It’s Snark Week

One of the most important ways of understanding the Bible is to remember the saying of the Rabbis:

דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם
The Torah speaks in the language of mankind.

That is, the text is purposely presented in a way that we can relate to. So it should come as no surprise that as we read of various Biblical characters communicating with each other, we occasionally find priceless examples of dry wit, irony, and downright sarcasm. Who can’t relate to that?

Therefore, I present to you my:

Top Five Sarcastic Biblical One-Liners:

5. God rolls His eyes at Jonah
Jonah 4:4

Anyone who raised a teenager can relate to Jonah. Filled with melodrama and narcissism, Jonah always makes everything about him. Towards the end of the story, Jonah complains to God that the entire errand of warning the Ninevites of their impending destruction was just one big waste of his time. So later, while Jonah was sitting in the unbearable heat, God provided a big plant to provide shelter and relief. The next day, God took the plant away. Jonah, attempting to win Best Actor in a Short Film, raised the back of his hand to his forehead, and cried to the heavens, “Oh! I would rather die than live like this!”

To which God, in an uncharacteristic instance of perfect understatement and not just a little sarcasm, replied,

“Are you really upset?”


4. On behalf on an ungrateful nation
Exodus 14:11

Just what do you have to do to get any respect? The Israelites, enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years, are finally free. They personally witnessed the power of God, and watched the Egyptians suffer 10 devastating plagues, including the death of every first born son. They were guided by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night (early GPS–God Positioning System). So it was pretty clear by this time that Moses and God had their backs.

As they were approaching the shore of the Red Sea, with the pursuing Egyptian army in the distance, one guy, obviously the ancestor of a modern day temple president, went up to Moses and asked,

“There weren’t enough graves in Egypt, so you had to bring us out here to die?”


3. Animals? What animals?
I Samuel 15:14

The story of King Saul and King Agag is a deeply poignant and troubling episode. Saul was instructed by God to wage war against the tribe of Amalek and utterly wipe out everyone and everything. In a time when putting the males to death might be common, this command was way over the top–it specifically included not only the men, but every woman, child, baby. And every animal. Complete genocide.

King Saul, probably in way over his head, obviously had major reservations about carrying out such an order. He ended up sparing his counterpart King Agag (letting the vanquished king live was common in war–sort of like professional courtesy), and allowing his soldiers take some of the cattle.

God sent his prophet Samuel to confront Saul and call him out on his disobedience. Samuel asks Saul, “Did you completely follow God’s command?” Saul replies confidently, “Yes, I did everything God asked me.”

Samuel uses his dry wit to make his point, as he looks around and sees a bunch of cattle that used to belong to the Amalekites. With pinpoint timing, he asks Saul,

“So what’s this bleating of sheep I hear all around?”



2. For this we sent you to Brandeis?
Judges 14:3

Before there was Fatal Attraction, there was the story of Samson. What most people know of this gem of a story is a guy who likes to wear his hair long and the femme fatale who tricks him into getting a haircut with dire consequences. In fact, the entire narrative of Samson is a story of romance, desire, betrayal, anger, and violence. It was also written with a great deal of irony and comedy.

First we read of Samson’s beginnings. Because his parents, Manoach and Mrs. Manoach (that’s correct–the Tanach can’t even bother giving her a name), had great trouble conceiving a child (a common motif in Biblical stories), they pledge their soon-to-be-born son to the service of God as a Nazarite. Among other restrictions, that meant no wine and no haircuts. Samson is born, gets older, and goes on Spring Break to a city called Timnah, where he meets and falls for a Philistine woman. He returns home and excitedly tells his father that he’s getting married to this woman.

Samson’s father asks his son the question that is destined to reverberate throughout the next couple thousand years of Jewish life:

“What, there were no Jewish girls for you to marry?”


1. Dude, that’s my wife
Esther 7:8

The story of Esther that we read on Purim is one of the most familiar and well-known narratives of the entire Bible. It also happens to be a perfectly constructed short story, filled with effective literary techniques–foreshadowing, conflict, irony, and yes, a good deal of comedy.

There are a few points in the story that don’t get as much attention. One such passage provides what I think is the best laugh-out-loud moment of the entire Tanach. Towards the end of the story, Haman’s plot has completely unraveled, and he finally knows the jig is up and he’s in big trouble. Esther has identified him to King Achashverosh as the person who is seeking to wipe out her people, the Jews. The King is furious and in his anger, storms out of the room. Haman, overcome with the fact that he’s pretty much dead man walking now, feels faint and collapses right on top of Esther, who’s lying on her couch.

At this precise moment, King Achashverosh walks back into the room, takes in the scene in front of him, and with a timing and delivery bordering on sheer perfection, asks:

“So you thought you’d shtup my wife, too?”


Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

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