Religion & Beliefs

Humour in the TaNaKh

There are many famous Jewish humourists and comedians, but one does not think of Tanakh as a source for humour, certainly not intentional humour. Nevertheless, there are certain amusing passages in Tanakh. In this essay, I hope to describe a few of them … Read More

By / January 27, 2009

There are many famous Jewish humourists and comedians, but one does not think of Tanakh as a source for humour, certainly not intentional humour. Nevertheless, there are certain amusing passages in Tanakh. In this essay, I hope to describe a few of them and point out the variety of types of humour present in Tanakh. I hope that this will serve as a starting point for future research into the usage of humour in Tanakh.

Perhaps the most important use of humour in Tanakh is in the form of the pun or play on words. A good example can be found in the first chapter of Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah), where the prophet sees a rod of an almond tree (??????) in a vision. This symbolizes that God is hastening (??????) to act. Why this pun is necessary is not quite clear; perhaps it helps to make the message more memorable. Obviously this kind of humour can easily be missed in translation.

Sometimes the humour in Tanakh is quite subtle. In the narrative of the Tower of Bavel in Bereshit (Genesis) Chapter 11, the people of the world attempt to build a tower reaching to Heaven. Yet God is described as "descending" to see their work; they are nowhere near Heaven*. Here the Torah is mocking the pretentions of mankind, who want to build a tower to Heaven to replace God, but are unable to rise far off the Earth.

At other times the humour can be quite broad, as when Eliyahu (Elijah) confronts the prophets of Ba’al (I Melakhim (Kings) 18). Eliyahu challenges the prophets to a competition: they will bring an offering to Ba’al and he will bring an offering to God and they will see which offering is received. "And at noon Eliyahu mocked them, saying ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing or he is easing himself or he is on a journey or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened."** On one level, this is mocking the pagan conception of deity as something limited and human in very broad terms. However, the context adds another layer. Ba’al worship had become the state religion of the Kingdom of Yisrael (Israel), sanctioned by King Ahav (Ahab) and Queen Izavel (Jezebel). Eliyahu was risking his life by mocking the Ba’al in this way and his humour was very subversive.

Tanakh‘s humour can also be dark. When Yosef (Joseph) interprets the dreams of the butler and baker (Bereshit (Genesis) 40), he uses the phrase "he will raise your head" to both servants. To the butler he uses it in its idiomatic sense: Pharoah will show favour to you. However, to the baker, he uses it in its literal sense: "Pharoah will raise your head from upon you and hang you on a gallows"! I have to confess that I am not sure what purpose the humour here serves, but it is clearly intentional.

My favourite example of humour in Tanakh has the humour springing from the situation rather than a pun in the narrative. It is the scene in Esther (Chapter 6) where Haman is asked by King Achashverosh how he would honour a man the king particularly wanted to honour. Haman responds thinking that he (Haman) is the man to be honoured, but then discovers that his enemy Mordechai is to be honoured instead. As with many of the examples I have given here, the humour comes from revealing the inadequacies of human pretentions. We think we can do what we like, but God has other plans for us. Such subversion of expectations is potentially comic, although it can be hard to see things that way at the time.

* I am indebted to the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, for this point.

** Translation based on The Living Torah.

Cross Posted at Yisrael: Struggle with God.