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Archives for October 2013 | Laughing Pilgrims

Donkey-Speak

October 21, 2013

The Old Testament story about a talking donkey cracks me up. But I have to choose how to speak accurately and politely about this animal. Apparently this is a female (a “jenny”) and also a true ass (Equus asinus), the species that brays “hee-haw,” not a half-ass (Equus hemionus). “Ass” has had a respectable history, winding its way through Greek, Old Norse, Old High German, Old English, and Middle English down to the present day. The translators of the Jewish Publication Society use the word “ass” in the story, and these people know a thing or two. But most of the rest of the English translators use “donkey” or even “she-donkey.” Maybe this is courtesy to tender ears.

So mostly I’ll use polite donkey-speak in talking about Balaam’s “donkey.” This is one of two related funny stories buried in what seems an unlikely place, the Book of Numbers. Numbers is a mishmash of lists of names, clans, numbers (!); laws about life and ritual practice; stories of traveling in the wilderness; and a bit of debauchery. But chapters 22-24 throw in high humor full of surprise and reversal.

The first of the stories frames the second. King Balak of Moab was scared of the Israelites, who were then perched at his borders, and wanted to hire a reputable religious guru to curse them. So he sent for Balaam with a lucrative offer and high confidence: “For this I know: whomever you bless is blessed, whomever you curse is cursed.” (22:6) The story is a little fuzzy on whether it’s okay for Balaam to do this, but eventually he agrees to do it with the caveat that he can only say what God allows him to say. Three times, on three different overlooks, the Moabites build seven altars and on each of them sacrifice bulls and rams. And three times Balaam blesses Israel at the expense of Moab. After the first occasion, King Balak protests, “What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, and you heap blessings on them!” (23:11) But he hires Balaam twice more! After the third time, “Balak flew into a rage with Balaam. He beat his hands together and said to Balaam, ‘I brought you to curse my enemies, and you bless them three times over!” Balaam is all innocence, reminding the king that he had warned that he could only say what God told him. The piling up of extravagance, reversal, and failure in face of the king’s desperation is funny storytelling.

donkey headThe talking ass donkey is even better. The story is wonderfully told, and I invite you to read it with your imagination open for business. (See Numbers 22:22-35.) Be clear, of course, that this is not Mr. Ed, the talking horse of ancient TV fame, or the sassy donkey of the movies Shrek. The donkey here has served Balaam well for a long time with never more than a true ass “hee-haw.” It is on this reliable beast that Balaam sets out on his questionable journey. As mostly a city kid, I don’t know much personally about donkeys except for participating once in a donkey basketball game. They say donkeys can have a mind of their own, and it looks like that in this story. First, she goes running off the road into a field. Then she knocks her rider’s foot against a vineyard’s stone wall. Finally, she simply lies down under him. Each time Balaam beats her with a stick, the last time so furiously that he’d just as soon have killed her.

That’s when the faithful donkey, with God’s help, starts to talk. “What have I done to you? Why beat me three times like this?” Balaam storms on that she has made a fool of him and he’d kill her if he had a sword. The donkey continues, and here you have to choose a voice or tone to interpret the sense. Is it accusing, mournful, puzzled, indignant, or ___________? I usually go with indignant sob story. Choose a voice, read it out loud, and put yourself into it. “Am I not your donkey, and have I not been your mount from youth? In all this time, have I ever failed to serve you?” (Come on, get some tears into it.) Balaam: “No.”

Now, for the first time, Balaam sees the messenger/angel of Yahweh who has been standing in the road with a drawn sword. All this time, the donkey has been seeing what the seer (“the one with far-seeing eyes” [24:3]) can’t see. The angel scolds Balaam for beating his donkey and then explains, “You’re lucky she did turn aside, or I should have killed you by now – though I would have spared her!” (I laugh every time at this tag line.) Of course, by now Balaam, even more than the donkey, is all ears. He repents and promises to do whatever he’s told, which sets up the stories of King Balak’s sacrifices and saying only what God tells him to say.

Here humor serves the writer’s larger themes well, and it invites us to enjoy it when it shows up. We don’t need to be too earnest here in squeezing out hidden meanings. A seminarian once offered me this application: “If God could speak through Balaam’s ass, then God can speak through yours.” But I don’t think we need to go there. Just let the texts live, breathe, and giggle.

