(Where) is there humour in Old Testament narratives?

Helen Paynter writes: Micaiah: the lying prophet of God. Elisha: the grumpy old man who couldn’t take a joke. The book of Kings has its fair share of surprises. What are they doing in this text? What is the reader supposed to learn from them? And should we always stand up and applaud the prophets wildly, whatever they get up to?

There are many humorous elements in Kings, best revealed by paying attention to the final form of the text; in other words, crediting the final editor with intelligence, subtlety and artistry, and considering in what ways he has shaped the text to tell the story in the way that he intends.

Once Solomon’s rule has been recounted, the majority of the combined book of Kings is comprised of a series of ‘regnal accounts’, where a king’s reign is introduced with a standard formula, his deeds summarised with variable brevity, and then his death and succession is described in standard terms. However, in the central part of the book, this pattern is disrupted by the appearance of Elijah and Elisha, performing an extraordinary array of miracles—and doing some rather unexpected and uncomfortable actions. This rather surprising interjection leads us to a number of unexplained ‘problems’ which Kings raises for us. For our purpose, the chief one is this: were the prophets righteous?

Elijah and Elisha have been held up as heroes of faith for generations; that their actions are righteous is implicitly believed by many devout believers. But a more dispassionate consideration of some of their actions may make the reader uncomfortable. So, for example, in 2 Kings 1, Elijah calls down fire to consume 102 men, apparently on a whim; in 2 Kings 8, Elisha appears to send a false prophecy to Ben-Hadad and to incite Hazael to his murder; and perhaps most strikingly of all, in 2 Kings 2, Elisha summons two bears to ‘rip to pieces’ 42 youths who have mocked him. These instances and others might lead us to ask the question of whether we are intended to approve of everything that a prophet of God does.

Light is shed on these questions if we read the central section of Kings with attention to the possibility of humour in the text. In particular, there are two unusual literary devices: carnivalisation and mirroring.

Carnivalisation

In medieval times, carnivals were held regularly in many societies, functioning to allow the periodic ‘letting off’ of steam. During a carnival, all normal rules and prohibitions were temporarily suspended. Normal social hierarchies were inverted (for example, the lord of the manor would serve his servants), behaviour was rowdy, drunken and bawdy, and the language of the market place prevailed.

This phenomenon was not confined to society, however. Following the work of Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin, it has been repeatedly shown that these same elements may invade literature, and produce a form of writing which is bawdy, norm-breaking and satirical. Typical elements of such carnivalised literature include the following:

  1. Unusual use of language: foreign-sounding speech, cursing, vulgarity, abusive speech
  2. Inversion of hierarchies: the making and unmaking of temporary ‘kings’ and ‘queens’
  3. Foolery: the seeming simpleton who speaks truth to power
  4. Feasting: unusual, unexpected feasts
  5. Unusual expression of things that are vulgar, grotesque or offensive
  6. Bizarre, unexpected breaches of normal cause and consequence

Examining Kings for features of carnivalisation reveals that the central section (1 Kings 13 to 2 Kings 10) there is an enormous number of them:

These chapters contain the Elijah/ Elisha stories and the Aram/ Israel narratives.

