Humor in the Bible

Originally published on James and Dave’s Bible Page

“Are Christians allowed to laugh, have fun and enjoy life?”
When discussing my faith with others, this issue comes up frequently from Christians and non-Christians alike. When I was first introduced to the Gospel as a teenager, I asked it myself, and with good reason. To be sure, the call to follow Jesus is a very serious and sober one, commanding us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him, even if it means laying down our very lives (Matthew 10:39; John 12:25). But the next question deals with how we apply this commitment to our lives on a day-to-day basis. Does Jesus’ call to self-denial and holiness mean that we cannot enjoy even the legitimate pleasures of life? I don’t think so.
Laughter is one of the most primal responses human beings are capable of experiencing. Philosophers and psychologists have long sought to understand its complexities on emotional and physical levels. Journalist Norman Cousins credited the healing power of laughter to his recovery from a fatal illness. Jane Wollman points out that “(Laughter) excercises the diaphram and stomach muscles, in addition to massaging the internal organs. Moreover, by stirring up the endocrine system, it triggers the release of hormones that boost metabolism…Sigmund Freud thought laughter originated from the smile of an infant falling asleep at the breast-the emotional expression of pleasurable satiety (2).”
Of course, for those who love the Bible, these healthy effects of laughter should come as no surprise. Thousands of years earlier, Proverbs 17:22 told us how “…a merry heart does good like a medicine.” We read in Psalm 24:1 that “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof (King James Translation).” 1 Timothy 6:17 further tells us that God gives it all to us for our enjoyment. and that “the joy of the Lord is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10).” It even states that God Himself sits in Heaven and laughs at human foolishness (Psalm 2:4). The Bible uses words such as “laugh,” “laughter,“ or other variations of those words over 200 times. The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery tells us that “The Bible is predominantly a serious rather than a funny book. Yet it would distort the Bible to suppress the humor that is present (3).” As with all of life, the key is balance. As Ecclesiastes tells us, there is both a time to weep and a time to laugh (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Mark Pinski, former religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel, rightly observes that:

(T)he ability to laugh at one’s faith is a sign of growth and theological maturity… humor is a way of explaining religion — to its adherents and to others. Increasingly, believing members of orthodox faith traditions are able to joke about their foibles and shortcomings before an audience of their community (4).

With these facts established, we will now look at a few specific examples of humor in the Bible. First let’s look at the Book of Exodus, chapter 32. Moses has been on Mount Sinai communing with God and receiving the Ten Commandments. While he was gone, he leaves his brother Aaron in charge. Unfortunately, though, we know what happens. The people’s commitment to God and to Moses turns out to be very fickle, and they have Aaron melt down their gold and make a golden calf idol for them to worship. Obviously, when Moses returns, he is not happy! He burns the idol, grinds it to powder, mixes it with water, and makes the people drink it.
Is this funny? No, except for one place. When Moses confronts Aaron in verse 21, look at Aaron’s response in verses 22-24: “Don’t get so upset, my lord, … You yourself know how evil these people are. They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.’ So I told them, ‘Whoever has gold jewelry, take it off.’ When they brought it to me, I simply threw it into the fire—and out came this calf!” We may laugh at that, but in reality, haven’t we all given God those kind of excuses at some point?
Next let’s look at 1 Kings chapter 18. This is the familiar story of Elijah and his showdown with the prophets of Baal. As most of you will recall, they had both built their altars and were engaged in a contest to determine who was serving the true God. The challenge was that both would call down fire from Heaven to consume their respective sacrifices and the one who answered was the one to be worshipped. The prophets of Baal went first, but they had a problem: Their god, Baal was only a statue. He could not hear them, let alone answer them. So when they called on him to send down the fire, obviously, they got nothing.
Now the funny part: We see Elijah respond with a little sanctified “trash talking” in verse 27. The King James words it “And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.” In that day, “on a journey” was a Hebrew euphamism for going to the bathroom! This is reflected in many modern translations. In other words, “Where is you god, sitting on the toilet?” So ladies, cut your husbands some slack: “Potty humor” is biblical!
Next, let’s look at that venerable guide for practical wisdom, the Book of Proverbs. Millions of believers, myself included, look to it regularly for important life lessons. But what we often miss is that they are often cloaked in very funny terms. Here are some examples:

  • Proverbs 11:22 A beautiful woman who lacks discretion is like a gold ring in a pig’s snout.
  • Proverbs 19:24 Lazy people take food in their hand but don’t even lift it to their mouth.
  • Proverbs 21:9 It is better to dwell in a corner of the housetop, than with a brawling woman in a wide house.
  • Proverbs 22:13 The lazy person claims, “There’s a lion out there! If I go outside, I might be killed!”

