Joel S. Kaminsky on The Significance of Humor in biblical persecution
This essay was originally published on April 12, 2019.
A number of years ago I wrote an essay examining the humorous elements in the narratives surrounding Isaac and argued that the humor in these texts served a deeper theological purpose. In particular, I noted that it seemed improbable that the promises God made to Abraham would come to fruition and that the authors of these texts deployed humor because humor shatters the limits of our everyday world and in doing so helps us glimpse other possible worlds, in turn enabling the audience to hope for a better future. In this essay, I intend to extend my argument by exploring two other biblical narratives where humor appears to be deployed as an important component of the story. The stories I will focus on are that of Esther and the plague and exodus narrative in Exodus 1-15. Esther has long been recognized as containing many humorous elements but I am less sure that the theological significance of the story’s humor has been fully fleshed out. It is my contention that Exodus and Esther contain a number of striking features in common, although the humor in Exodus has often gone unnoticed.
In terms of broad similarities between these two stories, both in Exodus and Esther royal power is deployed in a plan to commit ethno-genocide against a minority population that is viewed with suspicion as an alien threat. The result in both narratives is that those seeking to inflict harm end up harming themselves. In fact, reversals of fortune feature prominently in both stories. And in both women play essential roles, although in Exodus most of the actions by women occur early on, while in Esther women feature prominently throughout the plot. Both stories mock the pretensions of powerful empires and their rulers. But within Exodus the empire and its king are undone while in Esther the evil counselor Haman who manipulates the foolish king is undone by the queen who turns out to be a Jewess. Haman’s fall is mirrored by the ascent of the Jewish counselor Mordecai who is Esther’s relative.
Before taking up the larger question of why I believe humor may have been purposely woven into two stories in which future Israelite or Jewish survival is under threat, let us examine the humorous elements in each story in greater depth. The book of Esther’s first act involves a scene of pomp and great revelry that comes to a sudden end when Queen Vashti refuses to obey King Ahasuerus’ request that she appear before him and his dinner guests so he could show off her beauty. The most humorous turn in this scene occurs when the king’s courtiers inform him that he has no choice but to depose and banish Vashti because once word gets out that Vashti disobeyed the king with impunity then all the women in the kingdom will no longer listen to their husbands resulting in total anarchy. Thus, they convince the king to send out an official edict declaring every man to be master in his own house. The humor is not just generated by the ridiculous notion that Vashti’s disobedience will result in every woman in the kingdom rebelling similarly but by the fragility of male and ultimately royal power which can be undone so easily.
Here it is worth noting that both in Esther and Exodus the stories are set in motion when women disobey a royal directive, and both have at least one incident that involves a woman in the palace household directly flouting a royal decree. In Exodus, the opening chapters relate the stories of several women who undermine Pharaoh’s power, at times working in parallel, at others seeming to work together. The first episode of women disregarding a royal order involves the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, which I will argue has a number of humorous features. Exactly how the humor operates is debatable because there is an ambiguity in the text about the exact ethnicity of these two women, which in turn affects our view of how cunning or stupid Pharaoh may be. The Masoretic vowels in the text indicate that the midwives were Hebrew women. On this reading, Pharaoh is depicted as not the sharpest knife in the drawer inasmuch as he is asking Israelite midwives to kill Israelite babies, something they are likely loathe to do both because they are themselves Israelites and because they would put themselves out of work quite quickly once words got around that they were working for Pharaoh and killing Israelite male babies immediately upon birth.
Ancient Hebrew Bible texts were transmitted in consonantal form as the later Masoretic way of representing vowels in written form did not yet exist. If one simply changed a single vocalization of one vowel, the phrase in Exodus 1:15 currently translated in the NRSV as “The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives” could be read as “The king of Egypt said to the midwives of the Hebrews,” which is indeed how the Greek translators of the Septuagint interpreted the phrase. This latter translation leaves open the possibility that these were Egyptian women who worked among the Israelites. Other evidence in the story could be adduced for or against this reading. In favor of the idea that these midwives were non-Israelites is that in both Exod 1:17 and 1:21 the midwives are described as fearing God, an expression used elsewhere by Joseph when he is posing as an Egyptian in Gen 42:18. Also, the midwives tell Pharaoh that the Israelite women are more vigorous than Egyptian women and give birth before they arrive on the scene, which might suggest that they often worked with Egyptian women. Against such a possibility is the fact that the midwives’ names appear to be Semitic, not Egyptian, although it seems doubtful that the ancient audience would be aware of this etymological discrepancy.
