Doctor Steven C. Walker
Professor of English at BYU
"HUMOR IN THE BIBLE"
Brigham Young University-Idaho Forum
July 17, 2003
Dr. Steven C. Walker
It's a joy to be here with you. Some of my best friends, student and faculty, call BYU-Idaho home, so this feels like homecoming to me. I suspect you come today as you would come to a rumor of Elvis sightings or UFOs or maybe werewolves glimpsed at the mall: You're not so huge fans of about humor in the Bible, just surprised that there might actually be any. I promise we'll find some. There really is humor in the Bible. What is more, because scripture has the astonishing capacity to change the way we see, if you are able to discover humor in the scripture with me this afternoon, it's likely to change your life.
I hope today to make you capable of reading God's good word relevantly to you, to do as Nephi advises us: to liken the scriptures to ourselves. I've known enough of your classmates to know you're superb readers. But you could read scripture better. In the next half hour, you will.
When it comes to biblical humor, we miss the point. In fact, we mostly miss the humor. The Bible is the last place most modern readers would find a laugh. And the main reason we fail to find humor there is that the Bible is the last place we'd look. Given how persistently humor smiles and chuckles and sometimes laughs right out loud in virtually every book of the Bible, it's remarkable how consistently we manage to overlook it. It's also unfortunate. Humor informs biblical texts. To miss the humor of the Bible is to miss not only much of its fun, but much of its meaning.
Take, for example, Jonah. Every scene in this prophetic book invites a smile - the picture of the reluctant prophet, for instance, fresh from the belly of the whale: reeking of whale vomit, trailing seaweed and barnacles and old fishheads, bleached of all his color by gastric juices, robe shrunk up to his knees and elbows, way bad hair day, not only disheveled but seriously disgruntled, trudging ornery into Nineveh muttering his message of doom in a language the Ninevites can't even understand.
Scenes like that dominate the book. The first chapter alone sets up enough ridiculous situations for a Marx Brothers movie. God orders: "Go east," Jonah goes due west, as far as he can. God threatens Jonah with a "mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken" [1:4]; Jonah, unfazed as a five-year-old, remains "fast asleep." God gets into a water fight with Jonah just so He can rescue him. And the means of that rescue? Angelic life preserver? Submarine? Trained porpoise? Nope: the distressingly uncomfortable and disgustingly smelly "belly of the fish" [1:17].
From its opening parody of the prophetic call to the final picture of those "much cattle" [4:1] penitently attired in sackcloth and ashes, Jonah is a funny book. And the funniness matters. The humor in Jonah is not incidental, not superficial decoration. The humor is not only fun, but functional. There is a moral to the Jonah joke.
To a Hebrew of the fifth century BC, the very premise of the story is absurd. Jonah is a midrashic tale, in the usual form of "imagine if." But in Jonah's case the "imagine if" is unimaginable. The story's situation is impossible for Jonah's Hebrew audience; the narrative is for the Israelite of the time an invitation to think about the unthinkable. What if God offered repentance to the worst people in the world? He wouldn't. Even if He did, they couldn't. But in Jonah they do. The opening scene sets the humorous tone, playing with biblical convention. The first thing we see in Jonah is a parody of the prophetic call. Prophetic convention dictated a certain shy reluctance in responding to the Lord's call: Even the great Moses tried to get out of being prophet on grounds of stuttering. But when the Lord calls Jonah, he refuses to answer at all. Even the silence here has a grin in it, like silence after "Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?" (Miles 172)
There's another indication that the humor of the book of Jonah is deliberate: it's climactic; it gets funnier as it goes along. The concluding statement is almost a punch line: "And should not I" God wonders out loud to Jonah in that closing verse, "spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?" (Jonah 4:11)
The numbers insult Jonah's accountant mentality: The quality of mercy is not strained, let alone the quantity. That can't-tell-left-from-right comment suggests Jonah, like thickheaded Ninevites, "may not know his gourd from a hole in the ground" (Whitney 1) Funnier still to me is that "much cattle." I see God grinning like a Cheshire cat in that sidelong glance at livestock: "Jonah, I'd save the city for the sake of its camels and its cats, its rabbits and its rats, its cockroaches and its bats, let alone its people. Especially," the text smiles between its understated lines, "when those camels are so humbly dressed in sackcloth."
