Certain biblical passages make me laugh every time I read or hear them.
Most of them, I realize, weren’t preserved for my 21st-century sense of humor. Nevertheless, personality and culture mix with the ancient text to yield, for me, profound hilarity in some instances, mild amusement in others and sparkling delight in still others.
Just as I’m told I sometimes miss the humor or underlying point because of my ignorance of the ancient cultures, I dare say the opposite is true, too: I sometimes import comedy where there may be none, or where an alternate reading exists.
Caveats given, below is a list of biblical moments that not only make me laugh but also – more important – breathe life into Scriptures I hold sacred.
When I survey the list, I notice that half the incidents are recorded in Luke and Acts. No surprise given that Luke has always been my favorite biblical writer.
Missing from the list are even more speculative but still humorous imaginings on my part.
For example, the Gospels often record that Jesus withdrew to be alone. Sometimes the text records that Jesus did so to pray (e.g., Matthew 14), and sometimes it indicates only that Jesus went to be by himself (e.g., John 6). I can’t help but imagine that Jesus’ reflection on his earthly journey prompted some chuckles.
Similarly, magi giving a foreign king like Herod the slip (see Matthew 2) is, to me, as funny as it is notable.
Now, on with the countdown.
No. 10 – A plague is never funny – unless it’s frogs. Exodus 8.
No. 9 – Mary and Joseph get lost. This is the familiar story of Jesus staying at the temple courts after Passover to dialogue with the teachers. Mary and Joseph have already left for home in Nazareth and don’t notice for 24 hours that adolescent Jesus is missing. The anxious parents head back to Jerusalem where they find Jesus and give him the what-for. Does Eugene Peterson translate Jesus’ response as “Duh”? Luke 2.
No. 8 – Rhoda leaves Peter outside. An “angel of the Lord” springs the apostle Peter from prison. Peter heads to a house where friends are praying and knocks at the outer entrance door. A servant named Rhoda goes to answer it, recognizes Peter’s voice and is so excited she doesn’t even open the door but rather runs to tell everyone else in the house. Fugitive Peter is left to keep knocking while his friends debate whether Rhoda is correct. Acts 12.
No. 7 – Peter argues it’s the Spirit, not spirits. Before Peter has the pleasure of being ignored at the door, it falls to him to defend speaking in tongues as the work of the Holy Spirit, not the work of the bottle, which is how some witnesses interpret the situation on Pentecost. “These people are not drunk, as you suppose,” says Peter. “It’s only nine in the morning!” Acts 2.
No. 6 – Let’s face it: If you’re in junior high, pretty much the whole book of Song of Solomon is a gigglefest. Read it with the mind of an eighth-grader and enjoy. Song of Solomon.
No. 5 – Jesus pretends. In the famous “Emmaus Road” story, the resurrected Jesus appears to two people walking to the village of Emmaus. The pair doesn’t recognize Jesus when he joins them during their discussion of the recent drama surrounding his crucifixion and resurrection. In my reading, Jesus first pretends to be ignorant of the commotion that has consumed this pair, and then he pretends (“acted as if” is a common translation) he’s going to leave the travelers. They urge him to stay with them. This little walk is its own delightful drama, one given a light touch by Jesus himself. Luke 24.
No. 4 – Paul drops the citizenship bombshell. Paul and Silas are stripped, beaten and thrown into prison in Philippi. (Bear with me; this does turn funny.) When the magistrates finally decide to release them, Paul says not so fast, casually mentioning that he and Silas are Roman citizens. “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison,” Paul barks at the officers from the magistrates. “And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.” Ba-da-boom! Acts 16.
No. 3 – Ruth’s mother-in-law wants details from the threshing floor. Naomi is the mother of Ruth’s deceased husband. In a narrative about loyalty and redemption, Naomi is now trying to help find a new home/man for Ruth. Naomi targets Boaz and sends Ruth down to the threshing floor for some quality time with him. The anxious Naomi’s post-encounter question to Ruth is as mirthful as it is simple: “How did it go?” Ruth 3.
No. 2 – John is faster than Peter. Again, John is faster than Peter. Once more, John is faster than Peter. Mary Magdalene discovers an empty tomb, not one with the body of Jesus. She runs to tell Peter and John, who both take off for the tomb themselves. “Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first,” records John, referring to himself as “the other disciple.” Two verses later, John notes that “Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb.” And two verses after that, John needs to tell us, “Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside.” Thanks, John. We get it already. I find it even funnier because Dr. Luke’s version of the story doesn’t even mention John – only Peter. John 20 (and Luke 24).
No. 1 – Sarah argues with the Lord about whether she laughed. This has to be No. 1 because the humor derives from an argument over laughing itself. Three “men,” possibly two angels and the Lord himself, visit Abraham and Sarah. According to the text, the Lord mentions that the elderly, childless couple will soon have a son. “Sarah laughed to herself,” the text reads, so the Lord seeks clarification. “Why did Sarah laugh?” the Lord asks Abraham. “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Sarah turns afraid and lies, herself denying that she laughed. But the Lord will have none of it: “Yes, you did laugh.” Genesis 18.
That’s the end of the story – but only the genesis of humor in Scripture for me.