The other day I caught myself randomly wondering, “Is there humor in the Bible?”
And my next question was – “Why have I never wondered that before?”
Because humor is serious to me. I’ve noted before that I take literally 100% of reasonable opportunities to make a joke. Life is freakin hilarious, humans are hilarious, animals are hilarious… Words themselves, spelling, grammar, and of course the times when these go off the rails, are endless entertaining to me. If I go for every jokey comment that crosses my brain, at least I know I’ll be making myself laugh, and if someone else joins in, then #success. And as far as I am concerned, laughter really is one of the very best medicines for this terminal condition known as human incarnation.
I think religion is pretty freaking hilarious, too. The pomp and ego, the ways we get tangled up in our own feet as we try to follow our spiritual path. The sacred songs that sound unintentionally carnal. The silly things we humans believe about God, life, love, ourselves and each other. I can say for myself that when I’m in the midst of a melodrama, I am not always immediately interested in “laughing it off.” I believe sorrow is a beautiful and important aspect of our journey, and even wallowing in one’s less enlightened thoughts has a meaningful place in our development. But I also believe in balance, and in the creative interplay between polarities. Humor balances grief. Administered at the right time, and with the right touch, it’s balm for the deepest wounds of our existence.
Ok, so humor is part of my spiritual path, for sure. I thought of the many very funny teaching stories I’ve heard in contexts from Sunday church services of all stripes, to Pagan celebrations of the seasons, to Sufi zikr halls, to hanging out in the woods with fellow pilgrims, swapping tales that make one go “hmm.” I am pretty sure most Christians would say their God has a sense of humor; one person argued that God must, since we are made in God’s image, and WE have a sense of humor. (Just look at all the jokes we have about God! And we haven’t been smitten yet, sooooooooo…)
But the Bible itself, when I contemplated it, seemed like a very serious text. Plenty of emotional ups and downs, sure. And I could recall mentions of laughter. But I could not think of a single joke or humorous comment, from any of my Bible classes or my own personal reading – not one.
Surely this can’t be so, I thought. There have to be jokes in the Bible. There are just SO. MANY. PAGES. I mean, it’s dozens of books by many different authors. It would be impossible to have that much text and NOTHING FUNNY AT ALL. Maybe there were lots of jokes woven through these chapters in their original languages, but they just didn’t hold up through multiple layers of translation. Or maybe they’re there, but for some unknown reason ignored by all the pastors and Sunday school teachers I have ever encountered – as if by conspiracy. Or maybe I just had less intimacy with this book than I thought.
Well, I poked around on the internet a little just to see what better-prepared Bible scholars than me had to say on this topic. But first let me note that I find it rather telling that when I typed “humor in the Bible” into Google, the results that came back were all some version of the question, “Is there humor in the Bible?” This tells me that it’s not obvious to at least some other people, too. So if the Bible DOES contain humor, it’s not necessarily right on the surface.
Not surprisingly, I quickly found a few resources that told me, yes, there are jokes in the Bible. But I did not get a vibe from any of them that their authors were ROFLing over the Bible’s true hilarity. They were more like “Yes, class, some humorous moments have been identified by scholars and very devoted readers. Allow me to point them out to you.” To which I said over-eagerly, Yes, please!
This piece by Robin Gallaher Branch walks us through examples of God’s laughter – generally at those who think they can put one over on God – and notes some social commentary on the part of Jesus and other scribes which she thinks would have gotten a guffaw of recognition from the crowd at the time. A lot of the “one liners” she finds amusing fall into the category of irony, or things that are funny because of the contrast they illuminate. She makes a case for a gently humorous reading of the book of Jonah that makes me say, OK, sure, I can see it. But would any of these actually get a LOL from me as a reader, even being clued in that it’s supposed to be funny?
This one, an “Oxford Biblical Studies Online” essay by Leonard Greenspoon, similarly explores several anecdotes which, the author argues, were MEANT to be read as funny, “back in the day” (you know, two to four thousand years ago). I have no grounds for disagreement. He knows his shit way better than I do, and if he says people were laughing then I believe they were, or might just as well have been. But if I were a lay Christian looking for evidence here that my religion really knew how to laugh at itself – I don’t know that I’d be sold.
So, it’s really been a barely a quest at all. I just looked at a couple of internet articles and indulged myself in pondering the implications of a Bible that is, I think it is fair to say, pretty sparse in the comedy department. The humor that is there is subtle, easily missed.
And I do – I miss it.
Oh, I love comedies. I just love a big-hearted joke-fest that’s full of compassion for us imperfect SOB’s. My favorite books of all time are both funny and serious (Catch-22, for example, or Candide). I think it’s so important for our spiritual nourishment that we laugh.
I wonder if there really used to be more funny stuff in the Bible, if some of its humor was deliberately amputated as the texts were revised to suit various purposes. That’s pure speculation, but it wouldn’t be out of character. I wonder how much personal flavor has simply been lost to the millennia.
I wonder if Jesus really was a funny guy. I wouldn’t be surprised; lots of wise and loving folks are crack-ups. And I guess if you are filled with the certain knowing of the divine grace permeating every atom of creation – well, surely you can appreciate that this human gig is – pretty freakin hilarious.
The Bible may not be what I would call a side splitter. But I know plenty of Christians who can split sides with the best of them. I’ve seen how powerful faith can give a person the stamina to laugh right in the teeth of the roaringest of storms. I’ve noticed that a lot of people I respect as spiritual seekers walk around with a twinkle never far from their eye.
And I aspire to be like that. I aspire to be someone who uses humor to make the path a little easier for someone else. I do hope to follow in the footsteps of the holy Fool, the one who gets us to see things from a different perspective and teases us into taking steps we might otherwise be too nervous to take – and who maybe offers a medicine that helps the heart to soften, to open, to trust, to heal, and to find the courage to come closer to Spirit.
Can jokes really do all that? I think they can. In fact, I’d swear it on a Bible.