Good Gossip? (Women from the Bible #1)

Old_Ladies

On Facebook Robyn Mellar-Smith responding to Lindy Jacomb’s guest post at Sacraparental promised to post about a woman from the Bible every day for a week. I doubt I’ll manage that, we are finishing teaching and beginning traveling…

But one of my favourite unsung heroes from the gospels is Anna, after the two old folk have seen the baby Jesus, their responses could hardly be more different.

Simeon gets all poetic and sings a song about being so happy he could die happy, Anna tells all her friends the good news (Luke 2:22-38)

29 Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.
Luke 2:29-32

While dear Anna simply tells all her friends and family the good news….

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Luke 2:36-38

There is a sermon here, folks :)

PS: How delicious and ironic (at the same time) I had not read Lindy’s post that started the series when I dashed off the note above (I finish teaching the intensive tomorrow and was preaching in college chapel today…) but when I did I discovered she had chosen my friend Anna to mention in her post!

Inspiration and Incarnation

Enns

For the Introduction to the Old Testament I am teaching at APTS one of the set books students must read is:

Peter Enns. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.

I do not intend to do a thorough review of this book here, not least because one of the assessments asks the students to  review it ;) But I do want to venture a few comments, and may add more as I read further.

First some general remarks: The book is clearly and simply written, Enns has taken trouble to make the material accessible to beginners. Yet his topic is useful to students further on in their serious study of Scripture. It shows some signs of haste in production, alongside the times when I am delighted by how well Enns has expressed some idea there are many places where it seems to me his expression has been careless and a more careful editing (by Enns or by his editor(s) could have strengthened his delivery of his message. Overall the “delighted” sections well outnumber and outweigh the “I wish he’d taken more care” ones. This is a book that would have been ideal for a proper electronic edition that enabled readers to question such places and enabled Enns to edit and improve the text!

Among the places where I have been saying “Amen” and singing (in my heart for my voice is not up to the task) praise to God for what he is saying – which seems to me so far (I am at p.102/172) to do for big picture practical biblical hermeneutics what Duval and Hays1 for small scale practical hermeneutics – that is, codify and explain the sort of practice and understanding most/many trained Bible readers have been doing (sometimes unconsciously) for years in useful and clear ways that a beginner can access, or help a more experienced student to develop.

My takeaway gem so far:

[t]here is a significant strand of contemporary Christian thinking on the Old Testament that feels that these sorts of things Just shouldn’t happen. And. if they do. they just appear to be a problem. You just need to read a bit more closely or do a little more research. and if you’re patient enough. you’ll get the right answer eventually. For others.however (including myself). such an approach comes close to intellectual dishonesty. To accept the diversity of the Old Testament is not to “cave in to liberalism,” nor is it to seek after novelty. It is.rather. to read the Old Testament quite honestly and seriously. And if diversity is such a prevalent phenomenon in the Old Testament. it would seem to be important to do more than simply take note of diversity and file it away for future reference. We must ask why God would do it this way. Why does God’s word look the way it does?2

Now there’s an important and potentially most productive question for everyone who desires to take the Bible seriously as Scripture. Especially it is a useful question for those of us in traditions that make the Bible the authority for faith and practice!

  1. J. Scott Duvall and J Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word : A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible Grand Rapids  MI.: Zondervan, 2001 and in a shorter version: J. Scott Duvall and J Daniel Hays, Journey into God’s Word : Your Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible Grand Rapids  MI: Zondervan, 2008. []
  2. Enns, 102. []

Is the Bible Anti-sex?

Albert Joseph Moore, The Shunamite relating the Glories of King Solomon to her Maidens, 1894.

Christianity (as an “organised religion”) has often been against sex. Celibacy has been seen (following especially some hints in Paul’s letters) as better than marriage, which has been seen as a way to make sex all right because, and insofar as, it is aimed at producing children. Does this devaluing of sex reflect the full witness of Scripture, or is it yet another issue where by overstressing a few (often difficult to understand, or at best complex) passages the Bible is misrepresented?

