Humor in the Bible-Background/Introductory Notes
There are different types of humor in life and in the Bible.
Implications for reading the Bible
- Some of the humor is not so much understood in the translations but in the word play of the original text
- Also there is the translating of cultural norms and practices into a non-dominant culture
- Humor is not so much the words that are used but the way they are used.
- Compounding the humor in the Bible is grammar and syntax. Neither ancient Hebrew of the Old Testament or the Koine Greek of the New Testament had developed systems of punctuation. Early Greek didn’t have spaces between words and early Hebrew didn’t have vowels.
Humor in the Bible? Sure!
Studies have identified three general ways in which people use humor.
- In keeping with its “truth-telling” character, people sometimes use humor to expose an incongruity of a truth which someone may be blind to or might want to deny.
- If you don’t get the joke, you don’t see the world the same way as the joke teller.
- Finally, humor can be used as a defense to sublimate fear or discomfort, to manage incongruity. So-called “gallows humor” typifies this use. Self-deprecation, so you can control the ability of another to make fun of you.
Why is humor in the Bible, because there is a human factor and human interaction in the Bible. It enriches the human quality of each person. The Bible tells the story of God’s relationship with God’s people. Therefore, rather than being surprised that is contains humor, we should expect it.
Procedure and Plan:
Part of the humor is found in the telling of these stories. So we will tell the stories and fill in background or language issues as need to help supply the best opportunity to see the true humor therein. It is not our attempt to try to make it funny or to make a joke of the Bible quite the opposite. It is our attempt to understand it so well that we are able to see the places of real life in their time and in ours.
Story 1: How Isaac Got a Wife-Genesis 24
In Genesis everything was created by God and was “good” but then things get out of control very quickly. God surprises us when He spares Noah and his family. Then along comes the story of the Patriarch Abraham.
The story of Abraham, the recipient of God’s promise that he would be the ancestor of a great nation that would in turn be the avenue of blessing “for all the families of the earth” (Gen 12: 3), hinges on the problem of the birth of the promised child. At the beginning of the biblical account concerning Abraham, we learn that he (12: 4) and Sarah (cf. 17: 17) are both already quite old (seventy-five and sixty-five, respectively) and, more important to the course of their story, childless (11: 30). If they were to become the ancestors of a great nation, as God promised, the obvious starting point was to become the parents of one son.
Biddle, Mark E. (2013-11-18). A Time to Laugh: Humor in the Bible (Kindle Locations 312-316). Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Then we look at Abraham who needs a natural heir from his son Isaac, but Isaac doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. Isaac was 40 and living at home with no prospects and Abraham thinks he is going to be dying soon. If Abraham and Sarah were to form a great nation Isaac would have to have children and grandchildren. No pressure!
“I really don’t want Isaac marrying one of these Canaanite girls from around here. I’d rather he took a wife from back home. So I want you to go back to Haran, where we came from, and I want you to promise me that you’ll bring back a young woman to be Isaac’s wife” (Gen 24: 2-4).
The servant could not promise that he would but that he would try. Poor soul shows up to a busy city in that day and is supposed to somehow come back with the right woman for Isaac to marry. He asks God to show him through a test that the servant sets up. He does his part shortly after Rebekah shows up and shows him kindness.
What was involved in watering camels? A typical camel can drink up to forty gallons of water in one trip to the trough. Rebekah transported the water, drawn by hand from the well and perhaps carried up a short flight of stairs (see v. 16), to the watering troughs in five-gallon clay water jugs that she probably balanced on her head. The servant had ten camels. A gallon of water weighs eight and one-third pounds, a five-gallon jug nearly forty-two pounds. The math is relatively simple, but the result is staggering. In order to water all of the servant’s camels, Rebekah had to make almost one hundred round trips between the well and the watering trough, carrying a total of more than four hundred gallons of water weighing more than 3,330 pounds or more than two and one-half tons!
Biddle, Mark E. (2013-11-18). A Time to Laugh: Humor in the Bible (Kindle Locations 364-367). Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Now the servant has to make the proposition about this man’s daughter being the wife of his master’s son. Poor soul indeed, she and her family agree, but then the servant says oh yeah and I would like to leave tomorrow.
Isaac’s wife (soon to be) that he did not ask for and neither of them know each other has arrived. The Isaac goes out of his tent at night to the field to do something (some translators of the text imply bathroom break), and while he is out there Rebekah and the camels show up and upon seeing him doing whatever he was doing in the field and she fell off the camel. The Hebrew text implies that she got off her camel very quickly or fell. Often in Hebrew storytelling actions speak in place of words. Then she has to go and ask the servant who that man is? Probably hoping it not to be Isaac her soon to be husband.
Rebekah was young, beautiful, energetic; Isaac was forty. Was he balding? graying? paunchy? By forty, things start happening to the body; gravity and genes begin to exert their influence. What was Rebekah thinking when, seeing Isaac for the first time, she “fell” off the camel? Was she regretting her hasty decision to return with Abraham’s servant to marry this forty-year-old man? Maybe she replayed the conversation in her mind and realized her mistake.
“And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death” (Gen 24: 67, NRSV).
Biddle, Mark E. (2013-11-18). A Time to Laugh: Humor in the Bible (Kindle Locations 501-503). Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
The servant tells Isaac “this is your wife that your dad and I got for you, without you. Isaac brings Rebekah into his dead mother’s tent to marry her and have their honeymoon. This may have been a little strange. We never really know about Rebekah’s feelings but the text said that he loved her and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
We don’t really know why he was not in a particular hurry to get married. He was likely about 40 years old and had a real close relationship with his mother. I can’t blame him after almost become a sacrifice at the hands of his father. There can be no great nation if Isaac doesn’t have children. What a wonderful funny story of how that all came about. Strangely, he only gets married immediately after Sarah’s death. Isaac is only ever known in relationship to others. Abraham’s son, Jacob’s father, or Rebekah’s husband he is not really a main player.