Is the Bible ever funny? The question was put to me by an older friend. This friend had two worries about the Christian faith. One was that he would get to heaven and discover that there was no sporting competition there. He lived for his games and his teams. The second was that in heaven no one laughed. That God and the Bible do not have a sense of humor.
I’ve thought often about the question since: does the Bible have a sense of humor? The Bible speaks often enough of laughing but usually someone is laughing at someone else—the laughter of scorn and derision. Hardly what my friend was looking for.
Occasionally the Bible speaks of laughter at a party, but these stories usually don’t turn out well. In the account of David bringing up the ark of the covenant from the house of Abinadab to Jerusalem, we’re told that “David and all were laughing before Yhwh” (2 Samuel 6:5; 1 Chronicles 13:8), but Yhwh seems not to have been amused. A verse later, when the oxen pulling the cart with the ark stumbled and Uzzah reached out to steady it, he was struck dead. The mood suddenly changes, and David decides to leave the ark in the house of Obed-Edom, the Gittite, for a long time. Not funny.
If the story of the ark is not funny at all, the story of the death of Samson verges on shock humor. The Philistines have captured the great strongman and put out his eyes. At a great thanksgiving festival dedicated to Dagon, the Philistine god, Samson is summoned to come to the festival and “make them laugh” (Judges 16:25). Samson, ever the entertainer, brings down the house. You can read the story in Judges 16.
Reaching in a different biblical direction, the old preacher in Ecclesiastes tells us that that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh” (3:4), but none of these citations answers my friend’s question: Does anyone in the Bible have a sense of humor? The answer is that there is at least one, the writer we know as J, the Yahwist (called J because the Germans, who named this source, don’t have a Y; they use J instead).
J is the storyteller in Genesis. J may in fact not be a single person—an author in the modern sense. Books were not put together in the same way in the ancient world as they are in the modern world, but regardless of how these stories came to be written, the voice here, the storyteller’s voice, has a wry sense of humor, what one might take to be the beginnings of Jewish humor.
I’ve already noted the amusement with which J tells the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). In the story, the Babylonians say to each other, let’s build a tower, a mudbrick tower held together with tar, that “reaches to the skies” (verse 4), no less, quoting an Akkadian cliché. We with our Sunday School illustrations and our lack of sophistication in reading these stories, don’t get the joke. When the story was written, the tower had long before been built. And rebuilt. And rebuilt again. Mud bricks don’t make a great towers. Etenemanki, the partially ruined colossus in Babylon, becomes the butt of J’s joke and a parable about human pretensions. We still tell it for that reason, even if we don’t entirely get the joke.
Humor for J is mostly in the telling. Take the story of Sarah laughing. Already you have an interesting premise: a story about someone who laughs at the wrong time and, as it turns out, laughs at God. At the beginning of the story, Abraham is sitting under the tent flap whiling away the time when he sees three strangers, who seem just to pop into view. The fact that they appear without seeming to have come anywhere should be clue that something auspicious is going on. Abraham, who falls all over himself to make them feel welcome and to stay for dinner, seems to take the appearance of the strangers in that way. He scurries around, telling Sarah to make bread, a servant to butcher a calf, and he, like men ever since, will do the grilling. The three men stay, although probably not because of Abraham’s skill at the barbecue pit.
While they are talking and eating, Sarah is lurking nearby as women in that culture must always have done so she can overhear their conversation. One of the strangers—it turns out to be Yhwh himself—says that Sarah will have a baby. She laughs and says, “When I’m worn out and my husband is old, I’m going to get it on?” The last phrase is my weak attempt to capture the Hebrew. The word Sarah uses, that I’ve translated “get it on,” is the feminine of eden, as in the Garden of Eden. In the translation, I’ve also lost a small but important element of the way Sarah says it. The phrase, “and my husband is old” is last in the sentence. She waits until last to say that the real problem is not her; it’s Abraham.
And then comes a dialogue about laughing. Yhwh says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh.” Sarah, joining the conversation says, “I didn’t.” Yhwh says, “You did.” All of this puns on the name of the son who will be born to Sarah and Abraham, Isaac, whose name contains the word for laughter (Genesis 21:6).
There is probably more going on in this story than we from this distance can appreciate. We may not be getting all of the jokes, but note at whose expense the jokes come: at the expense of the ancestors of the Jews, Abraham and Sarah. No hero worship here. This is a way of laughing at themselves. From such shmoos we come, the story seems to say.
