There are lots of “difficult” texts in the Bible. Some of them are there to make us uncomfortable. Some of them are there to challenge us. Others are more baffling. Take the story of the syrophoenician woman in Matthew and Mark. You can read the Matthew’s story here. Jesus appears in this story to be unusually harsh. Jesus sometimes has harsh words for people but typically his harshest words are directed toward religious insiders- the first century CE equivalent of “good church folk”. Normally Jesus is pretty nice to folks outside religious and cultural boundaries. But not here, at least initially.
Biblical commentators often end up putting themselves through some fairly strenuous exegetical gymnastics over this story because it seems so out of character for Jesus. Several years ago I read a book about humor in the Bible , (sorry I can’t remember the name or author) where the author suggested that in this story Jesus was speaking ironically or sarcastically. Perhaps he was making fun of a common saying of the time. There is a simplicity to this idea that is attractive. Try reading the story again with this in mind and see if it makes a difference for you.
The Bible doesn’t give us the reading cues we are used to. We don’t have phrases such as, he sneared, they giggled, he smiled wryly, she lifted an eyebrow questioningly. We have an interpretive dilemma. How did Jesus or anyone else in the Bible say what they said? Those reading cues matter. The phrase, “That’s great.” can mean something is really wonderful or… not.
If you are of a certain age, you may “hear” a Cecil B. DeMile/ Charleton Heston sort of voice when you read the Bible. Or you may imagine , courtesy of a bad religious painting you saw somewhere, a serious Jesus with a holy expression on his face sternly saying “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Luke18:16ff) But maybe Jesus was down on one knee,waving his arms, winking at the kids and laughing when he said that.
As you know, stories in the Bible began as part of an oral tradition. This means that people told the stories to each other. Sometimes when I’m reading something from the Old Testament I imagine being around a campfire, or at bedtime and hearing someone ask, “Tell me the story of…. Moses and Pharoah, Joseph and his coat, Abraham and Isaac.” ” Tell about how our ancestors wondered in the wilderness.” ” Tell us the story of the Manna.”
It is our family history, right? The old family stories we tell each other passed on from generation to generation. Like every family’s stories, some are serious, some scary and some are funny.
Taking the Bible seriously is not the same as reading it seriously. Humor can be an effective way to make one’s point. If you can lose the Charlton Heston voice in your head, the story is Jonah is quite funny.
So is the story of the call of Samuel. God calls. Samuel thinks its Eli and runs to him, waking him up. Samuel wakes Eli up three times before Eli figures out what’s going on. If you have ever been awakened by a child several times in one night, you get the joke.
So I wonder, what stories do we misread or misunderstand because we don’t let the story be funny or ironic?
I’d like to know what do you think.