Humor in Job?

August 13, 2014

When I tease at the possibility that the Book of Job uses humor, some folks fire back, “How could Job be funny? It’s such a tragic story!” It is, of course. But sometimes writers use humor in very dark places. Flannery O’Connor uses it in her short stories. The Bible uses it, too. Darkness covers the story of Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing from Isaac, but the goatskins on Jacob’s arms to help him pose as his hairy brother add comic relief. Wisdom literature from the Ancient Near East, such as “The Dialogue of Pessimism,” which explores similar themes as Job, often uses humor. So I suggest that in Job, sometimes humor and tragedy mingle.

The story needs to show Job right away as the best person in the history of the cosmos. It starts abruptly: “Job was a man who lived in Uz. He was honest inside and out, a man of his word, who was totally devoted to God and hated evil with a passion.” (Job 1:1, The Message) The author not only states the premise of the story, Job’s integrity and devotion to God, but also exaggerates it, makes it bigger than life. This is caricature, an oversized way of making a point and making people smile.

Job loves God so much that he even tries to be devoted to God on behalf of his kids. Apparently his adult children, seven sons and three daughters, liked to party, feasting and boozing at each other’s homes. And after every late night party, Job would get up in the early morning to offer top-of-the-line sacrifices for each of his children, worrying that, partied out, they might have “cursed God in their hearts.” Job did this regularly. Most of us know this guy and shake our heads as we laugh and cry.

Between his impeccable integrity and his impressive wealth, Job was the best man in the whole territory. As God points out to the “Adversary,” “There isn’t anyone like him.”

The scene shifts to God holding court with the various courtiers (“divine beings,” “angels”) gathered, including the “Adversary” (or the “Designated Accuser,” or “the Satan”). This is not the Satan figure we find later in the Bible, but a courtier who has the role of saying, “Yes, but,” or challenging God. Medieval courts had jokers who did this, though, as tempting as it is, I suppose it’s not a clean comparison. Still we can read both courtroom scenes (see also Job 2:1-6) as banter between God and the Adversary. God brags on Job, “Have you noticed Job? There’s nobody like him, full of integrity…” The Adversary replies, “Yes, but he’s not good for nothing, you know.” Even in the awful challenge of these two scenes, we may still find witty telling.

The Adversary brings calamity on Job, on his wealth and his family. But the suddenness and scale of the four disasters, and the pile-up of each one’s breathless, only-survivor messengers continue the outsized storytelling. The train wreck of messengers both heightens the catastrophe and prompts a smile. As one messenger is stammering out, “I alone escaped to tell you,” the next one rushes in, blurting out even worse news.

Even Job’s response to all of this might invite both amazement and a smile. He dramatically expresses his grief, then falls face down to worship, no complaints. It doesn’t quite pass our “Is-that-normal?” humor test.  In the story Job demonstrates his best-in-the-cosmos character, but then, what an odd, unusual character!

I invite you to try seeing humor in the dark, scene-setting story that opens Job. It will be easier when we get to Job’s trash-talking friends. But as the book begins, I wonder whether you might see some grins in the gloom, perhaps even some that I’ve missed.

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  1. Mickey Edgerton says:

    As I was reading this, I thought of how Shakespeare would have done a nearly (or perhaps totally) slapstick version of this story!! I surely can’t be the first person to think of this possibility. Mickey E.

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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