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Funny and Ugly

October 17, 2013

Sometimes funny and ugly can show up all at once. In this instance, I don’t mean in people, but in a story. I remembered this while my pastor was preaching a very good sermon on Genesis 38, the story of Judah and Tamar. (Who preaches on Judah and Tamar?! This is the first I’ve heard.) The sermon rightly described Judah’s irresponsible and demeaning behavior toward his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar, and doing that even before she tricked him into using her services when she disguised herself as a prostitute. Rather than following Judah’s ugly example, our pastor insisted, we should treat everyone, women and men, with dignity and respect, as whole persons, a particularly challenging path in our highly sexualized society.

I got the point, but I also laughed (not out loud). The text uses two funny pieces to drive home, not distract from, its message. The first is the story of Judah making arrangements to hire Tamar as a hooker. He promises to pay her a goat, but she demands something to secure his pledge. In this instance, she requests and Judah gives her his seal and cord (a personalized seal used to sign contracts written on clay) and his staff. In effect Judah gives her his credit card and other evidence that will clearly identify him. Trying to deal with this discreetly, Judah later sends a goat with a friend to pay her and to retrieve his pledge. The friend’s search shows subtle humor. In recounting how Judah hired Tamar, Genesis 38:15 refers to her with the Hebrew word for an ordinary prostitute. When the friend searches for her and tries to pay her, however, he uses the Hebrew word for “shrine prostitute” or “holy prostitute.” Many modern translations capture this change.

Judah is trying to save face here, to make his dalliance a bit more respectable (even though Israelites knew that using “shrine prostitutes” was not acceptable practice). When the locals respond that they don’t remember seeing a “shrine prostitute” around there, Judah decides not to keep trying to recover his credit card, lest he “become a laughingstock.” So storytellers and listeners will laugh at Judah trying to escape being laughed at.

cylinder seal - Version 2The seal and staff show up again in a story that explodes with surprise and reversal, a story that gets a laugh. Not from Judah, but from everyone else. When Judah is told that Tamar has played the prostitute and is now three months pregnant, he flies into a (self-)righteous rage. “Bring her out and have her burned to death!” he orders. The story continues: “As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. ‘I am pregnant by the man who owns these,’ she said. And she added, ‘See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.’” (v. 25, NIV)

He recognized them; so did everyone around him. Now maybe you don’t laugh when a guy in a righteous rage gets caught with his pants down, so to speak. But a lot of us do. Laughing here doesn’t lighten Judah’s offense but, instead, puts the exclamation point on his treachery. Now Judah is laughingstock; Judah gets nailed.

He could hardly escape the truth of Tamar having his American Express card, but in some measure (half-hearted, in my opinion), he owns up to his failure. Traditional translations read here, “She is more righteous than I,” which doesn’t really award anyone a blue ribbon for “righteousness.” The sense is that in the history of their long relationship, Tamar had acted more responsibly than Judah. The Message captures it, “She’s in the right; I’m in the wrong…”

So funny and ugly sometimes go together, not news to those who watch Jon Stewart take on tough issues on “The Daily Show.” We can use laughter both to entertain and to make a point. We shouldn’t be surprised that the Bible does that, too.

A postscript, also with a funny twist: Tamar bore Judah twin boys. The first was named Perez, and according to Matthew 1:3, he was one of the not-quite-kosher ancestors of Jesus.

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Seeing Funny: Imagining

October 8, 2013

In two previous blog posts about “Seeing Funny,” I’ve explored playing with words and using formulas. This installment will make “Seeing Funny” a trilogy, which has brought some folks to fame and fortune, even to movie contracts. Of course it may not come to that, but I’m protecting the movie rights for now. Still, free for now, here are some ideas about using your imagination to create fun.

