November 4, 2014
Just like comic scenes in horror movies (I’m not an expert on this), the Bible sometimes mixes funny stories into awful storylines. Jamming tragedy and comedy together shows vividly in the stories about Michal (mee-kahl), King Saul’s youngest daughter.
Part of the tragedy is that both Saul and David used Michal for their own purposes. Saul used her to try to kill David. He had progressed from being insulted that David got more credit as a warrior than he did to fearing him, hating him, and eventually to making him a constant enemy. David, on the other hand, used Michal to become a legitimate part of the royal family. Before Samuel had anointed him, David hadn’t much thought about being king, but he quickly warmed to the idea. He pursued it steadily with a dynamic blend of cunning, prowess, and blessing. (He wasn’t entirely ruthless, since he carried some of foreign-woman Ruth’s DNA.) Marrying Michal gave him an edge in becoming king.
Yet in the midst of all this chaos and conflict, Michal loved David. As did her brother Jonathan and everybody in Israel. Except Saul. Seeing that Michal loved David, Saul offered her to David as wife, requiring as a dowry only one hundred Philistine foreskins. David would get killed for sure, he thought, before he collected a bag full of those. But he didn’t, and David took Michal as wife. (For more detail, but without illustration, see my blog post “David’s Daring Dowry.”)
After Saul failed to get his family and servants to kill David, he took direct action, but the daughter he offered as bait thwarts him. (See 1 Samuel 19:8-18 for these stories.) First he sends a surveillance squad to stake out David’s house to keep track of him. Michal knows trouble is brewing and warns David to flee that night. She sneakily lets him down from a window (an underserved biblical theme – see also spies at Jericho, Saul at Damascus, Eutychus at Troas), and David runs for his life. Then she puts a household idol in his bed, tops it with a goat-hair wig, and throws covers over it. Many of us may best remember this age-old trick from the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” but it’s a perennial one.
The next morning, as Michal predicted, Saul sends a hit squad to murder David. Now here the biblical text is very compact, so we need to use our imaginations a bit to unpack the story, to see faithfully what the author describes.
When the hit squad arrives at David’s house and they ask to see him, Michal greets them and says, “Sorry, he’s sick today. You’ll have to come another time.” So the bewildered assassins leave and return to Saul, willing to put off murdering David until he was feeling better. That’s funny in itself, but imagine what they had to tell Saul: “Umm, he’s sick today so we couldn’t kill him.” Remember that this is the Saul who, when he’s angry, throws spears at people. Might he have said, “I don’t care if he’s sick, I want him dead!”? Among other things, Saul ordered them back to David’s house, “Bring him, bed and all, back so I can kill him!” (The Message)
They hurry back, barge into David’s room, and find only the dummy with the goat-hair wig, but they bring Michal back to Saul. He challenges her, “How could you betray me, play tricks on me, and side with my enemy?!” Michal, ever resourceful, has one more trick, “David threatened me. He said, ‘Help me get away or I’ll kill you!’” She survives this crisis, though Saul gives her as wife to another man.
Michal’s story continues, after Saul’s death, in texts that also blend tragedy and humor, but for now let’s note how trickery, surprise, and reversal can weave humor through ugly stories. And maybe you, with me, will continue to wonder whether the spirited Michal was naïve or ambitious or clever.
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.
July 22, 2014
I love having a pro agree with me, so finding Garrison Keillor reflecting on his work and quoting Ecclesiastes made my day. “Comedy does give good value,” he writes. “There are so many discouraging facts around – e.g., half of all people are below average – and jokes relieve some of the misery. Solomon said, ‘Whoever increases knowledge increases sorrow.’ That’s a joke. And ‘The rivers run into the sea and yet the sea is not full.’ That’s a joke. And how about this one? “The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong nor riches to men of understanding, but time and chance happeneth to them all.’ That’s the essence of comedy in less than 25 words.” (In AARP Bulletin, May 2014. Yes, I’ve received this for years now.)
Jokes do relieve misery just as they often grow out of misery. Jokes spring out of surprises, odd reversals, funny tensions and contradictions, and quirkiness in life. Their humor helps us cope, but it can also teach and guide us. Using humor, the wisdom literature in the Bible teaches us but also helps make the teaching memorable. Effective humor helps ideas stick.
