Here is the more human scale of comedy and tragedy.
Two Roads to Wisdom
“The comic and the tragic heroes alike ‘learn by suffering,’ albeit suffering in comedy takes the form of humiliation, disappointment or chagrin, instead of death. There is a comic road to wisdom, as well as a tragic road.” — Wylie Sypher, Comedy
Comedy and Tragedy
You have good days and bad days. This is the rhythm of life. It is also the rhythm of literature, where comedy and tragedy form a complementary whole.
Comedy and tragedy are pregeneric forms; they occur within other genres. Hero stories and epics can be either comic or tragic. For example, the hero story of David is a tragedy, while the hero story of Ruth is a comedy. You could argue that the Bible as a whole is comic, culminating in the “happy ending” of Revelation 21-22 (pages 2335-2337 in The Harper Collins Study Bible).
To say a Bible story is comic doesn’t necessarily mean it’s amusing. It means it has what might be called a “U-shaped” plot structure. A comic tale begins with the hero in prosperity and events veer toward tragedy, but ultimately everything is resolved in a happy ending.
Along with happy endings, comedies feature characters that transform from bad to good, surprise plot twists, reunions, miracles, sudden reversals of fortune, and rescues from disaster.
The story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50) features a classic U-shaped structure. It is an archetypal rags-to-riches story, a staple of comic narrative. The youngest of seven brothers, Joseph begins as his father Jacob’s favorite child (prosperity), but he is sold into slavery and ends up in an Egyptian prison (tragedy).
Unexpectedly — thanks to his ability to interpret dreams — he rises to a position of power second only to the Pharaoh. When Joseph’s brothers stand before him in Egypt to request food, they do not even recognize the younger brother whom they tormented. Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers and moves his entire family to Egypt (prosperity restored). It is a grand family reunion and a happy ending.
Among the other notable comic narratives in the Bible are:
- Noah and the flood: Genesis 6-9 (pages 12-16)
- The story of Ruth (pages 410-415)
- The story of Esther (pages 738-748)
- The “framing story” of Job: Job 1-2 (pages 751-753) and Job 42 (pages 795-796)
- The “passion story” of Jesus: John 18-21 (pages 2047-2055)
Like comedy, tragedy begins with the hero in prosperity, but it ends unhappily, in catastrophe, usually death. In tragedy, the hero is afflicted with a tragic flaw, makes a grievous error in judgment that leads to his or her downfall, and becomes gradually isolated from society. There are two undisputed tragedies in the Bible:
- The tragedy of Samson: Judges 13-16 (pages 392-398)
- The tragedy of Saul: 1 Samuel 8-31 (pages 427-465) [Note: The tragic decline of Saul is played alongside the ascent of David. The chapters dealing exclusively with Saul are: 8-11, 13, 15-16, 18, 24, 26, 28, 31.]
Let’s look at the story of Samson as a sample of biblical tragedy. Samson begins as all tragic heroes do — in an exalted position from which he must fall. His miraculous birth and superhuman strength make him “most likely to succeed,” but he has a tragic flaw . . . well, many tragic flaws: self-indulgence, a weak will, and spiritual recklessness. His error in judgment occurs when he foolishly reveals to Delilah the source of his strength. In the end, Samson suffers and dies weak and blind, toppling a Philistine temple on himself and his victims.
by Hershey H. Friedman
This paper demonstrates that the Hebrew Bible contains much humor, albeit mainly subtle and much of it requiring a knowledge of the original language of the Bible, Hebrew. The purpose of this article is not to exhaustively enumerate all instances of humor in the Bible but, rather, to demonstrate that humor permeates the Holy Scriptures. The humorous verses and situations collected in this paper are characterized as belonging to one of the following categories of humor: sarcasm, irony, wordplay, humorous names, humorous imagery and exaggeration, and humorous situations. An examination of the collection in this paper makes evident at least one important purpose of this humor: Humor brings God closer to humankind. For instance, God seems more understandable and less aloof when he is sarcastic. We mortals note that even omniscience and omnipotence do not prevent one from being hurt by straying children. Humorous stories and exaggerations make the moral lessons of the Hebrew Bible more memorable, and the irony behind punishments that are “measure for measure” hints at a world in which justice does truly prevail.
Humor in the Hebrew Bible
Many individuals believe that the Bible, in particular the Hebrew Bible, is without any humor. For example, Alfred North Whitehead was of the opinion that there is no humor in the Old Testament. He claimed that “the total absence of humour from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all of literature” (Price 1954: 199). Whitehead attributed the humorlessness of the Bible to the fact that the ancient Jews were a “depressed people” because of their situation, i.e., continually attacked and overrun by foreign powers. Others, such as Knox (1969), claim that there is much humor in the Hebrew Bible, although it consists mainly of irony. Knox points out that the prophets, in particular, used irony to warn the Jews against the “allurements of pagan civilization.” Jemielty (1992) demonstrates that Hebrew prophecy makes use of satire. A major purpose of the satire and sarcasm was to ridicule the evildoer and idolater. Bonham (1988: 38-51) also feels that examining the Bible proves that “God has a sense of humor.” Jonsson (1985: 41-50) rejects the opinion that there is no humor in the Hebrew Bible and discusses several examples of Biblical humor, e.g., the story of Jacob and Laban.
There are many different types of humor. These include: puns, wordplays, riddles, jokes, satires, lampoons, sarcasm, irony, wit, black humor, comedy, slapstick, farce, burlesques, caricatures, parody, and travesty. The differences among these different humor types is not always great. In particular, burlesque, caricature, parody, and travesty are very much alike and refer to literary or dramatic works that mimic serious works in order to achieve a humorous or satiric effect. Likewise, the difference between satire and lampoon is not that great. The bottom line is that humor has the ability to make people laugh, smile, or chuckle, at least inwardly. Perhaps it does the same for a divine being.
The idea that even God laughs is mentioned several times in Psalms. In Psalms (2:4), the Psalmist says: “He who sits in heaven will laugh, the Lord will mock them.” In Psalms (37:13): “My Lord laughs at him for He sees that his day is coming.” In Psalms (59:9): “But as for You, God, You laugh at them; You mock all nations.” These verses all indicate that one day the Lord will laugh at evildoers. Of course, the type of laughter described here is not a happy, fun-loving laugh, but a sarcastic, derisive one. The Psalmist is describing a contemptuous, sardonic laugh aimed at the wicked who do not realize the futility of their plots if God does not approve.
Jewish tradition (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 14b) organizes the Hebrew Scriptures into three categories of the canon. The Five Books of Moses, also called the Pentateuch or the Torah, are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Prophets consists of eight books, including Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the Twelve Minor Prophets (e.g., Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi). The Writings is comprised of eleven books, including Ruth, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra (and Nehemiah), and Chronicles.
The Hebrew Bible employs many sorts of humor, but its purpose is not to entertain. The major goal of the Hebrew Bible is to teach humanity how to live the ideal life. Much of the humor found in the Hebrew Bible has a purpose: To demonstrate that evil is wrong and even ludicrous, at times. The punishments meted out to wrongdoers are often designed to mock them and to hoist them by their own petards.
This paper will demonstrate that the Hebrew Bible contains much humor, albeit mainly subtle and much of it requiring a knowledge of the original language of the Bible, Hebrew. The purpose of this article is not to exhaustively enumerate all instances of humor in the Bible but, rather, to demonstrate that humor permeates the Holy Scriptures. The humorous verses and situations collected in this paper are characterized as belonging to one of several broad categories of humor: sarcasm, irony, wordplay, humorous names, humorous imagery, and humorous situations.
