Introduction to narrative :: Ruth :: Jonah

Hebrew narrative: Ruth and Jonah by Tim Bulkeley


Humour and irony

An unusual measure of critical agreement has been realized in descriptions of the Bible’s lack of humor. Yet the opinion represented by such statements as [Alfred North] Whitehead’s that "the total absence of humor from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all literature" relies on evidence which is the best equivocal.

Although some readers seem to find the idea of humour in the Word of God difficult, we can surely recognise that serious purpose does not exclude humour. Jesus' "camel sayings" are sufficient to end that notion:

You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! (Mat 23:24)

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. (Mat 19:24)

Just picture the poor Pharisee having carefully strained out the gnat, to avoid impurity drinking down a dirty smelly camel. Or the poor driver seeking to squeeze a supercilious camel through such a narrow opening ;)

So, what is the place of humour in biblical narrative? Whitehead’s position is evidently ridiculous, yet many Christians seem to assume that the Bible’s purpose is so serious that humour can have little place. On the other hand literary critics increasingly seem to find humour in almost every narrative text of Scripture!

Jesus camel sayings already illustrate that irony and humour are interrelated topics. Much biblical humour depends on irony, and much irony is humorous.

Irony: double speak

Irony is a way of speaking that implies a double audience, whose understanding differs. In what is often called "dramatic irony" a character in the narrative (which need not be a play) does not know some vital item of information that the audience knows. In much other ironic speech what is potentially missing for one audience is the fact that the speaker does not intend what they appear to be saying. "You just do that!" might be intended literally as an encouragement to act in the way you have been proposing, but often this phrase is spoken with more than a touch or irony, suggesting the speaker's belief that the proposed action would be foolish.

This double audience or double meaning of irony often results in the situation God described to Isaiah:

Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed. (Is 6:10)

Such a people will fail to really hear the divine irony of the prophet's speech, and prophetic speech often contains echoes of irony:

Come to Bethel -- and transgress; to Gilgal -- and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days; 5 bring a thank offering of leavened bread, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel! says the Lord GOD. (Amos 4:4‑5)

Both humour and irony are double-edged weapons, they add "bite" but may be missed by the hearer, and if they are the whole point of the speech it will be misunderstood. Yet the richness they add is a normal part of everyday human communication, if the Bible avoided humour and irony it would read as a "flat" machine-like text - think of the equipment manuals or legal texts that seek to avoid this complication!


Humour is used for many reasons: sometimes simply because it is fun, or perhaps to "lighten" a "heavy" passage, like irony humour can make a point sharper (e.g. satire), and teachers use stories as metaphors to explain new ideas (e.g. Jesus' parables).

Humour for pleasure

Some biblical humour seems simply to be for the pleasure it gives speaker and hearer. The story of Saul and the donkeys (1 Sam 9:1‑21) is told this way.

The first two verses seem to set the scene, what an impressive super-hero type introduction Saul gets:

There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish son of Abiel son of Zeror son of Becorath son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. (1 Sam 9:1)

Whakapapa as long as your arm, and wealthy too!

He had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else. (1 Sam 9:2)

And that's just the father, Saul himself is handsome, very very handsome, and tall, very very tall, too! This introduction is somewhat longer and more effusive than is usual in the Bible.

      Photo by vnysia

So, it comes as a shock in the next verse to find this very tall, very handsome, rich guy with a good ancestry - chasing donkeys! Verse four however turns the donkey chase into an epic journey, with a poetic-sounding list of the places they "passed through":

He passed through the hill country of Ephraim
   and passed through the land of Shalishah,
      but they did not find them.
And they passed through the land of Shaalim,
      but they were not there.
Then he passed through the land of Benjamin,
      but they did not find them. (1 Sam 9:4)

And, strange-sounding places they are, some of them, where are Shalishah and Shaalim? And did they really pass through ALL the hill country of Ephraim and through Benjamine as well? This list, with its unknown places and huge regions seems to underline that Saul and servant are shilly-shallying around all over the place even in Shalishah (somewhere no one has heard of) but they are NOT finding the donkeys.

At last they come to the land of Zuph, another unknown territory, doubtless far from home, Saul finally says to the poor servant: "Let us turn back, or my father will stop worrying about the donkeys and worry about us." Dad had said "Take one of the servants and go look for the lost donkeys." presumably expecting Saul, servant and donkeys home by teatime. But this super-hero has spent weeks shilly-shallying around and finally he works out it might be smart to go home before they get worried! Maybe Saul is not too bright - one or two donkeys short of a full herd.

The servant, by contrast, is made of sterner stuff, and knowledgeable with it.

