Humour and hurt: Proverbs 26:1-9

Billy Connolly. Taken by Jemma Lambert on April 13, 2005. The image links to a video clip that illustrates some of the points made here, but which uses excessive bad language.

Humour and hurtfulness often go hand in hand. Comedians can hardly be squeamish about offending. Indeed one of the liberating possibilities humour opens for us is to make fun of the powerful. But often in everyday life the people humorists make fun of are not powerful, still less powerful and oppressive. Rather they are often weaker with less access to resources than the comedian. (If you doubt this just search on YouTube for really funny clips, and note how often the “fun” is hurtful.)

Thinking about humour in biblical books, for my series seeking signs of humour in each book of the (Hebrew) Bible, I looked at Proverbs 26:1-9.1 Humour is used widely in proverbs, and so in Proverbs, because it is memorable, and proverbs aim to teach.

Here is the beginning of Proverbs 26 with some comments on how each couplet is either funny or hurtful, or not:

1 Like snow in summer or rain in harvest,
so honor is not fitting for a fool.

Hershey saw this one as funny, but I can’t see the joke myself.

2 Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying,
an undeserved curse goes nowhere.

Having a variety of birds around to watch, here in the bush clad hills between Tauranga and Rotorua, I found this picture of an undeserved curse flitting here and there, never settling, like a sparrow, or like a swallow swooping, swerving and always returning, most amusing.

3 A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey,
and a rod for the back of fools.

Expresses clearly the biblical idea of discipline, beat someone soundly and you may knock some sense into them, but it is not funny. Unless perhaps you see yourself as wise, and have a cruel streak.

But the next pair are brilliant. The more quoted is quite good:

4 Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.

Just picture the last conversation you had with someone intent on “proving” that the world would end sometime back in May, or perhaps next October, or of “demonstrating” their particular form of church rules is found in this and that “verse” of Scripture. Remember how, if you opened your mouth, you were dragged into a morass of stupidity from which you were lucky to return ;)

But then read on…

5 Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes.

Every time someone descends into the slough of verse bashing the fools whose forté it is are confirmed and built up in their folly. Now that is funny and hurtful at the same time. And a delightfully amusing complement to the previous couplet.

6 It is like cutting off one’s foot and drinking down violence,
to send a message by a fool.

The image is sufficiently incongruous, if not really funny, to be memorable, and since you are to cut off your own foot it hardly mocks the disadvantaged. Except those who make a bad choice or “messenger”.

7 The legs of a disabled person hang limp;
so does a proverb in the mouth of a fool.

However, this one is both very funny, and very hurtful, as well as memorable and effective. What do we do with it? To remove the offense would remove the point. Yet to make fun of the affliction which makes someone else less able to enjoy life than one is oneself seems deeply wrong.

8 It is like binding a stone in a sling to give honor to a fool.

Seems safe enough, though if we look at the translations and commentaries it seems the image may be a bit obscure…

9 Like a thorn in the hand of a drunkard
is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.

I have translated this one more literally than the NRSV and have preferred “thorn” to the NIV’s “thornbush” (agreeing pretty much with the NET). For the image seems to me clear, just as someone really drunk will hardly notice the prick of a thorn, so someone who is incurably stupid can learn proverbs, but their point will not prick, and no change will result.

So, what change should result from this reading of Proverbs 26:1-9?

Well for me, I resolve:

  • to try to cease answering fools according to their folly – students and others who quote “verses” at me had better expect an unsympathetic response
  • to try to answer fools according to their folly, and avoid honouring them, by pointing out that such verse bashing is daft


  1. The passage was suggested by an article: Hershey H. Friedman, “Humor in the Bible” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 13:3, 2000, 258-285. Although Friedman was Bernard H. Stern Professor of Humor and the journal sounds respectable the material is of varied quality and some of his examples did not tickle my funny bone, but it did suggest Pr 26 was worth consideration. []

Biblical understandings of human gender: How to read the Bible: Larger passages trump verses

Before I progress to Gen 2 and 3 I need to add another principle to the two I presented in the previous post. In a way it could be argued as a corollory.

We have recognised that parts (“verses”)1 of larger texts do not necessarily convey the meaning of the whole, now I want to claim that it is the meaning of those larger “wholes” that are the meaning of a text.

Principle 3

Larger textual units take precedence, and if there is a conflict between the apparent meaning of a chapter, or book section, and that of a “verse” then we prioritise the meaning of the larger segment of text.

