing to you?”
In the New Testament book of Acts, chapter 12, the night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with chains, with sentries guarding the entrance. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and woke him up and the chains fell off. Peter followed him out of the prison and went to the house where many people had gathered and were praying for him. Peter knocked at the door, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening the door and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!” “You’re out of your mind,” they told her.
So humor in the Bible always points to something greater happening, or some greater truth. It makes the reader stop and pay attention. Much of the humor in the Bible is ironic. Even Jesus’ somewhat humorous statements serve to point out that the religious leaders of the day weren’t seeing things as they really were, that they were so concentrated on the letter of the law, that they missed the spirit of the law and they further missed the fact that the Messiah they had yearned for was in front of them.
Was Jesus funny? Though there are instances where Jesus used hyperbole and biting repartee, the accounts of his life don’t exactly portray him as a comedian.
However, it seems natural that just as Jesus experienced weeping, so he would laugh, too. After all, it’s recorded that he spent time with children. But the accounts of his life focus on the main purpose of his coming: to die and rise again to give those who believe in him eternal life and joy.