Sarcasm in the Bible?! Dale Ralph Davis on How Old Testament Narrative Uses Sarcasm

Sarcasm in the Bible?! NO WAY

Actually, yes way according to Dr. Dale Ralph Davis. In his helpful book The Word Became Fresh: How to Preach from Old Testament Narrative Texts, Davis explains why sarcasm is used in Old Testament narrative and provides a few examples:

Occasionally the biblical writer dips his pen in acid and uses mockery, derision, or put-down to drive home his point. The device may not be prevalent but likely occurs more often than a casual reader thinks.

One thinks immediately, of course, of Elijah’s taunting the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 18:27. Elijah alleges that Baal may be preoccupied with a plethora of ‘divine’ activities like travel, napping, or using the facilities. But one finds such ridicule elsewhere, if perhaps less blatantly. One overhears it when Laban accuses Jacob of stealing his household deities: ‘But why did you steal my gods?’ (Gen. 31:30). Any full-blooded Yahweh-worshiping hearer/reader would think, ‘My, what sort of gods are those that can’t keep from being pilfered?’ And anyone who is possessed both with orthodoxy and a sense of humor (too often a rare combination) laughs when these deities ‘feel’ both Rachel’s warmth and weight while she is ‘indisposed’ (31:34–35). The same ridicule seeps out of Micah’s helpless rage toward the Danites in Judges 18:24: ‘You take my gods that I made and the priest, and go away, and what have I left?’ (ESV). What indeed! And, of course, the biblical writer is at his nasty best when describing the divine ‘trauma’ of Dagon before the ark of Yahweh in 1 Samuel 5:1–5; not only do the Philistines have to pick Dagon up but would’ve been most happy with an ample supply of super-glue. One even hears a hint of mockery in the common but repeated ‘made’ in 1 Kings 12:28–33 (Jeroboam’s cult) and in 2 Kings 17:29–31 (imported pagans in the land of Israel). Note too the helplessness of pagan resources in Genesis 41:8, 24, and in Daniel 1:20; 2:1–11; 4:6–7, 18; 5:8, 15, all of which smells like devout scoffing—because those helpless resources are the foil for the true God’s provision via Joseph and Daniel.

One of the most subtle but powerful samples of sarcasm comes in Daniel 3. Here all of Nebuchadnezzar’s civil service corps is to observe the required moment of silence before his 90 by 9 feet image. It’s likely a government-sponsored loyalty exercise; devotees can naturally go back to their private superstitions and ‘personal faith’; they simply need to worship here if they want to keep their jobs—and their lives. The pressure is powerful; after all, it’s the law. And when all the satraps and postal workers have their back sides in the air and their noses in the sand before Nebuchadnezzar’s giant dummy on the Plain of Dura, well, it’s hard to resist. The ‘church music’ alone is impressive (vv. 4–5, 7, 10, 15). And yet the writer both tells the story and mocks the ‘worship.’ He both reports and ridicules at the same time. At least I think so. He repeatedly uses the verb ‘set up’ (Aram. qum) as he refers to Nebuchadnezzar’s image, nine times to be exact (vv. 1, 2, 3 [twice], 5, 7, 12, 14, 18); one can also throw in ‘made’ twice, vv. 1, 15). Perhaps I’m seeing things, but highlight the usages of ‘set up’ in your text, read it over noting them, and it all seems to have a cumulative impact. It’s a ‘set-up job,’ as we say. It’s as if the writer is saying, ‘It may seem fearful (because it has all the muscle of the government behind it), but it’s a farce! If you can see behind the mask, if you can see the falsehood and stupidity of it all, if you can hear heaven’s laughter over it [Ps. 2:4], you need not be taken in by it. True, the furnace is hot but the image is just hot air. It’s simply a little posturing by a human king strutting around in his big international pants’ (cf. Isa. 46:7).

Sarcasm is a form of humor. And I have observed that whenever Scripture is delightfully humorous it is also deadly serious. There is always a serious point being made when the biblical writer uses humor. Hence we should keep our ears tuned for sarcasm.

Excerpt used with kind permission of Christian Focus Publications.

Kevin Halloran

Servant of the Word. Husband. Blogs weekly at Anchored in Christ. Content Strategist/Trainer in Latin America with Leadership Resources International.