Next we will look at the life of Jesus. Did He have a sense of humor? Now it is true that Isaiah 53:3 describes Him as a “man of sorrows,” but does that describe the whole of His human experience? I don’t believe it does. Always keep in mind that Jesus was both fully God and fully human, and a part of being fully human is experiencing the full range of human emotion, both the joys and the sorrows. Jesus was not the dour, gloomy person that popular religious tradition has often painted Him as being. He “rejoiced (Luke 10:21),” which is the Greek word agalliaô which means “to exult, rejoice exceedingly, be exceeding glad.” He was not a far-off ascetic who simply sat on a mountain at spouted platitudes. He met people where they were. He attended weddings and other social functions (John 2:1-11), even to the extent that He was (falsely) accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Matthew 11:19). People from all walks of life actively sought out His company. Did you ever wonder why this was? While the spiritual aspects of His presence are obvious, could it have also been that He was (gasp) a fun guy to be around?
Unfortunately, though, this side of Jesus is a much-neglected course of study in the theological world. However, a notable exception is the popular book called “The Humor of Christ” by a Quaker author named Elton Trueblood. Mr. Trueblood tells us of his inspiration for writing the book:

We were reading to our eldest son from the seventh chapter of Matthew’ Gospel, feeling very serious, when suddenly the little boy began to laugh. He laughed because he saw how preposterous it would be for a man to be so deeply concerned about a speck in another person’s eye, that he was unconscious of the fact that his own eye had a beam in it…His laughter was a rebuke to his parents for their failure to respond to humor in an unexpected place. (5)

Here Mr. Trueblood brings up a vitally important point: Many of Jesus’ parables and illustrations had humorous overtones in the vernacular of that day. A common form of communication for Jews in that day was called hyperbole, or exaggeration to emphasize a point. A modern example would be “I haven’t seen you in a million years!” Here, Jesus uses it in a very funny way. Being a carpenter, He used the tools of His trade to make a stinging point about religious hypocrisy. “Why are you worried about a speck in your brother’s eye when you have a two-by-four in your own eye?”
Another example: Matthew 15, starting with verse 21. A gentile woman comes to Jesus asking Him to heal her demon possessed daughter. But Jesus reply is shocking: “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel…It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.” I have to admit that Jesus’ response here always bothered me a little. At first glance, it seems that Jesus is being very cruel and insulting to this woman. That is, until you consider the humor element. Look at her response in verse 27: “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table.” Basically, she had just “one-upped” the Lord, and He commends her great faith and sets her daughter free.
Elton Trueblood also reminds us that “Often a smile comes because Jesus reveals to us some of the absurdity of our own lives, where we need help to recognize it (6).” I can certainly say “amen” to that, can’t you?
Now I would like to address a topic that will no doubt prove to be a bit controversial: Exactly what kind of humor is appropriate for Christians? More specifically, I want to spend a little time talking about profanity, crude language and “off-color” humor.
Our movies are rated primarily in three areas: Sexual content, violence and language. While we certainly do need to use discernment in how we address and evaluate these topics, many well-meaning believers say that we need to avoid any and all references to them. Of course, if we take this to its logical conclusion, then the first book we will have to throw away is the Bible itself!
Lets face it: The Bible is, in places, a very violent book! Yes, it is God’s Word, and as such, it does not ignore the darker aspects of life. The Bible describes a man getting a tent peg hammered through his skull (Judges 5:23-27). It tells us how King David paid his wife’s dowry with 100 Philistine Foreskins (2 Samuel 3:14). It even describes, in very graphic detail, an overweight king named Eglon who was assassinated with a sword, soiling himself in the process (Judges 3:21-22)! And as for sexuality, have you read the Song of Solomon lately?
Of course, the context is always the key. By including these stories, the Bible is not encouraging gratuitous violence. It is simply acknowledging that it does exist in the fallen world we live in. Furthermore, the Song of Solomon is not condoning perverse or promiscuous sexual conduct. Rather, it is a liberating celebration of sexuality between a man and his wife. I personally am glad that many Christian leaders are more willing to discuss these topics in an honest and frank manner (7). Locking away any topic as being “taboo” will ultimately do more harm than good. This is why much of what is offered as “wholesome” entertainment is often a shallow, unrealistic characature of life. I enjoy “Leave it to Beaver” reruns as much as anyone, but that is definitely not the world I live in! But the question still remains: When, if ever, is it appropriate for Christians to use “off-color” language?
A certain well-known minister once shocked his audience by stating that “…millions of people are starving to death, and most of you don’t give a —-!” He went on to rebuke them by saying that “The sad thing is, most of you are more upset at my using that word than you are about people starving!” Was this the best way to make his point? That is open to debate, but it does call challenge us in how we are going to define “bad words.” Often, the word “profanity” is used to describe any and all forms of off-color language, but that goes beyond its actual meaning. The word “profanity” means “outside the Temple” and refers specifically to blasphemous or sacriligious terms. Of course, this should not be part of any Christians vocabulary (Exodus 20:7). Nor should immoral sexual talk (Ephesians 5:4) or racist or otherwise degrading language (Matthew 5:22). These principles are summed up in the following Biblical guidelines:

  • “No foul language should come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for needed edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear.”- Ephesians 5:4
  • “But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.”-Colossians 3:8, NIV
  • “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”-Colossians 4:6, NIV

Yet outside of these common-sense perimeters, the Bible simply does not give us an explicit list of “forbidden” words that we are never allowed to utter under any circumstances. More often than not, the definition of “bad words” is culturally determined rather than biblically mandated, and is therefore subject to change over time. For example, the word “gay” is now almost universally recognized as referring to homosexuality. Yet originally, it meant to be happy or light hearted. Similarly, to “have an affair” once meant to throw a dinner party or other social gathering. Now it means to commit adultery. “Grass” used to be something people mowed, now it is something people smoke! This is noteworthy because the Bible itself even uses rather crude language on occasion. Although it is sometimes obscured by our flowery King James English, there is an inherant “earthiness” to the Scriptures that is often overlooked.

  • Isaiah 64:6 states that man’s righteousness is as “filthy rags.” Literally translated, this is referring to a bloody menstruel cloth.
  • Matthew 15:17- Jesus illustrates a point by referring to a bowel movement.
  • Matthew 23:33- Jesus calls the religious leaders a “generation of vipers,” or “sons of snakes.” Referring to someone as the offspring of an animal remains a common and forceful means of denunciation. The modern equivilent would be “son of a (not-nice word for a female dog).”
  • Galatians 5:11-12- Paul wishes that the false teachers in the church would castrate themselves.
  • Phillipians 3:8- Paul compares his pre-Christian life to fesces.

So am I trying to justify bad language? Not at all. I am simply saying that we should define our terminology by the Bible itself, not simply letting cultural norms dictate to us what does and does not constitute improper language. God is not as prudish as we may have been led to believe!
God gave us life to be enjoyed. Jesus said “I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance (to the full, till it overflows)” (John 10:10, Amplified Bible). This is why Christians should be having more fun than anyone on earth! It only makes sense that people who are going to Heaven would be happier than people who are going to Hell! Not only that, this joy gives us a very powerful tool with which we can communicate both our faith and our humanity. In the words of Joel Hunter, Pastor of Northland Church in Orlando, Florida:

“The more seriously we take God, the less seriously we need to take ourselves. Self-deprecating humor not only reduces the intimidation factor, it personifies the possibility of success of people with flaws. Pastors who can joke about their own shortcomings are paradoxically making the ideals of religion seem more possible by putting them in a common human experience (8).”

It is sometimes said that “The medium is the message.” While that may be true to some degree, we must also make sure that the medium does not obscure or compromise the message. As we have seen, there is certainly a place for humor in communicating spiritual truth, we must never let that distract from the seriousness of our message. The minister’s chief role is to be a messenger of God, not simply an entertainer. The Bible says that walking with God is a life of pleasure (Psalm 16:11), delight (Psalm 37:4), sweetness (Psalm 119:103), joy (John 15:11) and freedom (John 8:32). Yet this relationship is built on very somber realities. In short, God is holy, man is sinful, but God loves us in spite of that. In His death on the cross, Jesus paid our sin debt so that we could receive God’s forgiveness and experience this joy both here and forever! If you have never entered into this relationship, why not open you heart to Him now?

© 2011 JHB

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture referances are from the New Living Translation.

    1-Quoted in Allen, Steve. How To Be Funny: Discovering the Comic You. 1987. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY. p 7.
    2-Dictionary of Biblical Imagery: An Encyclopedia Exploration of the Images, Symbols, Motifs, Metaphors, Figures of Speech, Literary Patterns and Universal Master Images of the Bible By Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman, Colin Duriez, Douglas Penney, Daniel G. Reid Published by InterVarsity Press, 1998 p. 407
    3-Pinski, Mark I. “On Religion” column.” Putting the ‘Fun’ in Fundamentalism.” USA Today. December 08, 2008.
    4-Trueblood, Elton. The Humor of Christ. 1964. Harper & Row Publishers. New York, Evanston and London. P 9
    5-Ibid. p 50
    5-Altough he is a controversial figure,. I gratefully acknowledge various teachings from Pastor Mark Driscoll as a source and inspiration for portions of this message.
    8-Quoted in Pinski,”Putting the ‘fun’ in fundamentalism” cited above.
#jameshboyd #keepitreal #yourfriendjames

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