In the Hebrew Bible, evil people are often very sarcastic, in keeping with their characters. Of course, Biblical sarcasm is not limited to evildoers; ordinary people, leaders, and even God may occasionally indulge.
In the Five Books of Moses:
The Bible tells us very little about Dathan and Aviram. They were just two Israelites who complained during the forty year sojourn in the wilderness. The way they complained, however, made them stand out, even amongst a group of perpetual complainers. When Korach’s rebellion against Moses started, Moses attempted to make peace and summoned Dathan and Aviram, Korach’s co-conspirators. Their complaint to Moses dripped with so much sarcasm that it caused Moses to immediately protest to God about them. They told Moses (Numbers 16:13): “Is it but a small thing that you have brought us up out of [Egypt] a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, but you also have to lord over us?” The “land of milk and honey” was a term used to describe the promised land of Israel, not Egypt. We learn a good deal about the personalities of Dathan and Aviram from their nasty remark to Moses.
We also learn much about the character of the Israelites from their way of asking Moses for help seven days after their triumphant exodus from Egypt. They saw Pharaoh’s army approaching behind them, and all that loomed ahead was the sea. The nascent Jewish nation asked Moses (Exodus 14:11): “Was there a lack of graves in Egypt, that you took us away to die in the wilderness?” This impudent remark made when all seemed hopeless for the Israelites sheds much light on their character. It would seem that humility and prayer might have been a more appropriate response in a time of great danger than sarcasm.
One is not surprised to learn that eventually these complainers went too far with their sarcastic and loathsome remarks and came to an ignominious end. The Israelites, totally demoralized by the report of the spies, complained to Moses that the inhabitants of Canaan were clearly much too strong to defeat, and said (Numbers 14:2): “We wish we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this desert would we had died.” God’s response (Numbers 14:28-29) to Moses and Aaron was to tell the Israelites that: “Surely as you have spoken in My ears, so I will do to you. In this desert your carcasses shall fall.” The text indicates that the Israelite adults did indeed die in the desert over the next 39 years; their children made it to the promised land.
In the Prophets:
When David found out that King Saul wished to kill him, he fled from Israel and went to Gath. Fearful that Achish, King of Gath, would have him killed, David pretended to be insane. David scribbled on the doors of the gates and allowed saliva to dribble down into his beard. When his servants brought David to him, Achish said (I Samuel 21:15-16): “Why did you bring him to me? Do I lack lunatics that you have brought this one to carry on insanely in my presence?”
Rabshakeh joined the Assyrian king Sennacherib in his military action against the Israelite King Hezekiah. Rabshakeh impudently offered King Hezekiah’s officers 2,000 horses (II Kings 18:23) “if you can put riders on them.” When King Hezekiah’s officers asked Rabshakeh not to speak the Judean language (Hebrew) but Aramaic, a language the soldiers on the wall did not understand, not only did Rabshakah not comply with this request, but his reply — in Hebrew — was (II Kings 18:27): “Is it to your master and to you that my master has sent me to speak these words? Is it not to the people sitting on the wall, who will eat their dung and drink their urine with you [in the famine that would result from a siege]?”
God is sometimes sarcastic, especially when upset or exasperated with the Jewish people, who continually test Him. When the Jewish people, who were engaging in idol worship, cried to God about the neighboring peoples (such as the Philistines) who were oppressing them (Judges 10:14), God told them: “Go and cry to the gods which you have chosen; let them rescue you in the time of your torment.” This sounds very mortal-like, much like the woman saying to her husband who has strayed and then wants to return: “Now you come to me. Why don’t you go back to …” Also, parents have said similar words to children who return when they need help and realize that their “best” friends are not there for them in times of trouble. By using sarcasm in this way, the text makes God seem more understandable and less aloof. Apparently, even omniscience and omnipotence do not prevent one from being hurt by straying children.
Elijah’s remarks to the prophets of Baal are steeped in sarcasm. [Knox (1969) cites this as well, but considers this an example of irony.] Referring to their false deity, Elijah told them (I Kings 18:27): “Call with a loud voice, for he is a god. Perhaps he is talking, or he is pursuing enemies, or he is relieving himself, or perhaps he is sleeping and will awaken.”
In the Writings:
Sarcasm is used in Psalms to ridicule idolaters. The Psalmist (115:4-8) says: “Their idols are silver and gold, the handiwork of man. They have a mouth, but they cannot speak; they have eyes, but they cannot see. They have ears, but they cannot hear; they have a nose, but they cannot smell. Their hands cannot feel; their feet cannot walk; they cannot speak with their throat. Those who make them should become like them, all who put their trust in them.”
Upon returning from Moab, where she lost her husband, two sons, and all her wealth, Naomi said to the residents of Bethlehem (Ruth 1:20): “Do not call me Naomi [which means the pleasant one]; call me marah [the bitter one].”
Job became quite sarcastic after his life became miserable and the Book of Job is replete with sarcastic remarks. Job’s explanation regarding the righteous person that suffers was (Job 12:4): “The completely righteous man is a laughingstock.” Job demanded to confront God and know the reason for all his suffering. Job’s wish was granted, and God said to him (Job 38:4): “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Or, in other words, when you create your own world, then you can tell me how to run mine.
In many cases, the irony of the Hebrew Bible demonstrates that individuals should be careful in what they say or do. Their deeds or words can come back and haunt them years later. Using this device, the Bible hints at a divine plan, one in which bad deeds do not go unpunished. Punishments in the Hebrew Bible often fit the crime “measure for measure” and we are repeatedly shown that “what goes around comes around.”
In a classic work, Good (1965) shows how the Bible uses different types of irony. In particular, Good focuses on six instances in which irony is employed: the Book of Jonah, the story of Saul (in Samuel), the Book of Genesis, Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Knox (1969) also notes that there is a great deal of irony in the Hebrew Bible. For instance, he feels that there is irony in the story of Jacob and Laban and how they try to outwit each other. He also discusses how prophets such as Elijah and Isaiah used irony to mock idolatry. Klein (1989) discusses numerous examples of irony from the book of Judges.
In the Five Books of Moses:
A classic example of irony in the Hebrew Bible is in the story of Joseph. Judah and his brothers had perpetuated one of the most horrible crimes one can imagine: They sold their own seventeen-year-old half-brother into slavery. Twenty-two years later the brothers had all but forgotten the evil they had done, but God did not forget. There was a famine in the Land of Canaan and the brothers were forced to go to Egypt to purchase food. Joseph, unbeknownst to his brothers, had become the Grand Vizier. Joseph’s silver chalice was found among Benjamin’s possessions and Joseph declared that Benjamin would have to remain in Egypt as his slave. Judah, in an attempt to get sympathy, told the Grand Vizier (in actuality Joseph) that they had an old father, and that Benjamin, the youngest child, was the only one of his mother’s children who was alive, since he had had a brother who died. It is quite comical and ironic when one realizes that Judah was actually talking to Joseph who was far from dead. There is even more irony in the words of Judah whose plea before the Grand Vizier was (Genesis 44:34): “For how can I go up to my father if the lad [Benjamin] is not with me? I cannot bear to look upon the evil misery that shall come on my father.” Twenty-two years earlier, Judah had no problem collaborating with his brothers in selling his seventeen-year-old brother and looking upon his father’s suffering. Indeed, Judah was the one who said (Genesis 37:26): “What profit will there be if we kill our brother…” It is also quite ironic that whereas at first Judah was the one who advised that one brother (Joseph) be sold into slavery, twenty-two years later, Judah offered himself as a slave in lieu of another brother (Benjamin). Judah redeemed himself by this noble act and thus we learn two important lessons: First, bad deeds can boomerang and cause one much harm in the future and, second, one can repent and be forgiven for even the worst of crimes.
