The theological interpretation of scripture and the dashing of babies against rocks

Psalm 137 begins as a lament. The exiles in Babylon weep when they remember Jerusalem. They cannot sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land. The psalm ends, however, with a plea to YHWH that he will punish the Edomites for their complicity in the destruction of Jerusalem, and a chilling “beatitude”:

O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (137:8–9)

A historical-critical reading of the text has no qualms about taking the imprecation at face value. If the Jews in exile or after the return from exile hoped that their God would inflict the same horrors on the Babylonians that Israel had suffered at their hands—there is a certain principle of justice at work here—it’s not for the modern interpreter to mitigate or sidestep or gloss over the ethical difficulties that this presents to the modern reader. Historical-critical commentaries on the text are not formally required to take into account the difficulties that the “plain sense” might pose for Christian theologians, liturgists, pastors, Bible study leaders, etc.

David Steinmetz, however, cites the psalm in making a case for the superiority of pre-critical exegesis—and for the theological interpretation of scripture generally:

How was a French parish priest in 1150 to understand Psalm 137, which bemoans captivity in Babylon, makes rude remarks about Edomites, expresses an ineradicable longing for a glimpse of Jerusalem, and pronounces a blessing on anyone who avenges the destruction of the Temple by dashing Babylonian children against a rock? The priest lives in Concale, not Babylon, has no personal quarrel with Edomites, cherishes no ambitions to visit Jerusalem (though he might fancy a holiday in Paris), and is expressly forbidden by Jesus to avenge himself on his enemies…. Unless Psalm 137 has more than one possible meaning, it cannot be used as a prayer by the Church and must be rejected as a lament belonging exclusively to the piety of ancient Israel.1

The argument appears to be that circumstances that are strictly extraneous to the psalm—the Christian canon, the centrality of Christ, the religious practice of the church—oblige the reader to search for meanings other than, or in addition to, the obvious one. This is what drove the development of highly sophisticated allegorical methods of interpretation in the Patristic period, and it is why the current theological interpretation of scripture (TIS) movement is so keen to get us back to the Fathers. It is a way of accommodating the text to interpretation rather than interpretation to the text.

One way or another, the Bible has to be persuaded to say things that it doesn’t want to say. [pullquote]In any other area of life falsifying the record, fabricating data, rewriting history, pressurizing witnesses, putting words into peoples’ mouths, burying bad news would be considered unacceptable practices.[/pullquote] Why should the interpretation of scripture be any different?

Whatever reasons Steinmetz’s French priest may have had for misreading the Psalm, we are not now living in the 12th century. Obviously, we can choose to perpetuate anachronistically a hermeneutic that allows us to devise alternative meanings for texts in order to preserve the integrity and coherence of our belief system. We get away with it because we have been able to maintain the illusion that the Bible is a unique, sacred and mysterious text, not subject—at least when it suits us—to the normal rules of interpretation. But in doing so we put ourselves at variance with the historical consciousness that is now foundational to our thinking in all other respects. In a word, we risk appearing—and being—dishonest.

Whether we like it or not, these imprecatory psalms, like a lot of other bad things—the massacre of the Canaanites, the stoning of idolaters and adulterers, the persecution of heretics, the crusades, indulgences, child abuse—are part of our story. I’m not at all convinced that we have the right to misinterpret the theologically inconvenient details of the story merely on the grounds that the canon somehow makes all things well, or that the presence of Christ turns pumpkins into royal carriages, or that 12th century French parishioners should be uplifted rather than offended by what is read to them in church.

I think this makes a sharp point about how the narrative-historical method works. We don’t have to suppose that these are our sacred texts. There is nothing wrong with rejecting the psalm as a “lament belonging exclusively to the piety of ancient Israel”. The Bible means what it meant and speaks to us on that basis. That is not a bad thing. It is a good thing.

  • 1. D.C. Steinmetz, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis”, in S.E. Fowl (ed.), The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Classic and Contemporary Readings (1997), 28.
Submitted by Eric Blauer on  Wed, 07/09/2014 - 17:47

Until I moved into a ‘hood and began truly living a missional life among wolves, I had no clue how to read those verses. Last night after my son returned home yet again driven from the park by hoards of thugs who shot him three times with pelletguns, I struggled what to read in my ‘bible time’…these verses were carthartic to say the least. 

Concepts and context are at the heart of my experience with the Psalms. As I sat trying to choose which psalm to give my son who is wrestling with violence, threat and anxiety, I had a trouble with pointing him to some of the scriptures. The scripture inflames and gives voice to the feelings and desires for vengeance, wrath and retribution. The psalms are loaded with ammunition for those who’ve experienced or are currently enduring injustice, threat or violence. Trying to squelch the smolder off those words seems like someones attempt to scrub someones record.   