God's explaining the joke to Jonah is a little like David Letterman heightening the intensity of a story by patiently pointing out the punchline to Paul Shafer. There is strong implication here of divine joshing: "The reason you have no compassion, Jonah, is that you have no sense of humor."
So the biggest joke in Jonah is the topsy-turvy moral of the story: Jonah, condemning God, seems to us to commend Him. Jonah's upset God won't kill the Ninevites, like He promised. God's gentle response to Jonah's anger has to have a smile in it: "Doest thou well to be angry?" [4:4] "Isn't mercy more fun than justice?" Jonah insists on telling God how to be God, so God tells Jonah how to be human. God invites Jonah out of his narrow theological certainties into life, into that risky and uncertain human life where things get iffy and as a result potentially funny. The message of the book of Jonah, delivered with a divine smile, directly contrasts Jonah's sullen message of doom: The God of Jonah urges us to expect the unexpected. Jonah reads that moral as "damned if you do and damned if you don't." We read it as God does: "Blessed even if you don't; way blessed if you do."
Life with the God of Jonah is not far from the proverbial view of heaven: "better than we could ever imagine, and full of wonderful surprises." Those surprises may be chancy business, like casting lots on a deck pitching in a storm so wildly the dice don't have to be thrown. That undependability is an understandable threat to Jonah. But to us it is also a promise of fuller possibilities, of God "come that ye might have life, and have it more abundantly." (John 10:10)
The humor of the book of Jonah urges us in the direction of that abundance of life. The laughter encourages us to find a way to laugh at ourselves, to laugh off our restrictive expectations, to laugh away our confining certitudes about our just desserts. Things may not be as bound by our expectations as we expect. Things may be a whole lot better than we've dreamed.
The smiling God of Jonah is closer to us than we'd thought. Divine and human meet in scripture in humor. Being "vomited out" by a great fish [2:10] is for Jonah trauma tinged with insult -"here's another fine mess you've gotten me into." But for God the vomiting is, like all of His acts in the book, an act of compassion. For the whale it's gotta be a relief -Jonah may have been "the worst case of indigestion he ever had" (Miller 1) For us, standing precariously between divine love and mortal limitation, that juxtaposition of sublime possibilities with ridiculous actualities puts us in the place of lifelike humor.
The Bible-the King James Version of the Bible- is the perennial and all-time bestselling book in the United States and throughout the world -eleven million copies in a single recent year alone. Harry Potter doesn't come close. At the same time the Bible is the most bought book, it may also enjoy the single honor of being the least read book in the world, with legendary capacity for gathering dust on bookshelves. The Bible tends to be less of a spiritual stimulant than a physical sedative: nine out of ten people reading the Bible at any given time are asleep. Maybe part of the reason we're sleeping through our Bible reading is that we're failing to see what's in it. One thing we're failing to see in the Bible is its humor. Let's look for that humor where it's least likely to be found -a long way from Jonah, in the most august volume in the New Testament: if it's in Acts, humor's everywhere in the Bible.
We can't expect many belly laughs; Acts humor is warmer, more intimate - and also more close-to-the-bone crucial. But some of the humor, even in the dignified Acts of the Apostles, is hard to miss.
Some humor in Acts is so obvious it approaches slapstick. When the seven sons of Sceva, for instance, attempt in Acts 19 to go into the apparently profitable business of casting out spirits "by Jesus whom Paul preacheth," one unimpressed spirit responds: "Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?" Then in a scene fit for a Keystone Cops comedy "The man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded." (Acts 19:13-16)
Maybe you have to be sadistic to think that's funny. Usually in the New Testament to notice the humor you just have to be sensitive, to be alert-basically you have to be awake. In this understated context where there is little "sounding brass and tinkling cymbals" but rather a stillness that runs deep, the subtler the humor the more significant.
