Root: צחק & שחק
Sounds like: sa’khawk & tza’khawk (verb) and sa’khohk & tza’khohk (noun)
Laughter and play are very important parts of our lives. Being joyful often comes with laughter and in these days, when joy seems fleeting, laughter is more important than ever. Society has recognized the benefits of laughter:
- Laughter is the best medicine
- Laughter is good for the soul
- Laughter is contagious
- Laughter is timeless
- Laughter is a universal language
Laughter is wonderful… but to see a laughing person does not necessarily mean they are happy:
Even in laughter [bi-s’khoq] the heart may be in pain, and the end of joy may be grief.
This verse is particularly relevant today. Many of us are putting on the happy face, but underneath there’s more pain than joy. This was not what God wanted for the humanity. He wanted to bring us back to joyful laughter and play.
Solomon, in all his wisdom, recognized that laughter and sorrow were essential parts of human life:
There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every matter under heaven—
A time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to weep and a time to laugh [li-s’khohq]; a time to mourn and a time to dance…
The Bible agrees: laughter is a crucial element of human existence and we find it everywhere in the Scriptures, in all sorts of manners… from joyful laughing, playful amusement, mocking, and joking.
He Will Laugh
The first instance of laughter in the Tanakh came from Sarah, and it was a nervous laugh of surprise.
Then they [three beings from YHWH] said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he [Abraham] said, “There, in the tent.”
He said, “I will certainly return to you at this time next year; and behold, your wife Sarah will have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door, which was behind him.
Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; Sarah was past childbearing. So Sarah laughed [wa-ti-ts’khaq] to herself, saying, “After I have become old, am I to have pleasure, my lord being old also?”
But YHWH said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh [tsakh’aqah], saying, ‘Shall I actually give birth to a child, when I am so old?’ Is anything too difficult for YHWH? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”
Sarah deLnied it, however, saying, “I did not laugh [lo tsakhaq’ti]”; for she was afraid.
And He said, “No, but you did laugh [lo ki tsakhaq’et].”
And so Sarah and Abraham had a son and named him “He will laugh” [Isaac: Yitskhaq] (Genesis 21:3). And Sarah confessed her amazement:
Sarah said, “God has made laughter [ts’khoq] for me; everyone who hears will laugh [yits’khoq] with me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have given birth to a son in his old age.”
The people would not laugh at Sarah, they would laugh in happiness with Sarah. YHWH had given Sarah an incredible gift and she went from a nervous laugh of doubt to a joyous laugh of praise.
Isaac (He will Laugh) had a ½ brother, Ishmael (God will Hear), the son of Abraham and Hagar. When Sarah caught Ishmael laughing at her son she would have none of it. To Sarah, this was no laughing matter. In defense of her own son, Ishmael would have to go!
Now Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking [laughing at: m-tsa’kheq] (Isaac). Therefore she said to Abraham, “Drive out this slave woman and her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be an heir with my son Isaac!”
It should be pointed out that the original Hebrew passage tells us that Sarah saw Ishmael “mocking”. It does not say “mocking Isaac”; Isaac was inferred. It could be said that when Sarah saw Ishmael laughing she recognized that he was living out her son’s role (He will laugh), not his own! Ishmael’s laughing might have suggested that he wanted to take Isaac’s place as Abraham’s true inheritor. Either way, in Sarah’s eyes, Isaac was meant to laugh but he was not meant to be laughed at. He was Abraham’s true first born and his joy, as the chosen descendant, was his alone.
There were also instances of joking, or suggested joking, in the Bible. When Lot warned his sons-in-law of the city’s impending destruction they thought he was joking [ki-m-tsa’kheq] (Genesis 19:14). But he was not and it was no laughing matter.
A poor use joking is also found in the Proverbs:
Like a maniac who shoots faming arrows, arrows, and death, so is a person who deceives his neighbour, and says, “Was I not joking [ha-lo m-sa’kheq ani]?”
We’ve all experienced that person who does or says something horrible and then just covers up the event saying, “Oh I was just joking… get over it’. This was not how we were meant to use laughter… This laughter did not express joy, it became an excuse for poor behaviour.
No doubt we’ve also all experienced the person who mocking laughs at anything we stand for… particularly as a follower of YHWH.
When a wise person has a controversy with a foolish person,
the foolish person either rages or laughs [w-sakhaq], and there is no rest.
Certainly with social media, we’ve seen those people… people who either rant and rave over what we’ve said, or laugh at us… there’s no in between. Again, this was not the kind of laughter YHWH loves to hear. There’s no joy, for anyone, in this laughter.