Make words, ideas, and phrases literal. Picture them. You can have great fun by just playing with figures of speech or imaginative scenes. You hear, “She rolled her eyes,” and imagine (or better, gesture) her popping her eyes into her hand and rolling them like dice. Or imagine how awkward or painful it must be to have your “heart in your throat.” I like to invite literalist readers to picture Job 37:1, “At this my own heart quakes, and leaps from its place.” (Jerusalem Bible) When people speak of thinking hard, I almost involuntarily hear gears grinding and smell smoke pouring out. And I’ve borrowed the language of allergy. “I’m allergic to cheesecake. When I eat it, my waist breaks out with big lumps of fat.” Sometimes you just have to go literal.brain and gears 2

Exaggerate. Exaggerating, except in arguments with your family, can create great fun. You can start with an idea or story that’s already funny and then push it to the edges. You can make things huge or tiny, ordinary things like speed, weight, size, being accident-prone. “When that guy passed me, he was going 300 miles per hour!” Comics like Johnny Carson and David Letterman use formulas like “How hot was it?” and “How wet was it?” to set up punch lines. “It was so wet in Newberg last week that my neighbor scrambled to build an ark.”

A funny, over-sized curse from Carson years ago still wanders freely in my head. “May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits.” I’ve never heard a sermon about curse texts from Deuteronomy 28, but they’ve made students both shudder and giggle: “The LORD will afflict you with Egyptian inflammation, hemorrhoids, rash, and itch. You will be untreatable. The LORD will make you go crazy, make you blind, make your mind confused.” (Dt 28:27-28, Common English Bible) (For my more liturgical readers, you’ll find this in Lectionary X, the collection of texts never read in public worship.)

Re-arrange. I first played with Mr. Potato Head when I was nine or ten. That was back in the old days when the toy first came out, before it was declared dangerous. You had to use a real potato, which might in fact rot if you wanted to permanently display a version of Mr. Potato Head you had created. And the body part pieces did have to have sharp points, duller in later versions. But pioneering in Mr. Potato Head was fabulous fun; for laughs, of course, you could put eyes, ears, and noses wherever you wanted, not just in the pre-drilled holes of the later plastic potatoes. Even now, re-arranging pieces of an idea or a story so that they show up in odd or unexpected places can stir up lots of fun. Unlikely pieces in unlikely places fuel a lot of funny stories. For example, imagine Don Knotts as a bumbling janitor who mistakenly gets launched as an astronaut (in the old movie “The Reluctant Astronaut”). It’s not exactly George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in the new movie “Gravity.” Better yet, imagine your own funny pieces in funny places – at home, in your work place, in other places you know.

Play what-if. Create or change the circumstances, the players, or the plot and see what happens. For example, after years as a college teacher, it amuses me to imagine asking administrators this question: “What if we get record student enrollments next year? Would we still have to keep tightening our budget belts?” Of course, I could also imagine what might happen to me were I to ask such a question. Maybe that would be funny. In one of his novels, Kurt Vonnegut wonders what life would be like if the earth had variable gravity, lighter some days and heavier on others. How would that affect walking around? Using elevators? Some what-ifs might be terrifying (“What if there’s really a zombie apocalypse? What would I offer for trick-or-treat?”). Or wishful (“What if I win the lottery?”). So keep it fun. What if you were to play with this? What if you were to imagine having fun?

If you have some what-ifs and other imagining tools to share, we’d love to hear from you.

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Living in Fun

"Walking Cheerfully" is place to think out loud about how to use and enjoy humor in positive, life-giving ways. We’ll explore how following Christ in all of life can shape, not scuttle, laughter and creative play. What might it mean to laugh with others as you would have them laugh with you?

Probably the other most common posts will be "Finds in Fun." I first learned the phrase “being in fun” from Tom Mullen’s Laughing Out Loud and Other Religious Experiences. He points to the playfulness of children, who are readier to laugh and to see the silly than most adults. Living each day “in fun” often makes us laugh as we slog through a nearly endless supply of things odd, silly, klutzy, and preposterous. The stories here are mostly from my own ordinary, “in fun” days.

Fun Nooks and Crannies

There’s “Humor in the Bible,” and these posts explore where it is, how to find it, and what to do with it. It’s one way of thinking about how to read the Bible well.

Since a lot of us spend big chunks of time at work, the “Humor at Work” posts will suggest ways to stay sane and happy, to get along with cow-orkers, and to use humor to do good work.

I’m a book-pusher at heart, and some of my best friends push books, too. I even know some folks who read. So “Fun Books” posts will tell about books that are funny and help us think about humor.

Sometimes I’ll brag on some of the friends I’ve been given or share some photos I’ve enjoyed taking. Maybe you’ll laugh, maybe not, but they’ve brought joy in my journey.

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