Biblical Humor

Playful Appellations – Part 1

Genesis 2:4-17, Adam
Genesis 2:18-23, Woman
Genesis 2:25 – 3:13, The cunning serpent
Genesis 3:14-20, Eve
Genesis 4:1, Cain
Genesis 4:2-8, Abel
Genesis 4:25, Seth
Genesis 5:28 – 6:8, Noah
Genesis 12:1-4, 17:1-9, Abraham
Genesis 12:5, 17:15-16, Sarah
Genesis 17:17-19, 18:1-15; 21:1-6, Isaac
Genesis 16:1-11, 17:18, 20, Ishmael
Random Walk in a Gallery of Religious Art, Step 30: Genesis 21:5-14, Abraham Casting Out Hagar and Ishmael, by Il Guercino (F. F. Barbieri)
Genesis 25:20-34, Esau
Genesis 27:1-36, Jacob

More Voices of the Bible

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Fellow-reader Rob B. has suggested that we spend some time learning about the different “voices,” or literary styles, found in the Bible, which is a great idea – thanks, Rob! We’re going to start with a little unit on punning names, because in the Bible, humor is humongous. HAHAHahahaha!

What? You don’t get it? Bible, HUMOr, HUMOngous, see? Now you’re laughing, right? Probably not. There are several reasons for that.

In the third place, what’s funny in one language may not be funny in another language. I read an anecdote in German 40 years ago that’s still funny to me when I think about it in German. When I think about it in English, it’s not funny. And this is inside the very same brain!

In the second place, what is funny to one culture isn’t funny to another. My dad, who served in the Pacific Theater in WWII, told me that the Australians didn’t understand any American jokes and vice versa – at the same time in the same language! We’re several thousand years, several thousand miles, and a language away from the puns we’re going to look at.

Most importantly, we don’t expect humor in the Bible. We read it and hear James Earl Jones – the sound of God creating the universe. Often we should be hearing Woody Allen – funny, intellectual, and whiney. Sometimes we should be hearing George Carlin – funny and not always suitable for children. Most of this unit will be Woody-Allen style humor. It’s important that you read the explanation of the pun right below the scripture reference, and helpful if you read through the selected scripture verses here before turning to your own Bible.


Genesis 2:4-17, Adam (5/18/15)

adamah/ground > the adam/person > Adam/ Adam

So. Right after God (played by James Earl Jones) created the universe, God (now played by Woody Allen) made human beings. He took some dust and made a little dustball out of it. Eventually he named the dustball Dusty. Or maybe he took some soil and made a soul and called it Sol.

Genesis 2:18-23, Woman (5/19/15)

ish/man + –ah > ishah/woman

Hunter’s Loose Translation of the man’s little poem:

Zowie! Here’s my very own!
My own flesh, and my own bone!
I’m gonna call her “Woman,” because ...
Whoa, man!

Genesis 2:25 – 3:13, The cunning serpent (5/20/15)

(Roughly) the arum/cunning nachash/serpent nasha/beguiles the arom/nude couple into believing that they are erom/naked. 

Can you explain the difference between nude and naked? Or between naked and nekkid? Adam and Eve were nude, but the serpent convinced them that they were nekkid. They were nude; the snake was naughty. That cunning one convinced them to do something they shouldn’t.
A reader writes to ask if it was a sin for Adam and Eve to be nude or naked, either before or after they knew it.  Offhand I don’t recall any biblical prohibitions against nudity between spouses.  Their sin was that they knew darn good and well that they weren’t supposed to be eating from the fruit of a particular tree, and they did it anyway.  I suspect the whole nudity/nekkidness thing was a side issue – not wanting to confess their real sin, they tried to confuse God into thinking that they hid because they didn’t want him to see them nude.  God is not fooled about the nature of our sins, even when we are.


Genesis 3:14-20, Eve (5/21/15)

chay/living > Chavvah/lifegiver/Eve

Adam finally gets a proper name in vs. 17. Always before this in Hebrew, he is “the adam,” but now he’s just Adam. The Contemporary English Version still calls him “the man” until vs. 20; the Hebrew fades in and out, and the translations vary about when they make the switch. Adam gives his wife a proper name in vs. 20. The ch of Chay and Chavvah is a rough “h” sound, so Eve is closer to the original Hebrew than it looks in print. In English we should have called her “Livia” because she was the mother of all living.

Genesis 4:1, Cain (5/22/15)

qanah/gotten > Qayin/Cain; also qayin/fixity/lance

Adam and Eve had three sons. The first one was Cain. Eve says that she called him Qayin/Cain because she has qanah/gotten him from the LORD. I think there’s more to it than that, even though Eve didn’t realize it at the time. Qayin is the same as qayin = fixity/lance, and we all know that Cain was a murderer who stayed around – was fixed in place – for quite a while.

As a rule of thumb, any Old Testament sentence that sounds like “he/she/it was named or called X because Y” means that X is a pun on Y. Unfortunately, the pun almost never comes through in translation except by accident.

Genesis 4:2-8, Abel (5/25/15)

hebel/vanity, something transitory > Abel

Hebel/Abel’s name was hebel/transitory. He didn’t last long. Many of the puns in Hebrew make you say “aha!” and not “ha ha!”

Genesis 4:25, Seth (5/26/15)

sheeth/appoint > Sheth/Seth

Hunter’s Loose Translation: "God sheeth/set-in-place Sheth/Seth to replace Transitory/Abel, who was killed by Spear/Cain." Since Seth eventually gave rise to the Hebrew people, he was appointed in more ways than one.