In a few instances laughter/play was suggestive of sex. When Isaac was living in Gerar (Philistine country) with his wife, Rebekah, he lied to the local men. Fearing that Rebekah’s beauty would put him at risk to be killed, Isaac told them that she was his sister. But the deception backfired when the king of the Philistines saw Isaac and Rebekah “playing”.
Now it came about, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked down through a window, and saw them, and behold, Isaac was caressing [playing with: Yits’khaq m-tsa’kheq] his wife Rebekah.
Then Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Behold, she certainly is your wife! So how is it that you said, ‘She is my sister’?”
And Isaac said to him, “Because I thought, ‘otherwise I might be killed on account of her.’”
In another instance, when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph and he would not comply, she turned the tables and accused him of sexual advances, claiming that he tried to “make sport” or inappropriately “play” [l-tsakheq] with her (Genesis 39:12-18).
And when the Hebrew people donated their jewelry for Aaron to craft a golden calf (while Moses was up the mountain with YHWH) it was inferred that there was also inappropriate “play” [l-tsa’kheq: translated by many as “lewd behaviour”) happening around the idol (Exodus 32:6).
Lewd behavior could also be ascribed to the story of Samson. He was captured by the Philistines, blinded, and used as amusement during the religious celebrations of their fertility god, Dagon:
Now the governors of the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god, and to celebrate, for they said, “Our god has handed Samson our enemy over to us.”
When the people saw him, they praised their god, for they said, “Our god has handed our enemy over to us, even the destroyer of our country, who has killed many of us.” It so happened when they were in high spirits, that they said, “Call for Samson, that he may amuse us [play for us: wi-s’kheq].”
So they called for Samson from the prison, and he entertained [wai-tsakheq] them. And they made him stand between the pillars.
Then Samson said to the boy who was holding his hand, “Let me feel the pillars on which the house rests, so that I may lean against them.” Now the house was full of men and women, and all the governors of the Philistines were there. And about three thousand men and women were on the roof looking on while Samson was entertaining [bi-s’khohq] them.
Samson’s body was paraded around for entertainment; he was put on display between pillars, as a spectacle to be jeered at. But when you laugh at other people’s expense, and use them as forms of twisted entertainment, do not expect good things to happen! Samson tore down the pillars and killed all of the lewd spectators who revelled at his nakedness and vulnerability.
Being a Joke
Samson went from a self-entitled sense of power to being a trapped form of entertainment servitude. He was put on public display as a joke. When you’re constantly harassed and mocked you begin to feel like a walking, breathing, joke. Job certainly felt that way:
Job 12:2-4 (see also Job 30:1)
“Truly then you are the people, and with you wisdom will die! But I have intelligence as well as you; I am not inferior to you. And who does not know such things as these?
I am a joke [s’khoq] to my friends, the one who called on God and He answered him; the just and blameless man is a joke [s’khoq].”
Jeremiah also felt like he was seen as a joke:
Jeremiah 20:7b (see also Lamentation 3:14)
I have become a laughingstock [li-s’khoq] all day long; everyone mocks me.
But at the end of his suffering YHWH rewarded Job and elevated him to a person of privilege. And for Jeremiah, YHWH redirected the mocking of Jeremiah and turned it onto the enemy nation of Moab:
Jeremiah 48:26, 38-39
“Make him [Moab] drunk, for he has become arrogant toward YHWH; so Moab will vomit, and he also will become a laughingstock [li-s’khoq]…
…On all the housetops of Moab and in its public squares there is mourning everywhere; for I have broken Moab like an undesirable vessel,” declares YHWH. “How shattered it is! How they have wailed! How Moab has turned his back—he is ashamed! So Moab will become a laughingstock [li-s’khoq] and an object of terror to all around him.”
YHWH gave back to the people what they dished out to others… as if to say, I believe this belongs to you. You can take the mocking back and place it upon yourselves.
But it wasn’t just the enemies of God’s people who had their mocking returned to them. In the writings of Ezekiel the sisters Oholah & Oholibah were presented as personifications of Samaria and Jerusalem. These sisters had turned to idol worship and revelled at other gods. YHWH took Jerusalem’s laughter and dancing (who had followed their sister) and gave it back to them:
This is what the Lord YHWH says [to Oholibah (Jerusalem)]:
‘You will drink your sister’s [Samaria’s] cup, which is deep and wide.
You will be laughed at [li-ts’khoq] and held in derision; because it contains much.
You will be filled with drunkenness and grief, a cup of horror and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria. And you will drink it and drain it. then you will gnaw on its fragments and tear your breasts.
For I have spoken,’ declares the Lord YHWH.
There was only one God with whom we were meant to celebrate with laughter and joy: YHWH. Laughter and playing with other gods was lewd behaviour and a form of twisted allegiance.