Submitted by peter wilkinson on  Wed, 07/09/2014 - 20:38

I think this makes a sharp point about how the narrative-historical method works. We don’t have to suppose that these are our sacred texts. There is nothing wrong with rejecting the psalm as a “lament belonging exclusively to the piety of ancient Israel”.

The repulsiveness of the imprecation isn’t necessarily at odds with the possibility of the text also being our sacred text, is it? The text neither approves nor disapproves of the sentiments expressed. This was how Israel thought. That we find it repulsive now is largely down to historical distance, and the amazing effect that Xianity has had in influencing our own cultural values in the intervening years. We shouldn’t necessarily retroproject our moral sensibilities onto an era vastly removed from our own.

Maybe the heart of the matter is that the psalms are honest about the feelings of those who wrote them, without necessarily judging the feelings expressed. Sometimes we store up feelings of violence without being honest about what we are actually feeling, and dealing with the feelings in a healthy way. The sacred texts of Israel have much to teach us about healthy handling of emotions, not least the imprecatory pslams. I still see Psalm 137 as my sacred text as well as Israel’s — even within a narrative historical framework.

That seems a fair point to make, but can we affirm or agree with the Psalm as a prayer or liturgical text? Can we make practical use of it? The point of Steinmetz’s argument appears to be that a theological re-reading of the psalm is needed if it is going to be used devotionally by the church.

This is the aspect of a narrative-historical reading that proves to be a significant hurdle to so many I encounter.  Evangelicals seem to be willing to better understand the historical, cultural and narrative aspects of scripture but are unwilling to abandon the devotional/doctrinal aspects. So it is always a “both” “and” situation. It has its original meaning in its original context AND its theological meaning. It has the meaning for the people who made up the initial audience and a universal doctrinal meaning that God meant for all Christians.

But my question is whether there is theological or perhaps “relational” insight to be had from the narrative-historical perspective. Can we gain insights into the nature and character of God through a better understanding of the history; of the story?  What do we gain from better understanding the story of the people of Israel and then accepting it as “our” story in some important way? 

What do these Psalms mean to us today as the people of God?  Are they just historical artifacts? Or can we learn from them in perhaps indirect or contingent ways rather than through a straight devotional approach?

I don’t object to both/and in principle. What irks me is the theological complacency that allows the devotional/doctrinal reading to distort the historical sense of the text.

What do these Psalms mean to us today as the people of God? Are they just historical artifacts? Or can we learn from them in perhaps indirect or contingent ways rather than through a straight devotional approach?

That seems to me exactly the right question to ask. Part of the answer, I think, may be simply to learn to enjoy, value, appreciate, celebrate ancient Israel’s story on its own terms. Then conversely, we need to do what the psalmists did: give poetic voice to our own hopes, fears, trust, worship in response to our own circumstances. The Old Testament Psalms provide models and language for that, but I don’t see what we gain by trying to fit the square peg of our piety into the round hole of an Psalm. Sometimes there’s a fit, but often there isn’t.

ISTM the NT writers re-orient OT stories themselves around NT themes and liturgy. For instance, baptism and the flood. A global flood killing everyone but 8 people should go in the parade of horribles with canaanite genocide and stoning adulterers too, should it not?

And then Peter tells us that the flood narrative is re-interpreted baptimsally: your safety from horrible destruction is ensured by a water rite.

In the context of such canonical (not just church father) re-interpretation, and jesus own description of himself as a Rock with both eucatastropic (he who falls on it will be broken) and catastropic (he on whom the Rock falls will be ground to powder) perhaps invites us to a canonical re-interpretation of Psalm 137: (who is The Rock that followed them in the exodus–including the new exodus of return from exile?– and what does it mean prophetically to dash a little one on The Rock?)

I seriously think you guys think too much. I have read all the criss cross statements made by all of you and all of the statements are just that …criss crossed. It is hard enough to get out here into the real world and tell someone that Jesus died for their sins as opposed to your various opinions about what death is being spoken of in the Roman Road. try telling the things you are saying to a drug addict or a prostitute or an unwed mother. we will lose them as soon as we open our mothes to spout out your poision.