This is one of the themes of Genesis: the one who deceives is ultimately in turn deceived. Jacob deceived his nearly blind father Isaac by pretending to be his older brother Esau. Several years later, Laban fooled Jacob and substituted Leah, his elder daughter, for Rachel, his younger daughter. Jacob was deceived by his children into believing that his favorite son, Joseph, was devoured by a wild animal. Years later, Joseph, as Grand Vizier of Egypt, deceived his brothers who did not recognize him. Joseph’s coat of many colors was dipped in goat’s blood in order to deceive Jacob (Genesis 37:31) and make him think Joseph was devoured. Judah, in turn, was deceived by Tamar, his daughter-in-law, by means of a kid of goats. The Bible states that (Genesis 38:20): “Judah sent the young kid” to the prostitute (Tamar disguised as a prostitute). The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 85:9) notes that the same wording is used in both stories: haker nah (do you recognize?). Jacob was asked by the brothers whether he recognized the bloody coat of many colors and Judah was asked by Tamar whether he recognized the seal, wrap, and staff.
When Rachel was still childless, she (Genesis 30:1): “envied her sister and said to Jacob, ‘give me children or else I die.’ ” The tragic irony of this statement is that Rachel subsequently died in childbirth giving birth to Benjamin.
After noticing that his father-in-law Laban was not treating him as in the past, Jacob decided to flee with his family. Rachel, one of Jacob’s wives, stole her father Laban’s teraphim (statues used for idolatry and/or divination). Laban pursued them and intercepted them in the Gilead mountains (Genesis 31:30): “Why have you stolen my gods?” Laban said to Jacob. The Midrash comments that it cannot be much of a god if it can be stolen (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 74:8). Jonsson (1985, 44-45) suggests that there is humor (albeit “rough” humor) in the fact that, not only was Laban deceived, but his idols were actually underneath his daughter Rachel’s posterior while she claimed that the “manner of women” was upon her. This idol did not get much respect.
It is ironic that when the brothers sold Joseph, he was taken by a caravan of Ishmaelites carrying “spices, balsam, and ladanum” (Genesis 37:25). Twenty-two years later, Jacob sent a gift to the Grand Vizier (who was actually Joseph) which included balsam, spices, and ladanum (Genesis 43:11). It is also somewhat strange that Jacob’s gift to Egypt consisted of food (honey, pistachio nuts, and almonds) when there was a great famine in Jacob’s country, the land of Canaan.
Pharaoh’s words to Joseph regarding his family are filled with irony. Pharaoh said (Genesis 45:18): “And take your father and your households and come to me; and I will give you the best of the land of Egypt.” Rashi, a leading Jewish commentator on the Hebrew
Bible and Talmud, notes that Pharaoh unknowingly alluded to what was going to happen centuries later when the Israelites left Egypt and emptied it out after the final plague. The Egyptians gave the Israelites vessels of silver and gold and clothing and the Israelites “despoiled the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:36).
There is irony in the Song at the Red Sea sung by Moses and the Israelites which described the miracles wrought by God on behalf of the Israelites. One verse in the song declares (Exodus 15:17): “You shall bring them in and plant them on the mountain of Your inheritance.” The Midrash points out that Moses and the Israelites inadvertently prophesied in saying “them” rather than “us.” As we know, this generation, including Moses, did not make it to the promised land (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 15:253).
Moses summoned Dathan and Aviram in the hope of preempting a serious rebellion started by Korach (Numbers 16:12): “Moses then sent to call Dathan and Aviram, and they said: ‘We will not go up.’ ” They were right. A few verses later, the text states that they died by being swallowed up by the earth; they went straight down (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 18:10).
Clearly, there is irony in that many of the punishments meted out by God in the Hebrew Scriptures were measure for measure. The reader immediately notes that the divine punishment fits the crime. For instance, the Egyptians drowned children in the river, so God drowned them in the sea. Miriam, Moses’ sister, disparaged Moses “because of the Cushite woman he had married (Numbers 12).” The Cushites (Ethiopians) were very dark-skinned, and Miriam’s punishment was that she became leprous, or “white as snow.” Miriam became deathly white for making critical remarks of a dark-skinned person. The Israelites whined that the manna was not sufficient and demanded meat in a most despicable way (Numbers 11). They went on to say that they remembered (evidently, fondly) the free fish they were accustomed to eat in Egypt. God’s punishment was to give them meat until “It is coming out of your nose and makes you nauseous.” The ingrates died “while the meat was still between their teeth.”
In the Prophets:
Deborah’s song depicted Sisera’s mother looking out the window to see why her son’s chariot was late. The wisest of her princesses eased her mind (Judges 5: 30): “Are they not finding and dividing the spoils; a woman, two women for every man.” The irony is that while the mother of Sisera was told that her son was being delayed because he was ravishing the women of Israel, a young woman, Jael, killed him by hammering the tent pin through his temple while he was sleeping.
When King David slept with Bathsheba and made her pregnant, she was still married to Uriah. In what is probably his least noble moment, King David sent a letter to his general, Joab, telling him to place Uriah at the front where the battle was the most fierce so that he would be killed. The irony is that David sent this letter via the hand of Uriah, who unwittingly carried his own death warrant to Joab (II Samuel 11:1-16). The tables were turned on David when the prophet Nathan told David a parable but made it seem that the event had actually occurred. Nathan’s parable involved a poor man who owned nothing but a lamb that he loved dearly. A rich man took the lamb and slaughtered it to make a meal for a guest. David, who took the story literally, swore that the person who did this was deserving of death. Since the parable referred to David himself, who had taken away Uriah’s wife, David had also in effect signed his own death warrant. A similar device is also used in the Book of Esther. Haman thought the king was talking about rewarding him when he actually was talking about Mordechai. Haman was then forced to show Mordechai the honors that he actually wanted for himself.
In the Writings:
Good (1965: 182) claims that the word hevel, used many times in Ecclesiastes (the word is used five times in the second verse alone), means something very close to irony. Of course, the traditional translation of hevel is vapor, steam, or hot air (and therefore often translated as vanity/futility). Koheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes, points out the various ironies of life. Some ironies discussed include: the fact that the same fate awaits the wise man, the fool, the beast and the human; the fact that man’s arduously acquired wealth often goes to fools who squander it, that the lover of money is not satisfied with money; etc.
The foundation and structure of the book of Esther is steeped in irony. Those individuals who are on top when the book opens are at their lowest point when the book closes, and vice versa. For example, by the end of the story, Haman and his sons were hanged on the very gallows Haman had prepared earlier for Mordechai. Ahasuerus deposed a queen for disobedience and ended up with a queen who violated the rules and entered the inner court without being summoned. Esther continued to assert herself and by the end of the story asked the King to grant additional time for the Jews to kill their enemies. At the turning point of the story, the King asked Haman “What should be done to the man the king especially wants to honor?” Haman thought the king must surely mean him and described the way he most wanted to be honored: wearing the royal robe, riding the royal horse, etc. Haman was then instructed to do all these things for Mordechai. Picture Haman parading his arch enemy Mordechai through the city square crying, “This is what is done for the man whom the King especially wants to honor.” Finally, Mordechai may have been instrumental in saving the Jews but he was also the cause of the problem. His refusal to bow to Haman caused Haman’s anger. It is explicitly stated (Esther 3:5): “And when Haman saw that Mordechai bowed not down nor prostrated himself before him, then Haman was filled with wrath.” This may explain why the story ends with the strange statement that (Esther 10:3): Mordechai was “accepted by most of his brethren.” Perhaps, the reason is that some Jews felt that the problems would not have occurred if Mordechai would have bowed to Haman or at least stayed out of his way.
