Humor in the Bible: What Has Isaac Done?

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Gen 26:6  So Isaac settled in Gerar. 7 When the men of the place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister”; for he was afraid to say, “My wife,” thinking, “or else the men of the place might kill me for the sake of Rebekah, because she is attractive in appearance.” 8 When Isaac had been there a long time, King Abimelech of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw him fondling his wife Rebekah9 So Abimelech called for Isaac, and said, “So she is your wife! Why then did you say, ‘She is my sister’?” Isaac said to him, “Because I thought I might die because of her.” 10 Abimelech said, “What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” 11 So Abimelech warned all the people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall be put to death.” 

NRSV

The Pentateuch contains stories similar or very much the same one another. An exemplary text might be the story of patriarchs lying about his wife as his sister. This story occurs three times in Gen 12, 20, 26, so it is a triplet rather than a doublet. From a perspective of the documentary hypothesis, it should be the result of combining three different sources. But there is an alternative way to understand this triplet. It seems possible to read the triplet as biblical humor, which one writer inserted. Here is why.

Abraham lied twice about his wife to spare his life. It is already disappointing, but his son does exactly the same thing. Some might say, “Like father like son.” Isaac’s lie in Gen 26 is the third time the reader encounters such shameless behaviors of Israel’s great ancestors. We often laugh in spite of ourselves when something unexpected happens. It is especially true if such unexpected events happen three times.

Another humorous factor in Isaac’s lie in Gen 26 is that he had stayed there for a long time as v. 8 indicates. He had to deceive everyone around his family as long as he stays there. Some might say, “the pitcher will go to the well once too often.”

Just like his father, he got caught by Abimelech, the king of Gerar. He has been lying to spare his life “for a long time,” but his desire went beyond the terror of death. He fondled Rebekah risking his life. We do not know what “to fondle” mean in the context, but it was obvious for Abimelech to believe that Rebekah is not just Isaac’s sister.

The word used to describe Isaac’s action in fondling his wife is quite intriguing too. The Hebrew words employed in v. 8 is “Ytzhak metzahek” meaning “Isaac fondled.” “Yitzhak”(Isaac) is derived from “tzahak” just as “metzahek” is. The basic meaning of the Hebrew word “tzahak” is “to laugh.” “Isaac” means “laugh,” and he had this name because Sarah “laughed” when the messenger of God (or God) told her that she, though she was too old to bear a child, was going to have a baby. But this “laugh” covers a wide variety of pleasures, including a sexual one. So a Hebrew lexicon explains the meaning of the word “tzahak” as “to have sexual pleasure,” “to fondle,” and “to joke. So “Ytzhak metzahek” might mean that Mr. “Laugh” made his wife “laugh.” And the implication of “the laugh” here is “sexually laugh.” Such wordplay is clearly intended for humor.

Moreover, there are some other humor factors in Gen 26. (1) Isaac is worried about his life, but, for some unknown reason, his place is near enough to the most powerful person in town so that the king can watch what he is doing privately. (2) Abimelech is stealing a glance at Isaac’s place. Why would he do that? (3) When Abimelech discovered the true relation between Isaac and Rebekah, he summoned Isaac. But when did he call Isaac? Immediately? After some time? The text does not indicate anything. So the reader can assume that he just summoned Isaac as soon as he discovered Isaac’s weird action. Imagine how awkward it might be if the king calls you in the middle of fondling your spouse. (4) Abimelech says, “One of the people might easily have lain with your wife,” but it was he himself who stole a glance at Isaac’s place, and it was he whom Isaac was afraid of.

The Bible is a serious book, but it also contains humor. I think it is a bias to assume that every passage in the Bible is only serious, never intended for fun. But the Bible can be fun.

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