  1. Unusual use of language. There are many instances of non-standard Hebrew in the central section [[1]]. In particular, Elisha is characterised as having a strong northern accent. There are many insults and mockeries—some vulgar (e.g. 1 Kings 18:27; 1 Kings 21:20-24; 2 Kings 9:22), some formulaic (e.g. 1 Kings 20:10-11). There are lies (e.g. 2 Kings 8:10-14), people speak in quaint-sounding proverbs (1 Kings 20:10-11), and there are odd speech patterns (1 Kings 18:9-14).
  2. Inversion of hierarchies. Unexpected people take prominence. For example: the ‘little girl’ of 2 Kings 5, whose wisdom exceeds that of the ‘great man’ Naaman; the lepers of 2 Kings 6:24-7:20 who break a siege. Kings and queens are dramatically dethroned (1 Kings 22; 2 Kings 9:30-33).
  3. Foolery. Likely ‘Fools’, who deliberately or incidentally speak truth to power through simplicity, naïveté or other creative means, include Micaiah (1 Kings 22), the four lepers (2 Kings 6), and the disguised prophet (1 Kings 20:35-43).
  4. Feasting. There are a number of unusual ‘feasts’ in this text. Consider the king of Aram, who drinks so heavily that he loses the capacity to speak clearly (1 Kings 20:12-18); the feast of poisoned stew (2 Kings 4:38-41); the unexpected banquet celebrated between enemies (2 Kings 6:22-23); the cannibalism of two mothers (2 Kings 6:28-29); and the grotesque feasting of Jehu inside the palace while dogs are eating Jezebel outside (2 Kings 9). Each of these feasts is in some way unexpected. They should not have been taking place at all, because it is an inappropriate (or surprising) time, an inappropriate menu, or inappropriate company.
  5. Unusual expression of things that are vulgar, grotesque or offensive. There are many instances of this phenomenon, as indicated by the enormous bodycount in this part of Kings. But these are not simply battle deaths. They are described in florid and graphic ways. We have burnings, beheadings, cannibalism, human sacrifice, animal mauling, crushings, mutilations and a stoning. Jezebel’s body turns to dung on the plot at Jezreel (9:37) [[2]]; her blood spatters the walls like urine (9:33, c.f. v.8); there are seventy heads in baskets (10:7); the befouling of the temple of Baal becomes a latrine (10:27).
  6. Bizarre, unexpected breaches of normal cause and consequence. In contrast to the sobriety of much of the remainder of Kings, the central section abounds with extraordinary events. In particular, the Elijah-Elisha narratives are a compendium of florid miracle stories. Two involve animals acting in unexpected ways: ravens feed Elijah; bears respond to Elisha’s curse by mauling 42 lads. Others are bizarre in other ways: a floating axe-head; oil and bread which mysteriously multiply; a fiery army that is sometimes visible and sometimes not, a mass auditory hallucination that causes an entire army to flee.

This clustering of features in the central part of Kings comprises literary carnivalisation. But what is the purpose of such a literary feature? In order to understand this, we need to consider another literary device, the literary mirror.

Literary Mirroring

In William Shakespeare’s drama Hamlet, the royal court hosts a play by travelling players. The story of this play is a brief retelling of Hamlet’s own story—of betrayal and regicide. This is a literary mirror. By reflecting the large story within a small sub-section of the work, it draws the audience’s attention to, and comments on, the main narrative.

Literary mirrors can also function in a more fragmented way, with multiple little glimpses of reflection scattered throughout the main narrative. The purpose of the mirror is to provide a sort of side-by-side commentary on the story. We can identify literary mirroring when we detect repeated portions of text, similarity of names, or repetition of circumstances. There are a number of instances of such literary mirroring within Kings.

Mirroring of Elijah and Elisha and its effect

It is very clear to even the casual reader that the lives and ministries of Elijah and Elisha are very similar. Both raise from the dead an only child; both mysteriously multiply food; both part the river Jordan. However, there are a number of telling ways in which the two prophets are represented differently. In brief: whereas Elijah goes everywhere at the command of the Lord, Elisha is described as travelling entirely under his own volition; whereas Elijah always attributes his miracles to the power of the Lord, Elisha often makes no reference to the Lord at all when he performs his miracles; in comparison with Elijah, Elisha appears very concerned with his own reputation (compare 1 Kings 18:36 with 2 Kings 5:8). So the characterisation of Elisha is far from being unequivocally positive.

Coupled with this, we have already noted the ways in which carnivalisation has made its way into this text. This functions to cast doubt on authority, to subvert the powerful, to satirise the pompous, and to find ambiguity in the indubitable.

So, when we read the story of Elijah, there is Elisha the Fool right behind him, coarsely aping him; mimicking his deeds, but introducing flaws in their performance. Whereas Elijah often is noble and high-minded, Elisha can be ignoble and crass. But, in fact, his mirroring function is sophisticated and subtle; its effect is not to elevate one man of God at the expense of another. Neither Elisha nor Elijah is unambiguous; neither is ‘good’ or ‘bad’; both are flawed. Elisha functions within the text as an internal commentary on his predecessor. He is like the stand-up comedian who parrots the words of the politician with just enough subversion that we find ourselves laughing, not at the comedian, but with him at the straight man.

