Satire in the Bible

“[In} the happy endings of comedies, we seem to be looking at a pleasanter world than we ordinarily know. [In] tragedy and satire, we seem to be looking at a world more devoted to suffering or absurdity than we ordinarily know. In literature, we always seem to be looking either up or down.”— Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination

In his famous book The Educated Imagination, Northrop Frye claims that “there are two halves to literary experience.  Imagination gives us both a better and a worse world than the one we usually live with.”  Satire is the preeminent genre used by writers who want to show a world gone awry.

The distinguishing mark of satire — the element that allows you to know for certain that you are dealing with a satire — is an object of attack.  If a writer is attacking someone or something, the discourse immediately has a satiric element.  Although writers of satire usually take on one main object of attack, they often take potshots at a whole range of subjects (a feature that one literary critic calls “satiric ripples”).

In itself, satire is not necessarily literary.  It can occur in an editorial, song, cartoon, or any other vehicle.  Satire becomes literary when it is couched in a distinctly literary form, such as narrative, proverb, or lyric.  Biblical satire appears in virtually every genre — story, parable, poetry, epistle, discourse, visionary writing, and more.

Even though all satire targets something foolish or evil, there is always a stated or implied satiric norm by which the object of attack is satirized.  In the Bible, satiric norms include the character of God, the moral law of the writer’s religious community, basic virtues like love, generosity, or humility, and the golden rule (behaving toward others as we want to be treated by others).

Finally, tone (the writer’s attitude toward the material) is crucial in satire.  Two modes of satiric attack exist:  satirists can either laugh vice and folly out of existence, or they can lash vice and folly out of existence.  Drawing on the Roman tradition, angry satire is called Juvenalian satire, while lighthearted satire is called Horatian satire.

Where can we find satire in the Bible?  Practically everywhere.  To get a feel for the many forms in which biblical satire appears, you may want to peruse some of these examples:

  • Ecclesiastes 5:10-20. Here we see satire in proverbial literature.  These proverbs deal with the futility of trying to find satisfaction in money: It doesn’t satisfy one permanently (verse 10), it is attended by numerous anxieties (verse 12), and so on.  The satiric norm appears in verses 18-20:  the antidote to the futile pursuit of wealth is acceptance of what God gives you.
  • The Book of Jonahis satire in narrative form.  While most of the satire in the Bible is serious, the Book of Jonah is a masterpiece of humor in the Bible, being the story of a pouting prophet whose career is a veritable handbook on how not to be a prophet.  Jonah embodies the nationalistic, ethnocentric zeal that views God as the exclusive property of the Jews.
  • The Book of Amosis an example of satire in prophetic literature.  As a plainspoken satirist, the prophet Amos spews out a kaleidoscopic collection of literary forms and objects of attack.  What unifies the book is its satire:  from start to finish, Amos either attacks vice or appeals to a standard of virtue from which the wealthy and privileged classes of his society have departed.
  • The parable of the Good Samaritan(Luke 10:25-37) embodies satire in parable form.  The object of attack is self-centeredness, indifference, and lack of compassion toward people in need.  The Good Samaritan’s acts of mercy embody the satiric norm of love and compassion.
  • For an example of satire in visionary literature, look at Zechariah. It employs the technique of visionary literature, with a flying scroll, a woman named Wickedness, and two flying women with stork-like wings.  The objects of attack are people who steal and lie.

This is a small selection of biblical satire.  As you read these and other samples of satire in the Bible, you will discover that it is a fundamentally subversive genre.  Its aim is to unsettle us and undermine our complacent belief that people and institutions are basically good.