Different parts of the Bible affect us in different ways. Reading Isaiah 6, we tremble before the majesty of the transcendent Lord. Studying the New Testament passion narratives, we are moved by the sight of our suffering Saviour. Poring over the book of Revelation, our minds reel at this kaleidoscope of lurid imagery.
But there is another response which Scripture can evoke. There are passages which make us smile. We may even at times find ourselves chuckling. Why is that? The Bible is not a piece of light entertainment. It is the weightiest of books, dealing with the most serious matters of all. Why then, does it feature humour?
There are different reasons. In a passage that is imparting instruction, humour may be used to enliven the teaching. One thinks of the splendidly absurd images Jesus gave us of planks in eyes and needle-traversing camels! These make his lessons on hypocrisy and wealth wonderfully memorable.
But it is in narrative passages that biblical writers are particularly playful. Here again, the humour has an enlivening function: it turns the stories into fantastically colourful episodes which lodge in our minds. But in these passages it often does more than that. The humour makes an important point in its own right. A narrator who employs this device is usually aiming at one of two things.
First, he may be putting human beings in their place. In some narratives God’s own people receive this treatment. In Joshua 2 we laugh at the bungled efforts of Israel’s spies. Intended as a wide-ranging and highly secretive reconnaissance, their foray into Canaan is neither: they get no further than the city of Jericho, and within hours their presence there is known to the king himself!
The narrator does not want the conquest of Canaan to be misattributed: it must be seen as God’s doing, not Israel’s. His gentle mockery of Israel’s very opening move — the mission of the spies — makes a small contribution to that goal.
More often, however, God’s enemies are thus put in their place. In Esther 6 we laugh at Haman. Asked what should be done for the man the king delights to honour, and wrongly assuming he is that man, he recites his wish list of accolades — and is then commanded to bestow them all on his bête noire, Mordecai!
In Acts 12 we smile at Herod’s similar egotism. Delivering an address to the people of Tyre and Sidon, the foolish king laps up the crowd’s extravagant acclaim. But Luke divulges a crucial detail about this crowd: ‘Their country depended on the king’s country for food’. He means the adulation had nothing to do with the quality of Herod’s speech; it was the empty flattery of folk solely concerned about their stomachs!
But in humorous narratives the writer, secondly, may be revelling in God’s salvation. Haman’s humiliation in Esther 6 is only one episode in a sequence of amusing developments. What is the book of Esther? It is the story of God saving Israel. In its humorous retelling therefore, we hear the laughter of a people whose fortunes God had restored (Psalm 126:1-3). The same is true of Judges’ deliverances: the mirth inherent in Ehud’s encounter with a fat king, and in Samson’s antics with a donkey’s jawbone, is celebratory mirth!
How then, as we chuckle at biblical narratives, do we also profit from them? If the humour puts God’s people in their place, then we remember not to take ourselves too seriously, and that the advance of Christ’s kingdom is not due to his church’s competence. If it puts God’s enemies in their place, we remember that God is not fazed by Hamans and Herods, and neither should we be.
And if it revels in God’s salvation, we remember that we have been delivered from the ultimate enemy through the supreme Saviour, and exuberant joy is therefore in order! Laughter is, after all, our future (Luke 6:21).
Dan Peters is pastor of Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church