If one understands these midwives to be Egyptian in ethnicity then Pharaoh in turn may appear craftier, but the disobedience of the midwives would contain additional humorous elements. First, there is humor in the fact that Pharaoh’s own people are subverting his power because they fear a greater power, God. Secondly, the explanation the midwives give to Pharaoh in Exod 1:19 may actually be more sophisticated than often recognized inasmuch as the expression translated as “more vigorous” might more literally be translated as “more animalistic” in turn playing on the Egyptian fear that the Israelites are proliferating quickly and threatening Egyptian hegemony as suggested by Exod 1:7 and 1:12. In this reading, rather than Israelite women giving a lame excuse that might be taken as mocking Pharaoh, these Egyptian midwives might be providing Pharaoh with an explanation he would find convincing both because the women had regularly served as midwives to Egyptian women and because they frame the issue in a way that confirms Egyptian fears about the rapidly multiplying Israelite foreigners. If the women are Israelite, as I noted, the humor resides both in Pharaoh’s stupidity in expecting compliance and in the fact that he appears to accept their explanation without further questions when these Israelite midwives flout his command.
There is yet one other humorous element in this terse story that is narrated in a mere eight verses. As the translational note in the NRSV indicates, the final verse in the Masoretic text lacks the words “to the Hebrews.” Thus, Pharaoh’s command to all his people in Exod 1:22 reads: “Every boy that is born, you (plural) shall throw in the Nile, but you (plural) shall let every girl live.” Many interpreters and translations assume that these words were intended to apply only to Hebrew baby boys. But an alternative possibility is that Pharaoh is so keen on preventing any further Israelite births he recklessly endangers even Egyptian children. In truth, Pharaoh does exactly this later in the story when his stubbornness results in God executing the tenth plague in which all firstborn male Egyptians die.
The subversive humor involving women who disobey Pharaoh continues in the stories surrounding Moses’ birth and particularly in Moses’ being rescued, nursed, and raised. There is a deep irony in the fact that Moses’ savior is none other than Pharaoh’s own daughter who upon opening the basket with the crying baby recognized that indeed “this must be one of the Hebrews’ children” (Exod 2:6). This irony is deepened even further when Moses’ sister asks Pharaoh’s daughter if she should fetch a Hebrew woman to nurse the child, which results in Pharaoh’s daughter now paying Moses’ actual birth mother, no doubt with monies from Pharaoh’s state treasury, to nurse her own biological son, a child she only placed in the Nile because she feared keeping him alive any longer. The humor of the situation is intensified still further when we learn in Exod 2:10 that Pharaoh’s daughter raises Moses, the child who will lead the Israelite rebellion against Pharaoh, as her own son. Indeed, one imagines that Moses is raised within the Egyptian royal palace with the best that Egypt no doubt had to offer to the children of the elite.
Turning back to the Esther narrative, we have some details that echo elements in the Exodus story. Somewhat analogous to Moses’ adopted identity, Esther’s own identity as a Jew is kept secret from others in the royal palace (Esther 2:20), most especially from the king. While still incognito, the groundwork for Mordecai’s later ascent is laid by Esther when she reports to Ahasuerus in the name of Mordecai that two of the king’s servants planned to assassinate him (Esther 2:21-23).
But the real humor begins when we learn about Haman’s personality tendencies, especially his hatred of all Jews, which stems from his deep personal hatred of his rival courtier, the Jew Mordecai. While not identical, the xenophobia that Pharaoh and other Egyptians felt toward the Israelites of their time (Exod 1:9-12) shares affinities with the viewpoint Haman expresses in the following quotation: “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them” (Esther 3:8). In both instances Israel’s ethnic distinctness from the local population gives rise to fear and hatred that results in persecution of the Israelites or Jews by the native population. Of course, in Esther as opposed to Exodus, much of the humor is generated by the fact that the king involved is an easily manipulated buffoon who can be swayed by pleasure and money, and who seems heavily influenced by the opinion of whoever spoke to him last.
