In Defence of Laughter

Are we allowed to find humour in Eglon’s embarrassing death?

Chris Hutchison on May 8, 2024

On Sunday, I got to preach on the account of Ehud from Judges 3:12-30. It’s easily one of the most squirm-inducing passages in Judges, if not the whole Bible. The frank declaration that “Eglon was a very fat man” (v. 17) becomes a backdrop for a gruesome play-by-play of his death, which includes Eglon’s fat closing over the hilt of the assassin’s sword before his bowels explode (v. 23). Definitely not one most of us saw on the flannelgraph in Sunday school.

And we laughed about it. I explained that it was funny, and was supposed to be, and we should be okay enjoying the humour in the story.

But was this right? How can we laugh about something as awful as a man dying in this way? Isn’t this making light of a really horrible event? Since someone put this question to me on Monday, I’ve considered a response, which goes along three lines of thought.

First, in general, I agree that we should not use humour to make light of serious matters, particularly in the pages of Scripture. When it comes to preaching, I suspect that a significant portion of my sermons—probably most—don’t include jokes or deliberate attempts to get a laugh.

That’s not because I don’t have a healthy sense of humour or know how to enjoy a good laugh, and it’s not because I want my preaching to be a joyless affair. It’s because, as C. S. Lewis wrote, “There is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious. It is too good to waste on jokes.” Our basic posture as we receive the Word should be trembling before the One who spoke it (Isa 66:2). This is a profoundly joyful experience, and it is far too good to waste on jokes.

Too often, preachers reach for humour because they’ve been taught it “works.” It’s also a communication tool that renders instant feedback: when people laugh, you know they’re tracking, and it feels good. Unfortunately, much of the time, it also distracts and detracts from the weight of glory in the texts we are preaching. In a world in which everything is trivial, and the idea of God rests lightly on so many of us, preachers should pray for their hearers to be cut to the heart (Acts 2:37), not ache from belly laughing.

Of course, there are exceptions. There are times when a careful use of humour can underline, not undermine, what a particular text is saying. And, as was the case on Sunday, there are times when Scripture itself deliberately uses humour. When the Bible invites us to laugh, we should join in.

That brings me to the second consideration—how do we know that Judges 3 is supposed to be funny? Are we really supposed to laugh at the thought of Eglon’s servants nervously waiting outside the door while their late lord lies dead in his own excrement?

I think we are, and I get this from the way the text is written. Judges 3:20 could easily have dried things up by saying something like, “And Ehud struck Eglon down with the sword. And he locked the doors to the roof chamber, and escaped. While the servants of Eglon were delayed in discovering their master, he arrived in Seirah.”

The grotesque details are—at the very least— intended to humiliate Eglon. There is dark irony in seeing a man whose belly (and, yes, bowels) were full of the bounty he has mercilessly extracted from Israel dying like this. And the awkwardness of Eglon’s servants waiting outside the doors, thinking he’s using the bathroom (and no doubt aided in their assumption by the smell wafting out), is nothing if not funny. It didn’t need to be included in the story, but it’s there on purpose. It makes us laugh. And it’s supposed to.

This is not the only time that bathroom humour makes its way into the Bible. “And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). It’s hilarious to imagine Baal unable to respond to his priests because he’s tied up on the toilet. We’re supposed to laugh at this.

Now, there are some folks who don’t need any convincing about this, and tend to over-use this kind of humour. If that’s your inclination, just note how infrequent these examples are in Scripture. “Every Potty Joke in the Bible” would not be a very thick volume. We should learn from this.

And yet, when the Bible invites us to laugh, we should laugh. And as we do that, we might actually find ourselves joining our Heavenly Father.

  • “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision” (Psalm 2:4).
  • “The wicked plots against the righteous and gnashes his teeth at him, but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that his day is coming” (Psalm 37:12–13).
  • “But you, O Lord, laugh at them; you hold all the nations in derision” (Psalm 59:8).

Are you comfortable with God being portrayed in this way? He laughs at the wicked who don’t know their day is coming. He laughs at petty tyrants who try to set themselves up against His rule. He laughs at men like Eglon, bloated with apparent success, so convinced of his invincibility as he gullibly walks into the most obvious trap in the world.

And we’re allowed to join in, especially when Scripture specifically invites us to.


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