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rod thompson: the humour of a tumour?

1 Samuel 5 is meant to be funny – at least some of the time.


Quietly lying in the ark-box, Yahweh is seemingly sleeping (or dead). Israel is seriously questioning. And Philistine warriors and children are scratching, covered as they are in scabby “tumors” (the root word is “to swell”.) Perhaps these are anal hemorrhoids or bleeding piles, more likely a full-body covering of blood-seeping, pus-oozing boils.


Perhaps we cringe. Our modern day sensibilities are offended. But this biblical story and many others beside it drip with such earthy humor. And they give rise to the psalmist’s celebration of the LORD who laughs:


The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’ He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. (Psalm 2:2-4, ESV)


1 Samuel 4-7 is full of such laughter.


We read of Yahweh seemingly asleep in a box. (Is the ark God’s throne-box or coffin-box? Glory or grave? Perhaps both?) Then Yahweh rises up! Strikingly, the psalmist compares God’s resurgence to that of an intoxicated, fighting-mad hero. Yahweh roars into action under the influence, as it were. He is “like a warrior shouting for joy from wine.” (Psalm 78:65, CJB).


But we also read of the Philistine god Dagon groveling on the ground in the presence of the quiet ark-box (5:3), then beheaded, dismembered and distributed around his own house. Then in 1 Samuel 6 we read of the ark’s victory tour throughout Philistine cities – Yahweh gifting tumors wherever the ark goes. Then the remarkable scene in which the LORD is carted back to Israel, led by two meandering milk cows, accompanied by five golden tumors and five golden rodents by way of appeasement. Finally we have a surprise ending for the citizens of Bethshemesh. Curiously peaking inside the ark of their possibly dead God, they are swiftly slaughtered. What is one to do with this ark? And this God? The covenantal ark-box is lodged elsewhere for the next 20 years!


There are many such stories in scripture. Who can ignore the below-the-belt humor of Judges 3 and its portrayal of Eglon, the “fat calf” Moabite king. His death is celebrated with “scatological” (that is, “toilet”) humor as his attendants hesitate to open the chamber door because they suspect – the overpowering smell no doubt! – he is having bowel issues on the toilet. In reality, dung is seeping out of his pierced intestine. (see Ryken, Wilhoit, Longman, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 408). In the meantime, Ehud the cunning left-handed Benjaminite assassin, raised up by the LORD for the murder, escapes.


Our failure to recognise and engage with these texts on their own terms is one reason why we have lost a deeper sense of the weight and wonder of the gospel of Christ. It is not simply a matter of reading ancient Hebrew texts well. There is much more at stake. If we lose the grit and grunt of OT texts such as these we will certainly also lose the grit, grunt, glory and grace of the stories of Jesus. Misreading and sanitising OT texts such as 1 Samuel 4-7 causes us to subsequently misread and dumb down the scandal of the gospel of God in Christ. And finally to dumb down the radical, culturally-contrary and ultimately culturally-renewing posture and presence of true Christian discipleship in our times and places.


The story of 1 Samuel 4-7 is powerful in its own right. We need to tell it for all it’s worth. Not only does it echo the preceding, dramatic events of Israel’s exodus but also anticipates the remarkable NT accounts of God’s death, burial and resurrection in Christ. The quiet return of the LORD to Israel on the back of a cart, drawn by two gentle cows, is a dramatic contrast with the majestic exodus events that preceded. It is also a dramatic anticipation of that future morning when Jesus would rise up, stand in a garden and ask Mary why she was weeping and who she was seeking. And so she went and announced to the disciples: “I have seen the Lord.” (John 20:18, ESV)


We need to see more in the scriptures – more in the text that bears witness to a more surprising God and a more scandalous gospel than we have previously imagined. And who knows, perhaps even our sense of humor will be stirred, shaken and revived.


Rod Thompson has just commenced as National Principal/CEO of Laidlaw College in Auckland. He is passionate about family (he and Rosanne have recently become grandparents for the second time), the Bible, theology, art, music, history, culture – and red wine in moderation.


  1. thebiblestop says:

    Great post. Much of the church today preaches a watered down Gospel, because the truth is offensive to natural sensibilities. Paul wrote of this in 2Corinthians 2, that the wisdom of God is foolishness to the world and a stumbling block.

  2. Mark Maffey says:

    Hi Rod,looking to forward to seeing you at Kumeu Baptist in a few weeks. The Old testament is redolent with examples of people modern day human resources managers wouldn’t see as leaders, like Moses who stuttered,Gideon the weakest of the weak, David the shepherd boy over bigger older brothers, Joseph etc…

    Then the New Testament, the disciples weren’t cream of the crop, Mary/Elizabeth as mothers one very young, one very old to give birth to Jesus and John the Baptist, etc.. God definitely has a sense of humour!

    Then there are the prophets like Amos whose puns were worse than mine, I would so love to do a thesis on the use of Puns to reinforce the message of the prophets.


  3. Joseph Collins says:

    Hi Rod,

    Fantastic post!

    It reminds me of a favoured passage in the ancient Story… As terrifying as it would have been, I find it humorous how Elisha had been followed around by a ‘few youths’ being called a “baldhead”. strolling through the forest, Elisha being fed up with the taunting placed them in God’s hands and cursed them. Out of nowhere, Bears stormed out and mauled forty-two of them to death!

    On a side note, I am reading up on mythology. Much ancient literature was often not as mystical as we might think but rather far more expressive with their connections with creation around them. Mythology was often truth-telling in ancient times, using creatures or creation to express their feelings about something – i.e. a large bird with thunder coming from under its wings destroying a red bull with fire out of its nostrils. This signified the black clouds carrying connective feelings of frightening thunder and rain which destroyed the relentless heat of a long maddening drought. In reflection, It is our modern view that has the disconnected anthropomorphic overbearing philosophical view we have had for centuries…. or more recent “logic” only view. It makes me think that maybe much of our creativity has been stifled for lack of imagination… not to mention our literature and academic writing. However, we serve a roaring lion who dispels fear and crushes the snakes deception, exposing them for their wicked forked tongue that attempt to make his people ruled by religiosity and false worldviews about our great omni-skilled God.


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