The Many Faces of Biblical Humor

David A. Peters, Ph.D., the McDonnell Douglas Professor of Engineering

To most, the Bible is a somber work, full of such serious melodramas as Abraham being ordered to carve up his son and Job enduring 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, the Bible indeed is a beautiful work that is sprinkled liberally with rollicking humor.

Peters, whose academic expertise is aeronautics, has written a book — “The Many Faces of Biblical Humor” — that 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. In 2003, while making his yearly reading, he noted more than 1,000 lines or stories that struck him as humorous.

Take the tale of Moses and the burning bush. “First of all, that God would reveal himself as a burning bush is humorous on its own merit,” Peters said. “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 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.”

Peters’ favorite story is Balaam and the Talking Donkey.

“Someone calls on Balaam to prophesy against the children of Israel and Moses for coming out of Egypt,” Peters said. “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. Farther down the road, the donkey sees the angel again and stops between two walls, crushing Balaam’s foot. She gets beaten again. During the third encounter, there is no way getting around the angel, so the donkey lies 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.”

Not all of the humor is hoarded in the Old Testament. 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?”

“I wrote the book to help people see that the Bible is alive,” Peters said. “The stories also are awesome and beautiful, but it’s my hope that they become more accessible.”

Hamilton Books (2008)