Psalms 137: An Exegetical Approach

Introduction

Psalms 137 has long been one of my favourite biblical passages and not simply because of the shock value held by the final verses. Surely “a blessing on him who repays you in kind” and “a blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks!” are the rarest of occurrences in any sermon (137:8—9)! This type of retaliatory language only piqued my interest in Psalm 137 and to avoid running the risk of a shallow understanding and interpretation I was forced to study the passages in detail. Apart from the obvious questions one could ask, such as “what on earth is something like this doing in the bible?” and “is this really condoning the dashing of babies as a form of retribution?”—certain theological questions arise for the Christian disciple reading such a passage. Namely what does this suggest about God, if anything, and the issues of faith the author was faced with during the time period this passage was constructed? Moreover, what does Psalm 137 suggest about the society it was written in?

Section I: The Text of Psalm 137

Clearly placing the context in Babylon (v.1a), the beginning of this Psalm is a lament clear from the weeping and remembrance for Jerusalem (v.1b, 1c, 1d). Here the Babylonians i.e. the captors of the Israelites—tormented them for amusement by asking for songs of Zion (v.3). The author makes clear that it is no longer possible to express joy as long as they are in captivity (v.4). Here joy is synonymous with being in God’s presence which is only possible if the Jerusalem Temple still stands. Obviously by this point it had been destroyed. Following this the author makes an oath, shrouded in liturgy, to never forget Jerusalem (v.6). Here the oath includes some fitting phrasing, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither, let my tongue stick to my palate.” (v.5)—this makes it impossible to play and sing the songs of Zion mentioned (v.3). The author then asks God to remember who destroyed their beloved Jerusalem (v.7). Asking God never to forget is appropriate considering the sentiments that will follow. One certainly needs a long memory to foster retribution and revenge! Following this Babylon is demeaned as a predator (v.8a). Next we see those sentiments of retribution and revenge (v.8—9), perhaps it is best to quote this horrific description in full:

“a blessing on him who repays you in kind what you have inflicted in us; a blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rock!” (v.8b—9)

These sentiments are common in literature of laments (5.11; 35.4—8; 69.23—28). The seizing of babies and dashing them against the rock plays on a pun using the Hebrew word and epithet for Edom “ha-sela”, meaning “the Rock” (הסלע)—or a fortress city of Edom which still stands today. As Marc Zvi Brettler and Adele Berlin point out in their Jewish Study notes on this psalm—“The gist of this pun is that the rock-fortress protecting Edom will become the vehicle for Edom’s punishment.”[1] So despite the horrific imagery, v.9 served as a pun, a literary device to, in this case, inflict a terrible irony on Babylon. So why is such retribution and revenge expressed?

Section I: Sitz im Leben

To understand why one might express such revenge, it may be useful to understand a little about the historical background of the text in question and why this is important. Sitz im Leben is a German phrase credited to Protestant theologian Hermann Gunkel and is translated approximately to “setting in life.”[2] CM Tuckett explains that this term is in fact a sociological one describing the situation that gave rise to the various forms of literature. [3] This places any biblical interpretation squarely in the sociohistorical context of the author. Any passage of any work from antiquity should always be handled with consideration for the cultural, historical, literary, polemical, theological and grammatical contexts in mind. Any work from antiquity can become free floating without context. One may fall into the trap of treating the passages as if they were written two to three minutes ago rather than two to three thousand years ago. This age does not make them wrong or invalid or antiquated, but it does mean that they were written in certain specific contexts that inform what the original authorial intent might have been. And I believe this is crucial in understanding, not only Psalm 137, but the entire bible.[4] I think perhaps a trap of a purely devotional study of the bible, one without an historical understanding, is thinking that every passage is speaking personally to you, in the twenty-first century; millennia after the passages were written. The reductio ad absurdum is obvious when applying Psalm 137 to the twenty-first century. How would the type of barbarism described in verses 8—9 apply to any modern Christian or Jew? It simply wouldn’t.[5] There is far more to such a psalm, and some of the answers posed earlier lie in the sixth century BCE sociohistorical context. In other words, understanding the historical context of such verses can help us understand the final curses.

Section II: Historical Context to the Text

It is convenient to discuss the dating of Psalms 137 despite the majority of the psalms being almost impossible to date.[6] What makes Psalms 137 so convenient to date are the references to the destruction of Jerusalem, in v.7 “the day of Jerusalem’s fall” by the Edomites who joined the Babylonians in the attack on Jerusalem.[7] And the subsequent Israelite captivity by the Babylonians mentioned in v.1a—3 “By the rivers of Babylon… our captors asked us there for songs” squarely places the creation of this psalm during or shortly following the Babylonian exile around 587 BCE—BCE 538.[8] For now it is enough to note what the bible verses say about these references. Though to get to the events that culminated in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE it may be useful to begin a couple of centuries before the Babylonian occupation.