YHWH Laughs in the Face of the Idolatry
It comes to a point where all you can do is laugh, otherwise you’ll cry… and YHWH came to that point many times because many times people turned away from Him:
They [the treacherous] return at evening, they howl like a dog, and prowl around the city.
Behold, they gush forth with their mouths; swords are in their lips, for, they say, “Who hears?”
But You, YHWH, laugh [ti-s’khaq] at them; You scoff at all the nations.
But it wasn’t just other nations and tribes that rejected YHWH, His own people had turned to wickedness:
The wicked plots against the righteous, and gnashes at him with his teeth.
The Lord laughs at him [Adonai yi-s’khaq loh], for He sees that his day is coming.
The day would come when God would judge the people. He had a plan of salvation for all who wanted to be saved… but many were not so forward thinking:
Why are the nations restless and the peoples plotting in vain?
The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers conspire together against YHWH and against His Anointed, saying, “Let’s tear their shackles apart and throw their ropes away from us!”
He who sits in the heavens laughs [yi-s’khaq], the Lord scoffs at them.
Then He will speak to them in His anger and terrify them in His fury, saying, “But as for Me, I have installed My King upon Zion, My holy mountain.”
I will announce the decree of YHWH: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have fathered You. Ask it of Me, and I will certainly give the nations as Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth as Your possession.’”
YHWH scoffed at the ridiculousness of humans… but He did not give up on them. He appointed an Anointed One, His Son, to reclaim the people as His possession. We may act like asses, but we’re not a joke to God. And when we claim ourselves as children of God we start to see clearly the ridiculousness of those who don’t:
Why do you boast in evil, you mighty man? The faithfulness of God endures all day long.
Your tongue devises destruction, like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit. You love evil more than good, lies more than speaking what is right. Selah
You love all words that devour, you deceitful tongue.
But God will break you down forever; He will snatch you up and tear you away from your tent, and uproot you from the land of the living. Selah
The righteous will see and fear, and they will laugh [yi-s’khaqu] at him, saying, “Behold, the man who would not make God his refuge, but trusted in the abundance of his riches and was strong in his evil desire.”
Laughing/Playing in Victory
Laughter and play was often part of victory parades. When David defeated the Philistines the women came out to sing, dance and play/laugh:
1 Samuel 18:7-9
The women sang as they played [ham-sa’khaoht], and said,
“Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.”
Then Saul became very angry, for this lyric displeased him; and he said, “They have given David credit for ten thousands, but to me they have given credit for only thousands! Now what more can he have but the kingdom?” And Saul eyed David with suspicion from that day on.
Playing and laughter and parades were very public forms of expression and the people’s joy over David’s success put a target on his back.
David had another celebration which got him into trouble:
1 Chronicles 15:29 (see also 2 Samuel 6:5, 16-21)
When the ark of the covenant of YHWH came to the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David dancing and laughing [u-m-sakheq]; and she despised him in her heart.
Public forms of expression were not always well received. But there were future days where YHWH would call for public outpours of His great deeds. Through the prophet Zechariah, YHWH spoke of the day when He would return and dwell in Jerusalem… when there would be playing/laughing in the streets:
Zechariah 8:4-5, 7-8
YHWH of armies says this: ‘Old men and old women will again sit in the public squares of Jerusalem, each person with his staff in his hand because of age. And the public squares of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing [m-sa-khaqim] in its squares.’ …YHWH of armies says this: ‘Behold, I am going to save My people from the land of the east and from the land of the west; and I will bring them back and they will live in the midst of Jerusalem; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God in truth and righteousness.’
Laughter and Sacred Space
God’s plan of salvation is key to the Biblical story. It’s the Good News we hold onto and it points to our ability to reconnect with YHWH in the sacred space that He intended us all to share.
Sacred space was where God resided. In the days of David that was the Tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Covenant; later that was transported to the Temple built by Solomon.
But a time came when God’s sacred space, available to humans, was at risk of being removed from them. Because they had turned to the idols of other nations, the other nations were allowed to enter into the home of God’s chosen ones and claim their sacred space:
“All of them come for violence. Their horde of faces moves forward. They gather captives like sand.
They make fun of kings, and dignitaries are an object of laughter [mi-s’khaq] to them.
They laugh [yi-s’khaq] at every fortress, then heap up dirt and capture it.
Then they fly along like the wind and pass on. But they will be held guilty, they whose strength is their god.”
When Babylon attacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple the Hebrew people were devastated. The sacred space of the Temple, where they knew they could reach YHWH, was annihilated. How could they connect with God now?
In the days of her affliction and homelessness Jerusalem remembers all her treasures that were hers since the days of old, when her people fell into the hand of the adversary and no one helped her.
