Those familiar with their Old Testament, or with the biblical use of rhetoric, will readily recognise what my title is referring to. It is one possible rendering of a part of a quote from the prophet Elijah as he took on the prophets of Baal as found in 1 Kings.
In a contest between Yahweh and Baal, the Baalists were having a hard time getting their god to act. The full story is found in 1 Kings 18:16-40, and the immediate context is found in vv. 27-29:
“At noon Elijah began to taunt them. ‘Shout louder!’ he said. ‘Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.’ So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.”
Elijah is taunting them, and his remarks drip with satire and mockery. This is quite common in the prophetic literature. Idolatry is so stupid and evil that it is met with intense mockery, satire and ridicule. And bear in mind that these prophets were being fully led by the Spirit of Yahweh as they did this.
Yet modern Christian sensitivities are rather wimpish, and we find such strong words to be unkind and un-Christlike. The trouble is, we find the same use of such rhetoric all over the Bible – even in the New Testament. Indeed – and this will come as a shock to many of today’s more squeamish believers – Jesus seems to be quite adept at it, and uses it quite often.
But I have documented elsewhere the many uses of this kind of language in Scripture. See for example this article for more details: billmuehlenberg.com/2007/04/18/rhetoric-the-bible-and-the-believer/
The study of rhetoric in the Bible has been a bit of a growth industry of late. Hundreds of volumes would now be available on the topic. One somewhat earlier volume is well worth consulting in this regard. It actually looks at more than just rhetoric, but at various types of imagery found in Scripture. I refer to the excellent 1998 reference tool, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.
Edited by Leland Ryken, James Wilhoit and Tremper Longman, it is a 1000-page encyclopaedia of all the various types of images used in Scripture. Many articles from it could be mentioned here, but let me select just two. In its discussion on satire it makes a number of interesting observations.
First, satire is “the exposure of human vice or folly through rebuke or ridicule”. Also, it can appear in various genres, and it “might consist of an entire book (e.g., Amos), or it can be as small as an individual proverb.” This summary statement is then offered:
“It is obvious that the Bible is a thoroughly satirical book. The largest repository of satire is prophetic writing, where we encounter continuous attacks on the evils of society and individuals. The second largest category is the parables and discourses of Jesus. Satire is prominent in biblical narrative…”
Also worth examining briefly is the taunt. In the Bible the religious taunt can be similar to the modern “bumper sticker ‘If your god is dead, try mine.’ Elijah taunts the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel, jeering that perhaps Baal is musing, or on a journey or sleeping (1 Kings 18:27). Here the religious taunt serves as a psychological weapon as well as making a theological statement. Similar religious taunts appear in Isaiah 44:9-20 and Habakkuk 2:18-20. God himself gets into the mocking mode in Psalm 2, where he is pictured as sitting in the heavens and laughing in derision at the conspiring nations.”
One Christian writer has even penned an entire volume on this. Douglas Wilson in A Serrated Edge (CanonPress, 2003) especially examines the use of satire in Scripture. His brief volume offers a number of quotable quotes, so let me offer a few.
He reminds us that the “prophets, the apostles and our Lord Jesus all exhibit a vast array of verbal behavior, including tenderness, love, insults, jokes, anger, and more.” He notes how preachers tell us to imitate Christ and his love. “But when Jesus looked on the rich, old rulers and insulted them, why do we tend to assume that this is never, ever to be imitated?”
Jesus – perhaps surprisingly to some – actually made use of humour and jokes fairly often, especially wild exaggeration. Wilson reminds us of how we have lost the impact of this, as we try to soften what Jesus said, and make it more conformed to acceptable religious ears.
But he could be very cutting and sharp, blasting his opponents with ridicule and insult. He certainly is not afraid to take on the religious leaders of the day. He certainly ripped into Herod, effectively saying, ‘Go tell the fox he has been outfoxed’ (Luke 13:31-32).
Says Wilson, “Jesus loved to appeal to outlandish images that we, through long and wrong usage, have prettified. ‘That’s a great restoration job on this ’57 Chevy,’ He says. ‘But why did you move the headlights into the trunk?’ (Mk. 4:21).”
He continues, “One of the great elements in humor is that of incongruity, and when it comes to portraying incongruities, Jesus is a master. But he does not do this because He likes to tell jokes. He uses this form of humor as a polemical weapon. He uses it in controversy.”
He offers plenty of examples of this, including Matthew 23, “the most extended polemic in the New Testament.” Jesus “even makes fun of how men pray” as in Matt. 6:5. And he is “not above using ethnic humor to make His point either” as in Matt.15:22-28; Mark 7:27.
Paul too uses plenty of this kind of language and rhetoric. “The Bible is not the kind of book that many Christians have glibly assumed it to be. In his polemical warfare, Paul does not hesitate to go after certain people by name” (eg., 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 2 Tim. 4:14).
He concludes by saying that satire “is a weapon to be employed in the warfare of the kingdom, not an opportunity for personal venting. A man who has a need to cut others is a man who ought to be silent.”
The point of this article is not to say we should necessarily go around taunting and mocking others, or lavishly use satire and other rhetorical devices all the time. But it certainly is to say that those who claim that to do so is to be unbiblical, unspiritual and un-Christlike are simply mistaken.
It is used all the time in Scripture, and there can be a place for Christians to use such rhetorical devices as well. The truth is, this “genre cannot be condemned out of hand” as Wilson notes. Indeed, Jesus and the apostles often went out of their way to offend people at times.
And we read how very often people did in fact take offence at what was said. But the offence of the gospel is never something we should shy away from. Sure, we need wisdom, tact and grace as we share with others – both within and without the body of Christ – but we need not fear stepping on toes occasionally. Indeed, if we are not stepping on toes once and a while – as the Spirit leads – we may have to ask ourselves just how effective we are being for the Kingdom.