Is the Bible as a whole anti-sex? Hardly. One whole book is full of erotic love poems. The Song of Songs may well represent – though only by analogy – the loving relationship of the soul and God, or Christ and the Church. Generations of celibate priests and religious were not wrong to read it this way, but this analogy is built on the frankly expressed love and desire of king and Shulammite.

To illustrate this it is worth quoting a short portion, 5:2-5, from the KJV:

I sleep, but my heart waketh: 
  the voice of my beloved that knocketh, 
Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: 
  for my head is filled with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.
I have put off my coat; 
  how shall I put it on? 
I have washed my feet; 
  how shall I defile them? 
My beloved put in his hand by the hole, 
  and my bowels were moved for him. 
I rose up to open to my beloved; 
  and my hands dropped myrrh, 
  and my fingers sweet smelling myrrh, 
    upon the handles of the lock.

A library containing such a book hardly rejects the creator’s design of humans as sexual creatures.

God and the Joys of Sex

Photo by Kjunstorm from Laguna Niguel, CA, US

A conversation on Facebook recently reminded me of my concern that Christians are not speaking enough about the joys of sex and marriage. We get caught so often, warning people about the dangers, that we get painted into the corner that makes people – even our own children – believe that God is anti-sex. So over the next few days I am going to recycle material I wrote a few years back for the NZBaptist. Let’s start thinking about sex at the very beginning.

God likes sex

That notion (that God is anti-sex) couldn’t be further from the truth. Sex and marriage was God’s good idea. It was one of God’s first good ideas, right at the very beginning…

Since I am love,” God said, “I want creatures who can love me.”
We want creatures who can love each other, just like we do.” Said each of the Trinity to each other, “and love us the same way too.” They added.

That was how sex and marriage got built into creation from the start: difference and reproduction and love. Sex is modeled on the godhead (Gen 1:27):

So God created humans in his own image,
in the image of God created he him;
male and female created he them.

It’s quite clear the very “image of God” is in our being as male and female.

Or as the Bible’s second chapter puts it: God said, “It’s no good for humans to be alone” (Gen 2:18). And, when God had made woman, the Bible concludes: “that’s why a man leaves his father and his mother, and clings to his wife: and they become one flesh.

So whatever else we say, we should start right at the beginning: Sex is God’s good idea!

Wash your hairy feet! OR Sometimes a foot is just a foot

tutl38[1]
[Back when I was new to Facebook, I did not know how to bring blog posts into this (then) new (to me) medium. So I began posting some posts on Facebook. This was the very first, and I still rather like it :) ]
Sean the Baptist has a post ‘And with two they covered their feet’ in which he repeats the conventional wisdom that “feet” is (sometimes) a euphemism in the Hebrew Bible. Basically the idea is: 

That is that the word for feet רַגְלָיו sometimes refers to what we might politely call ‘other parts of the (male) anatomy’. 

I have never really been convinced by the claim. Sean cites the following passages as the best evidence for this supposed usage (the order is mine, as are the comments in straight type):

Exodus 4.25 But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”
Now why on earth would one suppose that “feet” here is a euphemism – after all no euphemism was used for “foreskin” עָרְלַת seems explicit enough.

Deuteronomy 11.10 For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden.
In Egypt is most irrigation done by peeing? No wonder they brewed so much beer! Or maybe the small earth dams on irrigation ditches are quite easily broken by foot?

Ruth 3.7: When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came stealthily and uncovered his feet, and lay down.
If this one is a euphemism, does it not remove all the tension from the chapter where the most significant “gap” the hearer must fill is: “Did they or didn’t they?” there is plenty of other innuendo in the chapter to build up the tension, without this (possible, maybe) one.
Isaiah 6.2: Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.
Really? Now why should face and feet not simply mean face and feet? Please explain!