This brings us back to the – at times – dubious ethical conduct of the prophets. If the actions of the prophets sometimes cause us embarrassment or moral discomfort, the discovery of carnivalisation encourages us to trust this instinct. If Elisha seems bad-tempered when he summons the bears to maul the boys, this is because he is bad-tempered. No-one is above criticism in the narrative, not even the men of God.

The world of Kings is a world of grand temples, ivory palaces and sweeping political manoeuvres. This is a world where the rich rule and the poor serve them, where the ‘goodies’ are good and the ‘baddies’ are bad. Into this world comes the carnival, led by Elijah and Elisha. Not for them the role of dignified elder statesman, the role of leader of the opposition. Into the orderly, right-way-up world of Israel and Judah, they introduce a chaotic, turbulent element, a rumbustious, playful chaos, where nothing is as it seems, nothing is as you expect it to be. In this upside-down world, brave men are found to be cowardly, men of God are revealed as egotists, enemies can become friends, and friends may stab you in the back. Here, bizarre things happen. Ravens may bring you food, bears may attack unexpectedly, lions may seek you out and kill you. Here, axes float, and fires break out all over the place. Here, violent death is common and may take any number of forms. You might be sacrificed by your father, beheaded with your brothers, eaten by your mother, stoned on the orders of a queen, suffocated by your servant, or eaten by dogs. You can be sure there will be a great deal of blood. This upside-down world is not a world of marble floors and ivory thrones, it is a world filled with the common stuff of everyday life, of cooking pots and oil and flour and wild herbs, of stews and bread, of lamps and beds and chairs. Here, kings may be foolish or cowardly, and prophets may fail to hear the word of God. Not in this world the grandiose speeches of the statesman or professional prayer-smith. Here, people moan and grumble, exaggerate and whine, curse and take oaths. Here, anything might happen—and it probably will. In this world, little is certain, few can be trusted, and no-one—peasant, king or prophet—is without fault or folly.

We must take care to note the places where the text is using humour to criticise the actions of even prophets. If we read with subtlety we are more likely to avoid the danger of attempting to defend the indefensible.

For more information, see Paynter, H (2016). Reduced Laughter: Seriocomic Features and their Functions in the Book of Kings. Leiden: Brill.

[1]Rendsburg, G. (1995) ‘Linguistic Variation and the “Foreign Factor” in the Hebrew Bible’, Israel Oriental Studies 15: 177-190.

[2]Carnivalisation in 2 Kings 9 and 10 was previously identifies by Francesco García-Treto, (1990) ‘The Fall of the House: A Carnivalesque Reading of 2 Kings 9 and 10’, JSOT 46: 47-65.


Helen Paynter is Director of the Centre of the Study of the Bible and Violence, and Coordinator of Community Learning at Bristol Baptist College.


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37 thoughts on “(Where) is there humour in Old Testament narratives?”

  1. Thank you… Timely for me in that I’m speed reading the bible and yesterday was 2 Kings. It may be only me but it has a bit of a feel of Judges about it though I can’t quite pin down why. It’s so bizarre in places leaving the question “why? “. There is no “redeeming” verse such as “…. there was no king in Israel”.

    Elisha seems to be the biggest problem (with apologies to him) in that (eg) his tantrums implicate God as party to seemingly outrageous events.  So “These instances and others might lead us to ask the question of whether we are intended to approve of everything that a prophet of God does.” is fine though but God seems to approve of them by his actions.

    I’m no longer (by dint of age ) setting preaching pasages or homegroup studies but how should /could 2 King’s be handled?

  2. Thanks for these detailed explorations. But don’t we also need to see these accounts as part of the chaos that comes when God’s covenant curse falls on his disobedient people. Leviticus 26:22 “I will send wild animals against you, and they will rob you of your children.” Leviticus 26:29 “You will eat the flesh of your son and the flesh of your daughters.” And arguably the same is true of the blessings Elijah and Elisha bring- covenant blessing for those who welcome God’s messenger.

    • Yes, that was my reaction, too. These stories predate medieval times by many centuries and are from a different culture. I need more convincing.