Wordplays, Double Entendres, And Puns
Much of the humor in the Hebrew Bible is in the form of wordplay which, naturally, can only be appreciated in the original Hebrew. These wordplays will not be evident in translations. Many of the wordplays in the Bible are possible because the Hebrew Bible contains neither vowels nor punctuation. In Hebrew, the vowels are marks that appear beneath the letters. Vowels were developed much later in history, probably even after the Talmud was completed. A word written without vowels can often be read in a variety of ways. To this very day, Torah scrolls are written without vowels or punctuation.
Wordplays are an interesting type of humor. The reader feels that the author is being mischievous and purposely using a word in a clever or cute manner. For the believer, the wordplays in the Bible make God seem closer to mankind. A stern, patrician (hence, humorless) authority figure is not likely to use wordplays in his speech.
Like everything else in the Hebrew Bible, wordplays are there not merely to entertain, but to teach as well. Sometimes, wordplays serve to connect seemingly different situations or actions. For example, the word arumim is used in Genesis (2:25) to mean naked, i.e., Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden. The next verse (Genesis 3:1) uses the word arum to mean cunning, i.e., the serpent was cunning. There may very well be a connection between these two verses and the reader is challenged to find it. If the serpent is a metaphor for temptation, then the purpose of this wordplay might be to show that nakedness causes temptation which may ultimately result in expulsion from paradise. Another connection by wordplay uses the Hebrew root word shachath, which means ruin and destruction but can also connote corruption and decadence. The Bible first uses this word to describe the utter decadence of mankind just prior to the Great Flood in Noah’s life (Genesis 6:11-14). Later this word is used to describe what the flood will wreak (Genesis 6:17). Thus, during the telling of an engrossing morality tale, the Bible uses wordplay to further emphasize the connection between decadence and destruction.
Wordplays are sometimes the subtle means by which the text shows its displeasure with someone’s deeds. In Genesis (9:20): “Noah began to be a man of the soil,” the word for began is vayachel. This word, however, can also mean to debase oneself or to act profanely. Using a wordplay, the Bible shows its displeasure with Noah for first planting a grape vine (and getting intoxicated) after the flood rather than planting something else (see Midrash Rabbah Genesis 36:3). Calling Noah “a man of the soil” may also be a subtle affront in itself. Moses was called “a man of God” because of his concern with spiritual matters and Noah, the person whose priority was to plant a grape vine, was the “man of the soil.” Another example cited in the Midrash (Midrash Tanchuma Genesis Toldos 8), refers to the statement that Isaac loved Esau because he was (Genesis 25:28): ‘tzayid bapiv.’ This means literally that Esau the hunter provided his father with game for his mouth. The word tzayid can mean game (ba means ‘in’ and piv means ‘mouth’), but it can also mean to hunt or trap. The Midrash and many commentators on the Bible believe that there is a double entendre here. The verse may be suggesting that Esau used his own mouth to trap (i.e., deceive) his father. Esau was deceptive and made his father believe that he was a fine individual and, therefore, his father loved him more than Jacob.
It is written (Leviticus 19: 4): “Do not turn to the idols (elilim).” The word for deities is usually elohim. The word elilim is connected with the Hebrew word al which means not or nought (see commentaries of Ibn Ezra and Rashi). A similar word is used in Job (13:4), “rofeh elil” (a worthless doctor, a quack) to mean worthless.
The Hebrew Bible often uses words with other meanings to describe idols. For instance, the root word etzeb is used to mean idols in numerous places in the Prophets and Writings. For instance, it is used several times in Psalms (106:36, 115:4, 135:15) and in the Prophets (e.g., I Samuel 31:9). The word etzeb in Hebrew means sorrow, pain, and distress (e.g., Genesis 34:7, Genesis 45:5). People who worship idols are in distress because their idols never listen to them. Gilulim is also used to mean idols in many places in the Bible (e.g., Leviticus 26:30, I Kings 15:12). It is derived from the Hebrew word galal which means dung and excrement. Toevah is used numerous times in the text to refer to an abomination, something disgusting and loathsome (e.g., incestuous relationships referred to in Leviticus 18:27). This word is also used to refer to idols in many places (e.g., Exodus 8:22, Deuteronomy 7:26).
The Hebrew Bible uses wordplay so extensively that this device could warrant a treatise of its own. The following is a selection of the use of this device.
In the Five Books of Moses:
Lot’s plea to the Sodomites after they found out that he had some guests was (Genesis 19:8): “Do not do anything to these men (ha-anashim ha-el).” The words “ha-anashim ha-el” means “these men” but also can mean the “men of God.” Indeed, the two “men” Lot was pleading for were actually angels sent by God.
Esau was famished and showed his lack of manners by saying to Jacob (Genesis 25:30): “Stuff into me (haleateinu) some of that red, red stuff for I am exhausted.” This is the only time in all of Scripture the word haleateinu is used. The word is used to show how crass Esau was. He asked Jacob to pour the food down his throat the way an animal might be fed (see Rashi). Normally, one who is hungry would say “hachil na li” which means “please give me to eat.”
Laban said to Jacob (Genesis 30:28): “Designate (Nakvah) to me your wages and I will give it.” The word “nakvah” means designate or specify. However, this word has exactly the same spelling as nekevah which means female. This is a clever pun and refers to the fact that previously Jacob worked for females, i.e., he worked a total of 14 years for the hand of Rachel.
Jacob stole the blessing (bracha) from Esau. Later, Esau, with 400 men, came to meet Jacob upon his return from living with Laban. Jacob sent a present (mincha) to Esau to mollify him. The word mincha is used several times to describe this gift. However, when Jacob said to Esau (Genesis 33:11): “Please take my gift,” the word Jacob used for gift was birchasee which can mean gift, but literally means ‘my blessing.’ Was this a Freudian slip? Was Jacob nervous about the blessing he “stole” twenty years previously and inadvertently used the wrong word? The more appropriate word would have been minchasee (my gift).
The expression “will lift up your head” (yisa es roshecha) is used several times in describing Joseph’s interpretation of the dreams of the butler and the baker (see Genesis 40: 13,19, 20). The lifting of the head when referring to the Pharaoh’s butler means to count, i.e., that he will be restored again to his original position and will be counted again among Pharaoh’s servants. However, the “lifting up your head” when referring to the baker is used to mean that the baker will be hanged. This is a clever play on the idiom of “will lift up your head.”
Joseph called his first-born Manasseh (Genesis 41:51): “because God has made me forget (nasheh) all my troubles and all my father’s house.” Joseph did indeed forget all of his father’s house since he did not communicate with his father or brother Benjamin. As a ruler of Egypt he must have had ample opportunity to send a messenger to his father and brother informing them that he was alive. In fact, they did not find out that Joseph was alive for nine more years.
Jacob’s deathbed blessing to his son Judah contains an interesting wordplay (Genesis 49:9): “A young lion is Judah; from prey, my son, you ascended…” The overt meaning is that Judah is like a lion cub: he takes his prey with none daring to challenge him. The “my son” was a term of address aimed at Judah. However, if the word teref (prey) and beni (my son) are said together without any punctuation between them, then the meaning of the verse becomes that Judah ascended from the prey of Jacob’s son (Joseph). Indeed, it was Judah who said “what profit will there be if we kill our brother…” Years earlier, when Jacob was shown Joseph’s coat covered with blood, he said (Genesis 37: 33): “an evil beast has devoured (tarof toraf) Joseph.” The word used there (tarof) is from the same root as teref. Indeed, the major commentaries on the Bible argue as to whether the “my son” referred to in Jacob’s blessing is Judah or Joseph (see Rashi and Rashbam).
