To most, the Bible is a somber work, full of such serious melodramas as Abraham intent on carving up his son at God’s demand, Job enduring his many burdensome troubles, and powerful, piercing language, such as the immortal line: Jesus wept.
To David A. Peters, Ph.D., the McDonnell Douglas Professor of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, the Bible indeed is a beautiful work that is sprinkled liberally with, at times, rollicking humor.
Peters, whose academic expertise is aeronautics, particularly helicopter mechanics, has written a book, “The Many Faces of Biblical Humor” (Hamilton Books, 2008) that overwhelmingly backs his claim. In his preface, Peters states: “The Bible is full of wit and wonder which was intentionally placed there to help us understand God and his requirements.”
Peters, whose Christian background is Baptist and more recently Presbyterian, first read the Bible cover-to-cover when he was 15 years old and reads it every year at the pace of six pages a day. He is also a student of Judaism who observes Passover each year. What stumps him most is people who cannot see humor in the Bible. In 2003, making his yearly reading, he noted more than 1,000 lines or stories that struck him as humorous.
In the preface he writes: “This (the book) encompasses a broad spectrum of humor, romance, metaphor and wonder — as well as a good deal of irony and sarcasm.”
Take the very famous tale of Moses and the burning bush. Peters recalls it, as he does all of the tales throughout the book, in facile, paraphrased language with liberal conjecture.
“First of all, that God would reveal himself as a burning bush is humorous on its own merit,” Peters says. “But what’s even funnier is Moses’ attempts to wriggle out of God’s calling him to go to the Pharaoh to let his people go. He claims that’s he’s not a good public speaker, even that he has a speech impediment. He’s like a reluctant athlete on the bench who’s scared to play.”
Forerunner to Francis, Mr. Ed
In a summary at the end of his book, Peters cites 14 favorite one-liners and 14 favorite stories. His all-time favorite story is Balaam and the Talking Donkey, perhaps a precursor to Hollywood’s Francis the Talking Mule and Mr. Ed.
“Someone calls on Balaam to prophesy against the children of Israel and Moses for coming out of Egypt,” Peters relates. “God tells him not to go, but he’s offered a lot of money so he goes anyway.
On the road, the donkey that he’s riding sees an angel of God with a sword, and the donkey stops. Balaam can’t see the angel and he beats the donkey. Further down the road the donkey sees the angel again and stops between two walls, crushing Balaam’s foot. She gets beaten again. A third encounter there is no way getting around the angel, so the donkey lays down. Balaam beats her again.
God enables the donkey to talk. She says: ‘What did I do to make you beat me these three times? Have I ever done anything like this before?’ And God enables Balaam to see the angel, and the donkey says, ‘Then if I were you, I’d take better stock of the situation.’ When Balaam sees the situation for what it is, he faints.”
The Old Testament has its share of salacious stories, but the tale of Judah and Tamar has the tinge of a TV situation comedy. Judah has a son who marries a woman, but the son is bad and God kills him. The law then held that the next brother must marry the widow, but this son doesn’t want children, so he practices an ancient form of birth control, and she doesn’t get pregnant, which angers God who then kills the second son.
Judah begins to regard the woman, Tamar, as at best unlucky, and he tells her she can’t have a third son until he grows up. Tamar realizes that Judah, who now is a widower, is tricking her.
She wants children and sets her eyes on Judah. She goes to a town dressed as a prostitute, knowing that Judah passes through regularly on business. Women were veiled then, so Judah doesn’t recognize her. Never having prostituted herself before, Tamar doesn’t know what to charge, so Judah suggests he give her a goat. She agrees, but afterward asks how will she know that he will keep his word about the goat, and he says he’ll bring it back, but that she can hold his signet ring and staff as security of payment.
Judah returns with the goat and asks the villagers where the prostitute is. And they claim there aren’t any there. Not long afterwards, it becomes apparent that Tamar has become pregnant from the encounter.
Judah, unaware that he’s responsible, becomes angered and makes plans to burn the harlot at the stake. He hauls her out of the tent and is about to set the fire, when Tamar says, ‘Not so fast,’ and she produces the signet ring and the staff.
“Judah is not going to burn his own child and declares her more righteous than he is,” Peters says. “And it’s a good thing he spared her because Tamar is one of three women from whom the Messiah descended.”
Not all of the humor is hoarded in the Old Testament. Peters sees humor in Paul’s various travails. He escapes from numerous jams using his wits against his far slower enemies. He even sees some humor in the raising of Lazarus because Jesus takes his time in showing his power waiting until days pass to, as he tells his disciples, ” better show God’s glory.”
Peters rates Paul the fourth funniest one-liner when he says at the Circumcision Party in Galatia: “I wish that those people who are commanding you to be circumcised would be cut off completely!”
In a scene from Acts 19:15-16 exorcists are trying to cast out a demon inside a man, and they exhort “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out of him.” The demon responds: “Jesus I know, Paul I know but who (in the name of Hades) are you guys?” And the demoniac jumped all seven of them and whipped the tar out of them until they ran out of the house naked and wounded.
“I wrote the book to help people see that the Bible is alive,” Peters says. “The stories also are awesome and beautiful, but it’s my hope that they become more accessible.”
In the words of an old vaudevillian comic: Take this book, please.