      That said, I did once preach a sermon in which I interpreted Elisha’s sending of the bears upon the boys as a misuse of spiritual power, tantamount to spiritual abuse, and someone in the congregation that evening found it very helpful to have that possibility acknowledged.

    • I don’t think that Helen is saying that this is a mediaeval idea; but this is just a vivid illustration.

      For me, the most persuasive thing here is the observations about the texts. I don’t think I had quite spotted the mirroring before between Elijah and Elisha–at least showing the way that Elisha doesn’t match up to Elijah’s example.

    • See Helen’s responses in comments further down. She follows Bakhtin in arguing that this is a near universal feature of human literature and experience.

  3. Humour in the Old Testament ! God Forbid ! But some of the speeches of Job’s ‘friends’ can raise a smile. For me 1 Kings 21 : 20 is truly funny. I see Ahab played by Tony Hancock, looking up, surprised and dismayed at the same moment, “Have you found me, O my enemy ?”. (Oh drat !)

  4. My wife was reading through Song of Songs this weekend – she suggested that someone could write a version of SOS expressed from the perspective of a menopausal woman & her middle age hubby (us) – she began to conjure up some of the lines – we laughed hysterically!

  5. Jacob wakes up on his honeymoon morning and finds he’s in bed with the ugly sister! The cheating rascal gets a taste of his own medicine.

  6. Thought provoking stuff! Given that fire being called down on the prophets of Baal and the beat mauling the 42 youths were, at least in the 1st case, supernatural acts, what do you feel God’s part in those was if they are considered ‘ethically dubious’?

  7. I find it slightly odd that a literary device from the middle ages is being read back into a NE text from around 1500 years earlier. That’s a very long difference in time. An atheist reading this would likely conclude it as further evidence the OT is comprised of made-up literary stories which are not to be believed – like Harry Potter, a lot of weird stuff going on set in real times but totally fictional!

    Just in case, for example, any doubt that donkeys can talk (well sing):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vg7ftpjhJ08

    Peter

  8. I, like other respondents, have trouble with the notion of transplanting the customs of medieval England onto a narrative of at least 2000 years before it. However, the biggest laugh in the books of the Kings is to be found in its first four verses. A beauty contest in the Old Testament? A King so old he can’t get warm at night? A nice warm, female, body to cuddle up to at night? And no naughty business…..

    For this and other dramatic readings of the Old and New Testaments, please refer to the (sadly) brief works of John Hercus, originally published during the 60s, but occasionally available on Amazon.

  9. As it happens, I have recently been reading “How (Not) to be Secular” by James K.A. Smith. Subtitled “Reading Charles Taylor,” it is an introduction to the thought of that author about secularization. The concept of ‘carnival’ plays a part in this, with the characteristics Helen draws out. Taylor relates this to the pre-modern world – not just the medieval. ‘Carnival’ is described, “the weight of virtue and good order was so heavy, and so much steam built up under this suppression of instinct, that there had to be periodic blow-outs if the whole system were not to fly apart.” The change from the pre-modern to the modern world is a very significant one. Perhaps there is less distance between first millenium BC Israel and 15th Century England, than between the latter and now.

    Although, I do recall something about Switzerland which some (English) friends who lived there for a while told me. It seems the Swiss are, most of the time, very strict and buttoned up. They are in bed by 9.30pm. The streets are spotless. However, there is one day, or rather night, in the year when they go mad. There is carousing, stuff gets thrown about and the streets are left in a mess. (They revert to spotlessness by the morning, though; there are limits.) This seems to be a remnant “safety valve.”

    So, I am quite prepared to believe that in the time of the editor of Kings there were occasions when the great and the good could be held up to ridicule. Perhaps there were occasions where the great and good were willing to put themselves into the place of indignity (2 Sam 6).

  10. Scepticism about carnivalisation in an ancient text is fair enough, given the brevity of my description here. I make the case in very careful detail in my scholarly monograph (Reduced Laughter: Seriocomic Features and their Functions in the Book of Kings). Essentially, Bakhtin traced the form back as far as the Greek writer Mennipus in the 3rd century BCE. These literary features have been found in literature in just about every culture, including those not influenced by the Graeco-Roman world eg Korean, African. I argue in my book that this carnivalisation is a universal human expression, much as humans in every culture express lament without necessarily learning it from other cultures.

