Biblical humour: left-handed men

Barack_Obama_signs_at_his_desk2_1024A recent article posted on the Biblical Archaeology Society’s site about left-handed people in the Bible put a smile on my face.

The article makes a good observation:

The Hebrew Bible mentions left-handed people on three occasions: the story of Ehud’s assassination of the Moabite king (Judges 3:12–30), the 700 Benjamites who could use the sling with deadly accuracy (Judges 20:16) and the two-dozen ambidextrous warriors who came to support David in Hebron (1 Chronicles 12:2). All of these stories of left-handed people in the Bible appear in military contexts, and, curiously, all involve members of the tribe of Benjamin.

The thing which looks to me to be intentionaly humorous is that all these left-handed men are from the tribe of Benjamin, and Benjamin means “son of my right hand“! There has to be an intentional, and possibly humorous, play on Benjamin’s name there.

In fact, the Bible has so many stories which refer specifically to meanings of names it seems fairly obvious that in some of these stories the name was actually made up to fit the story, or to ridicule a character. For example, in 1 Samuel 25:25 there is an incident concerning Nabal where his wife says: “My lord, do not take seriously this ill-natured fellow, Nabal; for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him”. 

In Hebrew Nabal נָבָל (pronounced Naval) means “foolish”, “worthless” or “good for nothing”. [1]  Since it is unlikely his parents hated him so much as to call him “fool” from birth, so scholars discuss how the name might also be understood according to an alternative Semitic root meaning “noble.” The meaning “fool” would be a play on the double meaning of the name. Zeev Weisman deals specifically with the case of Naval as one of several pejorative names which ridiculed and smeared the bearers, noting that there is also a phonic association between the name Naval and the wordנַבֶל  (navel) wineskin which may be behind the account of Naval’s death: “In the morning, when the wine had gone out of Naval [like an empty wineskin, a navel], his wife told him these things, and his heart died within him”(36-37). [2]

There is certainly some wordplay going on here, and wordplay in the Hebrew Bible is often not just a case of being clever with words, but also of being playful with words in order to ridicule a character or simply to inject some humour in to the story.

[1] Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 663

[2] Zeev Weisman, Political Satire in the Bible (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1998), 15-6.

Does God like handsome men? (2)

King-of-EgyptIn my previous post I asked the question what is going on in the story of the choosing of David as king, where God told Samuel not to choose someone based on their appearance, and then tells him that he has chosen David, noting that he was handsome and had beautiful eyes. The two comments stand so closely together in the text it seems to me that the writer is clearly wanting the reader/listener to note the irony. This kind of irony is relatively common in several books of the Hebrew Bible, including 1 and 2 Samuel. (Irony can be humorous, although not necessarily so. Whether or not it’s funny will depend on the listener’s perspective.)

It is probably not coincidence that nearly all of the good-looking people in Samuel are in David’s immediate family: his brother Eliab, his sons Absalom (2 Sam 14:25) and Adonijah, his daughter Tamar (2 Sam 13:1), Absalom’s daughter (also named Tamar 2 Sam 14:27), his wife Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:2) and his third wife Abigail (1 Sam 25:3). David’s predecessor Saul was also described as “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 19:2). The books of Samuel go to great lengths to compare and contrast Saul and David and to legitimate David’s kingship by highlighting Saul’s failings. There is a hint of this in the comment about Eliab: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him” (1 Sam 16:7) which mirrors the words about Saul in the opening words “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel” (v.1). When we get repetition of words or phrases in the Hebrew Bible, especially when they stand so closely together, it seems that the writer is almost certainly making a point of some kind.

Yet, when it comes to good looks, both Saul and David were noted for being very handsome. The unnamed [Davidic] king praised in Psalm 45 is described as “the most handsome of men” (v.2), splendid and majestic (v.3) and a casual reference in Judges 8:18 to certain men who “resembled the sons of a king” also suggests that being good-looking was a common feature of royals. Could it be that the writer(s) of Samuel was also comparing Saul and David with the comments about looks? Yes Saul was handsome, and tall, but David’s whole family were good looking! Or could it be that the writer, who apparently was not keen on the institution of monarchy at all, was making a sarcastic comment about kings? No matter how good-looking they are, kings aren’t good for Israel! I’m inclined towards this second view as the story of David is full of ironies and satire. Even though he is regarded later in the books of Samuel and Kings as the ‘benchmark’ for kings, against whom all the kings of Israel and Judah were compared, the writer goes to great length to show how deeply flawed he was. If the narrator was telling us that Saul’s good looks were actually a flaw, then David (and his family) were even more fatally flawed!