Isaiah 7.20: On that day the Lord will shave with a razor hired beyond the River—with the king of Assyria—the head and the hair of the feet, and it will take off the beard as well.
Hairy feet or hairy [euphemism]? Which is more plausible? Though I suppose if the euphemism is for the whole genital area, this one might make sense.

Judges 3.24: After he had gone, the servants came. When they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “He must be relieving himself (literally ‘covering his feet’) in the cool chamber.” cf. 1 Sam. 24.3
At first sight, this one is good! In this sample I am almost convinced, there is a good case to answer, though why “covering his feet” should be a euphemism for peeing, and not merely another example of the rather gross schoolboy humour of the passage I am unclear.

2 Samuel 11.8 Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king.
Could be a euphemism, but then it could be that the sentence is euphemistic even if the “feet” are literal. “Wash your feet” = “make yourself at home”…

So, in the end, what evidence is there for this conventionally supposed common euphemism? Two cases where you might argue with some strength that reading euphemistically is the “best” reading, a couple more where it might just be possible but overall I’d say: No case to answer. In the Bible feet are just that. And Eglon as well as excessively fat, and greedy, also was known to his servants as having a poor aim. As the sign in our downstairs loo read for a while (we had teenage boys in the house) “We aim to please. You aim too, please!”

[Back in those heady days bloggers used to respond to one another, instead of, as we do today, merely writing to ourselves – which is perhaps the second sign of madness.]

Following my post Wash your hairy feet! Sean-the-Baptist updated his post ‘And with two they covered their feet‘ to respond (briefly within the limits of time available) to my critique of the commonplace notion that “feet” in the Hebrew Bible can often serve as a euphemism for “male organ”.

On Deut. 11.10: the point is exactly that the Promised Land will be naturally fertile and thus will not require irrigation by other means (of course the language is symbolic, irrigation is as necessary there as in Egypt in reality). Tim asks ‘in Egypt is most irrigation done by peeing?’ – well no, but neither is there literal milk and honey flowing in Israel-Palestine, and perhaps good deal more irrigation took place by this means than by carrying water on your foot (images of hopping with a bucket attached anyone?)

But why interpret the language as “symbolic” whatever that means here, I had assumed that even read as a euphemism the use was intended literally.

Irrigating with the feet would then refer to the habit of opening and closing irrigation ditches using the feet. While I cannot really see how the euphemistic reading works, in the promised land water falls from the sky, while in Egypt humans had to pee to water the ground – presumably entailing frequent trips to the irrigation ditch to drink…

On Ruth we basically agree – except whether Boaz’ “feet” are literal or euphemistic (I still wonder at the plural euphemism here?).

On Is 6:2 Sean brings up the topic of ANE iconography, as Jim Getz said in a comment on a post: Another “Feet” Euphemism in the Hebrew Bible? on this topic on Shibboleth I think I was convinced by Keel’s identification of the Seraphim here with Egyptian uraus snakes, my copy of Keel is at college, so i can’t check, but I do not remember these snakes as having prominent phalluses which might need covering to preserve Hebrew modesty! On Is 7:20 I am quite willing to agree thsat ritual humiliation is in view, and that a euphemistic reading is possible. But when the “head to foot” shaving seems to cover that pretty comprehensively I do not see the need to invent a new “euphemistic” reading. (And that is really my point, I believe that those who repeat conventional wisdom and claim a common euphemism in Biblical Hebrew “feet” = “phallus” need to provide some evidence to support this view. And where simply reading “feet” as “those two things we walk on that stop our legs fraying at the ends” works fine then they have NOT provided such evidence EVEN IF “phallus” works just as well.

Uraeus. Col. Tutkhamón from http://www.uned.es 

On 2 Sam 11:8, again we agree in our interpretation of the passage, and IF the feet-euphemism were already (on the basis of evidence) established it would make a good reading here. However, it is not it is merely “traditional” in biblical scholarship. AND reading feet literally works fine.