Genesis 5:28 – 6:8, Noah (5/27/15)

nacham/comfort/rest > Noach/Noah

We know that Lamech meant Noach/Noah to be a pun on nacham/comfort, because it says so right there in vs. 29. As near as I can tell, however, after all this time nobody knows exactly what he meant by it. I suppose we can all take comfort from the fact that God spared Noah and his family; otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

Genesis 12:1-4, 17:1-9, Abraham (5/28/15)

abram/high-father/Abram; abraham/father-of-a-multitude/Abraham

English occupational surnames are job descriptions: Hunter, Farmer, Sawyer, Harper, Miller, etc. Now, however, they’ve been around so long as names that we don’t really think of them as anything but names when they refer to a specific person. Abram and Abraham are not only names for a specific person, but they are also God’s job description for that person: Abraham is the spiritual father of all Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Genesis 12:5, 17:15-16, Sarah (5/29/15)

sarai/my-princess/Sarai; sarah/Princess/Sarah

John Wesley points out that Sarai, strictly, means “my princess, as if her honour were confined to one family only.” Lots of guys call their ladies “my princess.” Sarah, however, is no longer just my princess, but a princess of multitudes and the mother of kings.

Genesis 17:17-19, 18:1-15; 21:1-6, Isaac (6/1/15)

tsachaq/laugh > Yitschaq/laughter, Yischaq/he-will-laugh > Isaac

Loose translation from the web: Abraham and Sarah chuckled, and they called their little boy Chuckles.

Actually, there are some funny parts to this story even without the pun tsachaq/Yitschaq = laugh/Laughter. In vs. 17:17, Abraham is so amused by the angel’s announcement that he is literally rolling on the floor laughing. This is a bit of a meta-pun, since “fell to his face” also means (and is usually taken to mean here) that the person falling to his face is worshipping the person standing. But think about it: this old man is so amused and so feeble that he falls down, and since he’s down on the ground, he might as well do a little worshipping.

In 18:11-13, Sarah giggles inside the tent when she hears this news. “Like that’s going to happen! I’m worn out, and my husband is old. Cackle, cackle.” The LORD hears her, and he says to Abraham, “Why is Sarah laughing, just because she’s too old to have a baby?” Notice that the LORD doesn’t repeat what Sarah actually said, which is that she thinks Abraham is too old! It’s a little secret between Sarah and the LORD.

Finally, in 21:6, Sarah is holding her little baby Chuckles, and she is so happy she laughs out loud. But still she can see that it’s pretty funny for a woman in her 90s to be having a baby, and she knows that all her friends are going to laugh, too.

Genesis 16:1-11, 17:18, 20, Ishmael (6/2/15)

shma-el/God-hears; Yishma-el/God-will-hear > Ishmael

Ishmael was already about 8 years old when God came to tell Abraham that his wife Sarah was going to have a baby. A decade or so earlier, Sarah had decided to have a baby by a surrogate mother, so she gave her handmaiden Hagar to Abraham as a concubine. When she became pregnant, Hagar got kind of snippy with her mistress, who beat her for it. Hagar ran away. God had a sympathetic chat with Hagar and told her to name her baby “God will hear,” because he had heard her problems.

Later, when God visited Abraham about Sarah, Abraham apparently figured that a boy in the hand is worth two in the bush, and he said, “May you take care of ‘God will hear.’” God answered, “I hear you.”

Random Walk in a Gallery of Religious Art, Step 30: Genesis 21:5-14, Abraham Casting Out Hagar and Ishmael, by Il Guercino (F. F. Barbieri) (7/13/15)

An interesting thing that I just learned while preparing another study is that artists in 17th and 18th centuries often dressed Biblical characters in modern clothing and placed them in modern settings. Silly me, I had always assumed they didn’t know any better. No-oo. They did it on purpose, with the idea that I could have been the one in that situation. I could have sold my brother into slavery. I could have been the villain or hero of this story. The Bible isn’t about some old guys who lived a long time ago – it’s about me.

So here we have Abraham repudiating Hagar and Ishmael in 1657, wearing the rich Italian clothing appropriate to Abraham’s wealth. My favorite part of this painting is Ishmael. The scripture tells how Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar feel about the situation, but all it says about Ishmael is that Hagar left him under a bush so that she didn’t have to listen to him cry. This picture poignantly suggests why he is crying: he doesn’t want to leave his daddy.

Previous Step. Next step.
Abraham Casting Out Hagar and Ishmael. Click to enlarge.
"Abraham Casting Out Hagar and Ishmael" by Il Guercino (F. F. Barbieri),
from the Gamble family Bible, now in the private collection of Regina Hunter.
Photography by Daryl Lee.


Genesis 25:20-34, Esau (6/3/15)

sear/hairy, Esav/feeling rough > Esau;
admonee/reddish, adom/ruddy > Edom/Edom

Esau had two names, “Harry” and “Red.” He had more hair than most babies when he was born, which is why they called him Harry. He had a ruddy complexion, and he sold his birthright for some red stew (it must have had a lot of paprika in it), which is why they called him Red.

Pay attention to Jacob and the incident of the heel; we’ll come back to that tomorrow.
Genesis 27:1-36, Jacob (6/4/15)

aqeb/heel, aqab/seize by the heel, supplant > Yaaqob/Supplanter/Jacob

Jacob talked Esau into selling his birthright, and then he lied to his father and stole Esau’s blessing. Jacob was a real heel.


More Voices of the Bible

Biblical Humor
Playful Appellations, 1
Playful Appellations, 2
Less Playful Appellations
Five Funny Stories

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