Humor in the Old Testament?

Where in the Old Testament do we find even a hint of humor as we know it? I’m guessing that there just wasn’t much humor in those days! Was everything taken seriously then?

In fact, there is a fair amount of humor in the Old Testament, which many Christians mistakenly think has only thunder, lightning, and punishment. What follows is only a sampling of humor in the Old Testament.

Nelson’s Complete Concordance of the New American Bible has the following: laugh (14 Old Testament entries), laughed (5), laughingstock (12), laughs (9), and laughter (12). Mirth occurs four times. In Psalm 59:9 we read, “But you, Lord, laugh at them [pagans]; you deride all the nations. ”

In chapters 22 through 24 of the Book of Numbers, King Balak of Moab asks Balaam to curse the Hebrews who are on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. Balaam tries four times, but each time only a blessing for the Hebrews comes forth. There is also a section where Balaam’s donkey protests the beatings he receives from his master.

In Isaiah 46:1–2, the writer points out the irony that once-powerful pagan idols need to be carted off for protection when a city is under attack. This entire chapter mocks the seemingly all-powerful gods of Babylon.

According to the psalmist, pagan idols “are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths but do not speak, eyes but do not see. They have ears but do not hear, noses but do not smell. They have hands but do not feel, feet but do not walk; they produce no sound from their throats. Their makers will be like them, and anyone who trusts in them ” (115:4–8).

The Book of Jonah has a large fish swallow a prophet trying to escape an urgent assignment from God. Jonah is the most successful prophet in the Old Testament (all the Ninevites converted) yet one of the unhappiest prophets, precisely because all the Ninevites converted. God causes a gourd plant’s leaves to give shade for Jonah and then sends a worm to destroy that plant. Jonah complains, and God replies that Jonah did nothing to create the plant. Why shouldn’t God be concerned about the pagan Ninevites? Isn’t the idea of animals wearing sackcloth pretty funny?

In Proverbs 10:26 we read, “As vinegar to the teeth, and smoke to the eyes, are sluggards to those who send them. ”

In the Book of Job, the nine speeches of his friends are somewhat humorous in the desperate lengths these three friends employ to protect God’s honor, which they feel Job threatens. The young Elihu then appears and promises to give a better explanation of innocent human suffering than Job’s three friends, but Elihu fails to do so. Job wants to take God to court but withers under divine questioning and finally repents “in dust and ashes. ” The warhorse laughs at fear (Jb 39:22), and the crocodile laughs at spears (Jb 41:21). Certainly there is humor when God asks: “Will one who argues with the Almighty be corrected? Let him who would instruct God give answer! ” (Jb 40:2).

I am indebted to Father Hilarion Kistner, OFM, a wise confrere and retired Scripture professor, for suggesting some of these examples.

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