Recently, I came across a 2009 Noisevox interview of Ian McCulloch. In the midst of which I discovered an apparent hermeneutical difficulty. Ian McCulloch made a statement which may resonate with many who enjoy Echo and the Bunnymen or similar artists. In an attitude of humor, I want to explore McCulloch’s statement. My assessment is not intended to harm anyone but to heighten the reader’s interest in the Scriptures. Personally, I enjoy a variety of literature and music which target my theological and philosophical yearnings. Ian McCulloch is the sort of artist who excites this curiosity for me. So, I handle the statements artists make with care and respect to the individual making them.
“There are no jokes in the Bible and I think that’s odd. […] There’s none of that in the Bible and that’s maybe what puts people off. So, if there were a few gags in there… (McCulloch, Noisevox).” Similar to McCulloch, I like a good laugh. If there were no jokes in the Bible, I might posit a number of questions. “How can a piece of literature claiming inspiration from God (2 Tim. 3:16) disregard humor as a way to instruct its readers?” Or “If God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), why would He communicate so austerely?”
One beauty of the Scriptures is that they are rife with laughs. The problem is that readers today cannot easily access the set up and punchline of ancient jokes from a cursory read. This is a matter of exegesis (explaining the text), and cultural distance. Discovering humor in the Bible happens when a passage is read in its immediate and larger context. Reading a Bible verse in isolation tends to change its meaning. Also, finding humor in the Bible requires study of the original reader’s culture (a.k.a., background—the things the writer and original reader held in common). By way of illustration, executing a joke across a cultural gap is challenging in public speaking due to dissimilar contexts; the problem is similar when people read ancient texts today.
Here are some related secondary issues. 1. Reading the Bible in a liturgical vacuum without inquisitiveness for its background creates a stern atmosphere. Apathy and ritualistic-asceticism divorces the text from its “natural environment” and obscures its message. If you attend a congregation that has no passion for comprehending the Bible, it shows. 2. Personal presuppositions about the subject in the text will distort a passage’s meaning. For example, if a reader does not believe that God has a sense of humor then said reader will miss it. 3. Pride. A reader may hate the moral implications of the irony in a passage. It is possible to understand a reading and reject its meaning. For instance, religious leaders Jesus Christ encountered wanted to kill Him even though they venerated Scriptures that pointed to Him (John 5:39, 7:18ff).
Are there any jokes in the Bible? Well, here are a few zingers in the broader category of humor. I will briefly reference them because my comedic timing is flawed:
In Genesis 18, the Lord appears to senior citizens, Abraham and Sarah, telling them that they will have a child. Sarah laughs at the idea for obvious reasons. The Lord calls Sarah on it and she lies about laughing. In Genesis 21, the child is born and Abraham names their son “He Laughs” (Isaac). The joke’s on you, Sarah.
In Judges 6:11, 12, the angel of the Lord appears to Gideon and calls him mighty warrior. The guy was hiding from his oppressors in a winepress threshing wheat. It’s pretty difficult to thresh wheat in a container. The joke is on fearful Gideon because his name actually means mighty warrior!
In Amos 4:1, the agrarian prophet calls a group of corrupt women fat (cows of Bashan). This is nearly a universal no-no.
God’s messenger—Jonah—hates Nineveh so much he refuses to share God with them. Jonah knows that God’s message of destruction to Nineveh will end in mercy if they repent. This genius would rather die than see Nineveh repent, as if his death could stop God’s kindness. This is a classic reversal narrative where villains respond better to God than the hero. Guess what? Nineveh repents, God wins, and Jonah remains heartless.
Did Jesus have a sense of humor? Absolutely! Every parable He spoke targeted members of His audience in a manner that exposed cultural norm, or carried assumptions to their logical conclusions. This often made Jesus’ opponents look silly. Read the Gospel’s and see how bystanders responded to these confrontations. This is God in the flesh teaching with humor.
Concerning the Apostle Paul… New Testament historian, Mark Goodacre, indicates that he had a rather dark sense of humor (my favorite podcast on the subject). I suggest you have a listen (Mark Goodacre – Did the Apostle Paul have a sense of Humor?).
In short, are there any jokes in the Bible? Sure! My encouragement to those struggling to find God’s sense of humor in Scripture is to keep reading the Bible and consult a good commentary for any confusing passages. Also, listen to preachers and teachers who excel at explaining the text.
The relational nature of God indicates communication, even with humor. It is because God loves people that He wants us to get the joke. Think of it like this… jokes only work if there is a standard of truth behind it.