A note about similar words being paralleled in the biblical narratives for effect: I mentioned in the previous post that Joseph was also described as being handsome and good-looking (Genesis 39:6). In that story his good looks get him in to trouble, as he is seduced by the wife of an Egyptian official. But there is a striking parallel between the description of Joseph and his mother Rachel (Genesis 29:17). Joseph is described in Hebrew as יְפֵה־תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶֽה and his mother Rachel as יְפֵה־תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶֽה. Can you see the difference? There is none! Is this coincidence, is the writer hinting that Joseph was effeminate in his appearance, or is he deliberately hinting that in both cases their beauty caused them problems? There is another striking parallel in a story involving Joseph: Pharoah’s dream about 7 ‘sleek’ cows being eaten by 7 ‘ugly’ cows (Gen 41:1-4). The Hebrew word translated ‘sleek’ is יָפֶה, the same word that is translated ‘handsome’ or ‘beautiful’ elsewhere, and in the descriptions of Rachel and Joseph.  Why handsome and ugly cows? Why not just fat and thin? Is the writer making an ironical comment about human appearances, or having some fun (at Joseph’s expense) about what happens to people with good looks?

Biblical humour – does God like handsome men?

david-headSome of the biblical writers seem to have an obsession with how people look. For example, we read that “Joseph was handsome and good-looking” (Genesis 39:6), that Saul was “a handsome young man” (1 Samuel 9:2), in fact “there was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he”. David’s son Adonijah “was also a very handsome man” (1 Kings 1:6). Ezekiel describes the Assyrian warriors as “all of them handsome young men” (23:6, 12, 23), and he was so impresed he uses this description three times within a few verses! Daniel and his friends were described as “without physical defect and handsome” (1:4), and 4 Maccabees tells the horrific story of the torture and murder of four handsome brothers (8:3ff). Are these just casual observations, or is there something more to the story?

One story at least seems to have a touch of humour, or irony at least. In 1 Samuel 16 we have the well known story of Samuel choosing the future king from the family of Jesse. He begins with Jesse’s firstborn, Eliab, but God says to Samuel “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (v.7). We know the story ends with Samuel choosing and anointing David because the Lord said “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one” (v.12). The funny bit comes just before that: “Now he [David] was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” So, having said he doesn’t look on the outward appearance, the Lord then chose the one who has handsome and with beautiful eyes! What’s going on there?

(Toilet) Humour in the Bible

I haven’t been blogging very often for quite some time now, mainly because I’ve been focussed on writing my thesis. However, a friend recently suggested that I should blog about my thesis (which is about possible satire and humour in the book of Jonah), but as I need a distraction from reading and writing about Jonah I’ve decided instead to write a series of posts about a subject which is indirectly related to it. So, I’m planning to post a series here about possible humour elsewhere in the Bible. It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that scholars really began to accept that the Bible might contain humour at all. This is probably not surprising because, after all, the Bible is a religious text and religion is serious business! No one really thought there could be anything ‘funny’ in sacred texts.  That probably began to change with articles such as Knapp’s Traces of Humor in the Sayings of Jesus  [1]  which tentatively suggested a small handful of Jesus’ sayings contained traces of humour. These days, humour in the Gospels is much more generally recognised, and it goes well beyond the small handful of texts suggested by Knapp, and some scholars are discovering possible humour in all sorts of places in the Hebrew Bible as well, sometimes in unexpected places.

Many scholars are still cautious about the types of humour we might find in the Bible. Even an interpreter such as Yehuda Radday who has done excellent work on identifying humour in the Bible, fails to recognise some cases of humour because he assumes that biblical humour is “never scatological or frivolous” [2]. “Scatological” is a polite way of saying “toilet humour”. In doing so he misses at least four likely cases of toilet humour in the Bible:

  1. In the Eglon incident in Judges 3:12-30 the King of Moab goes to “a well ventilated room” (v. 20 NET translation) and despite a lengthy delay his guards assume he was simply “relieving himself” (v. 24). The well-ventilated room was clearly his toilet, and his assassination while on the toilet is probably an attempt by the writer to ridicule or belittle him.
  2. Isaac in Genesis 24:63 went to the field  ַלָשׂוּח “to meditate”, a possible euphemism for relieving himself [3], which explains why meeting his future wife under these circumstances was somewhat awkward.
  3. Similarly in 1 Kings 18:27 the Hebrew uses a similar and possibly related word שִׂיחַ  to mock Baal. Elijah suggests to the prophets of Baal to “cry louder” because their god might be ‘meditating’ (or, ‘on the toilet’).
  4. Belshazzar in Daniel 5:6 apparently experienced sudden incontinence: וְקִטְרֵי חַרְצֵהּ מִשְׁתָּרַיִן “the knots of his loins were untied”, and his mother later (v.12) referred to the embarrassing incident with a double entendre, referring to Daniel as וּמְשָׁרֵא קִטְרִין one who “solves problems” or, more literally, “unties knots”. [4]