There is a man of God in this town; he is a man held in honor. Whatever he says always comes true. Let us go there now; perhaps he will tell us about the journey on which we have set out. (1 Sam 9:6)

Or, perhaps he just knows that any real "quest" need a Gandalf figure for a proper beginning. "Oh", says Saul, "we've even run out of basic food, what can we give the holy man?" "Never mind", says the servant, "I've got cash!" Another clue that Saul is not the practical sort?

BTW v.9 is a nice example of the narrator "breaking the frame".

The incident with the "girls" is where the story shows us that these hints at humour have really been intended to be amusing us. The conversation starts off simply enough: "Is the seer here?", they say. However, before that attentive listeners will have pricked up their ears:

As they went up the hill to the town, they met some girls coming out to draw water...

We have a young man, in "foreign" (at least to him) territory, who meets girls coming out to draw water - where have you heard that story before? (Think before you click the link.)

I suspect something similar may have crossed the girls minds, as they meet this tall, handsome, rich stranger on their way to the well ;) Whatever, in reply to the simple question, they start to burble:

Yes, there he is just ahead of you. Hurry; he has come just now to the town, because the people have a sacrifice today at the shrine. As soon as you enter the town, you will find him, before he goes up to the shrine to eat. For the people will not eat until he comes, since he must bless the sacrifice; afterward those eat who are invited. Now go up, for you will meet him immediately. (1 Sam 9:12‑13)

This perhaps hints at what the girls are thinking. (What do unmarried girls think when faced with a very tall, exquisitely handsome, rich young man?) It also allows the narrator to repeat several times the information that Saul cannot miss Samuel:

Yes, there he is just ahead of you. Hurry; he has come just now to the town, because the people have a sacrifice today at the shrine. As soon as you enter the town, you will find him, before he goes up to the shrine to eat. For the people will not eat until he comes, since he must bless the sacrifice; afterward those eat who are invited [i.e. they will all be hungry with cold food if he is not already on his way!]. Now go up, for you will meet him immediately.

Lo, and behold, in the next verse who should they meet coming out of the gate as promised, but Samuel the famous seer. There follows a lengthy excursus that explains how Samuel has also been set up, to meet Saul, by God, not a gaggle of giggling girls. Then our hero says: "Tell me, please, where is the house of the seer?" Duh!

Now, in that excursus we've been told that Samuel is getting a revelation, from God, of the new, first, king of the chosen people. So, the donkeys fit somewhat anomalously in the middle of Samuel's portentous speech:

I am the seer; go up before me to the shrine, for today you shall eat with me, and in the morning I will let you go and will tell you all that is on your mind. As for your donkeys that were lost three days ago, give no further thought to them, for they have been found. And on whom is all Israel's desire fixed, if not on you and on all your ancestral house? (1 Sam 9:19‑20)

Humour as satire and sarcasm

The story of Esther is vivid, it could be "about" many things. One of them clearly is royal or imperial power. The absolute authority of Ahasuerus is stressed in different ways often in the book. It starts at the very beginning:

This happened in the days of Ahasuerus, the same Ahasuerus who ruled over one hundred twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia. (Est 1:1)

However, the plot makes clear it is also about challenging imperial power. It is Vashti's failure to obey that leads Memucan one the great king's counselors to suggest that no man's authority will survive if Vashti's challenge to Ahasuerus is allowed to go unpunished. (1:17)

I can't help but wonder at the need for, and efficacy of, a proclamation like that of v.20!

In this connection events later take on a comic turn. The telling of Esther has from time to time lightly touched on the erotic, from the beauty contest in chapter 2, to the importance of the royal scepter being raised in 4:11 (the Hebrew is only found in Esther, the Arabic equivalent means extend, while the Assyrian means extend or enlarge). In chapter 5 Esther arranges a dinner for three with the king and Haman. At last in chapter 7 the dinner takes place. Esther denounces Haman (v.6) who is terrified, but somehow the all-powerful Ahasuerus goes out to the garden. Meanwhile, to beg for his life "Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining" the king returns to find him lying on top of the queen, and expostulates:

The NIV "molest" here is midway between the vague "assault" of the NRSV and the explicit "rape" of the NET.

Will he even molest the queen while she is with me in the house? (Est 7:8)

This scene is pure farce, but then several of the scenes of this story have had that feel about them!

An all-powerful emperor, who makes laws that cannot be repealed, yet cannot control his wife, and leaves his replacement wife alone with his prime minister for a moment, and returns to find an attempted rape...

Humour as parable Jonah?

I will argue below that Jonah is full of humour, and that this humour is intended to make a point, that like Jesus' parables the humour serves the message of the book.

Once you cease to read the Bible po-faced it is full of humour, and the humour is often the vehicle for the message. To read the Bible without a sense of humour is often to miss God's message!



© Tim Bulkeley, 2008