The verse (Exodus 2:12) states: “Moses looked all around, and when he saw that there was no man, he killed the Egyptian” [who had beaten the Hebrew]. The Midrash notes that there was no one man enough to protect the Hebrew from the Egyptian tormentor (see Midrash Exodus Rabbah 1:29).
While the Israelites were preparing to leave Egypt, they were told to request gifts from the Egyptians. They were given gifts to encourage them to leave quickly, and the verse states (Exodus 12:36): “They despoiled (vayinatzlu) the Egyptians.” The word for despoiled (vayinatzlu) is the same as the Hebrew word for rescued. The root nitzail can mean either rescue or despoil. This may suggest that the Egyptians saved themselves by providing the Israelites with gifts, for had they not given these gifts to their departing former slaves then more of them might have died in the tenth plague.
The Hebrew Bible warns the Israelites not to make themselves disgusting by eating repulsive creatures. The verse then states (Leviticus 11:45): “Because I am God that brought you up (hamaaleh) out of Egypt…” The Talmud notes that the word that is normally used to describe the Israelites being taken out of Egypt (hamotzie) means “who brought you out” not “brought you up,” The word hamaaleh (meaning brought up) that is used in this verse has a double meaning. Besides meaning that God took the Israelites out of Egypt, it also indicates that the purpose of these dietary laws was to elevate the Israelites in a spiritual sense (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 61b).
When Korach and his followers rebelled against Moses in the wilderness, they said to Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:3): “It is too much (rav) for you.” The Hebrew word “rav” means much or many and its antonym, me’at, means a little or a few. Their complaint was that Moses and Aaron had taken too much power for themselves. Moses’ response (Numbers 16:7) was “You take too much (rav) upon you, you sons of Levi,” i.e., that they have gone too far. Moses’ then told them (Numbers 16:9): “Is it but a small thing (hame’at) that the God of Israel has separated you …” Dathan and Aviram, Korach’s associates in the rebellion, sarcastically used Moses’ own phrase of “hame’at” to ridicule Moses. They told Moses (Numbers 16:13): “Is it but a small thing (hame’at) that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness…” Leibowitz (1980: 206) points out that Dathan and Aviram mocked Moses not only by using his own words but also by using a sentence with a similar structure. Moses asked a rhetorical question (Numbers 16: 9-10): “Is it but a small thing that the God of Israel has separated… and will you seek the priesthood also?” Dathan and Aviram responded rhetorically (Numbers 16:13): Is it but a small thing that you have brought us up… that you must make yourself also a prince over us? According to Leibowitz, what they actually meant was: You concluded with a rhetorical question upbraiding us for our ambition. We too conclude with a rhetorical question which denounces your uppitiness.
The well-known verse in Deuteronomy (8:3), “in order to make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but by every thing that emanates out of the mouth of the Lord does man live,” contains an interesting wordplay. Food normally goes into a mouth. The verse speaks of things that comes “out of the mouth.” The verse could just as easily have said that man lives by things that come from the hand of the Lord rather than “mouth of the Lord.”
In the Prophets:
Samson used the Hebrew word chamor in two different ways in his declaration after killing a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey (Judges 15:16): “Bilchi hachamor chamor chamorasayim” (with the jawbone of a donkey I piled many piles). The Hebrew word chamor means both donkey and heaps.
The prophet Samuel asked King Saul why he spared the sheep of the Amalekites after being told by the Lord to eradicate everything (I Samuel 15:14): “And Samuel said: ‘What then (meh) is this bleating of sheep in my ears?’” The word for “what then” is meh which sounds uncannily like the bleating of sheep.
Achsah, wife of Othniel son of Kenaz, asked her father for a gift of springs of water since the land she and her husband were given was arid. Achsah said to her father (Joshua 15:19): “Give me a gift (bracha) since you have given me an arid land: give me springs of water.” There may be a wordplay here since braicha, spelled the same as bracha, means a pond or pool.
The prophet Hosea compared God to a lion and a leopard waiting to destroy the Jewish people for having forsaken Him (13:7): “… as a leopard by the way I will watch [stealthily].” The word used to mean “watch stealthily” or “lie in wait” is ashur. This word is spelled exactly the same as the word Ashur which means Assyria except that it is missing a dagesh (a dot added to a consonant to indicate a difference in pronunciation). Interestingly, the prophet Hosea warned the Kingdom of Israel about Ashur (Assyria). He referred to the treaty made with Assyria (see Hosea 12:2) and told the Israelites that (Hosea 14:4): “Assyria (Ashur) will not save us.” As a matter of fact, it was the Assyrians who drove the ten tribes out of Israel. Using the word ashur to describe the lurking leopard watching stealthily is a clever wordplay: God’s tool for punishing the Israelites for idolatry and immorality was indeed Assyria.
In the Writings:
Boaz told Ruth (Ruth 2:12): “May the Lord reward your actions and may your payment be full (shlemah).” The word for full, shlemah, is spelled the same as Shlomo (Solomon) in Hebrew. Ruth’s most famous descendant was indeed Solomon (see Midrash Ruth Rabbah 5:4).
Plays On People’s Names
Names are very important in the Hebrew Scriptures. God told Abraham to name his soon-to-be-born son, Yitzchak (Genesis 17:19) because Abraham and Sarah laughed when hearing that she would give birth to a son. The Hebrew word tzachak means laughed. An angel told Hagar to name her son Ishmael (God will hear), since God heard her prayer (Genesis 16:11). Jacob’s name was changed to Israel a name which means to prevail over the divine, i.e., the angel with whom Jacob wrestled (Genesis 32:29). The Bible states the reason for each of Jacob’s children’s names. Given the important place of names in the Hebrew Bible, it is not surprising that there are numerous wordplays in names. Just as wordplay is a large part of Biblical humor, plays on names are a large part of wordplay.
In the Five Books of Moses:
Noah’s blessing to his son Japheth (Genesis 9:27), “Yaft Elohim LaYefet” [May God enlarge Japheth] was a play on Japheth’s name, since the word yaft was used only because it is similar to Yefet (Japheth).
With regard to Jacob’s birth, we see that (Genesis 25:26): “And after that came forth his brother, and his hand was grasping Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob (Yaakov, which means one that takes by the heel; the Hebrew word for heel is ekev).” Later on, when Jacob took the blessing that was originally intended for his twin brother Esau by pretending to be him, Esau said (Genesis 27:36): “Is he not rightly named Jacob (Yaakov), for he has deceived me (vayaakveini) these two times.” The word akav means deceived. Esau was making a clever wordplay on Jacob’s name.
Jacob’s blessing of Judah begins (Genesis 49:8): “Yehuda, atta yoducha…” Yoducha means to praise you. The Hebrew word yodu (to praise) is very similar to Yehuda’s (Judah) own name. Jacob’s blessing of Dan begins (Genesis 49:16): “Dan yadin amo…” Yadin means to judge and is similar to Dan’s name. Also, Jacob’s blessing to his son Gad contained a wordplay on his son’s name (Genesis 49:19): “Gad gedud yagudenu.” (“Gad, a troop shall troop upon him.”) The name Gad is similar to the Hebrew word gedud which means a troop or band.
In the Prophets:
When Avigail pleaded with King David to spare her husband’s life, she said to David (I Samuel 25:25): “Let not my lord take to heart this scoundrel, Nabal; for like his name so is he. His name is Nabal, and disgracefulness is with him.” The Hebrew word nabal means vile, mean, scoundrel, disgrace, wickedness, degradation, and foolishness. Avigail was telling David that her husband’s name suited him perfectly.