Beginning in 921 BCE, Shalmanezer V had already destroyed Israel in reaction to a revolt against Assyrian rule exiling major portions of the Israelite population to other parts of Assyria.[9] By the middle of the eighth century BCE Assyrian records indicate the king of Israel, Ahab, joined a coalition of small states led by Aram with the intent of preventing another invasion by Assyrian king Shalmanezer III.[10] Just prior to this attempt by Assyria to extend their borders, Egypt also made an attempt, in the late tenth-to-ninth century BCE, to increase its power by seizing control of the trade routes that made Solomon’s empire powerful and wealthy.[11] Furthermore, led by Tiglath-Pileser III around the late-eighth and seventh century BCE, Assyria would eventually succeed in conquering much of the Ancient Near East (ANE) including Israel and Judah setting up the Neo-Assyrian Empire.[12] Around a decade later in 735 BCE Israel and Aram attempted to force Judah into an anti-Assyrian coalition. After discovering this plot Tiglath-Pileser III destroyed Aram and subjugated Israel in what is known as the Syro-Ephraimitic War.[13] By the late-seventh century BCE, Babylonia emerged as the ruler of Judah. Judah would eventually lead a revolt against the Babylonians the early-sixth century BCE, the revolt would ultimately culminate in the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon in 587/586 BCE.[14] This marked the end of the Davidic kingdom.

Once garnered together it is striking how often Israel, Judah and the surrounding parts of the ANE were engaged in conflict in the centuries prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and Babylonian exile. Surely such a hostile environment for an extended period of time produced societal by-products. This includes things such as domestic unrest, political and social discontent and religious persecution. It seems that by the time Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, the Israelites had already attempted to fight off numerous foreign invasions and occupancy eventually succumbing first the Assyrians, and then the Babylonians setting the scene for domestic, social and even religious hostilities. This background is important as it reveals a long period of captivity and foreign occupation that challenged the fundamental role the Davidic monarchy and the Jerusalem Temple played in shaping ancient Judah’s religious and national self-identity.[15] This seems to me to be the perfect storm to foster a deep-seated hatred for the surrounding nations of Israel. From here it is barely a leap to the sentiments we read in the latter curses of Psalm 137, a disposition for retribution and revenge. Though what else can contribute to such sentiments?

Section III: Intentions and Theology

Poetry has long been an emotional expression, in this case a lament in writing, of sombre and grief-stricken times. It seems obvious here the intentions of the author are to seek relief and comfort in retribution and revenge. Evidence for this comes in the form of the dark irony expressed in the horrific imagery of verse 9 served up as a pun to the reader. What better way to see the destruction of an enemy when it is by his own “rock.” But more than that, this psalm is intended as a reminder to what the Israelites went through. The prophets of Israel and Judah would later argue that the invasions of Assyria and Babylon represented a punishment from God for failing to observe the covenant between God and themselves.[16] On top of all that, Sweeny makes a pertinent point here about such an extended period of conflict in and around Israel and Judah:

“Naturally, the Assyrian invasions of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE and the Babylonian invasions of the sixth century BCE posed a fundamental challenge to Israelite religion in that they pointed to the possibility that YHWH either would not or could not protect the people of Israel.”[17]

This lends weight to the hypothesis that the conflict in and around Israel and Judah over so many centuries, shaped their religious and national self-identity. Anyone questioning their identity surely develops a festering hatred towards those who placed them in that circumstance in the first place! In this it was the Babylonians who destroyed Jerusalem, considered a most holy and beloved city by its inhabitants, and subsequently forced the Israelites into exile—and a foreign land, a place they could not call home. Again, even if we cannot condone the curses in v.8—9, and to be sure we should not, surely we can understand them when placed in this exact context and what they are doing in the bible. Furthermore, whoever said niceties were a criterion of truth? Surely it can be horrific and barbaric while still earning its place in the bible? This is most obvious considering the intentions of the genre of Psalms 137, it is a lament. Moreover it makes most sense as a description considering the historical context it was written in, and not a prescription from God. In fact God himself never appears in the entire Psalm in any form other than a plea from the author for him never to forget.