  11. Dear Helen,

    You wrote: Elijah and Elisha have been held up as heroes of faith for generations; that their actions are righteous is implicitly believed by many devout believers. But a more dispassionate consideration of some of their actions may make the reader uncomfortable.

    Do you believe that devout believers who interpret the text as straightforward historical narrative are blinded by their quaint piety and prejudices, whereas the cool-headed scholar is able to analyze the text more accurately because he doesn’t have any presuppositions about it?

    Do you believe carnivalisation involves inventing, falsifying, or exaggerating truth or is it merely spotlighting certain historical facts and ignoring certain other historical facts? Do you believe ravens did feed Elijah, bears did maul 42 youths, and an axe-head did float?

    Do you think the more traditional interpretations of the stories about Elijah and Elisha are naïve and contrived? For example, is this interpretation a devious attempt to redefine black as white? https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/04/02/difficult-bible-passages-2-kings-223-25/

    • Hi Phil,

      the article you reference by Bill Muehleberg is interesting. However, I have a couple of quibbles with it. Firstly, the event did not happen at Bethel itself. “[Elisha] went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” (ESV) It is not unreasonable to suppose that ‘the city’ is Bethel itself, so they are from there.
      Notice the ‘small boys’ in the ESV. The adjective is present (thank you, STEP Bible) in both the Hebrew and the LXX. The latter refers to ‘paidaria mikra’. I don’t think his suggestion holds that these might be disrespectful teenagers of the sort who hang around on street corners smoking weed.

      There is a comparison between this story and that of Elijah in the previous chapter in his encounter with Ahaziah.

      The soldiers sent to bring Elijah in find him on a hill and tell him “come down”. The boys find Elisha as he is going up to Bethel, and tell him to “go up.”

      The 51 soldiers are a real threat to Elijah (God tells Elijah when the third group arrive not to be afraid), Elisha faces (at least) 42 small boys who are simply rather rude.

      Elijah explicitly states what will happen: “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty,” while Elisha just issues a general curse on the boys.

      Fire is more dramatic and final than a couple of bears mauling the boys. Note also that there is nothing in the text which states that God sent the bears.

      While Elijah was confronting Ahaziah, Elisha was simply off to Bethel – no evidence of any confrontation with the cult there.

      Being ill-treated goes with the territory in being a prophet. Being called ‘baldy’ is pretty low on the scale. In addition, there is no evidence from the text that he was being insulted because he was a prophet.

      • Hi David,

        Thank you very much for your interesting reply.

        I don’t believe the prophets were always righteous and I don’t feel an urge to vindicate all of Elijah’s and Elisha’s actions. But I am questioning whether carnivalisation is the right lens through which to understand the text. From Helen’s article I’m not sure whether carnivalisation involves tinkering with historical facts in order to paint a false picture or merely being selective about which facts to include/exclude in order to show one particular side of the coin. If the former is true, I would suspect the motive behind it is similar to the attempt by 19th century German theologians to purge the Bible of its supernatural elements.

        I don’t dispute the graph in Helen’s article showing the multitude of unusual phenomena clustering around the ministries of Elijah and Elisha. But rather than suggesting this is due to the historian letting off steam, I am more inclined to think God orchestrated history this way to make a point. The ministry of Jesus featured numerous, amazing miracles and he overthrew the status quo by elevating the despised and humbling the elite. If Elisha is meant to be regarded as a prototype of Jesus (and Elijah as a prototype of John the Baptist) then I don’t find it incredible that God would echo some features of Jesus’ ministry in the life of Elisha.

        Before you mentioned it I had not seen any comparison between Elijah confronting Ahaziah and Elisha encountering the gang of youths, and I’m still not sure whether the passages are meant to be viewed that way. If the author is deliberately contrasting Elijah with Elisha in the two passages, what is the point he is making? What spiritual lesson may be learned from it?