I read recently that the oldest known joke is, in fact, a fart joke. (Incidentally, the Bible may include a fart joke as well, but more on that later). So it shouldn’t be surprising that a collection of ancient texts such as the Bible should contain toilet humour. Now that I have the toilet humour out of the way I can write about other types of humour in the Hebrew Bible.


[1] The Biblical World, Vol. 29, No. 3, March 1907, pp. 201-207

[2] Yehuda T. Radday, “On Missing the Humour in the Bible,” in On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible (eds. Radday and Brenner; Sheffield: Almond Press, 1990), 38.

[3] Kaminsky regards the Isaac incident as part of a pattern of “scatological and other, even cruder forms of humor” in the Isaac narrative. In support of his argument he cites Rendsburg who suggests that this word has something to do with urination or defecation. (Kaminsky, J. S. “Humor and the Theology of Hope: Isaac as a Humorous Figure.” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 54, no. 4 (2000): 363-375. p. 369 n20.)

[4] Al Wolters, “Untying the King’s Knots: Physiology and Wordplay in Daniel 5,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110, no. 1 (1991).

Jesus’ use of humour

I’ve written previously about humour, or parody, in the biblical book of Jonah and possibly in the Job narrative, and elsewhere, but I haven’t as yet posted any thoughts about Jesus’ use of humour even though this is where my investigation of biblical humour actually began. So I will correct that now by posting a few thoughts about humour in the sayings and stories of Jesus.

Every culture has a unique style of humour and it is very difficult to translate humour from one language or culture into another; something is almost always ‘lost’ in the translation. As a result, we may miss the humour in Jesus’ words if we do not understand the characteristics of first century Jewish humour, especially when employed as a teaching method. According to some scholars humour was a common feature of teaching of the Second Temple period. For example, Jakob Jónsson wrote that “The literature of the rabbis is of special importance in this connection as it was a common homiletic method in their circles to include comical and humoristic examples in their illustrative teaching and preaching.”[1] Hershey Friedman noted that “The Talmud and the Midrash … frequently make use such hallmarks of humor as sarcasm, irony, exaggeration, humorous questions, etc.”[2] Bruce Longenecker cited several scholars who noted that Jesus’ figures of speech included irony, parody, or satire and “amusingly pithy turns-of-phrase”[3] while some were “wholly comical”[4]. He argued that modern readers might miss the humour in Jesus’ teachings because “in our predominantly print cultures, we have lost our sensitivity to the kinds of structural patterning and rhetorical delivery that was elementary to discourse in the predominantly oral cultures of antiquity”.[5] He quoted Dorothy Sayers: “If we did not know all His retorts by heart, if we had not taken the sting out of them by incessant repetition in the accents of the pulpit … we should reckon Him among the greatest wits of all time.”[6]

This article deals primarily with Jesus’ use of hyperbole as a form of humour. Not all exaggeration is humorous, but exaggeration was a common feature of Jesus’ teachings and was often humorous. We find two types of exaggeration in the teachings of Jesus:

A. Overstatement: overstating something in order to forcefully bring home a truth.[7] An example of overstatement is in the saying: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away … And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matthew 5:29-30). Readers easily recognise this as an overstatement rather than an imperative to be applied literally. Another example is the saying: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).  Jesus is not instructing his disciples to hate the people who are closest to them, but rather, he is overstating a position in order to make a point forcefully: that compared with the love that a disciple must have for him in order to be his disciple, any other expression of love, by contrast, is “hatred”.