Doeg the Edomite told King Saul that the priests living in Nob gave David food and a sword, when David was on the run from Saul who wanted David dead. Saul ordered Doeg to kill the priests of Nob. Doeg’s name in Samuel I (22:18) is spelled differently than it is elsewhere. The letter aleph in Doeg’s name was replaced with a vav and yod. The name Doeg spelled with an aleph means concerned, anxious, and worried. Doeg did not show any concern for the people of Nob and even slaughtered the women, infants, and cattle (Saul’s order was to slay the priests). The letters vav and yod spell the Hebrew word meaning woe. Doeg went from being a man who showed concern to a man who caused woe. The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 106b) explains the change in Doeg’s name somewhat differently. At first, God is concerned that a person will go astray (doeg means to be concerned). After a person has become evil, God exclaims, “Woe, that this person has set out an evil path.”
In the days of Ahaz the King of Judah, Aram and Ephraim made an alliance and were planning to attack Judah. They planned to install a new king to replace Ahaz. The verse in Isaiah (7:6) describes what they planned to do after conquering Jerusalem: “and let us crown a king in its midst, Ben Taval.” The commentaries argue as to the meaning of “Ben Taval.” Some claim that it is not a name but is a combination of two Hebrew words: tov (good) and el (unto), i.e., good for us (the word ben means son or member of), and thus the meaning of the verse is that they wanted to crown a puppet king who would be good for them. On the other hand, many commentaries believe that Ben Taval is the actual name of a person from Ephraim or Aram. If so, the meaning of this name is tov (good) al (not), i.e., good for nothing (see commentary of Ibn Ezra) or not good in the eyes of the Lord (see commentary of Rashi). The suggestion by Good (1965, p. 158) that this is a wordplay and that the noble’s real name was a contraction of tov (good) and el (God) but the vowelling was changed by the Masoretes to make fun of this individual is quite plausible. The spelling is the same whether the name is read as Toval or Tovel; the only difference is in the vowels which tell us how to pronounce the word.
Pashchur the false priest struck Jeremiah and had him thrown into prison. When Jeremiah was released from the prison he declared (Jeremiah 20:3): “Not Pashchur did the Lord call your name but Magor Misaviv.” Pashchur means spread (pash) with nobility (chor) and Magor Misaviv means surrounded (saviv) with terror (magor).
The Talmud believes that some names in the Hebrew Bible are not real names. For example, the Talmud has a tradition that the names of the spies are not their real names but they were named in the Bible after their (bad) deeds (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 34a). Also, there is an argument in the Talmud over whether Nimrod’s real name was Amraphel or vice versa. One opinion is that his real name was Amraphel but he was called Nimrod because he led the whole world in rebellion against God (Eruvin 53a). The Hebrew word for rebel is morod which sounds like Nimrod.
Thus, it is quite possible that many other names in the Hebrew Bible are not real but describe attributes of the individual. Radday (1990) takes this view and claims that the Bible often distorts an individual’s name in order to ridicule it. The Talmud and Midrash occasionally take the approach that the Biblical name is not real as noted above, but more often work with the assumption that the name is real but quite fitting. Indeed, in Talmudic/Midrashic literature, a very common device is to show how someone truly deserved his/her name because of some action performed.
For example, Balaam signifies balah am (he destroyed the people), i.e., Balaam’s advice (Numbers 22) resulted in the plague that killed thousands of Israelites (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 105a). The Talmud states that Ahasuerus signified the fact that everyone who knew him said ach la-rosho (woe for my head) (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 11a). Delilah’s (Judges 16) name, was very befitting according to the Talmud, and “even if her name would not have been called Delilah, it would have been appropriate to call her Delilah. She weakened (dildalah) Samson’s strength, weakened his heart and weakened his deeds” (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 9b). The Hebrew word dildul which sounds like Delilah means to weaken or deplete. The Talmud asks: “Why was he called Korach? Because he created baldness [i.e., defoliation] in Israel” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b). The name Korach (Numbers 16) is very similar to the Hebrew word karchah which means baldness. This is just a very small sample of the Talmudic approach with respect to names.
In the Five Books of Moses:
The verse (Genesis 14:2) states: “They waged a war against Berah king of Sodom, and with Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinav king of Admah, and Shemever king of Zeboiim and the king of Bela.” Berah sounds like ben rah which means evil son in Hebrew. Birsha sounds like ben rashah which means wicked son. Shinav sounds like soneh av which means he hates his Father (in Heaven) ( Midrash Genesis Rabbah 42:5 and Midrash Tanchuma 8). It is possible that these names are real names but it is also possible that their names have been distorted in order to disparage the kings–evil kings who ruled over wicked kingdoms.
In Genesis 31:42, Jacob refers to the “God of Abraham and the Dread (Pachad) of Isaac.” Later on (Genesis 31:53), Jacob swears by the “Dread of his father Isaac.” Referring to God as a “Dread” is quite unusual. It is not inconceivable that Isaac after being bound and almost sacrificed, had a tremendous fear of God and therefore referred to Him as his Dread.
Shechem, the son of Chamor, raped Dinah, the daughter of Jacob (see Genesis 34). Chamor means donkey in Hebrew. Was Shechem’s father’s real name Chamor or is the Bible purposely corrupting the name in order to make fun of Shechem? It is not inconceivable that the Bible is telling us that Shechem was a son-of-a-jackass.
In the Writings:
Orpah, the daughter-in-law of Naomi, turned her back on her mother-in-law and left her after her husband died. Ruth, on the other hand, stayed with her mother-in-law and traveled with her back to Israel (Ruth 1). The word oreph means the nape of the neck. One Midrash states that she was called Orpah because she turned the nape of her neck (i.e., turned her back) on her mother-in-law (Midrash Ruth Rabbah 2:9).
Humorous Imagery And Exaggeration
According to Bonham (1988: 44-46), many of the descriptions in the Book of Proverbs and the Song of Solomon are quite comical. In particular, he feels that the descriptions of the nagging woman and the lazy man in Proverbs are intentionally humorous. Sometimes, underlying the humorous exaggerations is the principle that wicked people and whiners have a tendency to exaggerate their travails and to focus on the good times of the past while magnifying the horrors of the present.
In the Five Books of Moses:
The Israelites’ complaint to Moses in the desert was a ludicrous exaggeration (Exodus 16:3): “If we had only died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat.” This was obviously an absurd overstatement: it his highly unlikely that the Egyptians served their slaves pots of meat. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that they were served meat at all. This kind of exaggeration was used several times in the wilderness. Later on the complaint shifted from pots of meat to free fish (Numbers 11:5): “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for free; the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” This complaint was also ludicrous. True, the slaves were probably given food for “free,” but they had to perform back-breaking work and their children were murdered. Apparently, the text is trying to show us how this complaining mode of thought feeds on itself and results in worse and worse behaviors. Ultimately the Israelites wandered in the desert until this generation died, and only the next generation entered the promised land.
In the Prophets:
“To them say: ‘They that sacrifice men kiss the calves’” (Hosea 13:2). This was a proverb used in ancient times to mock the idolaters. Normally, individuals kiss other people and slaughter calves for sustenance. Idolaters do the opposite and slaughter their fellow men and kiss the calves (see the commentary of the Ibn Ezra).