    • Dear Phil,
      I certainly haven’t accused you or anyone else of ‘quaint piety and prejudice’, nor said that traditional interpretations are ‘naïve and contrived’. I do happen to think that a careful reading of the text reveals some satire that may be missed by more traditional readings.
      I’m not comfortable with interpretations like the one that you link to, partly because of objections similar to those that David raises in the post below yours; and partly because it seems like special pleading. Sometimes we biblical scholars are so determined to exonerate God of wrongdoing that we manipulate our interpretations of the text in ways that are not entirely honest. There may be a better way to approach the question.
      I would be the last person to say, incidentally, that the scholar (be they he or she) does not have presuppositions. Everyone starts reading with those.
      And in regard to your question about the historicity of the events you name, I’d approach the question differently. I’m prepared to believe everything the Bible asks me to believe. I’m certainly not looking to strip out all supernatural elements from the Bible. I believe in the resurrection of a man from the dead, so what could be less plausible than that? But I first want to do the hard work of asking what the text is actually saying. When I have worked that out – to the best of my ability, and always subject to revision and correction – then I will work out what it is asking me to believe in terms of events that lie behind the narrative. And I will submit to that, as I hope I always do to scripture, after I have wrestled with it.

      • Dear Helen,

        Thank you for your gracious reply. I fear you may have misinterpreted my tone of voice in my comment to you. I did not think you had accused anyone of a gullible or naïve understanding (though in my case that cap probably does fit my head quite well since I am not a brainy scholar like yourself). I was just curious to know what you meant by using the word ‘dispassionate’.

        And by the way, when I referred to scholars in general as ‘he’, I was not denigrating or ignoring female scholars. I was using the word ‘he’ generically. I am fairly ripe in years compared to you and in my generation it was taken for granted that words such as ‘man’, ‘he’, ‘him’ etc. included male and female when the context logically demanded it and no-one got in a lather about stipulating both ‘he’ and ‘she’. I apologise if my words gave offence to you.

        I am genuinely fascinated by your article about carnivalisation and literary mirroring – these interesting ideas are new to me and I haven’t rejected them yet categorically.
        I would like to delve more deeply with you in discussing the historicity of the text of Kings but this is not an ideal platform to do that, and also there is no reason why you should give up any more of your time to talk to me.

        Anyway, thank you again for your reply. It is very nice when a guest author on Ian Paul’s blog engages with readers’ comments.

        With my respect and good wishes to you.
        Phil

  12. The description of Kings above reminded me of the goings-on in the ISIS Caliphate before it was eliminated – what human beings do to one another when there are no restraints through civilised laws.

    But how much do we ‘misread’ ancient historical events because we do so through the lens of our own culture and values. And even now in our rapidly changing culture – things which we accepted as commonplace 40 years’ ago are now viewed as out of order. Why even my granddaughter can’t understand why I can’t see any humour in the internet memes which she finds hilarious!

    When I read the OT now I am always looking for evidence of faith in action. Whatever else Hebrews 11 teaches us about the OT, it is that faith pleases God and that character defects come second to that.

    • It seems to me that misreading ancient events by reading through the lens of our own culture is *not* what Helen is doing. She is quite clear here that this is a transcultural phenomenon, and she is looking carefully at the text itself.

      I think the idea that ‘faith is more important than character traits’ is interesting, but takes us into some dangerous territory. Is it better to have faith and use that power to destroy lives, than not have the faith or courage to do so? And does not Hebrews and the rest of the NT itself say that maturity of character is more important than faith? Where have I read ‘If I have faith to move mountains…I am nothing…?’

      • Ian, it was not the narrative analysis but the decision as to whether or not the prophets’ actions were righteous in their context. I don’t know that we can make a definitive judgment on that either from a NT perspective or clearly a 21C measure.
        That’s why I wanted to say that Heb 11 refers to the OT whereas clearly the gospel sets a higher standard of righteousness without of course diminishing the primacy of faith. Faith, hope and love abide; the greatest of these is love which has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us (not earned); and given in a measure which the OT saints never had the privilege of knowing.
        We 21C folk are great at intellectual analysis but how rich are we in faith?

  13. The verse I find funniest in the Bible is Exodus 14:11 – a free paraphrase is “Was it because there was a shortage of tombs in Egypt that you brought us to die here in the wilderness?”

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