God always delivers His witticisms deadpan because that is the easiest way to separate the sheep from the goats in the audience. Like most of the dialogue in the Bible, the lines are delivered without any explanation, forcing the reader to interpret the words of the speaker, to discern his or her true motives, and to judge the wisdom of their actions in the light of the Law. In the case of caustic words from the Lord’s own mouth, the saints know that however harsh He might be, God’s motive is always love. In contrast, the wicked assume the worst about God’s true character because, like Adam, they have listened to satanic slander. God is not “nice.” But God is good.
That goodness gives God the freedom to be hysterically funny. The only thing “wicked” about Him is His sense of humor. Whenever Yahweh appears on the stage of history to do some stand-up He is quite literally “on fire.” His jokes are never at the expense of the humble or the holy but always aimed at those who consider themselves to be wiser than their Creator. He does not ridicule those who have been led astray but brutally roasts those who know better, yet continue, regardless, in high-handed sin.
The fact that Christian interpreters do not expect there to be jokes in the Bible is a problem. The miraculous promised son of Abraham was named “laughter” after all. Something is funny when it inverts the norm or defies our expectations in some way. Since scientistic modern academics have desensitized readers to image and literary structure, we do not have any expectations to defy. When Jesus, quite literally, turns the world upside down through the testimony of His Apostles, His deliberate inversions of Old Testament realities are designed not only to be shocking but also to be ironic in the extreme. The humble would be exalted and the proud would be abased, and that is a deep well to draw from when writing a stand-up show. On top of that, God’s comedic timing, like everything in His Word, is flawless. Too often, we fail to make the intended connections, and that makes us a disappointing “house.”
While the deadpan delivery does not help our comprehension, since it makes the humor tricky to identify, it does make the jokes much funnier once we do finally get them. Sarcasm from the heavenly court can hardly be the lowest form of wit, especially since the word comes from the Greek “sarkazein” which means to tear flesh. God is a comic because history is never ultimately tragic. In contrast to the self-serious warlords and their joyless blood gods, His cutting humor is always at somebody’s expense, always “sacrificial.” Killing an animal to clothe Adam and Eve was no laughing matter, but dressing them as brute beasts began a “meme” that defined Man’s mimetic desire from Genesis to Revelation. Israelites who refused to eat the sinew of the joint “got the joke” concerning the innocent victim. Whereas other nations were founded by the ones who chose the scapegoat and led it to slaughter, Israel was the nation founded by the scapegoat itself. As the children of Isaac, they were continually “under the knife.” The faithful saw the twinkle in the Father’s eye in every bizarre stipulation of the Law, and they knew it to be an Abrahamic star.
When hosting foreign students, I discovered that sarcasm is rarely used in many Asian cultures. Consequently, my use of poker-faced black humor initially garnered some shock and awe. One student remarked, “I never know when you are being serious. I need to see your eyes.” However, the students soon caught on and quickly incorporated healthy doses of dark but affectionate sarcasm into their conversation. I do wonder what their parents thought of this cultural appropriation when they returned home. Stating the exact opposite of what you mean can cause some serious conflict among those who do not share your sense of humor. Although, sometimes that is precisely the reason to use it.
From what I can gather, sarcasm in traditional Asian cultures was limited to feigning obeisance to a conceited dictator. An ever-so-slight exaggeration of tone or posture, or even a subtle sideways glance, transforms the reverence into satire. “Yes, mighty master!” is hilarious when you know that the kowtowing courtier delivering the line is, in fact, taking the p*ss out of a narcissistic “all-seeing” but clueless “lord.” Bowing is a handy posture when one needs to hide one’s eyes.
Perhaps the Western use of sarcasm is part of our Christian inheritance. Jesus’ employment of mockery in His railing against the Pharisees is not only scathing but also—if we have our wits about us—grossly entertaining. He used irony to point out—in the public square—precisely how ridiculous they were. Since these fiery serpents burned with hatred against Gentiles and Samaritans and even their own “common” Jewish brothers, His highlighting of their meticulous tithing of kitchen herbs was like “commending” Hannibal Lecter for his table manners.
That prophetic sword in Jesus’ mouth was a warning of the actual carnage that would come at His bidding in a few short decades. When we see this sword again near the end of the Revelation, the Mosaic “jokes” are flying so thick and fast that it is difficult to keep up. The fascinating thing is that the subject matter is so tragic that our tears of sorrow are mingled with tears of laughter in the excoriating takedown of the self-exalted enemies of the people of God. The groaning of the Spirit becomes the chuckle of faith. Those willing to be fools for Christ are never the ultimate clowns.
