Humour is a very personal thing. For example, I can’t understand anyone not liking the comedian Billy Connolly or the sitcom Citizen Kahn as they leave me belly-aching from laughter, while other people next to me roll their eyes at my bad taste in comedy… But then Father Ted, Mrs Brown or Benny Hill leave me totally cold so “chacun son gout.”
The Hebrew Bible of course is not generally regarded as a humorous book – a truism if ever there was one! – and yet, as it contains the whole range of human situations, reactions and feelings, it also contains funny situations and humorous remarks. But humour does not always travel well, in time or space. The Bible was written a very long time ago in a language strange to most of us and in a culture totally different from ours so we often miss the cues. Also humour is often quickly “dated”: I use to laugh a lot at “Fawlty Towers” when it first came out but I don’t any longer as I feel it has really passed its sell-by date. And of course, we’re conditioned by the whole “notahumorousbook” approach when we deal with the Biblical text.
I believe however that the person who recorded the death of King Jehoram in 2 Chronicles 21:20 by writing “He passed away, to no one’s regret” did not lack a pinch of dry humour … And what about David in 1 Samuel 21:1516 who pretends to be insane before Achish, king of Gath, to avoid being returned to Saul. Achish says to his servants: “Am I so short of madmen that you have to bring this fellow here?”… I don’t know about you but I find the
remark quite funny! I also really enjoy Balaam’s conversation with his donkey (Numbers 22: 21-30) as I can’t believe that the words “Am I not your own donkey? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” were written with a straight face! Proverbs, of course, is a goldmine of humour, not all of it very politically correct: “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion” (11:22)… oops! And then what about Sarah laughing at the renewed sexual power of her husband age 99 when he was “as good as dead” in that department, (according to Hebrews 11:11-12) and then arguing with God whether or not she laughed: is there a better example of quirky humour when the joke is about laughing? Finally, dare I mention the episode in Judges 3:12-30 of the assassin Ehud plunging a dagger into the morbidly obese King Eglon causing a not so pleasant “gut reaction” … if you pardon the pun!
There are many other examples but suffice to say that as the inspired Word of God comes to us through human voices and humour is part of what it is to be human, we should not be surprised that many of the biblical writers make use of the funny side of things too. If some play on words will always escape us because of the Hebrew language barrier, we can still appreciate satirical situations where inflated egos reveal their true selves in their bad temper, their vanity and their incompetence. None more so than in the Book of Esther where the author makes great use of irony, sarcasm, hyperboles and exaggerations in what turns out to be a farce with a message: Esther’s comic aspects are not contained in a few jokes or in some witty repartees but in a “comic of situation” showing up men behaving badly.
Traditionally the story of Esther is remembered (or not as the case may be!) by Christians as one of only two books of the Hebrew Bible that does not explicitly mention God (the second one being the Song of Songs…). May be it is for that reason that it is rarely, if ever, read in church – never mind preached on – whereas in Judaism, the heroine Esther is at the centre of the festival of Purim, the merriest of all Jewish celebrations when people spend the day
Calvin did not include the book in any of his commentaries and Luther considered it a “great
in a carnival atmosphere giving presents to each other, eating,
singing, dancing, masquerading, drinking and merry-making. The celebration is joyful because it commemorates the Persian Jews being saved from extermination thanks to young Esther. Furthermore the Rabbis also saw
something in the text of Esther that escaped Christian leaders:
enemy” as it contained, according to him, too much “judaizing” and “pagan naughtiness.” As great as the two Reformers were, I am afraid they totally missed the point!
Ahasuerus, the king of Persia, the greatest empire of the time, is portrayed as an ineffectual, ostentatious, debauched buffoon who spends his time drinking, partying and womanizing: at the start of the book he throws a preposterously lavish party which lasts six months (!) culminating in a scene where the drunken king summons Queen Vashti to parade, in the nude, in front of his courtiers. When she refuses, he banishes her in a fit of uncontrollable rage. But then he feels lonely so his courtiers suggest that a harem of young virgins gathered from the four corners of the empire would brighten things up nicely, thank you very much… each night a different girl will come to him and the one who will satisfy him best will be the new queen! Before the young women can enter the King’s chamber however, they must undergo a beautifying regime for an entire year! The whole thing would be infuriating and totally ludicrous if it was not so much over the top and therefore funny! Interestingly Esther wins the contest not only through her charms but also through her wits and her determination, cleverly manipulating a weak and greedy king.
In any case the whole book portrays the King as a vain playboy who lacks moral compass, prevaricates, does not properly govern and produces silly edicts that he cannot abolish, even if it was him who produced them in the first place! He is basically a ridiculous hedonist that you can only laugh at. His advisers, it has to be said, are not much better, especially the Grand Vizier Haman who swells with excessive self-importance in spite of having achieved nothing of any value and who is only hungry for honours he does not deserve. It seems therefore obvious that the essence of the book is highly satirical as it pokes fun at the Persian elite, mocking the decadence of empire, the absurdity of human pretensions and the vanity of useless leaders: Humour has always been a very effective weapon of the powerless and the oppressed. All this of course is in stark contrast with the Biblical tradition of the “good life” and of Wisdom which is the only righteous way to achieve human flourishing.
Read the book if you never have, it is a good story full of funny twists and turns!