In the Writings:
Solomon’s Song of Songs is a beautiful romantic love poem, but it has some of the most unusual imagery in all of Scriptures. Comparing a loved one to a horse may not have been strange in ancient times, but one has good reason to be skeptical. “I have compared you, my love, to a mare in Pharaoh’s chariots” (The Song of Songs 1:9). Horses may indeed be beautiful but this is still an unusual way to describe one’s love. “Your hair is as a flock of goats trailing down from Mount Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of ewes all shaped alike, which have come up from the washing; all of them (shekullam) are paired, and none of them is missing (shakullah)” (The Song of Songs 4:1-2). There is also a nice alliteration here. That word shekullam (meaning all of them) sounds similar to the word shakullah (meaning missing). “Your nose (appech) is like the tower of Lebanon, which overlooks Damascus” (The Song of Songs 7:5). The commentaries have problems with the translation of appech as nose since even in ancient times a prominent nose was not a sign of beauty. Therefore, some translate appech as face. Much better.
The Book of Proverbs lampoons fools, lazy people, and quarrelsome women by using comical caricatures. These images describe the contentious woman and the woman who lacks discretion in a witty and clever manner. “As a gold ring in a swine’s snout, so is a beautiful woman from whom sense has departed” (Proverbs 11:22). “It is better to live in a desert than with a contentious and angry woman” (Proverbs 21:19). “It is better to live on a corner of a roof, than in a house of companionship with a quarrelsome wife” (Proverbs 25:24). “A constant dripping on a rainstormy day and a quarrelsome woman are alike” (Proverbs 27:15).
The fool is also described in comical, ludicrous, and often graphical ways in Proverbs: “Like snow in the summer and like rain at harvest, so is honor unbefitting for a fool” (Proverbs 26:3). Snow is a disaster in the summer when the crops need warmth and rain is a calamity during the harvest season. Giving a fool honor is also a catastrophe
since it makes people think that there is value in folly. “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the body of fools” (Proverbs 26:3). “Like a thorn that goes into the hand of the drunkard, so is a parable in the mouth of fools” (Proverbs 26:9). A thorn in the hands of a fool will hurt others, so too does the parable of the fool annoy others because it is nonsensical. “Like a dog that returns to his vomit, so does a fool repeat his folly” (Proverbs 26:11). The fool shamelessly repeats his inanity just as the dog eats his own vomit.
Finally, the indolent individual: “The lazy man says, ‘there is a lion on the road, a lion is between the streets’ ” (Proverbs 26:13). He exaggerates in order to justify doing nothing. “The door turns on its hinges, and the lazy man on his bed” (Proverbs 26:14). The door turns on its hinges but goes nowhere, so too the lazy man turns on his bed from side to side but does not get up. “The lazy man buries his hand in the dish; it wearies him to return it to his mouth” (Proverbs 26:15). He is too lazy even to bring the food to his mouth. “A lazy man is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who give advice” (Proverbs 26:16). The king had seven advisors in ancient times.
Humorous Stories And Situations
While the primary purpose of the Hebrew Bible is to teach people how to live a spiritual life and serve God, many of the stories contained in the text are quite humorous. While, as we have seen, much of the humor of the Bible may be categorized as either sarcasm, irony, wordplay, or humorous images, some situations simply cannot be classified. Some of these situations result from a funny predicament and may include humorous imagery as well. For example, the plague of frogs. First, the imagery invoked of a country overrun with jumping frogs, including frogs in the palace, in the bedrooms of Egypt, in the ovens and kneading bowels is quite ludicrous. Then, as if this image is not funny enough, the Egyptian magicians, trying to downplay what Moses had done, “brought up frogs on the land of Egypt ” (Exodus 8:3) to show that they could do the same thing. One would think they would have tried to eliminate the plague (but, of course, they couldn’t). There is even humor in the word used to describe Moses’ prayer to God asking for the frogs to go away. Moses cried (vayitzack) to God. Moses had to cry because the noise made by all those frogs required that Moses scream to be heard (see the commentary of Sifse Chachamim).
In the Five Books of Moses:
Even the great matriarch Sarah could be vain and act like other women. Sarah, who was eighty-nine years old when she heard that she would have her first child, laughed because she felt Abraham was too old — He was ninety-nine. Apparently, even at her advanced age she was reluctant to admit to herself that she was old. Thus, the text states (Genesis 18:12): “Sarah laughed to herself saying…My husband is old.” What is more, God lied to Abraham, so as not to cause friction between husband and wife (Genesis 18:13): “Why did Sarah laugh and say… I am too old.” The Talmud derives from this the principle that it is permitted to tell a white lie in order to make peace (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 87a).
Abraham’s wife Sarah died and Abraham needed a place to bury her. The negotiations between Abraham and Ephron over the cave of Machpelah is a good example of humor used to show the difference between a good person and a mediocre individual. These negotiations are humorous and illustrate the concept that ignoble men promise much and deliver little. Ephron, posturing before his countrymen, said to Abraham (Genesis 23:11): “No, my lord, listen to me! I have already given the field to you, and as for the cave that is in it, I have given it to you; in the view of my countrymen, I have given it to you, bury your dead.” However, Abraham refused to accept the land for free, probably suspecting that Ephron was only offering the land because his countrymen were watching. Abraham replied: “If only you would listen to me. I am giving you the money for the field…” Ephron said: My lord, hear me! Land worth four hundred silver shekels, between me and you what is it? Bury your dead.” Ephron, still pretending that he wanted to give away the land for nothing, cleverly mentioned its presumed value. Of course, Abraham understood what Ephron really wanted and ended up paying him the grossly outrageous sum of 400 silver shekels [Jeremiah paid 7 shekels and 10 silver pieces for property that was better, and probably larger, than the Cave of Machpelah (Jeremiah 32:9)].
Even God can become exasperated with His people. At first, the Holy One said to Moses (Exodus 3:10): “Now go, and I will send you to Pharaoh, and take my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” After they made the golden calf, God said to Moses (Exodus 32:7): “Go down, because your people whom you have brought out of Egypt have become corrupt.” (see Pesikta D’Rav Kahana, Pesikta 16). This is much like parents who may say to each other when a child misbehaves: “Go speak to your son.”
The expression “as God lives” is used numerous times throughout Scriptures as an oath (e.g., I Samuel 19:6, 20:3, 20:21, 25:26). One may ask, what expression does God use when He vows? After the spies returned and convinced the people that they would not be able to conquer the promised land, (Numbers 14:21), God vowed to destroy the Israelites over the age of twenty. The expression used by God was “as I live” (chai ani). Apparently, God swears by His own existence. This expression is also used in various places in the Prophets (e.g., Isaiah 49:18, Jeremiah 22:24).
Balak, the Moabite king, was afraid of the Israelites and sent messengers to Balaam whom he wished to hire to curse the Israelites. Balaam was an arrogant seer who wanted to profit from his powers, knowing full well that God did not want him to go curse the Israelites. While the arrogant Balaam called himself (Numbers 24:16): “one who hears the sayings of God and knows the knowledge of the Most High,” God showed Balaam that his own donkey saw things that Balaam did not. The ass saw an angel standing in the way with his sword drawn, but Balaam saw nothing. You might say that God made an ass out of Balaam. Also humorous, is the fact that Balaam said to his donkey (Numbers 22:29): “Because you have mocked me; if only there were a sword in my hand, I would now have slain you.” Balaam was ready to eradicate an entire nation with his ability to curse but he suddenly needed a sword to kill his own helpless donkey (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 20:14).
Balaam’s donkey, suddenly endowed with the power of speech, did not talk like a lowly donkey and simply tell his master to stop beating him. Instead, God made the donkey speak like an intelligent and eloquent individual. His first comment to Balaam was a rhetorical question (Numbers 22:28): “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam said, “Because you have mocked me; if only there were a sword in my hand, I would now have slain you.” The ass replied, “Am I not your donkey upon which you have ridden all your life until this day? Have I ever been wont to do such a thing to you?” Balaam’s response reveal him as irrational and hot tempered. The donkey’s words, on the other hand, indicate a superior and rational intellect.