Result, I am still unconvinced that this particular item of “popular wisdom” has a leg to stand upon! Sometimes in the Bible, when you read “feet” they do simply mean “feet”, now on the basis of Ugaritic evidence one might I think (someone could ask Duane about the abnormally interesting uses of “finger” in those texts, and perhaps also look at Hebrew Bible texts like 1 Kings 12:10).

Demolishing Scripture (while claiming to be “biblical”)

Photo by Bob Hall via Wikipedia

Several recent conversations (online and face to face) in my circles involve applying the Bible to contemporary social issues. The latest is a very long-standing one in Western churches if there are particular roles for men and for women in family and church to which we should conform.

This discussion is usually framed as between Egalitarian and Complementarian approaches. As I have said elsewhere I think this framing is false – almost everyone I talk to is egalitarian (affirming they believe women and men are “equal”) and complementarian (they believe women and men complement each other and that for example in a marriage each partner brings qualities and so the whole is more than the parts). The key difference (I think) revolves round whether this complementarity is through defined gender roles to which we ought all conform regardless of our personal skills or gifts.

Sadly much of the discussion in Christian circles has for decades disolved into either each side bashing the other with “verses” that are believed to support/teach their view, or sometimes into a “literalist” – “liberal” ding dong. My beef with the “literalist” approaches, and with the “liberal” ones is that they each end up discarding a lot of the Bible. They differ in which parts of Scripture can be ignored or removed, and in the excuses they provide to justify their anti-biblical stances.

Some “liberals” discard Scripture honestly. Some openly say that this or that passage1 “is old fashioned”. Others dismiss some Bible teaching as “cultural” and so no longer binding in this enlightened age.

“Literalists” (and often ex-literalists, like many Baptists today) often do it covertly – with their lips they pay tribute to the whole Bible, but a slippery slope starts with the laws in the Pentateuch. No one I know avoids clothes made of mixed fibres. The excuse they offer if challenged is either “it was not confirmed in the NT” or “it’s only a ritual law”. Both of these excuses leave the Old Testament without authority! Only following Old Testament teaching that is confirmed in the New makes the Old Testament superfluous and effectively Apocrypha, valuable as spiritual reading but without authority. This ignores Jesus’ clear teaching that:

Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 5:19)
Even if we could allow such tentative first steps down the slope, dismantling Scripture as Marcion did we have not solved the problem. Jesus also said

Take nothing for the journey except a staff–no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. (Mark 6:8-9)

But when such “literal” Christians pack, even for a mission trip, there are plenty of spare clothes! The response if they are challenged is “Ah, Jesus was talking to his disciples there, not us.”

Quite right, if you set aside Jesus’ words you are not his disciples!

Rather than either the “liberal” or the “literal” dismantling of Scripture we must (because every part of the Bible is socially and culturally contextual (that is incarnate in ancient places and times) look for the understanding of God and the world (theology) that the passage is teaching or applying. That is what we apply. It’s hard work, it risks us getting it wrong… in short we cease to “master” Scripture, but we (have tried to) allow it to master us.

_________________________________________

For more explanation of that last important section see the last three sessions in my Reading the Bible Faithfully:

9: God remains faithful: the principle of the thing

10: Application: Where the rubber hits the road

11. Reading in the light of Christ

  1. Or indeed the whole of the Bible. []

Submission: repost from almost twenty years ago

Joseph Crawhall, 1884 "Pigs at the Trough"

Almost twenty years ago I wrote a series of short pieces for the NZ Baptist on gender roles and relationships. The issue remains a hot one. So I thought I’d repeat the article on “submission” here. I may give it context by repeating others but I’ll need to look and see how the decades have treated them…

Looking Sideways

Women and Children in Colossians

Old rules, new relationships

Piglets aren’t “in Christ”!

