From the Prophet Jeremiah:
The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Jeremiah, what do you see?” And I said, “I see a branch of an almond tree.” Then the Lord said to me, “You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Jeremiah 1:11-12 (NRSV) – February 25, 2013.)
These two verses have probably caused any number of people to scratch their heads in bewilderment over the centuries. Those who read them in English without looking behind the translation to the original language wonder, “What on earth does this mean?” Those who read them in Hebrew wonder, “How can God have such a terrible sense of humor?”
This is a pun. The Hebrew word for “almond” or “almond tree” is shaqed, while that for “watching” is shaqad. God is playing with words and images in order to impress upon Jeremiah’s mind the seriousness of God’s watchfulness. It worked; Jeremiah remembered (and wrote about) it.
The Irish satirist (and Anglican clergyman) Jonathan Swift said of punning that it “is an art of harmonious jingling upon words, which, passing in at the ears, excites a titillary motion in those parts; and this, being conveyed by the animal spirits into the muscles of the face, raises the cockles of the heart.” Essayist Charles Lamb considered the pun “a noble thing per se. It fills the mind, it is as perfect as a sonnet; better.”
Such praise, however, is far from universal. Often quoted is English poet John Dryden’s aphorism that the pun is the “lowest and most groveling kind of wit,” or Ambrose Bierce’s derision of it as a “form of wit to which wise men stoop and fools aspire.” In all of her work, Jane Austen includes puns in only one, Mansfield Park, and there only to demonstrate the low moral character of the offender, the shallow and evil Mary Crawford.
Holy Scripture, on the other hand, is full of puns and other word play, such as double-entendres. The Law and the Prophets are full of them; Jesus uses them in the Gospels. The problem for modern American readers, however, is that they are in Hebrew and Greek, and simply don’t translate into English. In addition, Scripture is chock full of other forms of humor, including sarcasm and irony, humorous imagery and exaggerations, and plays on the names of people and places. Again, these do not translate well from one language to another.
Although there are no jokes per se in the Bible, the Scriptures are replete with humor; there is an abundance of wit in Holy Writ. Perhaps not all, but most of this humor can only be appreciated if read in the original Hebrew or Greek. To the believer, the conservative believer especially, the Bible is a moral document, not a storybook, so the presence of humor in it comes as a shock to many; in fact, some would deny that there is anything funny about the Holy Book. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, for example, claimed that “the total absence of humour from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all of literature.” Many Christians seem to think the Bible is only a solemn and serious book, full of timeless wisdom but definitely containing nothing even remotely funny. I recently read a sermon by a preacher from the “Christian Right” which derided the use of humor in preaching; among his assertions was this:
There is no amusement in Jesus, nor is there in any of the 66 books of the Bible. God expects his saints to be quite content with straight forward fellowship and sound teaching. Any time the saints seem to get overloaded with good things, the solution is to sing Psalms and spiritual songs. Anything else is mongrel Christianity.
I remember reading a report a couple of years ago of a study by two psychologists which suggested that political conservatives have much less of a sense of humor than do liberals, and another which, disturbingly, showed that conservative evangelical Christians are more likely than not to support torture of suspected terrorists. And I wonder if there is some connection between failure to appreciate the humor in Holy Scripture and Christian conservatism.
As a Christian who generally leans towards political liberalism, I enjoy the word play, the sarcasm, the irony, and all the other humor in the Bible. I believe that humor brings us closer to God and that the holy wit in Holy Writ brings God closer to humankind. The Protestant theologian Karl Barth is reported to have said, “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” And the Catholic theologian and writer G.K. Chesterton wrote, “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” I believe they are right, because “he whose throne is in heaven is laughing.” (Psalm 2:4a, BCP translation)
Maybe God’s doing so because of all those awful puns one finds in God’s book.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.