Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is this.
Right now, I want you to find someone in your life to talk to. They may be sitting next to you on the couch. They may be 8 states away, but you know that they will pick up the phone. Pick a friend, and I want you to tell them the funniest thing that you have seen or heard all week long. A joke. A story. A tweet. A picture. If they are not also watching this livestream, then you might tell them, “I don’t have a lot of time, but you need to hear this joke.” Go!
Genesis 29 and 30 are some of the funniest chapters in the Bible. In fact, they are a part of what is sometimes called the Laban Narrative, several chapters in Genesis that begin with Jacob leaving his brother Esau in a rage and fleeing to his kinsman Laban. During the years where he is with Laban, Jacob has plenty of misadventures. And plenty of children. The passage I read this morning is in the middle of the account of how Jacob’s children were born. And you might have noticed a bit of irreverent humor throughout the story.
How many of you know what a melodrama is? My guess is that you know what it is, even if you don’t know what it is called. It is a way of storytelling that relies on overexaggerated dialogue, predictable characters, one-liners and sight gags, and well-played out tropes. Think Vaudeville, or early black and white movies, or cowboy shows at Branson. The hero, the villain, usually a rather helpless woman in the middle between them.
Let me suggest that the Laban narrative in Genesis was written to be much like the melodrama that we know well. Exaggerated dialogue, almost stereotypical characters, and, like I said, some of the funniest chapters in the Bible. You can almost see Laban twisting his handlebar mustache. Our hero Jacob finds himself bested by the villain, but then gets the last laugh in the end. And in between them, the less-attractive older sister Leah…it says that she has “beautiful eyes.” But that seems to be a euphemism, kind of like we say, “Is he good looking? Well, he has a great personality.” Leah had a great personality. Then there was the beautiful maiden Rachel; Jacob is head over heels in love with her as soon as he sees her.
Throughout the story, there are these moments that seem to played up for humor:
- When Jacob meets Rachel, it’s like Popeye meeting Olive Oil…he eats his can of spinach and all of a sudden, he lifts a huge rock off of the well so that she can water her animals!
- He falls in love with the fair maiden, but then the evil villain Laban takes advantage of a smitten Jacob to get him to work seven years for her. “And they seem as though a few days..”
- Then, at the end of the seven years, Jacob is so head over heels in love with this woman, that he doesn’t even notice that it’s her older sister in the tent. Then the next morning, according to the King James, Jacob says “behold, it’s Leah!” I’m sure that is what Jacob was saying…”behold.” My guess is that he was thinking a different word than “behold!”
- Then, there is this long section that describes the birth of all of the children, who will become the 12 tribes of Israel. It’s like each night, another woman going into Jacob’s tent. Leah, and Rachel, and their servants. Including the section that I read, in which one sister literally trades a night with her husband for a bunch of mandrakes. Mandrakes!
Tell me that this story is not supposed to be funny. It is bawdy and provocative and sordid. My guess is that if most of the parents of young children saw this turned into a movie, they would not let their children watch it!
Now, let me pause here and make a disclaimer. There are a ton of un-funny topics in this passage: Deceit…polygamy…sibling rivalry and resentment and revenge…struggles with infertility …placing value on humans based on their physical appearance…sexual exploitation of women, especially servant women. I get it. These are serious topics. I appreciate the disclaimer by Biblical scholar Esther Menn, and I imagine her reading it in a low voice like that lawyer-speak at the end of a commercial: “Clearly, we cannot read Genesis 29 as a programmatic description of how our society and marriage laws should operate, nor as a moral template for our own cultural context and family dynamics.”
Yes. True. Genesis 29-30 will not be the ministry plan for our new associate pastor to families for example. But this passage, really the whole Laban Narrative…doesn’t seem to focus on that real-world pain. And I think that there is something to be learned by that. When I read this last week out loud to the Two-way, I caught myself feeling a little awkward and a little embarrassed. Not embarrassed by the sordid details…these were all adults in the Zoom Room. But embarrassed in the way where you get involved in a thing and ask yourself…”how am I going to get out of this?” “How I am going to preach out of this?” I was asking as I read further and further this story about unhealthy family dynamics, “what kind of mess is this story about?” In fact, they even suggested that for a title after last week: “The Messiness of Faith, Part 2!”