Most of God’s jokes go right over our heads, so, unfortunately, their intended impact is lost upon us. Imagine a comedy skit in the court of the king of Judah where Ezekiel digs through a wall in Solomon’s Temple to discover a wall carved and painted with idolatrous Egyptian hieroglyphs! Was that actually the case? No. It was a joke. Or how about the one where the “man in linen” (as High Priest) puts the mark of Cain upon all the faithful “Abels” in Jerusalem and his “repo men” slay all the “Cainites”? Did God really just say that out loud? The high King of Heaven is not averse to speaking through a jester on earth.
Because we are not expecting irony, we also very often fail to identify the actual targets of the barbs. Too many Bible scholars argue over the identities of the unnamed bad guys in the prophetic books because they are not attuned to the very nature of the taunts. Would a holy God really engage in derisive name-calling? You betcha. He gives His saints “new names” as well, but obviously for different reasons.
This sort of awareness comes naturally to us when we enjoy popular culture, whether that be laughing at actual comedy or appreciating the use of irony in drama as a bittersweet pill. But because we take the Scriptures so seriously, we wrongly conclude that the God who gave us the ability to laugh is Himself eternally and irrevocably po-faced. When men mock God, He “defies their expectations” and steals the comedy back from them. What He says is funny because it is so true. Like Charles Spurgeon, with a single one-liner, the Lord can wipe the tears from the eyes of the justified and the smiles from the faces of the wicked. His delivery might be deadpan, but we can see His eyes.
Once we have permission to read the Bible in this way, making the connections is not very difficult. God’s takedowns are always part of a covenant lawsuit, one that is based upon existing, familiar stipulations and obligations, so all the information we need in order to understand His wisecracks is contained in previous Scriptures. This is why Bible prophecy is a lot like the “meme warfare” that ridicules would-be totalitarians such as “social justice warriors,” using a familiar image or situation in a new way to expose the truth of a matter. Perhaps the best text to analyze, since most of us know it but do not understand it, is the Book of Revelation. Every single detail is a reference to previous Scriptures and thus, in some sense, a joke.
Since an internet meme is the same image used again and again but with the text replaced with each use, explaining the humor of the Bible’s “memes” can be quite a task. All of the images used as jokes in the Book of Revelation have a long and illustrious history. But once somebody points out that the false prophet, the harlot, and the beast are simply the first-century “government” versions of Adam, Eve, and the serpent, it all starts to make sense. It was no stretch for Paul to use Adam and Eve as memes when making a theological point. All sin is, in some way, an exposition or embellishment of the original.
Even the title of the Book of Revelation is a double entendre. The word “apocalypse” means to expose, unveil, or reveal. The book begins with the revelation of Jesus in heaven, clothed in glory, and He goes on to “expose” those who lifted Him up naked upon a Roman cross. But there is another side to this joke. The word “atone” means to “cover,” so those who had “uncovered” Jesus had brought about the “covering” of the world. Now they themselves would be exposed, that is, denied covering. Following the description of the first-century spiritual war, the enemies of God—those who were still relying on Abraham and Moses to mediate for them before God—are destroyed, thus atoning for their own sins. “You want covering? I’ll give you covering.”
Scholars note the utterly “Jewish” character of the imagery and symbols in the book, but what they do not realize is that these are used for comedic effect as well as serving a didactic purpose. Think about it. If you were a first-century Jewish believer, how would you respond to a prophecy that reminds you of the book of Ezekiel, but starts with Jesus Himself as the Tabernacle and the equivalent of a Jewish menorah that is made of Gentiles? Talk about being inflammatory! The name-calling begins right here because it was the lampstand that provided the light for the handwriting upon the wall in the court of Belshazzar. Jesus is trimming the wicks—purifying the testimony—of the Asian churches that spiritual “Babylon” might be judged. The Jews are where the Gentiles ought to be, and the Gentiles are where the Jews ought to be. This is similar to the inversion that occurred when Elisha healed the barren wombs of the women of Jericho and fed the children of Bethel to the beasts.
After Jesus subtly recapitulates the entire history of the Old Testament, beginning with the Fall, in His assessment of the churches of Asia, thus handing them the “inheritance” of Israel which they did not earn, He then appears as the “standing lamb” who not only saved the world from judgment but did so by making the “morning and evening” lamb offerings (known as “continual” or “standing” sacrifices) utterly redundant. Jesus’ offering was “once-for-all.” Insult is being piled upon insult. But notice that this does not make fun of those Old Testament shadows. It is making fun of those who not only failed to appreciate the reality when it arrived but also despised and sought to destroy it. Jesus gave the menorah to the Church in the form of tongues of fire on the Day of Pentecost. Three thousand Jews did receive the reality, and that was just the beginning.