Submission is a problem. Well, it is for me. I do not submit easily. I’m a child of my time. I like to be in control – independent, that’s me. In the face of a culture that abhors submission, or worse enjoys and demands it, while despising those who submit, to discuss the biblical understanding of the roles of men and women in terms of submission is difficult.

Yet it’s there in the Word. Husbands seeking control of their wives have several favourite passages available. 1 Cor 14:33ff. and 1 Tim 2:11 are champion, as they ordain silence on the wife’s part – any discussion of the master’s will is therefore rebellion against God! (Dictators love laws silencing those they rule!)

For those with an open mind, when addressing difficult and contentious issues, it often helps to approach them sideways. That’s what the Master often did when the lawyers came to him with their conundrums and awkward questions.

Looking Sideways

“Where” and “when” the Bible discusses the submission of women to men is interesting. Although the cultures of Bible times were thoroughly patriarchal, the Two-Thirds Bible (Old Testament) seems silent on the need for women to submit. So, too are the Gospels. For the Gospel writers, focusing on Jesus life and teaching leaves no time for details of family organisation. (Can you imagine Jesus telling women to be quite and keep their place!) While in the centuries BC most women and men “knew their place” and so there was little to discuss. Discussion of submission in the Epistles is due to the growth of city life in the Roman empire, which challenged the old patterns of living and made the issue a live one, much as currents of liberation have reopened it in our world.

I spoke of the cultures of the Bible as “patriarchal”. This word deserves a second glance. In our culture patriarchy is a swear-word to the PC. In the ancient world, patriarchy meant that each household had one person whose job was to guide, protect and defend. The cultures of the Bible are family (= whanau, not the European style 2+2.4) and clan based.

One’s place in the world came from membership of a family. Even legal protection depended on having a family member to speak in council on your behalf. The Old Testament lists four groups who need special care and protection: widows, orphans, foreigners and the “poor”. Notice that two of these (or three if you count the foreigners) are those who are deprived of a “paterfamilias” – a household head to defend their interests.

In patriarchy each person has their role, women run the home, youths run the business or keep the flocks, each obeys the paterfamilias (including adult male family members) who must defend the interests of all. Men are no different from women in this obedience they owe. This is the context of talk, in the epistles, of “submission” as the role of children and women – it is no longer how we live.

Women and Children in Colossians

New Testament advice about family relationships, and the duties and responsibilities of members of a household is closely related to the advice found in Jewish and Greek authors of the same period. In all three contexts wives, children and slaves are encouraged to obey or “submit” to the head of the household (paterfamilias). But it is not these similarities that are interesting – it’s the differences.

On the surface the most striking difference in Christian advice (at least to husbands, wives and children) is the phrase “in Christ” or “in the Lord”.

So in Col 3 Paul writes: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” And “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord”. (Col 3:18,20).

So, family relationships are governed by the same rules for Christians as for Jewish or Pagan households but with an added element. Wife and husband, parent and child are all “in Christ”. As fellow members of the “body of Christ” there is a new and different aspect given to the old rules. (No such phrase qualifies the advice to slaves, for their masters may not share this new relationship “in Christ”.)

Old rules, new relationships

In their families as elsewhere Christians are to abide by the rules and norms of respectable society. Here as elsewhere too, something new is introduced by the Gospel. In Colossians 3 Paul expresses the newness like this:

 

 Conventional Behaviour:
 Gospel Innovation:
8 Wives, be in subjection to your husbands,19 Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.
20 Children, obey your parents in all things,21 Fathers, provoke not your children, that they be not discouraged.

The paterfamilias was “head” of the household. In many families of the ancient world this meant their word was law and their whims were obeyed. Christian “headship” is modeled by Jesus. I wonder what kind of paterfamilias copied the Lord who: “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant… humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross” (Phil 2:7-8).

Piglets aren’t “in Christ”!