Take the way, for example, humor in Acts quietly characterizes Peter, humanizing him, endearing him to us as it vivifies his character.
The Peter of Acts, as befits the neophyte prophet of the fledgling church, is presented as a Rodney Dangerfield "I don't get no respect" kind of guy. Peter is portrayed as decidedly lacking in dignity, a portrait that comports well with the psychological probabilities of a prophet with no prior role models, a guy who gets drafted off a fishing boat - and a Galilean at that, when Galilean was synonymous with hick.
The brashly confident leader of tough fishermen finds himself suddenly awkward in the more sensitive role of God's "fisher of men" (Matt. 4:19) That's fine literary effect: the portrait of a put-upon Peter showing the apostle's bumbling struggle for spiritual mastery, provides for us New Testament readers practical experience of the strong man become meek in Christ: If Peter can do it, we can do it.
Acts frankly admits that Peter does it awkwardly. He has trouble getting the feel of the dignity of his position. When Christ healed the man by the pool at Bethesda He sent him off with a fitting flourish: "Arise, take up thy bed, and walk." (John 5:8) Peter under precisely parallel circumstances, perhaps appalled by the untidy fact that his subject has lain eight years in the same bed, says "Arise, and make thy bed." (Acts 9:34) And Peter gets no respect. Even from angels, Peter gets no respect. Peter lies asleep in prison when an angelic visitor comes to rescue him. When the divine light shining in the prison fails to wake snoring Peter, the angel resorts to less subtle measures: "He smote Peter on the side." [12:7] Still sleepy, the prophet has to be instructed first to put on his sandals, then to don his robe.  Not until he is outside on the street, the angel gone, does Peter "come to himself."  And only after he has "considered the thing"  does Peter realize he has actually escaped from prison.
That Mike Myers portrait of a man sleepwalking through his own dramatic rescue doesn't end at the prison gates. Fresh from his miraculous escape from prison, he knocks at Mark's house, where the faithful are gathered praying for his release.  "And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda. And when she knew Peter's voice, she opened not the gate for gladness, but ran in, and told how Peter stood before the gate," (Acts 12:13-14) leaving the prophet, who's just had prison doors opened for him by angels, to cool his heels outside. Luke proclaims, with what has to be a twinkle in his eye, "Peter continued knocking."  Acts' portrait of Paul is even more pointed than its picture of bumbling Peter. Paul is, in the perspective of Acts, precisely what we perceive him to be throughout the whole of the New Testament, though we may be too polite to put it so bluntly as Acts does: Paul is a man of many words.
Acts is fitting prelude to the New Testament epistles in its stress upon Paul's much speaking. Again and again Acts makes pointedly the point that Paul talks too much: Acts 17: Paul "disputed ... daily."  In Acts 18, when the Lord, Who really ought to know better, enjoins Paul to "hold not thy peace," Paul takes Him at His word and preaches for "a year and six months" [10-11], possibly nonstop. Acts 19: Paul "spake boldly for the space of three months." And in the next verse we see him "disputing daily," and in the next verse are informed "this continued for the space of two years." [8-10] Acts 20: Paul declares that his disciples should "remember" - and if they forget he'll be sure to remind them - "that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day" (Acts 20:31) and day and night and on and on and on. Paul just can't shut up. Imprisoned on charges of preaching, he converts the jailor, then prays aloud and sings-at midnight. [16:25] When church leaders send him by night to avoid the Jews, outspoken Paul, unable to forego any chance to talk, ends up in the synagogue preaching to -who else?-the Jews. [17:10] And in Lystra, where the local citizens become convinced Paul and Barnabus are "the gods. . .come down to us in the likeness of men," they figure Paul must be Mercurius, "because he was the chief speaker." [14:11-12] Preaching against pagan gods, Paul's mistaken for one - the talkative one.