Just as Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Law, so Jesus ascended the Mountain of God to receive the inheritance of the One who kept the Law. He “opens the mystery” as did Joseph and Daniel in Gentile courts, but this is the “all nations” court of God. The King of Peace is a priest-king, and thus releases horses of war upon the Land, the heralds of the four Gospels. The final horse is green, the color of the gemstone of Levi, an allusion to the call of the Levites to slay the idolaters who worshiped the golden calf, three thousand in fact. The final word is borne by John the Levite.
Most importantly, this ascension explains the phrase “the image of the beast,” since the Jews who rejected the Gospel continued to build the now-idolatrous Temple of Herod while Jesus was out of sight upon the mountain. Like Moses, Jesus would be back soon, and the rebels would call upon the rocks and hills to “cover them.”
Most of the jokes in Revelation are obvious allusions but some of them are cleverly hidden within the “architecture.” For instance, the “seven trumpets” of the Apostolic testimony (which warned Jerusalem that it would be “circumcised” as Jericho was—“You want circumcision? I’ll give you circumcision!”) follow the sequence of Israel’s annual harvest calendar. Instead of the holy Firstfruits “head” ascending to heaven, there is a blazing torch falling to earth. Instead of the Trumpets “body” rising in response as a fragrant testimony of incense-filled smoke, there is a host of locusts from a sulfurous pit. While that in itself is a nasty slur, a comment on the stink in God’s nostrils that was Israel’s “lip-service” worship, the deeper meaning is that their rejection of Christ meant that the Abrahamic promise in which they trusted was now only a Mosaic curse. Alluding to Genesis 15, their “blazing torch” was actually the devil, and the “smoking firepot” was the stench of a devouring plague of “Babylonian” Judaizers who were tormenting the Land.
This also relates to Jesus’ warning concerning the Roman “eagles” that would gather over the corpse of Jerusalem. The Gentiles would indeed come to the Feast of Ingathering, but they would be scavengers rather than guests, and Abraham would not be there to chase them away. Since Israel refused to “rise, kill, and eat” with the Gentiles at this feast as they had been commanded, Israel would be the meat on the table.
In some cases, only a knowledge of the actual architecture of the Tabernacle reveals what is going on. When the angels emerge from the sanctuary with the seven bowls of judgment at the end of Revelation 15, it is only the arrangement of the text that reveals these bowls to be the ones from the tops of the branches of the lampstand. In other words, those who rejected the light of Christ and the fire of the Spirit, and instead called down “fire from heaven” like the priests of Baal under the rule of their own “Jezebel” (and “cut themselves” in circumcision), would see their city burned and their lampstand removed.
At the climax of the book, the pouring out of the plagues is another reference to Jerusalem as spiritual “Egypt.” Then, Israel is seen as the whoring woman in the wilderness who drinks the cup under the inspection of the priest (Numbers 5). Finally, she is described as the idolatrous Canaanite “queen of Sidon” ruling the Promised Land and murdering the prophets of God. As if this is not scathing enough, what is overlooked is that the journey of Israel from Egypt (the waters below: the river) to Canaan (the waters above: rain) via a “pillar of fire and smoke” was a symbolic “ascension” like that made by Noah after the flood. What is the joke here? That Jerusalem itself would be a whole burnt offering. Since her sins had piled up to heaven like the tower of Babel, so also her smoke would “go up” forever and ever as a testimony to the severity of God. “You want to ascend? I’ll let you ascend!”
So, as we read the Scriptures, we must keep our wits about us. The prophets, including Jesus and the Apostles, all used “meme warfare” because it is not only concise, drawing upon the import of centuries of history in the blink of an eye, but also devilishly funny. Why bother with a long theological dissertation when a bullet right between the eyes will not only do the job but also reach a wider audience?
What we must remember, as mentioned, is that God reserves such treatment for those who know better, and that is usually villainous leaders who are inside the Church. Those who employ a serrated edge like Luther must also be tender shepherds. We are priest-kings, lamb-lions, like Jesus. Even our sword-words must be motivated by a burning love for God and men.
Mike Bull is a graphic designer in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney in Australia, and author, most recently, of Schema: A Journal of Systematic Typology, Vol. 2. This article was originally published on his blog, HERE.
For further analysis of the Apocalypse, see Michael Bull, Moses and the Revelation: Why the End of the World is not in Your Future.
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