No Laughing Matter?

An acquaintance asks, “Why no laughs in the Bible? Didn’t they make the cut?” While one might argue that Jesus might have started his parables with “Did you hear the one about…?” or with a setup like “A Pharisee and a tax collector go into a temple…”, the fact remains that there aren’t many big jokes in the scriptures.

Bob Hostetler, the author of a number of Evangelical books, has written a page about humor in the Bible, but honestly, I think most of his examples are straining to make a point. I generally find the humor to be a bit more subtle and involve wordplay.

For example, there’s the pun in Genesis that I told you about a few days ago about the snake in the Garden of Eden being even more “naked” than Adam and Eve, though I don’t think it’s a particularly humorous pun.

For my money, the funniest story in the Bible is the one where Elijah, the prophet of YHWH, has a contest with the prophets of Ba’al and Asherah (750 of them!) to see which is the One True God. Both sides build altars and pray for their deity to send down fire to light the sacrifice.

Ba’al’s prophets pray from morning to noon without success. While they’re dancing and making incantations and cutting themselves in an effort to get the fire lit magically, Elijah starts mocking them: “Keep shouting—after all, he’s a god, isn’t he? Maybe he’s meditating, or he has ‘turned aside,’ or he’s on a journey, or maybe he’s asleep and needs to be awakened!”

The word translated “turned aside” was a common Hebrew euphemism for “going to the bathroom.” Elijah wonders if Ba’al is off squatting in the brush somewhere reading a newspaper.

Somehow I don’t think the prophets of Ba’al found it all that funny, though.

Elijah then orders that YHWH’s altar be drenched with twelve barrels of water and says a quick prayer. Lighting strikes the altar, igniting the sacrifice, and the people fall down in worship of YHWH. Elijah seizes the moment and orders the death of the prophets of Ba’al. The episode ends with the return of rains to Israel, signaling the end of a long famine.

A Jewish friend once told me why she thought there weren’t a lot of laughs in the Bible: “Well, Sarah laughed at the angel of God, and got punished: she gave birth to a kid when she was 98 years old.” Then she shrugged and said, “We learn!”

Categories: Humor, Judaism | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “No Laughing Matter?

  1. indigobunting

    Didn’t God send bears to rip up some folk teasing Elijah for being bald?

  2. You’re thinking about Elisha, who was Elijah’s protégé. Two bears against forty-two teenagers. Though come to think of it, I’m pretty sure that passage wasn’t meant to be funny. . . .

  3. indigo bunting

    And yet . . .

  4. Yeah, it is always a hoot to me that this is the fella we invite into our homes at Passover.

    I’m surprised my guests, mostly goyim, make it out alive.

    So Passover at your house this year, Craig?

  5. Sure. I’ll set that extra place at the table just in case E. should knock at the door.

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