All this playing upon Paul's much speaking frames that delightful incident in Acts 20 at the regional conference meeting when Paul "continued his speech until midnight." [20:7] "And there sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus, being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead." (Acts 20:9)
I don't mean to laugh at Eutychus's misfortune, but I love the picture of the apostle of the Lord having to interrupt his sermon to raise from the dead the man he has killed by his long speaking. And so has he learned his lesson, this apostolic windbag? Does Paul repent of speaking overmuch, never again to talk a fellow Christian to death? That very night, Acts informs us dryly, Paul "talked a long while, even until break of day." 
Acts has a lot of fun with this: Paul talks too much. Peter bumbles. And all that teasing of Peter and smiling at Paul isn't there simply for the fun of it: the whimsy, as usual with New Testament humor, accumulates to insight.
Most Christian theologians attach more importance to Paul than to Peter, feeling Paul did more to shape the early church - mainly, and this isn't much of a simplification - because Paul talks more than Peter does. The humor corrects that theology: Peter, less sophisticated and much less verbal than Paul, is actually in charge: God's spokesman is not heard for his much speaking. Peter doesn't speak as much nor with as much polish, but when he speaks, we do well to listen. Paul gets more media time in Acts than Peter not because he is more important, but because he is in fact more peripheral: more show, but less go. Peter does not demand our respect; Paul clamors much more noisily for our attention. But it may be that Peter, ultimately, has more to say to us. That's easy to miss. The humor, the deeper insight, the relevance to our lives - those "things that are more excellent" in the Bible are easy to overlook. We might be missing that good stuff because we read for duty rather than for joy:
"If your nose is close to the grindstone rough and you hold it down there long enough, three things will all your world compose: the stone, the ground, and your darned old nose."
So there we have it: there's humor in the Bible, To miss it is to miss crucial biblical meaning. We read better simply by recognizing the possibility that the humor is there. We read deeper when we pick up on humorous implications.
Let's look to just one more example of biblical humor in an even less likely place. Let's look at how humor illuminates women in the Bible. That's right: Not only are there laughs in the Bible, there are women. It's amazing, given how long some of us have been reading the Bible, how much we've failed to notice them. It might be part of our problem is we know them too well. Maybe our very familiarity with the Bible has bred contempt, a sense we need no longer look at it because we already know what is there. Maybe the Bible is so much a part of our culture we don't even have to read it to be convinced we've read enough of it. Most Americans know before they are old enough to read who Eve is and who Sarah is and who Rebekah is. We know not only who Moses is, but who Miriam is, who Zipporah is, maybe even who Jochebed is-who Moses's mother and wife are, as well as his sister. We know the Bible so well that when we come to actually read it we might be seeing not what is there on its pages but what we already know about it.
You look less than convinced that we could actually look at a page of the Bible and fail to see what's standing right there in front of us. Let me give you a for instance:
"When I was writing lessons for the Relief Society, it was decided that we should have a lesson on patriarchal government in the family and use the relationship of Abraham and Sarah as example of the best of all possible marriages. I jumped at the chance: I like Abraham a lot, and Sarah even better, and I feel the Bible describes a wonderful working relationship in their marriage. But it became apparent in our planning that the point the committee wanted expressed in the lesson was that the husband is in charge in the home - it is for husbands to decree, for wives to obey: like Abraham."
When I laughed because I thought that not at all like Abraham in the Bible, my fellow writers really got on me: They said unkindly things, things like: "If the greatest of patriarchs won't do as a model of patriarchy, who will?" I've deep respect for those readers: They're diligent readers, faithful readers, expert readers. Yet I thought they were failing to see what was there, right there in Genesis. It seemed to me from looking at the Bible itself that if we were to insist upon Abraham as a model for our idea of patriarchy, we needed to reexamine our idea of what patriarchy is.
Abraham just doesn't sound like the macho master of Sarah when we listen to what Genesis actually says. We need to hear Genesis 16 aloud, preferably in a female voice, as sassy a Sarah sort of voice as we can manage: And Sarai said unto Abram, "Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her." And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. (Genesis 16:2)
Who's calling the shots here? What does the text actually say? And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes. And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong be upon thee. (Genesis 16:4-5) I recognize we're thousands of years from the cultural context, but I swear I've heard that voice as recently as this week, as familiarly as my own marriage. It sounds disturbingly, to me, like "It's your fault, husband." Is it indeed Abraham's fault? Whose idea was this?