One of the closest set of parallels in both books is in the manner that the enemy who wishes to destroy the Israelites in Exodus or the Jews in Esther is mocked and eventually undone. The humor in Esther is quite evident and involves several reversals in expectations and fortunes. In Esther 6 we learn that inasmuch as the king could not sleep one night he requests his servants read to him from the book of annals. The king learns that the Jew Mordecai had brought news of a plot to assassinate the king and that he never had received any reward for saving the king’s life. Meanwhile, Haman has arisen early and is waiting in the royal antechamber having hurried off to request that he be permitted to hang Mordecai on the fifty-cubit-high gallows he has prepared. The king requests that Haman be shown in so he can consult with him on how Mordecai can be properly rewarded. Alas, Haman is unaware of this. When the king asks Haman, “What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?” Haman thinks “whom would the king wish to honor more than me?” (Esther 6:6). Thus Haman describes in detail the royal procession that such a hero should receive. To his great dismay the king tells Haman that he must now conduct the procession to honor Mordecai the Jew.
In Esther 7 the story and its humor reach a fever peak when at a banquet Esther organizes with only Haman and Ahasuerus present she informs the king that her people are threatened with annihilation by none other than Haman. Upon learning of it the king leaves the feast in a huff and returns shortly afterward to witness Haman throwing himself at Queen Esther to beg for his life, a gesture the king mistakes for an attempted assault (possibly sexual) on Queen Esther. A final reversal occurs when Harbona, one of the king’s eunuchs, chimes in at this opportune moment and mentions the high gallows on which Haman had planned to hang Mordecai. The king, taking the hint, orders Haman be hanged on the very gallows he prepared for Mordecai. At first thought, a story of nearly averted genocide, and one that contains gruesome elements like the hanging of the enemy, would not seem a likely place to look for biblical humor. Yet, oddly enough, one finds a high concentration of it here.
Thus, one should not be too surprised to find similar humorous touches within the Exodus story inasmuch as it too involves a life-and-death struggle against a mortal enemy bent on destroying or enslaving the people of Israel. In Exodus, it is the Pharaoh himself rather than one of his advisers that plays the villain hoist with his own petard. The humor at Pharaoh’s expense occurs within several scenes and more generally suffuses the wider arc of the plague narratives. One ongoing element of the plague narratives involves God plan not to free the Israelites quickly but rather only after engaging in an extensive show of God’s own power over Pharaoh and over nature. It should be noted that Pharaoh rebuffs Moses and Aaron’s initial request to free the Israelites by responding in Exod 5:2 as follows: “Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go.” What is often missed by contemporary readers is an awareness that the Pharaoh in ancient Egypt was held to have divine status when he lived and after he died. The plague narrative unfolds as two characters, Pharaoh and Israel’s God YHWH, each claim to be God, thus asserting their rights to control Israel’s destiny. The escalation of the plagues demonstrates over time that Israel’s God is in fact the ruler of the universe as he created and controls nature and can play Pharaoh like a puppet. The sequencing of the plagues closely mirrors aspects of Genesis 1 with several plagues related to each of the three major creative spheres: the waters, the land, and the heavens. Then the ninth plague involving the darkening of the skies signals a return to the state of things before God’s first act of creating light, and the last plague of the killing of the firstborn reveals that God can reverse his last act of creation, the making of humankind. One purpose of the lengthy sequence of plagues is to make a complete mockery of Pharaoh’s pretensions of royal power. Note the language in Exodus 10:1-2:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his officials, in order that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I have made fools of the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them—so that you may know that I am the LORD.”
While it may be grim to heap destruction upon destruction, the act of God toying with Pharaoh is a type of humor.
In addition, one can also see humor in the way Moses negotiates with Pharaoh as the plague sequence unfolds. Normally, negotiations are conducted to reach a compromise, which means each party over time softens some demands. But a close look at the narrative suggests that as Pharaoh begins to acquiesce, Moses in turn escalates his demands, often in ways that I believe would have been heard as humor. At the start Moses originally requests, “let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the LORD” (Exod 5:3). And Pharaoh in 8:21 MT partially accedes: “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land,” to which Moses responds, “we must go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the LORD” (8:23; 25 in English).