B. Hyperbole: this is a gross exaggeration, to the point of unreality.[8] The exaggeration is so obvious a reader is unlikely to take it literally. This type of exaggeration is common to Jewish humour of the Second Temple period, and occurs frequently in Jesus’ teachings. Some examples of hyperbole are:

  1. “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:24).[9]
  2. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25). This is such a gross exaggeration that some commentators have questioned whether Jesus really said this. The word for “camel” and the word for “rope” have identical spellings in Aramaic (גמלא), so Jesus might have actually said “it’s easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle …”[10] There is a common explanation that “the eye of the needle” was a small door in one of the gates of Jerusalem, and for a camel to get through its driver had to remove all its packs and the camel had to crawl through on its knees. These are interesting ideas, but miss the point that Jesus is using a gross exaggeration to make the claim that for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God is impossible! Jesus went on to say: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (verse 26). The point of the “unreal” exaggeration is that God can do the impossible: he can even save rich people![11]
  3. “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3) The hyperbole in this story is in the contrast between a tiny speck of dust and a huge splinter (“log”). A speck of dust in the eye is an irritation, but a huge splinter would cause blindness. By contrasting these two situations Jesus points to the stupidity of offering advice to people about sensitive matters when we are blinded ourselves by even bigger personal issues. The message is more effective when stated humorously: in laughing at ourselves we are more open to receiving the truth and to being gently guided to a better way.

An unusual or unreal story-line is an effective use of humour to direct the listener’s attention to the main point[12] and sometimes accompanies hyperbole in Jesus’ stories. For example, the story of the “ten virgins” or bridesmaids (Matthew 25: 1-13) portrays a wedding party which includes five bridesmaids who are unprepared for their role in an event which normally would have been planned with precision. In the culture of Jesus’ immediate audience, weddings were a major event which lasted several days and were planned to the smallest detail possibly months or years ahead. Everyone involved in the wedding knew their role and how to prepare for it. Part of the traditional first century Jewish wedding was a procession at night when the bridal party went to meet the groom. The bridesmaids carried torches for lighting the way and the torches were used as a feature in a “fire dance”. This was a traditional part of every wedding, and the bridesmaids would have learned and practiced the dances well in advance. It was an important part of the celebrations and it’s inconceivable that some detail of it would have been overlooked or forgotten.  Jesus’ audience would immediately have recognised that his story was unrealistic and therefore comical with a main point which came in a “punch line” in verse 13: “keep watch”, or “be prepared”. Something as important as a wedding takes a great deal of preparation, and one would pay attention to every detail to make sure everything went as it should. How much more should they be prepared for the coming of the kingdom of God.

Didactic humour serves a number of purposes: it is memorable; it is interesting and keeps the audience engaged; it helps to focus on one main point; it makes the listener more receptive to the lesson; it encourages a response. Jesus employed humour frequently and effectively.

[1] Jónsson, J., Humour and Irony in the New Testament: Illuminated by Parallels in Talmud and Midrash (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1965) p.90

[2] Friedman, H.H., “He Who Sits in Heaven Shall Laugh: Divine Humor in Talmudic Literature” Thalia 1997; 17, 1/2, p.37

[3] Longenecker, B.W., “A Humorous Jesus? Orality, Structure and Characterisation in Luke 14:15-24, and Beyond” Biblical Interpretation 16 (2008) 179-204 p.181, citing R.A. Horsley and N.A. Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), p. 47.

[4] Longenecker 2008 p.183, citing H. Palmer, “Just Married, Cannot Come”, NovT 18 (1976), pp. 241-57 (248).

[5] Longenecker 2008 p. 184

[6] Longenecker 2008 p.182, citing D. Sayers, The Man Born to be King (London: Victor Gollancz, 1946), p. 26.

[7] Stein, R.H., The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1978) p.8

[8] Stein 1978 p.11f

[9] Several of Jesus’ teachings referred to blindness in a humorous or satirical way. For example, “They are blind guides.And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14), is not hyperbole but meets the criteria for humour.

[10] This would make the hyperbole symmetrical but wouldn’t remove it. All early manuscripts and quotations in the church fathers have ‘camel’ not ‘rope’. George M Lamsa’s Syriac-Aramaic Peshitta translation has the word ‘rope’ in the main text but a footnote on Matthew 19:24 which states that the Aramaic word gamla means rope and camel, possibly because the ropes were made from camel hair (The New Testament according to the Eastern Text, George M Lamsa, 1940, p.xxiv and note on Matthew 19:24.) Similar sayings in the Babylonian Talmud have “an elephant going through the eye of a needle” (Berakoth, 55b , Baba Mezi’a, 38b).

[11] Jesus’ audience would have been familiar with Pharisaic theology which argued that wealth was a sign of God’s favour (because of righteousness) while poverty was a sign of God’s disfavour (due to sin). This saying turns this theology on its head and reverses the order.

