Is There Humor in the Bible?

Q. Is there humor in the Bible?

A. Forms of humor differ widely among cultures, so ancient Near Eastern humor may not leave us howling with laughter. But if we understand it, we can find it in Scripture. For instance, the ancient texts sometimes confront us with an incongruity intended to be humorous. Irony and hyperbole (exaggeration) are especially prominent aspects of such humor.

For example, the humorous incongruity in Genesis is unmistakable when Abraham bargains with God to spare the city of Sodom (18:17–33). Here we find the almighty Creator of the universe haggling with a mere mortal, as if they were a couple of street-savvy merchants in a roadside bazaar. Sly old Abe keeps upping the ante, and in the end, the mere mortal walks away with the bargain!

Moses has a similarly funny conversation with God on Mount Sinai, when the people of Israel are worshipping the golden calf. Like one parent blaming the other for a child’s misbehavior (“Your son just broke a window!”), God says to Moses, “Go down; for yourpeople, whom youbrought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves” (Exodus 32:7). But Moses replies, “O Lord, why does Your wrath burn hot against Yourpeople, whom Youhave brought forth out of the land of Egypt”? (v. 11).

Consider the scene in Numbers where the pagan prophet Balaam receives a divine rebuke from his pack animal (Number 22:21–35). Not only is a talking donkey comical; the story features a laughable irony: The normally dumb critter speaks, while the prophet acts asinine!

The Book of Jonah begins and ends with comic details. When God first commands Jonah to preach to the wicked, brutal people of Nineveh—a city far to the east of him—he immediately jumps on a ship to Tarshish (Jonah 1:3)—as far west as he can possibly go! And the book ends with God telling Jonah (perhaps with a chuckle) that the people of Nineveh don’t even “know their right hand from their left” (4:1).

The scenarios in Jesus’ parables sometimes have aspects of slapstick and comic exaggeration: Someone hides an open-flame lamp under a bed of flammable straw (see Luke 8:16). The blind lead the blind and fall into a ditch (Matthew 15:14). The hypocrites blow trumpets in the streets to call attention to their charitable giving (Matthew 6:2). The Pharisees strain out gnats but swallow camels (Matthew 23:24).

Finally, consider the amusing scenario in Acts 12:2–16. One night the Apostle Peter’s friends are fervently praying for his release from prison. When their prayers are miraculously answered, Peter comes knocking at their gate. A maid goes to open it, then gets so excited when she hears Peter’s voice that she leaves him stranded outside while she goes to tell the others. They say she’s crazy—Peter’s in prison! But after he keeps knocking, they finally all run to the gate and find him waiting there. Classic comedy!