How sad sometimes to hear Christian women seeking “liberation” in ways that fail to reflect the creator’s dreams for humankind. Too often the cry for women’s liberation (even in the Church) reflects the low value of home and family inherent in our cash-is-king Western society. It echoes our society of piglets scrambling for a place at the trough, rather than the newness of life “in Christ”.

Even sadder watching men seek biblical mandate for overbearing bossiness that the pagans of our world have learned to reject! Do such men fear the wisdom and the strength of their wives so much that they forget the example of their Lord?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in Church and family, instead of scrambling for our place at the trough, we all discovered the innovations that the liberty of the gospel brings to our life together. If offers of mutual service in Christ (and in imitation of Christ) replaced, standing on our rights.

NB: This post first appeared online at Electric Angels as part of a longer series on gender and gender roles “Men & Women – Sex & God“.

Theological snobbery

Oliver_Cromwell_by_Samuel_Cooper

I caught myself in some theological snobbery yesterday.

We had a promo for Blello.tv (which looks to be a fine resource for children) and in the course of it they took the account of Jeremiah’s call and applied it to everyone.

Before I formed you in your mother’s body I chose you.
    Before you were born I set you apart to serve me. (Jer 1:5a-b)

“This is God’s word for you.” They said. And, of course it is not. The remainder of the verse makes that quite clear.

Before I formed you in your mother’s body I chose you.
    Before you were born I set you apart to serve me.
    I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations. (Jer 1 :5)

It was God’s word for Jeremiah, not for you. Just as that lovely promise in Jer 29:11, or the horrible one in Jer 18:11, do not necessarily both apply to us, nor can we pick and choose!

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. (Jer 29:11)

Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. (Jer 18:11a)

In each case we have to look at the circumstances of Judah and at our own situation and actions to see if either might apply.

So <INSERT horrid and raucuous grinding noise> fail!

 

Except… setting aside Jeremiah’s particular and peculiar calling (as “prophet to the nations”) the passage affirms that God’s call on Jeremiah’s life predates his birth and conception. If that call is timed like this what about your calling and mine?

“Ah,” say the clever and theologically trained wise ones, “but Jeremiah is special, and his calling is special. What applies to Jeremiah does not apply to you. God isn’t calling you to be a prophet to the nations. QED!”

But are the theologically trained wise ones right?

After all it is a key feature of Old Testament narrative that all the great heroes are portrayed “warts and all”, not one is presented as a super-human like the heroes of almost very national story as taught to children in schools. Thus it seems that after all this claim by Jeremiah might be your claim and mine…

Humour in the Bible 2.1: Humour in narrative texts – Introduction

cybergedeon-warning-banana-skin

Beginning by considering humour in narrative texts is an attempt to deal with what is probably the most straightforward case first. In everyday life we perceive certain events as funny. When recounting such events we tell them in ways that highlight their humour.1 There is little or no difference between the manner of such recounting if the event is real or fictional.2

However, different cultures regard different sorts of event as differently humorous. Translation can also introduce unintended humour, for example “false friends” often cause problems. When, pen manufacturer, Parker entered the Mexican market, its regular advertisements claimed their pens “won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” Rendering this as”No te embarazará chorreándose en tu bolsillo“, meant they were actually saying something like “It won’t leak in your pocket and get you pregnant”.3 So, it is not enough that a modern reader finds an event in a biblical narrative funny, we need also some reassurance that this humour was intended, or might have been recognised by the ancient audience. Thus even in spotting possible narrative humour we need to establish that several of the criteria discussed in the previous section are present.

