Wit in the Bible

Wit in the Bible

From time to time, I’ll get asked, “Do you think God has a sense of humor?”

I’m not sure I can answer that. At least, I don’t know if God has a sense of humor like we do. Whatever the case, there are occasions in God’s word where grasping the meaning requires catching the underlying humor.


Sarcasm in Scripture

An easy example is found in Job 12:1, when Job, growing exasperated with his friends’ terrible advice, countered, “Truly then you are the people, and with you wisdom will die.” Job didn’t literally mean it; in fact, he meant quite the opposite. We could paraphrase the insult, “You think you’re the smartest people in the whole world!”

Elijah taunted the prophets of Baal who had failed to get their god’s attention, saying “call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). Elijah could have provided a deep theological exposition on the nature of idolatrous belief systems. But this was a fight to the death, a showdown on Mt. Carmel. Elijah’s absurd and cutting remark not only pointed out the truth in an economical way, but also made the false priests angrier and angrier. In fact, some say that Elijah’s trash talking went a step further, that the Hebrew word for “occupied” in some contexts means “sitting on the toilet” (Wiseman, Tyndale commentary on 1 & 2 Kings).

I believe it was Thomas Jefferson who said that ridicule is the only weapon that can be used to argue with senseless people. Elijah’s taunt is a perfect example.

Paul used sarcasm in 2 Cor 12:13. He said, “in what respect were you treated inferior to the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not become a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong!” Paul hadn’t done anything wrong. Paul simply had refused to accept payment from the Corinthians, and they got bent out of shape. Paul’s biting humor puts the spotlight on the Corinthians’ stupid behavior, who should have thanked him for his preaching without charge, rather than getting upset.

Jesus used sarcasm in John 10:10. He was facing a crowd preparing to throw stones at Him. He coolly remarked, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?” Jesus’ humor distracted them from their violent intentions, and forced them to confront Jesus’ true nature.

He used sarcasm again in Mark 7:9, when he called the Pharisees “experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.” That’s not something anyone wants to be good at (cf. Isaiah 5:22)!

And yes, even God the Father uses sarcasm. In Ezekiel 28:3, God Himself addresses the haughty King of Tyre, “Behold, you are wiser than Daniel; there is no secret that is a match for you!” Not for a second did God mean it.


Hyperbole in Scripture

Exaggeration is another form of humor, painting a preposterous picture to prove a point. The fancy name for this poetic literary device is “hyperbole.”

Jesus sometimes exaggerated for effect. He said, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:5). A log could never fit into a person’s eye, literally speaking. But the silly image points out the equal silliness of nitpicking minor failings of others while tolerating major failings in oneself.

He said to the Pharisees, “You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matt. 23:24). No one can fit a camel down his throat, but it just shows how ridiculous it is to get into a heated argument about whether or not the church should take the collection before or after the Lord’s Supper when members of the same church are going hungry or living in sin.

Now, as you read the Bible, keep your eyes open for occasions of humor that add to the meaning!                                                                                                           –John Guzzetta