If that’s true of this story of Sarah and Abraham, it’s more true of the story of Jacob. It’s in the Jacob story that J and J’s humor truly arrive. In a previous post, I talked about the story of Jacob’s ladder or, better, Jacob’s ziggurat—stairway to heaven. There’s humor everywhere in the story, from Jacob first sleeping with a rock at his head and then standing the rock up as a sacred pillar to mark what he claims is the house of God (Bethel) and the gate of heaven to his laughable promise to God that if everything in his life turns out the way he, Jacob, wants it to turn out, he’ll pay God back. The story pokes holes in the pretensions of Bethel as an ancient sanctuary associated with Jacob. It lets Jacob foolishly prattle on about what he will do for Yhwh when the whole point of the dream has been what Yhwh will do for and through him. It’s an exercise in missing the point. It’s one of the most scathing parodies of religious people every written, and, yes, it’s funny.
There are other stories that are funny in the Jacob narrative. I love the story of Jacob and the striped and spotted and speckled sheep. Jacob creates an elaborate scheme of putting sticks in front of sheep, sticks that have been peeled so as to be striped or spotted or speckled so that when sheep mate in front of the peeled sticks, they will produce striped or spotted or speckled sheep. So goes Jacob’s theory. This is all to benefit Jacob’s bank account. The agreement with Laban, his father-in-law, is that the solid-colored sheep belong to Laban, and the others—the striped and spotted and speckled sheep—belong to Jacob. And it all appears to work, but we know, and the storyteller knows, and, I think, Jacob himself knows that it’s a joke. As Jacob himself says later, it was God who blessed him (31:42), not that he was so clever with peeled sticks or in any other way.
This, by the way, could be turned into a parable about churches. From time to time, churches suddenly grow to enormous size. Think the Crystal Cathedral or Willowcreek or Saddleback. When they do, the question arises: how did they do it? The leaders of such churches are usually eager to explain. They assemble a workshop, invite other pastors and church leaders, an explain just how they did it. Everyone at the conference takes this account of the success of the church as gospel and takes it back their own churches. But the story turns out to be a variety of putting striped and spotted and speckled poles in front of sheep before they mate. It has little to do with why the church grew. The reasons given may have as little do with what actually happened as Jacob’s peeled poles did for his sheep. That, I think, is the subtext of the sheep story: beware of your own explanations for your success. They credit where little credit is due.
But to me the funniest story in the whole Jacob narrative is the story about Jacob meeting Rachel. It comes at the beginning of chapter 29 right after the ziggurat dream story. Jacob has arrived at last in Harran, although he appears not to know exactly where he is, GPSs having not yet been invented. He comes upon a remarkable sight: a well in a field with flocks of sheep lying around it. On the top of the well is a huge stone.
Jacob, ever the gladhander, comes up to the well and greets the shepherds with what would idiomatically translate to, “Hey bros, where you all from?” They say “Harran,” which tips off Jacob to where he is. He asks about his uncle Laban, and they tell him that not only do they know Laban but that, as they speak, Laban’s daughter Rachel is approaching with her flock of sheep. Jacob takes one look at Rachel, and he goes into full macho-mode. He runs to the well, rips the stone off the top—the stone we’ve been told can’t be moved until everyone is there—waters Rachel’s sheep, runs back to her, kisses her, and begins to cry. What a guy! we want to say, strong and sensitive.
The story goes on in this mode. When Rachel finds out who Jacob is, she runs to her house and tells her father. He in turn runs to the well, kisses Jacob—a lot of running and kissing in this story—and brings him home. But enough. The humor is broad and obvious. And as I said earlier, there is something quintessentially Jewish about it. It mocks the very ancestor whose name they bear, Israel. Jacob is Israel, not just because he comes to bear the name, but because these stories are as much about the people as they are about the man. The stories J tells are not just stories about the past, but stories about the present. And under J’s telling of the stories is that wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humor. We are such schmucks, it says, but God still loves us, as God loved Jacob.
For me, there is something reassuring about this. In humor there is grace. When my friend first asked me the question, Is there humor in the Bible? I hadn’t read deeply enough in Genesis to tell him about the stories. He died some years ago. I hope he knows now better than I do that there is laughter in heaven, laughter of the sort we find in the delicious and graceful humor of the J stories.