Humour in narrative texts is potentially of two kinds:

  • Telling events which are considered humorous (I will claim below that several of the events described in the book of Jonah are examples)
  • While the events themselves may not be funny they can be told in ways that are humorous (the killing of Eglon by Ehud is an example discussed below)

Rather like the difference between irony by a speaker and “dramatic irony“, humour in narratives may also be either recognised, or not recognised, by characters in that narrative:

  • Both centenarian Abraham (Gen 17:17) and Sarah (Gen 18:12) spot humour in God’s announcement that they will have a child. That this laughter is not the sign of some other emotion like sadness4 is clear from the presence of several of our criteria in this text (see future post).
  • However Jonah never seems aware of the humour in his situations (though perhaps God does, which is at least a possible understanding of his last word in 4:11).
  1. Almost always – except when for some other rhetorical or social purpose we wish to deny the humorous nature of the event. For example, slipping on a banana skin is widely thought to be funny, however if a distinguished person so slipped, or if the person injured themself, we might wish to recount the event in a “straight” and non-humorous way. []
  2. Except, probably, that the author of a fictional narrative will probably feel free to use “larger than life” descriptions and the author of a factual narrative of a humorous event is likely to feel constrained to report the facts accurately as they know them. []
  3. Sandy Serva, Language Translations for Global Research, 26, 1, 2003, 51.

    There are many such stories, not all of them true, like the tale that GM had trouble selling the Nova in Spanish speaking countries, because the name sounds like “won’t go”, which is debunked nicely at Snopes. []

  4. See Culturalsavvy for laughter as a sign of sadness in Japan. []

Humour in the Bible 1.4 Introduction: Signs a text contains humour

From  zebedee.zebedee on Flickr

The attempt to investigate humour in the Bible is even more impacted by the differences of time, place and above all culture that make most biblical interpretation less than straightforward.

For recognising, let alone understanding, humour across cultural difference is always difficult. Anyone who has lived in a culture other than their own (or perhaps one that is very similar to theirs), or even has watched “foreign” TV, will be aware that the sense of what is funny differs from culture to culture. A common sense of humour is not shared by all humans. The contexts in which humour appears and what is considered funny differ between cultures. Even between two cultures with a shared language, much shared experience, and who share many cultural artifacts, like Britain and the USA, or France and Francophone Belgium, the sense of humour can differ markedly.

When watching “foreign” TV one can attune one’s sense of what is funny and learn (at least to some extent) to appreciate the foreign humour. But TV is not writing – there are cues in speech that are not available in a plain text medium. As well as the now nearly ubiquitous “canned” laughter (that tells us when we are “supposed” to find something funny) the behaviour of the participants offers other cues (which may be as simple as a raised eyebrow, or as subtle as a change of tone or pace). None of these paraverbal cues are present in text.

Nor have ancient writers1 left us descriptions of humour, or treatises on the theory of wit, which might assist our evaluation of the presence of intentional humour in Scripture.

In terms of humour in modern writing there is a new but growing academic discipline studying humour. These studies are weighted towards the senses of humour in Anglophone Western contexts, though the cultural backgrounds of the writers are not entirely homgeneous. We will be making use of these resources, and of the comments of ancient writers. Some Biblical scholars have begun to use these studies and I will make significant use of this growing literature in particular.

F. Scott Spencer in his chapter “Those Riotous – Yet Righteous – Foremothers of Jesus: Exploring Matthew’s Comic Genealogy.”2  Provides perhaps the most comprehensive discussion of how we may distinguish humour intended by the authors, or that might have been perceived by their audiences, from things which merely seem funny to us in particular Bible passages.

Spencer began by discussing some earlier attempts to identify the signs of humorous genres, starting with Ovid and ending in the 20th century, before moving to produce his conclusions about the clues that humour is present. His list of criteria started from Greenstein’s article in the ABD which claimed that incongruity, lighthearted mood and surprise were hallmarks of biblical humour.3

He added to that short list and split Greenstein’s “surprise” into “spontaneity” and “imperceptibility or hiddenness” (I prefer “surprise” and will retain that term).4