Where things get really interesting is in Exodus 10 in the events surrounding the eighth and ninth plagues of locusts and darkness.
So Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh, and he said to them, “Go, worship the LORD your God! But which ones are to go?” Moses said, “We will go with our young and our old; we will go with our sons and daughters and with our flocks and herds, because we have the LORD’s festival to celebrate.” He said to them, “The LORD indeed will be with you, if ever I let your little ones go with you! Plainly, you have some evil purpose in mind. No, never! Your men may go and worship the LORD, for that is what you are asking.” And they were driven out from Pharaoh’s presence. (Exod 10:8-11)
Notice how Pharaoh once again accedes a point on which earlier he had been implacable. But Moses, rather than meeting Pharaoh halfway, appears to taunt Pharaoh by listing out in extended form all those groups of Israelites and their types of animals that will be going along. Unsurprisingly, Pharaoh reacts negatively and retracts his offer. But the narrative appears to celebrate this baiting of Pharaoh. I would contend that this is to be expected in a story told by slaves about how God utterly defeated and humiliated their longtime oppressor.
This taunting is escalated once again in Exod. 10:24-27 where Pharaoh accedes to let the Israelite children go along as well:
Then Pharaoh summoned Moses, and said, “Go, worship the LORD. Only your flocks and your herds shall remain behind. Even your children may go with you.” But Moses said, “You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt offerings to sacrifice to the LORD our God. Our livestock also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must choose some of them for the worship of the LORD our God, and we will not know what to use to worship the LORD until we arrive there.” But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was unwilling to let them go.
Here again Moses remains defiant in his demands. In fact, depending on how one renders the Hebrew of Exod 10:25 it may be that Moses again actually demands more than he had earlier. The NRSV renders the phrasing near the beginning of verse 25 as “you must also let us have sacrifices” and in turn verse 26 is understood to explain why the Israelites must take their livestock along. But the phrasing in the Hebrew of verse 25 could be translated as “also you must supply us with sacrifices.” In fact, the particle translated as “also” occurs both in verse 25 and again right at the start of verse 26. This could suggest that Moses is demanding Pharaoh supply the Israelites with sacrificial animals out of Pharaoh’s flocks and that in addition the Israelites need to bring their herds along as some of these also will be sacrificed, but which ones is not yet known. At the very least, this longwinded response to Pharaoh concerning the extent of animals that Pharaoh must allow the Israelites to bring with them is surely a form of taunting. And once again, Pharaoh balks at Moses’ ever inflating set of demands.
The very end of this extended bargaining session, which occurs in the midst of the tenth plague, seems to include an additional humorous element in that Pharaoh not only completely accedes to Moses’ full set of demands but he now asks that this Israelite ritual also bring a blessing on him.
Then he [Pharaoh] summoned Moses and Aaron in the night, and said, “Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the LORD, as you said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!” (Exod. 12:31-32)
There are a few other likely touches of humor in the exodus account. In particular, one thinks of the following short aside in the conversation God has with Moses when God appears in the burning bush.
I will bring this people into such favor with the Egyptians that, when you go, you will not go empty-handed; each woman shall ask her neighbor and any woman living in the neighbor’s house for jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters; and so you shall plunder the Egyptians. (Exodus 3:21-22)
Here we learn that beyond God toying with Pharaoh by hardening his heart during the plague sequence he intends to plunder the Egyptian nation and obtain a type of reparations but not through force but rather by Israelite women requesting to borrow items of value from the local populace. What is interesting is that women feature prominently here, once again using somewhat non-conventional means, in this case to exact a form of monetary payment or reparations.
Also of note is that Pharaoh’s own counsellors at times recognize God’s power and even on occasion express exasperation with Pharaoh’s stubbornness. In MT Exod 8:15 (v. 19 in English translations), when Pharaoh’s magicians cannot duplicate the third plague, they tell him “this is the finger of God.” In 9:20-21 while some of Pharaoh’s officials do not listen to God’s warning delivered by Moses to bring their slaves and livestock in to safety, others we are told did fear the word of the LORD and heeded this warning. In Exod 10:7 his officials urge him to let the Israelites go and conduct their ceremony and they speak to Pharaoh in a tone that suggests they think he is stubborn to a fault: “do you not understand that Egypt is ruined?”
