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:
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 comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it” (Numbers 11:20).
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.
Consider God’s comeback to Job’s cries of frustration: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (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: “Shout louder! Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened” (I Kings 18:27).
Names are very important in the Hebrew Scriptures. God told Abraham to name his soon-to-be-born son Isaac (“he laughs”) because Abraham and Sarah laughed when hearing that she would give birth to a son (Genesis 17:19).
Laban said to Jacob: “Name (nakvah) your wages, and I will pay them” (Genesis 30:28). The word nakvah means designate or name. However, this word has exactly the same spelling in Hebrew as nekevah, which means female. This is a clever pun and refers to the fact that previously Jacob worked for fourteen years for the hand of Rachel.
The Book of Proverbs describes the woman who lacks discretion and the contentious woman in this way: “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion” (Proverbs 11:22). “Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife” (Proverbs 25:24).
The lazy individual is pictured like this: “As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed” (Proverbs 26:14). “The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth” (Proverbs 26:15).
When Balaam called himself: “one who hears the words of God, who has knowledge from the Most High” (Numbers 24:16), God showed Balaam that his own donkey saw things that Balaam did not. The donkey 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: ” ‘What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?’ Balaam answered the donkey, ‘You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.’ The donkey said to Balaam, ‘Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?’ ” (Numbers 22:28-30)
So humor in the Bible always points to something greater happening, or some greater truth. It makes the reader stop and pay attention.