And how does patriarchal Abraham respond, he with all the cultural, all the marital power, here? "Get thee hence, wife?" "No way, Sarah, it was actually your idea?" "I'm in charge here, I pay the bills and make the hard decisions, and I'll do what I like?" But Abram said unto Sarai, behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee. And when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face, (Genesis 16:6)
That can't, I think, have pleased this new father, childless so long, his life so recently refreshed by new love and by the renewed possibility, at long last, of the much-desired child. Abraham can't have enjoyed seeing Sarah abuse Hagar, much less watching Ishmael kicked out of the camp. Yet he scrupulously avoids pulling rank on his wife.
I swear to you that Genesis 16 came with my own conservative King James Version. I didn't write it in. It's right there in the book: Abraham is not independently calling the familial shots.
It's just as clearly there in Genesis 18, a couple of decades later when so much has changed with the couple that their names are altered to reflect the changes. When angels come to announce the impending birth of Isaac, "Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind" the angel. She's eavesdropping, right? And she, even in the face of these awesome announcers, dares to doubt: Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. (Genesis 18:11)
Since she's no longer menstruating, she feels the likelihood of having a child may be somewhat diminished: Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also? (Genesis 18:12)
And since she and her husband are no longer making love - Sarah wryly hints Abraham may not even be up to it - the chances of pregnancy are further reduced. I can't help but like the woman's tone - the honesty of it, the realistic practicality of it, the humor of it. After severe rebuke from "The Lord" Himself to Abraham on the issue of Sarah's disbelief: Then Sarah denied, saying, "I laughed not". (Genesis 18:5)
You see what she's doing? Can you believe this Sarah, this woman they wanted to pose as a model of wifely passivity? She's arguing, arguing with the Lord. I'm surprised the Lord gets the last word. You'll notice Abraham, knowing her more intimately than the angel does, stays out of the quarrel altogether.
Sarah's not the only funny woman in the Bible. One of the strongest recurrent patterns of Genesis, so strong as to become a motif throughout the Bible, is that women start things - Bright, right, things like quarrels. Things like trouble. But also things like families. Also things like expansion of human horizons. In Genesis the most notable narrative characteristic of women is that they initiate the narrative action. Every single Genesis woman: Eve, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Tamar, Hagar - gets things going. The pattern is straightforward and insistent; the bare outline will bring a dozen examples to mind:  A MAN is presented  - he's stable, orthodox, STATIC.  A WOMAN enters the scene.  The plot thickens: She outflanks him, outmaneuvers him - TRICKing him or manipulating him or seducing him - often all three -  and the world CHANGEs,  changes always for the BETTER. Eve sets the pattern, that so-obvious pattern we've so obviously overlooked. That good man Adam is alone in the garden and things are quiet and calm - tranquil, serene. Then Eve arrives on the scene and gets things going. And they really go: life gets distressingly complicated with worries about what we'll have for dinner and exactly what leaf we'll wear and where we're going to live.
It is clearly Eve who does the complicating. It is she who debates with the serpent; it is she who is the logician, the scriptorian. It is she who makes the decision to eat the fruit, to take the risk, to go for the gusto.
Eve as seen in Genesis is inquisitive, imaginative, intellectual, ambitious, aggressive, daring, independent, aware. Most dramatically, Eve is, both before and after the eating of the fruit, responsible - and this in a situation where the most rabid feminist and the most orthodox Christian would agree Adam is in charge.
It's clear that without Eve this would be a very different story - might not even be a story. Certainly it would be a far less lively story, because Eve initiates all the narrative action. The dignified Adam, bless his orderly heart, doesn't do much.
Adam's a great guy, in his orthodox and obedient way, opting for things as they are. I relate with Adam; I know exactly how he feels in the face of all these female complications, these womanly urges yet once more to move the furniture. I hope for his sake that during these life-shaking deliberations he is, as he appears in Genesis to be, off somewhere in the garden taking a nap. The pivotal passage is Genesis 3:6:
"And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat."
