I once had a friend, who was born and raised in New Jersey, lament to me after moving to San Diego: No one understands my sense of humor out here. I’ll say something I think is hilarious, and they just look at me like I’m mean!
If there is an official language of New Jersey, it’s the language of sarcasm. As New Jerseyans and Christians, we walk a fine line: We should control our tongues (James 3:8-10) and speak truth in love (Eph. 4:15), but we’re – well – New Jerseyans, and we love giving a good ribbing.
But did people in biblical times use sarcasm? Did they use humor to tease each other? What about Jesus?
The Israelites clearly used sarcasm when God called Moses to lead them out of Egypt from slavery only to find themselves trapped between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s pursuing army:
They said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11)
Even God’s prophets used sarcasm. When Hananiah, a false prophet, tells everyone that everything concerning the Babylonian invasion was going to be just dandy, Jeremiah’s response drips with sarcasm:
Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord make the words that you have prophesied come true, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. (Jeremiah 28:6)
Jeremiah goes on to tell them that “war, famine, and pestilence” is the true prophecy. This isn’t the end of the verbal battle between Jeremiah and Hananiah; shortly after, Jeremiah tells Hananiah that he will die in that very year, and – not surprisingly – Hananiah croaks later that year.
Perhaps the most famous example of sarcasm by a prophet (or anyone in the Bible) is said by Elijah during his showdown with the prophets of Baal. Elijah offered a challenge: Let’s both lay a sacrificed bull on wood and call upon our deities to consume it with fire. When the prophets of Baal are unable to get their god to respond all morning, we’re told:
And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” (1 Kings 18:27)
Yes, the ESV translates “he is relieving himself” accurately. Basically, Elijah is saying: This human-like “god” you worship is probably not responding because he’s busy doing other things, like using the potty. To rub it in, Elijah goes on to pour several jars of water on to his sacrifice, and then God responds to his prayer by sending down fire (lightning) to consume the sacrifice.
What about the New Testament? The Gospel of John has two good examples.
In John 9, Jesus gives sight to a man who was blind from birth, and shortly after the man is brought before the Pharisees. The Pharisees question the man, get the story from him, argue among themselves, and then ask the man some more questions about Jesus. The man declares Jesus a prophet, but the Pharisees don’t like this. So, they question whether the man has really been blind since birth and call for his parents. Scared of the Pharisees, the parents respond to all their questions with basically: Our son is a grown man; ask him. So, they call in the formerly blind man and start grilling him yet again. Apparently tired of the questioning, the man responds with some sharp sarcasm:
He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” (John 9:27)
The Pharisees don’t appreciate his snide remark:
And they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” (John 9:28-29)
But the man who was once blind and can now see is on a roll; he says one more sarcastic exclamation to those who cannot see, followed by some solid theological logic:
The man answered, “Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:30-33)
Another example of sarcasm appears earlier in John when Jesus is gathering his first disciples and Philip goes to tell Nathanael of Jesus:
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:45-46)
Ouch! Not very nice, Nathanael! Despite his snarky comment, Nathanael still goes to meet Jesus. When Jesus sees Nathanael, he gives him a much more friendly ribbing:
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47)
Jesus goes on to amaze Nathanael by telling him something no one else could possibly know, making Nathanael eat his harsh words about people from Nazareth.
Since sarcasm by definition is often mean-spirited and even insulting, perhaps some of these examples are better considered verbal irony, the softer cousin of sarcasm. As we saw above, even Jesus used humor to rib people. One of Jesus’ most famous sayings can be easily understood as one of the best examples of his humor:
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3-4)
Sometimes it’s hard to pick up on verbal irony and sarcasm in Scripture because the writers rarely, if ever, give us any indication how words are being spoken. For instance, we never see in Scripture something like: “I am the door,” Jesus chuckled. Where the log-in-your-eye passage above could be read in a number of ways (such as, say, an angry tone or a sage-like tone), many believe these words of Jesus would’ve hit his original audience as extremely funny.
Finally, in Luke 9, the people at a Samaritan village reject Jesus, and two of his disciples, James and John, ask Jesus if he wants them to call down fire from heaven to destroy them, and Jesus rebukes the two disciples (Luke 9:51-54). (As Pastor Tim pointed out recently in a sermon, James and John were probably thinking of Elijah successfully calling down fire from heaven in his showdown with the prophets of Baal, which we looked at above.)
When we look at Mark 3:17, we find out that Jesus nicknamed James and John “Sons of Thunder.” Could this be Jesus’ way of ribbing James and John for wanting so quickly to bring the wrath of God down on the Samarians like Old Testament prophets? Is this nickname a good-natured jest by Jesus to remind these men to be more humble and forgiving? (This is also an excellent example of an apologetic called undesigned coincidences, which are strong evidences for the authenticity of the Gospels. Read more about them on my personal blog here.)
In your opinion, are the passages above supposed to be read as humorous? Have you come across any other humorous dialogues in the Bible?
Please share in the comments below!