  • incongruity – this characteristic is very commonly mentioned in modern discussions of the theory of humour, and indeed can be traced back to classical authors particularly Aristotle5 and Cicero6
  • lighthearted mood – Spencer links the prevalence of feasting and other signs of such mood with the ancient definition of comedy as a U-shaped plot with a happy ending.7
  • surprise – Aristotle linked incongruity with humour by way of surprise8 Spencer separates “surprise” into “spontaneity” and “hiddenness”, however I prefer to list “disguise” as a separate item (see below) and not claim that spontaneity indicative of humorous situations apart from the element of surprise.
  • ingenuity – as noted just above surprise, ingenuity and incongruity have been recognised as closely related and as each related to humour since Aristotle at least.
  • inferiority – again, since Plato and Aristotle,9 what is now called the superiority theory of humour has been much discussed and the presence of inferiority is its flipside10
  • inelasticity – which Spencer borrows from Henri Bergson11 who recognised how often a human acting in a mechanical way (and so reduced to something less than human) is found to be funny. While Bergson’s theory may not be a complete description of all humour, his recognition that human inelasticity is funny deserves recognition. I have been unable to connect this idea with ancient sources and would welcome anyone who can point me to possible material.
  • puncturing pretension – a great deal of modern humour serves to puncture pretension and arrogance. This notion also relates closely to the “superiority theory of humour” that is traced at least back to Plato and Aristotle.12
  • hyperbole – in discussion around my early posts on this topic David Ker suggested adding hyperbole. Exaggeration, things being bigger, brighter and more cartoon-like is also often a sign of humour in the modern world. While clearly much exaggeration in the ancient world, as in ours, serves to highlight the importance of what is said, it seems likely that in the ancient world as in ours it may also mark humorous intent.  In the case of Jonah, the exaggerations do not all seem intended to mark importance, though the size of the city does. Hyperbole is also evident in several ancient Greek and Latin comedic works.

If we can agree this list of characteristics likely to be found in humorous texts we have the means of assessing the possibility of humorous intent that is not dependent on our own appreciation of the “joke”. They will rarely all be present, but that the presence of several of them together might provide a strong suggestion of humorous intent.

While the list is drawn from modern discussions of the theory of humour they have been linked back to the earliest recorded thinking on this subject in ancient Greece and Rome (though sadly not to the Ancient Near East) which may give us some confidence that in sum they will serve us as we move back into the worlds of the Bible.

[I am especially interested in anyone with cross-cultural experience who can comment on how these work in different contexts. FWIW they do not seem to contradict my experiences…]

PS: In a comment on Facebook, Mark Simpson suggested that the temperament of the author impacts the likelihood of humour in their texts. This is true but we have no access to the authors of Bible texts except through their texts so, this means that if there are several places in a text where we identify humour already, then the next one becomes more likely…

  1. At least, from the primary cultures of most of the Bible authors, for as we have noted and will see again below there are Greek and Roman texts that tell us something about their understanding of humour. []
  2. F. Scott Spencer, “Those Riotous – Yet Righteous – Foremothers of Jesus: Exploring Matthew’s Comic Genealogy,” in Are We Amused?: Humour about Women in the Biblical Worlds, ed. Athalya Brenner (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003), 7–30. []
  3. Greenstein. “Humour and Wit: Old Testament.” In The Anchor Bible dictionary, edited by David Freedman, III:330-333. New York: Doubleday, 1992. []
  4. See below for my explanation. []
  5. Rhetoric III, 2. []
  6. On the Orator, 63, “The most common kind of joke is that in which we expect one thing and another is said; here our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh.” (( See both John Morreall, “Philosophy of Humor,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2013, 2013, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/humor/ and Aaron Smuts, “Humor | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” accessed January 23, 2015, http://www.iep.utm.edu/humor/. []
  7. Spencer, 11. []
  8. He also mentions punning in this connection (see below) “[t]he effect is produced even by jokes depending upon changes of the letters of a word; this too is a surprise. You find this in verse as well as in prose.” See Smuts for more on this. []
  9. Smuts. []
  10. As Spencer,11-12, notes. []
  11. Spencer,12. []
  12. See Smuts. []