The adversaries saw her, they laughed [sa’khaqu] at her ruin.
But YHWH would not leave them behind. He had a plan to bring them back home. The prophet Jeremiah who lived in Jerusalem during the Babylonian invasion rejoiced in YHWH’s plan of salvation. There would be a day when YHWH would bring them home. The laughter that was once directed at them in derision would be repurposed and they would laugh in joy as they came home and reclaimed YHWH’s sacred space:
“This is what YHWH says:
‘Behold, I will restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob and have compassion on his dwellings; and the city will be rebuilt on its ruins, and the palace will stand on its rightful place.
From them will come a song of thanksgiving and the voices of those who laugh [m-sa’khaqim].
And I will multiply them and they will not decrease; I will honour them and they will not be insignificant.’”
The rebuilding of YHWH’s sacred space called for dancing, playing, singing and laughing. This was a party!
YHWH appeared to him long ago, saying,
“I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you out with kindness.
I will build you again and you will be rebuilt, virgin of Israel!
You will take up your tambourines again, and go out to the dances of the revellers [laughers: m-sa’khaqim].
With YHWH at the helm, the future was good… it should bring a smile to all who believe. When the writer of Proverbs described an excellent wife they saw her as joyously laughing/smiling at the future:
Proverbs 31:10, 25
An excellent wife, who can find her? For her worth is far above jewels…
…Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she smiles [laughs: w-ti-s’khaq] at the future.
Why would a good wife smile at the future?… because a good wife knew that YHWH had a wonderful plan for what lay ahead. The future was in God’s Good Hands!
Yeshua and Laughter
In the B’rit Chadashah (New Testament) laughter does not differ from the Tanakh (Old Testament). Laughter really is universal. There was nervous laughter, mocking laughter, frivolous play and joyous laughter.
When Yeshua preached (what is known as) the Beatitudes He spoke of laughter. The poor had nothing to laugh about, but their time would come. There would be a day of reward for them:
And He [Jesus] raised His eyes toward His disciples and began saying, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh [Greek: gelasete]. Blessed are you when the people hate you, and when they exclude you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and jump for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For their fathers used to treat the prophets the same way. But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh [Greek: gelontes] now, for you will mourn and weep.“
One day the poor would be lifted up and they would find their wealth in YHWH.
Yeshua also understood what it was like to be the object of accusatory laughter and mockery:
Matthew 9:18-19, 23-26 (see also Mark 5:40, Luke 8:53)
…behold, a synagogue official came and bowed down before Him (Jesus), and said, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay Your hand on her, and she will become alive again.”
Jesus got up from the table and began to accompany him, along with His disciples…
…When Jesus came into the official’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd in noisy disorder, He said, “Leave; for the girl has not died, but is asleep.”
And they began laughing [Greek: katagelon] at Him. But when the crowd had been sent out, He entered and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And this news spread throughout that land.
There’s a reason why Yeshua healed so many people during His ministry. Yeshua’s true mission was to heal our souls and save us from the grave. But to do that, He would have to go to the grave Himself.
Until His crucifixion Yeshua always had the chance to walk away, although He never did. But at His trial and crucifixion He had no choice but to endure the torture and mockery:
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole Roman cohort to Him. And they stripped Him and put a red cloak on Him. And after twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and put a reed in His right hand; and they knelt down before Him and mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spit on Him, and took the reed and beat Him on the head. And after they had mocked Him, they took the cloak off Him and put His own garments back on Him, and led Him away to crucify Him.
Yeshua’s sacrifice set us free so that we could laugh and play joyfully in this life and the next. Laughter really is good for the soul, and YHWH has wanted us to laugh from the beginning.
Proverbs 8 is a poem which personified wisdom as someone who had been with YHWH from the beginning, laughing and rejoicing before God:
Proverbs 8:22-23, 30-31
“YHWH created me [wisdom] at the beginning of His way, before His works of old. From eternity I was established, from the beginning, from the earliest times of the earth…
…Then I was beside Him, as a master workman; and I was His delight daily, rejoicing [laughing: La-sa’kheqet] always before Him, rejoicing [laughing: m-sa’kheqet] in the world, His earth!
Think of our amazing Creator and all the beauty He has laid before us! As much as we are able, we ought to laugh and play in joy knowing that God created us, loves us, and has saved us! God wants us to be healed. If laughter is the best medicine, Yeshua is the cure!
When YHWH brought back the captives of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter [s’khoq] and our tongue with joyful shouting; then they said among the nations, “YHWH has done great things for them.”
YHWH has done great things for us; we are joyful!
Next week: Revisiting COMPASSION