But my point is this. I think we need to see the Bible, in part, as comedy. But I think that there are places where the Bible does not take itself too seriously. Moments of humor. Puns. Bawdy and messy stories like this one. Now, a lot of humor gets lost in translation. Humor is one of the hardest things to translate from one language and culture to another. English Lit. scholars have the same trouble with Shakespearean comedy…the language and wording sounds formal to our ears, and so it is hard for them to get students to realize that these are jokes about bodily functions and sexual promiscuity.
As are parts of the Bible! There is comedy in Scripture! I don’t believe that saying so devalues Scripture, or lessens the power of the story or the ability for the Holy Spirit to change lives through its words. In fact, I would suggest that it absolutely increases the power of the Bible. Because I think that a Bible that understands the human reality of humor is more relevant and accessible to our lives. This is the origin story of the 12 Tribes of Israel, and baked into is this reminder for the People of God not to take themselves too seriously! Perhaps, instead of getting embarrassed by the Bible, or trying to sanitize the Bible or clean up the Bible, I would suggest something else: The way to take the Bible the most seriously, the most like it was intended to be taken, is to not take ourselves too seriously in the process. In other words, when reading the Bible, sometimes you just have to laugh.
Furthermore, why do we as good Christian church folk get so caught up in the righteousness, the appropriateness of the story, when it seems like that’s not what Jesus did? Remember that Jesus was the one always getting in trouble with the good, serious church folk, for partying and laughing and “not taking his Bible seriously enough.” I think that Christians fall into the trap of humorlessness, just like the Pharisees did. Even though it is not the way Jesus lived. And it makes for bad evangelism and bad spiritual health when we do. So if Jesus got in trouble for not taking himself seriously enough, and the Bible has these moments in which it absolutely makes a point to not take itself too seriously, then shouldn’t we follow suit?
Remember, the symbol of our entry into the faith is at its core, hilarious. I mean, think about what baptism actually is. We fancy it up with heated baptisteries and changing rooms, but at the heart of it, we are standing in a bathtub, wearing dresses, dunking each other under water! Grady Nutt, an old Baptist preacher and comedian (he used to be on Hee Haw from time to time), has some great bits about baptism. He says the Greek word baptizo means to immerse or to dip. The literal translation, he says, is “put ‘em under ‘til they bubble!” So here, we are, putting them under until they bubble, and then the candidate stands back up out of the water, stumbling out of the bathtub, hair all wet and disheveled, dripping water on the carpet all the way back. What a symbol for our faith!
I asked Jayla if it was okay to talk about her this way, but I want to compare her experience last week, when she became the Eudora High School Homecoming Queen. And there she was on the field, dressed up, hair made up, wearing her sash and looking all regal. Today, Jayla looked about as regal as one can leaving the baptistery! But the point of baptism is not a symbol that proves that we have it all together. We practice a faith in which it is best to not take ourselves too seriously.
So let me suggest this: in the middle of 2020, un-funny topics in our world today abound. Race. Political hypocrisy. Families suffering from the effects of COVID and plenty of other medical situations. Families struggling through school and quarantine and parents who have to work. And I get it, I have to be careful. As a white male in a place of relative power in the world, I have to be careful pressing this point. Because many of us can laugh because these painful topics aren’t impacting and hurting us in the same way that it hurts others, including those marginalized and left out and targeted by our society. And there is a need to take these topics very seriously.
But I think about comedians who understand that there is a need, perhaps an even greater need the worse the tragedy is, to laugh. To sing. To dance. I think of Chris Rock or Wanda Sykes, laughing in the middle of the pain. I like a quote by Steven Colbert, host of the Late Show, who is a strong Christian, a man of faith, and who built his career on poking fun at serious world problems. He says this: I would say laughter is the best medicine. But it’s more than that. It’s an entire regime of antibiotics and steroids. Laughter brings the swelling down on our national psyche and then applies an antibiotic cream. You gotta keep it away from your eyes.
Sometimes you just have to laugh.
Okay, so some of you have some explaining to do. A few minutes ago, you called up someone, told them a three minute story, and then hung up. As soon as the service is over, here is what I want you to do. Call them back. Or call someone back. Call that person who makes you laugh. Call that friend who you just have to start the story and you both know the ending and just start laughing out loud. Call that family member who gets you…even if the rest of you family thinks you are crazy. This time, take a half hour, take a whole hour, talk all afternoon! Then call that other friend who does the same thing and start all over again. You were made for humor. Made for laughter. Made for joy. Today, be what God created you to be. Sometimes you just have to laugh.