is a trope (figure of speech) in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that normally expressed by the words used. The technique is built upon the trajectories of aroused expectations and gratifications. It depends upon: (1) common vocabulary, (2) common cultural experience, and (3) common awareness of typical literary forms. Irony is normally used to express a disparity between what is actually so and what the object of the irony believes to be so. Since irony means the opposite or near opposite of what it seems to say, interpreters of the Bible need to be able to recognize it.
Uses of Irony in the Bible Irony may be the reason for individual word choice. In the Hebrew text of
Job 1:5, Job offered sacrifices because he feared his children may have “blessed” (Hebrew text) God. The writer really meant “curse,” as most translations render the Hebrew word, but he wrote “blessed” somewhat in the English sense of “blessed out.” The euphemism seems to emphasize the extreme nature of the sin by using its exact opposite to describe it. At other times, the irony may require the entire statement. This is easily seen in Job's bitter retort in
Job 12:2, “No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you.” Job was really saying that his so-called comforters were not as important or wise as they thought they were.
In addition to the ironic use of individual words or phrases, entire narratives can be structured around an irony of situation or fate. In the first case, the outcome of events seems contradictory to what could generally be expected and results in mocking the propriety of the apparent power structure. The second case is similar, but events have unexpected consequences when the actor brings about a result contrary to the original purpose. This usually involves the introduction of an impostor (or a false message), a debate between the ironist (critic of the impostor who wins), and a conclusion which vindicates the truth (or the ironist). Balaam's desire to be made wealthy at Israel's expense in
Numbers 22-24 certainly ended up backfiring upon both the soothsayer and his Moabite patron, Balak. Instead of getting rich on Moabite gold by cursing Israel, he was thwarted by God and had to bless Israel and curse Moab. This is an irony of fate. In
Daniel 2:1, the magicians were the impostors who claimed that no one could interpret the king's dream. Daniel was the ironist who taught them where wisdom arises (Daniel 2:20) and revealed the truth (Daniel 2:30). The impossible task was accomplished; the irony of situation was complete; and the power of God emphasized! This is the usual purpose of narrative irony in the Bible.
Bible students aware of the use of irony will recognize some of the humor in the Bible which exists at the expense of God's enemies. A study of comedy, rhetoric, and satire would also be helpful.
Johnny L. Wilson