Eve considers, deliberates, decides - she determines the fruit to be nutritious, satisfying, edifying; she carefully, consciously, deliberately decides to eat it. How she got a reputation as a Pandora airhead on the basis of that passage eludes me. She's willful, certainly, but anything but witless. Adam follows along. In the Hebrew his non-deliberation is striking by contrast with Eve's responsible agonizings: "And he," without a word of question or of acquiescence, with not so much as an "Uh. OK," "did eat." Scripture includes more humor, to more purpose, than we've noticed. When you start noticing, it's everywhere you look. Judges is funnier than Genesis, Luke has more belly laughs than Acts, Esther is at least as comical as Jonah. Even staid Isaiah cracks an occasional smile, as when that stern prophet describes the unfortunate Assyrian soldiers who, in circumstances even more depressing than my Monday mornings, "When they arose early in the morning behold, they were all dead corpses." (Isaiah 37:6)
I think the funniest book of all may be the Book of Mormon. You can't have read that without noticing some really humorous passages. My students like the straightfaced logic of the Nephite tactics with the poisoned wine: "For if it would poison a Nephite, behold, it would poison a Lamanite." Or better still, that dramatic moment when Abinadi, after two years in exile enters King Noah's court in clever disguise, but, unaccustomed as he is to undercover work, blows his cover immediately by announcing first thing: "I, Abinadi ..."
Much Book of Mormon humor is less obvious. Consider the inconvenience, for example, of how the Jaredites - in their close-quartered boats "did carry with them swarms of bees." (Ether 2:3) Or contemplate Moroni's modest declaration that he will "a few more things" before he gives us twenty pages of some of the most densely packed insights in all scripture.
Or think for a moment about the instructions to the Brother of Jared in Ether 4 on the boat's ventilation system: (Behold, thou shalt make a hole in the top, and also in the bottom; and when thou shalt suffer for air thou shalt unstop the hole and receive air.) And if it so be that the water come in upon thee, behold - I'll bet they beheld, with rapt attention, as the water came pouring in on them- ye shall stop the hole, that ye may not perish in the flood.
If the plug lets in the ocean, Mahonri, you've opened the wrong end. Whatever laughter is here is here not for laughter's sake so much as for taking us personally into the situation, helping us feel the desperation of desert-dwelling definite nonsailors. These folks, who've never so much as seen ocean before, are suddenly buried forty fathoms deep, wondering where their next breath is coming from. The humor in the Book of Mormon, as throughout scripture, invites us to relate the situations in the book to our own experience.
There is humor in the scriptures. It's there for a purpose. Noticing it will make us more attentive and more engaged readers. As surely as His prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, God has a sense of humor. He may not be a stand-up comic, but He gets off some great lines. Whoever wrote His book thinks humor matters. So do I: I think the funny stuff is in the Bible because God likes to laugh and likes us to laugh.
I think He thinks the laughter can change our perspective. Biblical humor, like all humor, stands our old expectations on their heads, forcing us to see our familiar world freshly. Bible laughter jostles us into unfamiliar positions, unsettles our settled notions, twists our usual viewpoints toward new insights.
Sassy Sarah talks back to the Lord. Tongue-tied Moses stutters into his status as God's greatest spokesman. Impulsive Peter bumbles his way to outstanding leadership. Reluctant Jonah, greatest missionary of all time, converts every single one of those nasty Ninevites so convincingly they dress their cattle and camels and cats in sackcloth and ashes to prove their utter repentance. The Good Book seems bent not so much on reinforcing what we already know as on pushing the envelope of our possibilities. Everywhere you look in the Bible things get turned upside down, inside out. Genesis begins with God turning the tables on the serpent, ends with Joseph repaying brotherly treachery with compassion. In between those reversals Rebekah tricks Isaac, Jacob tricks Esau, Leah tricks Jacob, Jacob tricks Laban, Laban tricks Jacob, Rachel tricks Laban about the household idols, Simeon and Levi trick the Shechemites into getting circumcised, Joseph's brothers trick Jacob about Joseph's seeming death. Meanwhile, every single older sibling in Genesis, expectant of the birthright, gets displaced by a younger brother or sister.
