Psalm 137 7-9 Understanding Violence in the Bible

The Bible comes up in the conversation on HuffPost Religion almost daily. One disturbing psalm is of particular interest commenting community. On a recent article we posted about what the bible says about hope, a commenter wrote, “I don’t know what it says about hope but I found this nifty verse about murdering infants.”

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That wasn’t the first time one of our readers brought it up. The Religion team sees Psalm 137: 7-9 appear in virtually any conversation on an article that mentions the Bible or one of our many pieces of scriptural commentary. With so much interest, we couldn’t ignore the topic of violence in the Bible any longer. What is the deal with murdering babies? It couldn’t be instruction for living in the same vein as “love thy neighbor”. Could it? What does it even mean? What’s the context?

We reached out to three scholars to get the low-down on of the most eyebrow raising pieces of scripture in the Bible. Our experts are Joel Baron, a fifth year student at Hebrew College, a pluralistic rabbinic seminary, Julia M. O'Brien, professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and Greg Carey, professor of New Testament. Both O'Brien and Carey teach at Lancaster Theological Seminary. Below is the full hebrew translation of the psalm and collection of our approaches from the scholars.

The Verse
1 By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat and we wept
as we remembered Zion.
2 On the poplars within her we hung our lyres,
3 for it was there our captors asked us for words of song,
and our tormentors – for their amusement –
said, “Sing for us from a song of Zion.”
4 How can we sing a song of the Lord on foreign soil?
5 O Jerusalem, if I should forget you may my right hand wither.
6 May my tongue cleave to my palate
if I cease to remember you,
if I do not cause Jerusalem to be raised
to the very top of my joy.
7 Do you remember, O Lord, the Edomites on
the day of Jerusalem?
How they said, “Tear her down!
Down to her very foundation!”
8 O, Daughter of Babylon, you despoiler,
Happy is the one who pays you your recompense
as you dealt out to us.
9 Happy the one who will seize and dash your infants against the rock!

Joel Baron’s Take
This plaintive Psalm recalls the Babylonian exile and the mournful refrains, not of the people Israel, but of the psalmist themselves, who in their misery and their distance from Jerusalem could no longer make music. All they could think of was return, and, surprisingly, revenge.

One of the difficulties of translating from the original Hebrew is that one loses (1) the echoes of the verbal roots which are critical to a full appreciation of the text, and (2) the association of close verbal roots. Thus, I have gone back to basic academic definitions. There is also a stunning onomatopoeia in the Psalm which one cannot hear in the English. It is the mournful sound of ululation that lies just beneath the surface of the Psalm. The effect of this aural mourning kind of ululation is powerful as we read this tragic lament that ends shockingly with the death of babies.

While I prefer to accept the fullness of the entire Psalm, other scholars have diverse view. Some are unemotional and firm on the view that it is not speaking metaphorically. Buddhist author Norman Fisher does think the Psalm is metaphorical. He speaks of the “dark sprouts and black flowers,” i.e., the dark things (the sadness of exile) to which the Babylonians have given birth, rather than speaking of babies, and looking forward to the time when they are “dashed against the rock of faith.” fullness of the entire Psalm. Robert Alter, American professor of Hebrew language and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley says, “No moral justification can be offered for this notorious concluding line. All one can do is to recall the background of outraged feeling that triggers the conclusion.”

Greg Carey’s Take:
There's no need to "explain away" these verses. The Psalms, perhaps to a unique degree within Scripture, are true to life. They express the full range of human emotion and bring that emotion into the presence of God. The setting for this Psalm involves Judahites who are being mocked by their captors in Babylon, and the Psalm expresses their grief and resentment. No one, I think, would argue that slaughtering babies is an appropriate answer to injustice. But many people know the bitterness that could lead to such sentiments.

Julia M. O'Brien’s Take:
Historically, interpreters disturbed by passages like this have tried to “fix” them. The church father Origen, for example, read the psalm allegorically: when Psalm 137 says happy are those who bash the enemy’s infants against the rocks, he claimed that it meant to dash your sins against the rocks of reason. My own response to violence in the Bible is to think differently about the Bible. Rather than assume that every biblical statement provides instruction for how think and live, I read the Bible as ancient people’s testimony to God and as an invitation to speak honestly about our own experience. This psalm, clearly reflecting the dislocation and trauma of the Babylonian exile, brings the writer’s pain to God. Perhaps Psalm 137 can invite us to bring all of ourselves to our faith—not just our best selves—and remind us to pay more attention to the voices of those whom we have caused pain. For more on how Julia approaches violence in the Bible, click here.

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