Consider the well-worn saying that “God has a sense of humor.” This is usually meant to refer generally to the unexplained ironies and lucky chances we encounter in life. What I mean, though, is that God as a person, or rather, as three persons in undivided unity, has a personal style of humor which he employs in speech, often through the literary device of satire.
What is satire?
Satire is a genre that, while broad, has certain definite characteristics. The literary distinction between friendly Horatian satire and splenetic Juvenalian satire illustrates two poles of the satirical genre. Any particular satire can fall anywhere in between, and may retain characteristics of other literary genres. The following summarizes the essential character of satire:
In his classic The Educated Imagination, Northrop Frye claims that “there are two halves to literary experience. Imagination gives us both a better and a worse world than the one we usually live with.” Satire is the preeminent genre used by writers who want to show a world gone awry. . . .
Even though all satire targets something foolish or evil, there is always a stated or implied satiric norm by which the object of attack is satirized. In the Bible, satiric norms include the character of God, the moral law of the writer’s religious community, basic virtues like love, generosity, or humility, and the golden rule (behaving toward others as one wants to be treated by others). [source]
This “better world” of normal ideals is an essential element of satire, and may either be explicitly referenced or left unspoken. This often depends on whether the intended audience is aware of or in agreement with the “norms.”
Satire is not always in keeping with the taboos of polite society. Many find it low and offensive. Ambrose Bierce observes this tendency in his satiric definition of satire:
An obsolete kind of literary composition in which the vices and follies of the author’s enemies were expounded with imperfect tenderness. In this country satire never had more than a sickly and uncertain existence, for the soul of it is wit, wherein we are dolefully deficient, the humor that we mistake for it, like all humor, being tolerant and sympathetic. Moreover, although Americans are ‘endowed by their Creator’ with abundant vice and folly, it is not generally known that these are reprehensible qualities, wherefore the satirist is popularly regarded as a sour-spirited knave, and his every victim’s outcry for codefendants evokes a national assent. [source]
Although Bierce is right that Americans do not care for ‘negativity,’ the act of ‘tearing down’ has its right place, if not in the American psyche, at least in the pages of Scripture, associated with the destruction of physical and theological idols—as in this verse from Deuteronomy:
You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. (Deut. 12:3 ESV)
The purpose of satire is the destruction of false idols and the restoration of true norms.
Satire in the Old Testament
God often uses satire in the Old Testament. The book of 1 Samuel tells an incident in which the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines and carried as a prize into the temple of their fish-god Dagon, whose image had a man’s upper body and a fish’s tail. After the first night, the priests of Dagon return to find their god doing obeisance to the Ark. They set him up again only to return the next morning to find him again fallen down in front of the Ark, but this time his head and hands are broken off and sitting on the threshold of the temple. The Philistines are also afflicted by painful boils and mice. But rather than worship the true God, they have his Ark sent away—with offerings of golden boils and mice—to propitiate themselves and their own impotent god.
In 1 Kings 18, the prophet Elijah calls the people of Israel together along with the priests of Baal and presents a sharp-edged object lesson. After the people fail to choose between Baal and Jehovah, Elijah proposes a test: although the prophets of Baal outnumber him 450 to one, the question will be determined objectively: the God to provide fire for his sacrifice will be acknowledged as the true one. Elijah allows his adversaries the first try, taunting them as they attempt to invoke their god.
And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.
Elijah then proves Jehovah’s power through significant actions. He first builds his altar with uncut stones, calling them after the tribes of Israel:
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down. Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name…” (1 Kings 18:27–31)
The satirist is not only concerned with tearing down but also builds up what is true. Elijah’s construction of the altar symbolically reminds the people of Israel of their sacred calling. He then drenches the sacrifice, fuel, and altar with water, the element opposite to fire, in an act of absurd contradiction, to show that Israel’s devotion to God has been quenched. God answers with overwhelming certainty. His fire consumes the water, fuel, sacrifice, the altar itself, the trench around the altar, and even the dust. In a return to right norms, the priests of Baal are driven out and slaughtered.
Idols are a frequent target of satire. In various places, the prophets point out the folly of idol worship in ironic juxtapositions.
He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44:14–17)
The book of Jonah is the most overtly satirical book of the Bible. God sends the prophet Jonah to warn Nineveh, a wicked enemy city, of impending judgment. However, no character in the story is less devout than Jonah himself. Attempting to flee God’s calling, he boards a ship to Tarsus. When God sends a dreadful storm after him, the superstitious sailors recognize that someone aboard must have angered God to have elicited such disaster. They save their own lives by throwing Jonah overboard. The reluctant prophet is then swallowed by a fish for three days while he prays very piously for God’s deliverance.
After the fish vomits him out on shore, Jonah undertakes his commission, traveling through Nineveh proclaiming “Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” The entire city responds in fear and repentance. The king issues a proclamation: “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” But when God actually does relent and spare Nineveh, Jonah becomes angry and complains, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Jonah is not really interested in God’s will unless it aligns with his own prejudices.
God has the last word, reestablishing the true “norm” of his divine mercy: “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
Satire in the New Testament
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel are obdurately forgetful of even the most fundamental principles of God’s law, so they must be constantly harangued by the prophets. In the New Testament, Jesus encounters an entirely different situation. The Jews have finally adopted the Law as a way of life, but are failing to understand its deeper significance. Jesus uses a much more subtle sort of satire in his parables and deeds. For instance, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man in hell asks Abraham to send a beggar named Lazarus to warn his brothers so that they may avoid his torment. Abraham however observes that “if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” In John’s gospel, Jesus actually raises his friend Lazarus from the dead. The religious leaders, far from being convinced by either the proofs of Jesus’ divinity in the Law and the Prophets, or by his miraculous actions, plot to kill both Jesus and Lazarus.
Similarly, Jesus claims he will give no “signs” of his divinity—miracles—for the religious leaders and instead recommends to them the “sign of Jonah.” Like Jonah, the religious leaders ignore all the “signs” in Moses and the Prophets that God’s will is to extend His merciful kingdom to the whole world. They look exclusively for a Messiah who will restore their nation’s earthly glory, and so they reject Jesus.
Christ’s bitterest, most “Juvenalian” speech, is in Matthew 23. He tells his disciples and the people who are gathered around:
The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.
Jesus begins by invoking the “norm”—Moses’ law—and ironically exhorting his listeners to obey the scribes and Pharisees out of respect for Moses—but not to imitate their behavior. After his initial catalog of their social hypocrisy, Jesus turns to direct, caustic accusations in high satirical style. The Pharisees and scribes “shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” with their arcane distinctions that obscure rather than illuminate the law. Jesus repeatedly employs hyperbolic imagery, exaggerating their actions to match the sin in their hearts:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
These characterizations are harsh enough, but Jesus is not done with the Pharisees. He relates their present-day hypocrisy to the disobedience of their ancestors.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.”
“Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers,” Jesus taunts them, knowing they soon will.