The expected gets so consistently turned on its ear that reversal comes to look like the essence of the Bible. Biblical narrative, when we see what's there instead of what we think ought to be there, what we saw last time we read it, upsets what we anticipate as frequently and as humorously as life does. We meet the very Master of the Universe Himself among the animals, in a bed of straw, midst the smell of manure. No wonder we see again and again in the parables of Jesus our expectations "turned upside down and questioned." (Crossan 6) Those reversals are there to tell us something about ourselves. Notice how the scriptures always root for the underdog? The serious implication of humor in the Bible is humbling the haughty and encouraging the humble.
Esther, for instance: Looking at ambitious impious Esther, who sleeps with the judge to win the beauty contest, we cannot but wonder how flawed a savior can be and still save. Esther's an unobservant Jew; if she were Mormon we'd call her "inactive." Yet she saves her people. There is humor in the human reality of the reversals of her narrative, Mordecai getting promoted as Haman is hoist on his own petard. And in that humor there is hope for us: "Esther's very ordinariness suggests that ordinary people too can rise to the moment and take on unexpected strengths." (Fox 5) There is always, in the economy of Esther's God, hope that things could change for the better. There is always, as in the worst of Jonah conditions, the possibility of repentance, of improvement, of personal change.
Esther takes great risks. She risks becoming queen at hazard of spending the rest of her life in the servile boredom of the king's harem. She risks her life to try to save her people: "If I perish, I perish." Life's like that, the Bible is telling us: no guts, no glory. Just so our Bible reading, this book insists in its every lively humorous reversal - our Bible reading is at its best not when it is seeking the security of our customary readings but when it is taking chances.
Biblical humor urges us to open up to wider possibilities. Humor in the Bible tends to make us think, and to think in new ways, bigger and better ways. Biblical humor at its best can open the floodgates of our spiritual imaginations. Bottom line the humor in the Bible says: Anything can happen. Scripture humor says with Shel Silverstein: Listen to the mustn'ts. Listen to the don'ts. Listen to the shouldn'ts, the impossibles, the won'ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me. Anything can happen: Anything can be.
I pray we might notice the humor in scripture, so we can enjoy scripture more, so we will be able to relate scripture better to ourselves. The humor in the Bible is there to teach us, ultimately, that anything can be, anything can happen.
My friends, my brothers and sisters: God is speaking to us through this book. He's speaking really well, really helpfully. I pray that we might have ears to hear.
"Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear." (Matthew 13:13,16)
And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle? (Jonah 4:11)
I am come that ye might have life, and that ye might have it more abundantly. (John 10:10)
Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye? And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. (Acts 19:15-16)
"Arise, take up thy bed, and walk." (John 5:8)
"Arise, and make thy bed." (Acts 9:34)
And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda. And when she knew Peter's voice, she opened not the gate for gladness, but ran in, and told how Peter stood before the gate. (Acts 12:13-14) Peter continued knocking. (Acts 12:16)
By the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day. (Acts 20:31)
And there sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus, being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead. (Acts 20:9)
And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. (Genesis 16:2)
And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes. And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong be upon thee. (Genesis 16:4-5)
But Abram said unto Sarai, behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee. And when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face, (Genesis 16:6)
Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. (Genesis 18:11)
Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also? (Genesis 18:12)
Then Sarah denied, saying, "I laughed not". (Genesis 18:5)
MAN STATIC WOMAN TRICKY CHANGE BETTER
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. (Genesis 3:6)
When they arose early in the morning behold, they were all dead corpses. (Isaiah 37:6)
Behold, thou shalt make a hole in the top, and also in the bottom; and when thou shalt suffer for air thou shalt unstop the hole and receive air. And if it so be that the water come in upon thee, behold ye shall stop the hole, that ye may not perish in the flood. (Ether 2:20)
Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. (Matthew 13:13,16)
The Path of the Peacemaker
Audio of President Kim B. Clark's BYU-Idaho devotional address Winter 2009