If the psalmist here is writing in verse 6, as it appears, that Jerusalem had not yet been restored, “if I do not remember you… Jerusalem.”—perhaps here the author may be implying that faith is holding onto a ruin? If it were a present experience i.e. Jerusalem is currently in ruins, then perhaps the author intended this psalm to serve as a reminder and motivation to rebuild a once mighty city? This would restore the people’s faith in God as protector and saviour of Israel that Sweeny pointed out was a challenge to Israelite religion following the Assyrian invasions of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE and the Babylonian invasions shortly thereafter. In this sense the writer would certainly be challenging a viewpoint contemporary to the time looking forward to the restoration of their beloved Jerusalem. This could only begin with the removal of the oppressing power, in this case the Babylonians. Here again the intentions of verses 8—9 seem to become clearer where the author is looking forward to removal of the Babylonians and thus the restoration of Jerusalem. This would seem to also restore them to the presence of God and only then could the Israelites sing and play music returning to joy.

Conclusion

At the very least the above argument provides a reasonable account of how such curses found their way into a psalm of lament. Following centuries of fighting, invasions and occupation in Israel and Judah—by the Assyrians and Babylonians, it became one of the most troublesome and tumultuous times in Jewish history. This is reflected in their poetry. Ultimately the curses in verses 8—9 are descriptive of a turbulent time in Israelite history and not prescriptive of/or from God. Psalm 137 makes the most sense when understood in its socio-historical context and seems to serve a purpose of not only revenge, but of remembrance and restoration—a restoration of Jerusalem and of the Israelite’s faith in God as a protector of His people.

NJ


Bibliography

Albertz, Rainer., Israel in Exile: The History and Literature of the Sixth Century BCE, trans. David Green, Society of Biblical Literature, 2003

Borderman, John., Edwards, I. E. S., Sollberger, E. and Hammond, N. G. L., The Cambridge Ancient History, vol 3, part 2: The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires and Other States of the Near East, from the Eighth to the Sixth Centuries BC, Cambridge University Press, 1992

Miller, Patrick D., The HarperCollins Study Bible, Fully Revised and Updated Edition. ed. by Harold W. Attridge, Society of Biblical Literature, 2006

Reid, Stephen Breck., Prophets and Paradigms: Essays in Honor of Gene M. Tucker, T&T Clark, 2009

Sweeny, Marvin A., The Blackwell Companion to Judaism, ed. by Jacob Neusner and Alan J. Avery-Peck, Blackwell Publishing, 2003

The Jewish Study Bible, ed. by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, annotated by Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Publication Society, 2004

Tuckett, Christopher Mark., Reading the New Testament: Methods of Interpretation, Fortress Press, 1987


Footnotes

[1] The Jewish Study Bible, ed. by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, annotated by Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Publication Society, 2004, p. 1436

[2] Stephen Breck Reid, Prophets and Paradigms: Essays in Honor of Gene M. Tucker (T&T Clark, 2009), p. 113

[3] Christopher Mark Tuckett, Reading the New Testament: Methods of Interpretation (Fortress Press, 1987), p. 200

[4] While a devotional study and a scholarly study if the bible are not necessarily mutually exclusive, a purely devotional exegetical study here would not suffice in explaining some of the questions posed in the introduction.

[5] I say “majority” because one cannot account for every kind of biblical interpretation i.e. those founded in reason and logic which I hope to achieve, as opposed to a militant or extremist interpretation.

[6] Patrick D. Miller, The HarperCollins Study Bible, Fully Revised and Updated Edition. ed. by Harold W. Attridge, Society of Biblical Literature, 2006. p. 734

[7] The Jewish Study Bible, ed. by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, annotated by Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Publication Society, 2004, p. 1279

[8] Rainer Albertz, Israel in Exile: The History and Literature of the Sixth Century BCE, trans. David Green (Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), p. xxi

[9] Marvin A. Sweeny, The Blackwell Companion to Judaism, ed. by Jacob Neusner and Alan J. Avery-Peck  (Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p. 33

[10] Marvin A. Sweeny, The Blackwell Companion to Judaism, p. 33

[11] Marvin A. Sweeny, The Blackwell Companion to Judaism, p. 33

[12] John Borderman et al., The Cambridge Ancient History, vol 3, part 2: The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires and Other States of the Near East, from the Eighth to the Sixth Centuries BC, (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 71

[13] John H. Walton and Andrew E. Hill, Old Testament Today: A Journey from Original Meaning to Contemporary Significance, (Zondervan, 2004), p. 175

[14] Marvin A. Sweeny, The Blackwell Companion to Judaism, p. 33

[15] Marvin A. Sweeny, The Blackwell Companion to Judaism, p. 32

[16] Marvin A. Sweeny, The Blackwell Companion to Judaism, p. 33

[17] Marvin A. Sweeny, The Blackwell Companion to Judaism, p. 33

Leave a Comment

Filed under Essays

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

Gravatar
WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s