What this means is both, that we should be cautions of basing much on the apparent meaning of a small chunk (Principles 1 & 2) but also that we should be asking ourselves: What is (or, sometimes possibly often, are) the meaning(s) of this passage? Rather than asking: Can I see this meaning in this passage?

Although texts can and do point in many directions they are usually only teaching a limited range of things. Subsidiary ideas, even though present in a passage may not be what God intends us to learn.

Randal Rauser has a couple of posts on Paul’s use of the stereotype “All Cretans are liars” in Titus 1:12-13. Whether one agrees with his views on inerrancy or not2 it is clear that in this passage Paul is not teaching about the truthfulness of Cretans, and that if we were to argue from Titus 1:12-13 that we should believe nothing any Cretan tells us, we would have misunderstood the passage.

  1. For the use of this word to mean small chunks of text, not necessarily the same as the small chunks that are numbered in our Bibles, though like them parts of larger wholes see the previous post also. []
  2. Though I pretty much do. []

Biblical understandings of human gender: How to read the Bible: Verses are meaningless


Following a comment from Heather (on the post that prompted this series) I realised that I’ll need to tackle the larger and more important topic of how to read the Bible (logically before, in practice alongside) looking for a biblical understanding of gender.

The spoof post I linked to, and the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood that it parodies, are both (in places) close to textbook examples of how NOT to read Scripture. The discussions in Christian circles about gender roles  have largely been like this, as most of us who have strong views on the subject have happily twisted the Bible to support our views. So, this time, in the hope of mitigating this tendency, I will post occasional contributions that set out the standards to which I want to be held, and to which I would expect to call my interlocutors to account.1

Verses are meaningless

This subheading is patently untrue. Verses do carry meaning. Yet it is an untruth that mediates a deeper truth. For no fragment of text can be properly and fully understood apart from the larger discourses of which it forms part.

On the smallest scale the simple clear sentence: “There is no God.” is thoroughly biblical.2 Yet only the most stupid person would claim that atheism is taught in Scripture.

On the largest scale each of Job’s friends makes long and complex speeches seeking to defend God’s justice against Job’s accusations. At the end of the book, like the “The fool says in his heart:” that precedes the sentence “There is no God.” in the psalms, stands God’s clear warning about the friends’ speeches: “The LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.’” (Job 42:7) Which should warn us at the very least not to take the friends’ teaching as unequivocally the teaching of Scripture!

So “verses” (by which I mean here not only actual numbered units, but any small fragment of Scripture) should never be read alone, but always as part of a longer passage. Usually this longer passage is a chapter, paragraph or similar unit, which itself is part of a book.3

Principle 1

Therefore, to put it positively, the first standard of interpretation to which I want to be held accountable is that: When using any fragment of Scripture we consider it  in the larger discourse of which it is part and take account of the role it plays.

Beyond that, however, subtle nuances can have profound effects.4 Think of the error we would make in interpreting an ironic remark at face value.5 Because subtle nuances that we can easily miss, especially in written texts, can have such strong impacts, we should never take as “biblical” any teaching that seems to fit poorly with its surrounding text.6

Principle 2

If our understanding of a fragment does not “fit” with the tenor and contents of the surrounding text we should not extract “biblical teaching” from our understanding of that fragment.

  1. By this I mean, if we disagree about how to handle Scripture we can deal with it slightly outside the “gender wars” forum and so perhaps render our conversations less acrimonious. []
  2. It only occurs as a sentence in English in the NIV in Ps 14:1 & 53:1, but there are several other places where the phrase in Hebrew might be read as a sentence. []
  3. The case of the proverbs in Pr 10ff. is a special one, as there often a proverb must be read with others that occur at seemingly random places in the whole. For proverbs “work” through the wisdom of knowing when to apply which. “He who hesitates is lost.” and “Look before you leap.” do not really both apply to the same situations, yet both are good proverbs. []
  4. And in speech these subtle nuances are often signaled, not in words, but by features like tone of voice that are not represented in writing. []
  5. ‘Oh good!’ I exclaimed as I slipped and fell on the wet concrete, ‘Now I’ll be hobbling when I preach in Taupo this Sunday.'” does not actually mean that I was happy to have fallen because my swollen toes would cause me to hobble, and so not appear confident and proud, when I preached in Taupo yesterday. []
  6. In the case of my ironic remark, in the previous note, my failure in the surrounding text, not quoted here, which was purely concerned with fitting the hot tub lid and cleaning and covering my wounds, to mention humility should signal the likelihood that this literal interpretation of my words is not the full story. []

On the importance of reading with care

Ursus Arctos Syriacus photo by מתניה

I’m marking at present, therefore in a stroppy mood.