Proverbs in the Bible (and anywhere else) are supposed to stick in your head, not from rote memorization, but because they’re witty, funny, short, full of word play, and spot-on true. Of course, they’re not all funny, but many are. I’ve been enjoying a “Polish proverb” recently on how to resist being drawn into other people’s conflicts: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” Biblical proverbs can have the same punch. How about, “The words of a fool start fights; do him a favor and gag him.” (18:6, The Message) Or, “Even dunces who keep quiet are thought to be wise; as long as they keep their mouths shut, they’re smart.” (17:28). Maybe this: “The shopper says, ‘That’s junk – let me take it off your hands,’ then goes off boasting of the bargain.” (20:14) Unlike Keillor, I’ve used the modern language of Peterson’s The Message, partly to help us see funny phrases in a language we actually use. But the larger point, of course, is that humor shows up in the Bible’s wisdom literature. We should expect it, look for it, and welcome it.
I’ve chosen examples from Proverbs, Keillor from Ecclesiastes, and along the way I’ll write about humor in Job. All three use humor to nail the truth. Here’s a take-along: “Yes, there’s a right time and way for everything, even though, unfortunately, we miss it for the most part.” (Ecclesiastes 8:6) In comedy and in life, great timing is everything, but half of us are below average. You can choose your half.
June 14, 2014
For years now I have been searching for and collecting pictures of Jesus that hint that he might have been joyful, that he might once have smiled. It’s not easy. Most images of Jesus, historically and now, portray him as dour, morose, burdened, or, at best, flat affect. They seldom show him as happy, warm, or friendly. In The Joyful Christ, Cal Samra reports that the oldest picture of a joyful Jesus he could find was one commissioned for the Ohio State Fair about 1950. Between Samra’s prompt and my search, I think I now know of about twenty images of a joyful Christ, still a miniscule number, even though I’ve no doubt missed some.
So when my talented young friend Chris Breithaupt wanted to barter for an ancient (and terrific) Olds Ambassador cornet, we agree that he might create a new picture of Jesus as genuinely happy. After all, it helps to see that the person who promised us joy might actually have experienced it. Because of an earlier picture Chris had created for a mutual friend, I knew he could do it. So Chris got a fine horn, but I got the best of the deal.
I love his new “Joyful Jesus.” Because I want lots of folks to enjoy and share it, we’ve worked to make that possible. We’ve made quality prints of this image in standard sizes and at modest cost. Prints come in 4×6, 5×7, 8×10, and 11×14 sizes so they can be easily matted and framed. Prices range from $4 – 15, plus shipping and handling. We’ll eventually distribute prints through Red Nose Fun Publishing, but for now, if you want to inquire, please contact me at email@example.com
December 10, 2013
I first laughed out loud with Frederick Buechner when I read his retelling of how Abraham and Sarah robbed their retirement account to furnish a nursery for the newborn first-born they would get in their already creaky old age. I’ve grinned and chuckled with Buechner many times since. His Telling the Truth, where I met Abraham and Sarah, introduced me to him and hooked me.
I return often to his Peculiar Treasures, a “who’s who” of biblical characters from Aaron to Zaccheus. In his engaging descriptions of these “saints, prophets, potentates and assorted sinners who roam through the pages of the Bible” Buechner offers “aha” moments filled with humor and poignancy. Anticipating criticism for using humor, he objects, “All I can offer by way of defense is that the Bible itself has a great deal more laughter in it than all those double columns and black leatherette bindings would lead you to believe.” (ii)
In his vignette about Sarah, whose “high and holy laughter” captured him, Buechner shows his hand. “Nobody claims there’s a chuckle on every page, but laughter’s what the whole Bible is really about. Nobody who knows his hat from home-plate claims that getting mixed up with God is all sweetness and light, but ultimately it’s what that’s all about too.” (153)
In this season of Advent, I often return to Buechner’s reflection on Gabriel. His concluding sentences still make me catch my breath. “’You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.” (39) (See Luke 1:26-35)
My book-pusher self wants to say, “Go find these remarkable books and read them.” But I won’t, and I hope you will.