[12] “The shock effect of some stories suggests that their didactic function is to reinvigorate and puzzle the mind.” (Terri Bednarz, Humor-neutics: Analyzing Humor and Humor Functions in the Synoptic Gospels (Fort Worth: Brite Divinity School, 2009). p.137

You believe in one God? Good, so do the other gods.

I recently read an interesting article by Dale Martin in the Journal of Biblical Literature which asked the question “When Did Angels Become Demons?” (JBL 129, no. 4 [2010]: 657-677). Martin analysed six different words in the Hebrew Bible which were translated into δαίμων  or δαιμόνιον in the Greek translations (and then into ‘demon’ or ‘evil spirit’ in English). Martin argues that “Ancient Jews used δαιμόνιον to translate five or six different Hebrew words.  In the ancient Near Eastern context, those words referred to different kinds of beings … What they have in common, nonetheless, is that they all were thought of as gods – in fact, as the gods other people falsely worship: the gods of the nations” (662). He analysed other relevant material including 1 Enoch, Jubilees and the Qumran documents and made the point that in these materials “we find no equation of fallen angels with Greek daimons” (670).

Martin commented on Deuteronomy 32:17 and Psalm 106:37 (105 in the Hebrew Bible) where the Hebrew שדים shedim (from the same root as shaddai) is translated “demons” in many English versions. The writer noted that ‘in the ancient Near Eastern context, the word sedim is related to the Assyrian sidu, which referred to the great bull statues in front of the Assyrian palaces, sometimes depicted with wings. According to some modern commentators, the word שד originally meant simply “lord” and served as a divine title like “Baal” or “Adonai”. It could, therefore, be taken to refer to ancient gods of Canaan and other surrounding people, who could have viewed them as good powers or gods.’

As an aside, on the connection between shedim and shaddai it’s possible then that when God said to Moses “I was known in the past as אל שדי El Shaddai, but now …” (Exodus 6:3) he was in fact putting an end to the common use of a term for him which could easily be confused with Canaanite gods, and was substituting this for a distinctive name (the tetragrammaton). Poetical books like Job and Psalms (where shaddai occurs again) tend to use archaic language (in the same way that in English archaic terms might be used in poetry but not in conversation), so it’s really not surprising that the writers might employ an archaic name for God like El Shaddai, for no other reason than that it’s “old” and therefore sounds “nice” in poetry. For similar reasons some people tend to use the King James Version because they like the niceness of the archaic language, rather than for its accuracy.

So, coming back to the shedim as ‘demons’, the Greek words occur fairly frequently in the synoptic Gospels and a handful of times in the Fourth Gospel, but rarely elsewhere in the New Testament. There is a small cluster of occurences in 1 Corinthians 10:20-21 where Paul argues “that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (ESV). The context is a Paul’s answer to a question about “food offered to idols” and it seems pretty clear that he is using δαιμόνιον in the same way the Septuagint translators did as the equivalent of שדים shedim, that is, as a reference to a pagan god.

This brings me to a really interesting use of the word in James 2:19 “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder!” (ESV. The NIV has “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.”) James quotes the shema – the creed of Israel and the foundation of Jewish monotheism – “The LORD is our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). But his next statement is puzzling: “it is good that you believe that, but the demons also believe, and shudder”. Christian commentators sometimes interpret James as meaning that the demoniacs, or demon-possessed, also believe but this doesn’t work for the simple reason that there is a perfectly good word for “demon-possessed” in Greek (δαιμονίζομαι) and Mark and Matthew both use it.

But what if James is using “demon” in the same way that Paul and the Septuagint translators did? His meaning would then be “You believe that there is one God. Good! But even the pagan gods believe that!” In other words James is playing a clever trick with the shema and saying that even the gods of the nations believe the creed of Israel, that there is one god, and therefore doctrinal distinctives are not enough to make believers stand out from the crowd. He introduced this line by saying ‘But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’ For James it is not what one believes (faith) that matters but what one does (works) that makes them distinctive.

But doesn’t this make James contradict himself? “You believe that there is one God – even the pagan gods believe that.” Exactly! James is using humour, an ironic twist, to make his point. Much of this letter seems to be commentary or reworking of Jesus’ sermon on the mount so it’s not surprising that James used the same kind of humour which was also typical of many of Jesus’ sayings and stories. However, it would be odd if this was the only use of humour in the book. Indeed, I think we find confirmation of it in a smattering of other places in the letter of James where we find a kind of humorous irony. For example:

  • “If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” (1:23-24)
  • ‘If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?’ (2:15-16)

I might be wrong, but I think it’s worth further exploration.