So, when in a students comments on Amos 5:19:

Like someone escaping from a lion,
who meets a bear;
and entering the house,
leans a hand on the wall,
and a snake bites him. (Amos 5:19, TempEV)

Hubbard’s commentary is cited saying:

The lion and bear are signifiers of God; the snake of evil and craftiness.1

I was about ready to consign Hubbard’s commentary to the waste bin. What a load of cobblers’! Isn’t it obvious that for Amos here the animals are simply natural threats? Why spiritualise them? Such over-spiritualising is typical of the worst of old-fashioned Evangelical biblical studies!

But, of course, I should have known, Hubbard is a much better reader than that. The over-spiritualising was my student’s – students are even more prone to such a penchant than old-fashioned Evangelical scholars ;) What Hubbard actually did was to rehearse both the historico-zoological facts of the dangers of these animals, and their possible metaphorical or symbolic significance,2 before concluding:

We view, therefore, Amos’ three figures as well-understood symbols of danger rather than as images with any deeper spiritual meaning.

Oh, that students actually read the works they cite! My blood pressure would be lowered, and their education raised ;)

  1. Alan Hubbard, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Joel & Amos (Leicester: IVP, 1989), 180. []
  2. Noting on the way that few species of poisonous snake are often found in Palestine. []

My favourite is fig and licorice, what’s yours?

Randal Rauser has yet another excellent post: “Why conservatism is often riskier than you might think (and other observations on losing faith)” in which among other sensible stuff (that you really should read, if you don’t already subscribe to his blog) he says:

A Christianity (liberal or conservative) which doesn’t present its adherents with a sufficiently rich range of belief to work out their own faith in fear and trembling is a faith impoverished. 31 flavors at Baskin Robbins (an ice cream shop for those who don’t know) is a good thing. So it is in a range of areas in Christian doctrine like atonement theory and theories of biblical inspiration. So I lament that so many Christians are given only vanilla or chocolate and then walk away thinking they hate ice cream when they really would have loved licorice had they only been given a lick.

My favourite ice-cream, at least at present, is fig and licorice (an improved variant of February’s Fig Ice-cream, and I suspect my faith is just as strange and tasty ;)


Humour in every book in the (Hebrew) Bible

An ironically blond European Moses discovered (Paul Delaroche 1797–1859 Moïse exposé sur le Nil)

I have completed the first (of the three) sections of my response to David’s Funny Stuff in the Bible challenge:

I must confess I was hoping for more help with Leviticus, I am saddened by my listeners’ lack of appreciation of humour, you must be a sombre bunch. Indeed, for Deuteronomy my help camed from a Rabbi, much better at recognising and appreciating humour than most Evangelicals, sadly.

I was fully expecting to fail on Leviticus, however, that hurdle overcome, I am sure the rest will come tumbling out – I’m relying on Miriam to suggest some lighthearted laughs from Lamentations ;)

Help needed with humour

Thomas Nelson that flagship of American religion and commerce (they are not quite the same thing are they?) publishes this pink sequin Bible a "fun sparkly and shiny Bible for little girls embellished with sequins…Cute to carry and easy to read!"

David Ker is back po-faced in Why the Bible is just not (so) funny claiming that the Bible is not funny. Back in 2007 he issued a challenge claiming readers of his blog could not give examples of humour from every book in the Bible: Funny Stuff in the Bible.

Then I ignored (I think) his silly claim, but this time it’s serious, he plans to publish his rubbish, and another generation will grow up unable to laugh or even smile as they read Scripture (or more likely simply don’t read Scripture). So I plan a series of podcasts, book by Bible book, showing that (at least almost) all the Bible is full of humour. I’ve done Genesis, Exodus is easy, but Leviticus (not to mention Lamentations) may be harder. If any of you, kind and humorous readers, would like to help me out, please post a comment suggesting possible funny bits in the more sombre books!

Bumper crop!

King Hezekiah on a 17th century painting by unknown artist in the choir of Sankta Maria kyrka in Åhus, Sweden.

Jim West posts more rubbish every day (often in his attempts to prove two obvious truths: humans are depraved and [probably a particular case of the former one] governments act stupidly) than most bloggers manage in a month of Sundays, but today he has not one but two posts that are well worth reading:

The Hezekiah Syndrome

Oh No, Not More Fundamentalist Baptist Craziness… Make it Stop…

Those of you who have removed his feed because of the volume of junk should look at these two ;)