In the Prophets:
Ehud came to Eglon King of Moab while he was sitting alone and said (Judges 3:20): “I have a word (dvar) from God to you.” Ehud’s message was a sword which he stuck into Eglon’s huge belly. Eglon was so obese that his fat completely covered the sword. Furthermore, there is a pun in Ehud’s message to Eglon. He told him that he had a dvar. The Hebrew word dvar (or davar) means both thing and word or message. Ehud pretended to have a word but actually delivered a thing, i.e., a sword.
Saul, the future king of Israel, was looking for the prophet Samuel. The young, handsome man encountered some young ladies and, using as few words as possible, asked them (I Samuel 9:11), “Is the seer here?” The young ladies replied (I Samuel 9:12-13): “He is. Behold, he is before you. Hasten now, for on this day he has come to the city since the people will have today’s sacrifice in the high place. When you come to the city, you will immediately find him, before he ascends to the high place to eat; for the people will not eat until he comes, since he blesses the sacrifice, and afterwards those that are invited shall eat.” The Talmud wonders about this strange and very lengthy response and concludes that the young maidens prolonged the conversation because Saul was a very good looking (albeit reticent) young man (Babylonian Talmud, Berachos 48b).
After Abigail convinced King David not to kill her husband Nabal, she said (I Samuel 25:31): “And when the Lord will do good to my master [David], you should remember your maidservant.” The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 14b) feels that Abigail told David to remember her in marriage, knowing that God would eventually punish her husband Nabal for his misdeeds. This is indeed what happened. Once David heard that Nabal died, he sent messengers to Abigail asking her hand in marriage. Abigail’s response was essentially positive although she declared herself unworthy of being a wife but only worthy of washing “the feet of my master’s servants.” A very eloquent and humble response. However, in the next verse (I Samuel 25:42): “She hurried, mounted and rode the donkey and her five maidens went with her.” Apparently, she was going to have help washing feet.
Many view the entire book of Jonah as a parody [e.g., see Miles (1990), Hyers (1987: 91-109)]. Jonah was sent by God to announce to the residents of Nineveh (capital of Assyria) its imminent destruction by the Lord. Jonah, unlike other prophets, refused to go and even tried to flee from God by taking a ship from Jaffa to Tarshish. Why was Jonah reluctant to prophesy to the Ninevites? Many commentators suggest that Jonah knew that in the future the Assyrians would attack Israel, as indeed they did, driving the ten tribes out of the country. Jonah was the reluctant prophet, unlike other prophets such as Jeremiah and Isaiah. His entire reluctant prophecy consisted of but five Hebrew words (Jonah 3:4): “In another forty days Nineveh shall be overturned.” This prophecy had its desired effect and the people of Nineveh proclaimed a fast, and even the cattle and sheep were made to fast. The reluctant Jonah accomplished in five words what numerous eloquent prophets could not accomplish in thousands of words, and all this without even trying.
In the Writings:
Boaz told Ruth (Ruth 2:8): “Do not go and glean in another field and … but stay close to my maidens.” Boaz told Ruth to stay on the part of the field where the young women were working so that she would not be molested by any of the male harvesters. Ruth repeated Boaz’s words to her mother-in-law Naomi but made a slight modification (Ruth 2:21): “Yea, he even told me, ‘stay close to my young men until they have ended all my harvest.’” In misquoting Boaz, Ruth replaced “maidens” with “young men” (the words are very similar in Hebrew: n’arim = young men and naaroth= young maidens). Naomi must have realized this because she said to Ruth (Ruth 2:22): “It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his maidens.” Ruth’s Freudian slip might have made Naomi realize that Ruth needed a husband and therefore immediately advised Ruth how to get married.
Among the most humorous and literary of the Holy Writings, the Book of Esther contains a great deal of irony and humorous situations. The story begins with King Ahasuerus making a huge feast for the people of Shushan, the capitol of his realm. He ordered Queen Vashti brought to his party wearing the royal crown (some say only the royal crown) to “show off to the people and the officials her beauty.” She refused, feeling that such a display was beneath her dignity, and the king had her deposed (and presumably killed). The King issued a decree to the effect that henceforth (Esther 1:22): “every man should rule in his own home and speak according to the language of his people.” This superfluous decree is clearly comical and the Midrash discusses whether this decree made Ahasueurus into a laughingstock all over the world (Midrash Esther Rabbah 4:12).
Towards the end of the story, Haman, prostrating himself before Esther to beg for his life, fell on her bed. The King misinterpreted what happened and said (Esther 7:8): “Will he even force the queen while I am in the house?” Haman, second to the King, to whom all bowed, the architect of the plot to viciously exterminate the Jews, suddenly became a klutz. The Jews were saved.
This article demonstrates that the Hebrew Bible is replete with its own special brand of humor. There are no jokes in the Bible but there is an abundance of wit and humor. Some of the types of humor found in the Hebrew Bible include sarcasm, irony, wordplays, humorous imagery, and humorous stories and situations. Much of this humor can only be appreciated if read in the original Hebrew and not in a translation.
Since, to the believer, the Bible is a moral document, not merely an entertaining “storybook,” one might be moved to consider the purpose of using humorous devices in the Holy Scriptures. An examination of the collection in this paper brings at least one important purpose to mind: Humor brings God closer to humankind.
Clearly, He who sits in heaven does laugh.
Bonham, Tal D. 1988 Humor: God’s Gift. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press.
Good, Edwin M. 1965 Irony in the Old Testament. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press.
Hyers, Conrad 1987 And God Created Laughter: The Bible as Divine Comedy. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press.
Jemielity, Thomas1992 Satire and the Hebrew Prophets. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.
Jonsson, Jakob 1985 Humour and Irony in the New Testament. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.
Klein, Lillian R. 1989 The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges. Sheffield, England: Almond Press.
Knox, Israel 1969 “The Traditional Roots of Jewish Humor,” In M. Conrad Hyers (ed.), Holy Laughter, New York: The Seabury Press, pp. 150-165.
Leibowitz, Nehama 1980 Studies in Bamidbar (Numbers). Jerusalem, Israel: The World Zionist Organization.
Miles, John R.1990
“Laughing at the Bible: Jonah as Parody,” In Yehuda T. Radday and Athalya Brenner (eds.), On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible, Sheffield, England: Almond Press, pp. 203-215.
Price, Lucien (Editor)1954 Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Radday, Yehuda T. 1990
“Humor in Names,” In Yehuda T. Radday and Athalya Brenner (eds.), On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible, Sheffield, England: Almond Press, pp. 59-97.
1. The Talmud is the compilation of Jewish oral law and consists of the mishna and the gemara. The mishna was compiled and redacted by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi about the year 189 C.E. The gemara consists mainly of commentaries and discussions of the mishna and was put into written form about 1500 years ago. The Midrash is essentially devoted to the exposition of Biblical verses. There are two types of Midrash: Halachic Midrash which is mainly concerned with Jewish law and Aggadic Midrash which is homiletic and mainly concerned with morality. The sages quoted and discussed in the Midrash are generally the same sages as in the Talmud.
2. Rashi is an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchok, a major Biblical French commentator (1040-1105).
3. Abraham Ibn Ezra, Spanish poet, philosopher, and Biblical commentator born in Toledo, Spain (1080-1164).
4. Rashbam is an acronym for Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, grandson of Rashi, and a major Biblical commentator (circa 1080-1174).
5. Sifse Chachamim is a supercommentary on Rashi’s commentary on the Pentateuch written by Rabbi Shabbethai Bass, a cantor in Prague, (1641-1718).