At this juncture, it is worth taking a step back to summarize some tropes that we find in both Esther and Exodus. In both stories, the community faces a dire threat to their continued existence and in both women play an inordinately prominent role in facilitating the rescue of each endangered community. A staple of many forms of humor involves mocking pretension and having those in power outwitted by those with less, little, or no power in a way that upsets normal expectations. Since women in the biblical text often lack power in the public ways exhibited by men they frequently play a role in narratives in which male power is overcome by subversive means. This fact supports my contention that humor plays a major role in both stories.
We have also witnessed other tropes associated with the use of humor in both narratives. These include the mocking of royal power, which in Exodus is not only accomplished by women characters but by Moses, Pharaoh’s counselors, and directly by God. Not to be overlooked is the importance role reversals play in both stories. In Esther, Haman who plans to murder all the Jews is in fact killed by the very mechanisms he seeks to deploy against the Jews (both the use of lots he uses to determine the date of the killing spree and the gallows he constructed upon which he sought to kill Mordecai). In Exodus, Pharaoh seeks to kill male Israelite babies and his plan is doubly reversed. Not only does his daughter save and raise baby Moses who challenges Pharaoh’s authority and leads the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, but the tenth plague results in the death of many Egyptian male babies.
With these facts in mind, one pressing question that needs to be addressed is: what, if any, are the theological implications of this widespread usage of humor in these oppressive circumstances? Here I will reprise what I argued two decades ago. It is my contention that the writers of the biblical text used humor not only to enhance the aesthetic experience of the reader or listener, but also to make a deeper theological point. One of the major themes in the Hebrew Bible is trusting in God’s promises even though quite often current reality suggests that the fulfillment of these promises is unrealistic, or even impossible. Inasmuch as the Bible asks those who read it as sacred scripture to develop a type of hope that calls into question a common-sense view of the world, one should not be surprised to find humor in these narratives. This is because there is a structural affinity as well as a direct connection between humor and hope in that each proclaims that the reality of everyday life does not necessarily have the final word. As Peter Berger notes, humor challenges the dominant tragic worldview that confines humans to a stoic acceptance of the current conditions of existence:
At least for the duration of the comic perception, the tragedy of man is bracketed. By laughing at the imprisonment of the human spirit, humor implies that this imprisonment is not final but will be overcome, and by this implication provides yet another signal of transcendence—in this instance in the form of an intimation of redemption.
Hope presents a similar challenge to the status quo and also provides, in Berger’s words, a “signal of transcendence.” Humor is part of the language of hope that points to a higher order than the one in which we normally live and thus we should not be surprised to find it is purposefully introduced into narratives where Israel’s hopes and in fact her very existence are being called into question. Of interest is that these ancient Israelite writers deployed humor in situations that many today would see as no laughing matter. However, it is precisely here that humor, by allowing the reader to laugh in the face of potential tragedy, facilitates the ability to continue to trust in God’s promises even when such trust seems rationally unwarranted.
Although I have focused on the prominence of humorous elements in the Exodus and Esther narratives, it is wrongheaded to think of humor as if it were an ingredient that one can isolate from the rest of life. Humor is a dimension of human experience that can occur anywhere, at any time. Inasmuch as great works of art attempt to capture the richness and complexity of life, one should not be surprised to find that the Bible, too, contains humor. The Bible continues to receive our attention because each time one returns to it, one discovers previously unnoticed facets. Illuminating the more unusual facets of this sacred text does not diminish or exclude other important dimensions. Instead, it discloses yet another layer of meaning within the biblical text. And this, in turn, enriches not only our understanding of ancient Israelite culture and religion, but our understanding of ourselves as well.
Joel S. Kaminsky is the Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Chair of the Religion Department at Smith College where he has taught courses on the Hebrew Bible and on ancient Jewish religion and literature since 1997 after previous teaching appointments at St. Olaf College, Muhlenberg College, Whitman College, and Loyola University of Chicago. He has been a visiting professor at Duke, Harvard, and Yale Divinity Schools. He has also held the position of Visiting Jewish Studies Research Scholar at Durham University in England