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Died of Laughter

by Tim O'Hearn

In Umberto Ecco’s mystery, The Name of the Rose, someone is killing monks. In one argument an old monk (that, spoiler alert, turns out to be the killer) says that the Bible records that Jesus wept but never that he laughed. The monk who is trying to solve the mystery responds that neither does it say that Jesus did not laugh. It seems the whole mystery hinged on one man’s theory that laughter is from the devil.

The old monk, by the way, was wrong. While the Bible never says directly that Jesus laughed, he does advocate laughter. “Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.” (Lk 6:21) He went to parties, and as popular as he was it is hard to picture him with a dour look while all around him are laughing.

I like to laugh, and especially to make others laugh. I am especially on the lookout for good puns. Yes, it has been said that a pun is the lowest form of humor, but it has also been said that it is the highest form of wit. Shakespeare was so fond of the pun (or quibble in his day) that he averaged almost 80 puns per play, with some incorporating as many as 200. Even some of the historical plays had as many as 150.

There are some hymns we regularly sing that I have difficulty with because of my propensity to punning. In my house we eat a concoction of mushroom soup, hamburger, and rice that we call, logically, mushroom gravy over rice (Spanish: arroz). Whenever we sing Low In the Grave, I think that Jesus must have been fond of this concoction too. After all, the chorus repeats, “Up from the gravy arroz.” He was also fond of Japanese soups, for the song Why Did My Savior Come to Earth claims that it was because he loved miso.

God was a baseball fan because he starts his book, “In the big inning.” When some of the recent presidents of the United States got angry they became open to prophesying because God spoke through the burning Bush. I could go on, but will spare you the agony.

The Bible, though, is full of puns. Everyday people were fond of punning. It seems that biblical mothers could not help themselves. Frequently people were named because of some circumstance around their birth. Thus their names were often puns.

“And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, ‘For God has appointed another seed for me instead of Abel, whom Cain killed.’” (Gen 4:25) Seth may be translated “to set” or “to appoint.”

“And so it was, as her soul was departing (for she died), that she called his name Ben-Oni; but his father called him Benjamin.” (Gen 35:18) Almost all of Jacob’s sons were named as puns on their birth, but this one is most poignant. As the child’s mother died she named him “Son of sorrow.” Perhaps Jacob understood that this name would be a constant reminder that his birth had killed his mother. Instead Jacob named him “son of my right hand,” perhaps implying his closeness to his favorite wife.

Not all puns, obviously, induce laughter. There is one name, however, directly related. God dictated that Abraham’s son of his old age would be named Isaac (“he laughs). Both Abraham and his wife laughed at the thought of having a son at their age. If Jacob later saved his son from being a reminder of misfortune, God was not of the same mind. For the rest of his life, Abraham had to live with a reminder that he had laughed at God.

Maybe Abraham was fortunate that he did not live in the monastery in Ecco’s novel. Otherwise he might not have lived to father Isaac.