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Legions of Laughter: What’s Up with Those 2,000 Pigs?

It turns out that humor and war have gone together for thousands of years.

by Dr. Hal Taussig

Four pigs behind a fence (1,996 more behind them)

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian President, worked as a comic when he was a young adult. Even in the middle of the current horrendous Russian invasion, Zelenskyy is not averse to reaching for biting humor to ease the strain of dealing with the trauma of war. And actually, word is now spreading that using dark humor to cope with the strain is both common and popular among the Ukrainian population.

Although straightlaced Christians in the 21st century don’t seem to like thinking about anything in the Bible being funny, it actually contains lots of humor. We just don’t get it. Indeed, in a very Ukraine-like manner, the Bible approaches the horrendous ancient Roman violence with jokes too.

Here we go then. Let’s see what dark humor does in both the first and 21st centuries. Let’s try out contemporary Ukrainian laughter and ancient New Testament jokes. In both cases folks do not use humor as an effort just to look on the “bright side of life.”  Rather, although laughter does flow in both cases (if the 21st century Christians can only wake up to it), the humor is dark enough to have people both crying and laughing at the same time. This kind of humor usually goes deep enough to give a different perspective.

This week’s Associated Press national article’s headline (by John Leicester) was “War isn’t funny but humor helps Ukrainians cope with trauma.”  Headlining both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and a country gardener who quips that “Russian missiles churning up her potato plot…would spare her the spade work” are part of Ukrainians’ deep laughter.

In the New Testament one of the most challenging and funny stories in Mark, Matthew, and Luke starts as a dark tale with a man’s life falling apart into deep pain because of thousands of Roman soldiers occupying the parts of Galilee where he lives and works.  These soldiers torture this man, his family, and neighbors so much that the man was crazy with pain and loss: “The man lived in the tombs… Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.” (Mark 5:3,5)

But when Jesus came through the tombs and talked with him, the story turns strange and eventually funny, finally fantastically healing and with a victory by the man over the thousands of Roman soldiers.

This lively and strange situation starts with the man telling Jesus that he is possessed by the legion of Roman (2000) soldiers occupying his land. Jesus challenges the legion of soldiers that the man feels inside him, making him crazy and hurting him. Then funny things start to happen. Jesus sees 2,000 pigs on a hillside near the tombs, and Jesus chases the legion of soldiers out of the man and into the 2,000 pigs. The violent legion—now inside the 2,000 pigs—“rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.” (Mark 5:13)

With the legion gone from the man, into the pigs, and finally dead in the lake; the man is relieved of his pain and craziness. He feels fine.

Because most Bible-readers in our day think the Bible is always serious, they miss the hilarity of Jesus and the man single-handedly killing the legion (and/or pigs). Of course, the people in the first century—just like the 21st century Ukrainians—did not really think that the Roman soldiers/pigs died. Indeed, since the people of Galilee never ate or even had pigs, the first century people knew there were not 2,000 pigs on a hill in Galilee, but rather there were 2,000 Roman soldiers stationed in the Galilean hills.

That is, the ancient story about Roman military occupation of Israel is only a fantasy that imagines a different reality, making fun of the Roman legion, just as today the Ukrainian woman imagines the Russian missiles doing the spade work in her potato patch.

Of course, both the Ukrainian and Bible comics make light of the violent Russians and Romans, showing their enemies missing their mark, and holding up the future in favor of the people of Ukraine and Israel.

Here’s to humor that paints a dark, funny, and different perspective. Here’s to letting the people who look like they are in trouble chuckle about their future. Here’s to violent legions rushing toward their own demise.