There are steps that take place in our christian growth an we accept Jesus the Christ as Lord of our lives as well as steps that take place when God judges us all when it comes to our eternal destination….which is not whether or not we are saved. I believe what Romans 10:9-13 says. I believe that I am saved because I accept Jesus the Christ as the son of God and I also believe that God raised Jesus from the dead so that I can be saved. I also believe that Jesus the Christ died on the Cross for my sins . I also believe that our HEARTS is where God dwells and rules. The stronger God’s influence is on our hearts, the more connected to God and Christ we will be. The more our minds and flesh take over, which I believe is Satan’s play ground, a battle insues for God to protect his property.  

So If I believe the facts as I do…why am I saying this to you all? I am not a baby in Christ still on milk but I am still seeking Him. and I am doing a study on the Roman Road for a daily piece I am doing called WAYS TO WITNESS”.  I need to be able to share the little things God has taught me during my fire for evangelisim so I can inspire others…and then I see your article which is confusing. Whether or not I meant to see the article has yet to be seen. 

Glinda, as far as I am concerned, nothing that I have written on this site should get in the way of people like you seeking to bringing the love of God in Christ to drug addicts, prostitutes and unwed mothers. I thank God for what you are doing. But there’s a lot more going on in the New Testament than the sort of witness you describe, and there are very good reasons for thinking that the modern evangelical account of things does not do justice to the biblical narrative. My argument, at least, is that we need to reframe personal evangelism, not to detract from what you are doing, but to ensure that we have a big enough grasp of what God is doing in history. I’m sorry it gets confusing.

“Sometimes we store up feelings of violence without being honest about what we are actually feeling, and dealing with the feelings in a healthy way.”

Seems kind of odd saying ‘dashing babies against rocks’ is anywhere near healthy as thought, action or prayer. 

Agreed, but sometimes, in a safe environment, saying something is a healthy alternative to doing it, especially in today’s psychotherapeutical world. Not that Israel would have stopped short of doing it either.

The imprecatory Psalms make for extremely uncomfortable reading. But do we misuse the Psalms if we judge them by the standards of what is appropriate for liturgical reading?  They are not sacred text in the sense of God’s words spoken to Israel, but as Israel’s words spoken to God. As such, they run the spectrum of human emotions — anger, fear, guilt, depression, discouragement, doubt, elation, joy etc, including some very dark emotions.

Sometimes God’s response is a resounding silence, which is also a theme of the Psalms. We are left to judge what God’s response might have been to the words in Psalm 137. Yet this can still be a sacred text of value to us today, and our sacred text because we too are included in the renewed people of God alongside renewed Israel.

They are not sacred text in the sense of God’s words spoken to Israel, but as Israel’s words spoken to God.

Love this.  Never thought about it this way before. 

Submitted by Neil on  Thu, 01/05/2017 - 12:56

Surely the key point in this discussion is what is meant by inspiration? Is the Bible primarily an inspired book or a historical book or both? This is the key presupposition that determines your answer and your hermeneutic and ‘ultimately your view of God and Gods providential activity’. (Vanhoozer 2002, p128. First Theology. IVP)

Your answer Andrew, seems to be ‘both but mostly historical and determined by the historical’ (is that fair?).
I have read this blog for a few years now and have read 2 of your books also and have gained and continue to gain a lot from it (including some good essay marks where I quoted you on Romans), so thankyou.

However recently I’ve begun reading from the other angle of theological interpretation to gain balance and have found that a historical approach can equally be challenged as Fowl states

‘For my purposes it is sufficient to note that if the dominance of historical criticism depended on the assumption that the world and its past were immediately available to us, then the recognition that the world is not immediately available must also affect the claims of historical criticism.’ (Fowl 2009, p22, Theological Interpretation of scripture, Cascade Books).

I know Wright grapples with this in his critical realist methodology but it still opens the door to a historical reading being an ‘interpretation’ and not solely determinative but part of an ongoing constructive dialouge as Fowl argues,

‘The demise of the conceptual apparatus that allowed for the dominance of historical- critical interpretation of the Bible has not led to the elimination of historical criticism, nor should it. It has, however, opened the door to critical approaches to the Bible that do not grant those particular historical concerns priority over all others.’ (Ibid.)

So I return to my staring point if we all agree that the Bible is in some way not just a text but an inspired text, then we have to grapple with what that inspiration means and how God as the constant in the equation can therefore make what appears ‘extraneous’ to you, pertinent to another. For example if we see Christ as central to Christianity and as God revealed in history as the ultimate revelatory act then is it really unfair to think that Christ would in fact not be extraneous to the psalm that He had a hand in inspiring as you assert? After all is not Christ Lord?

‘circumstances that are strictly extraneous to the psalm—the Christian canon, the centrality of Christ, the religious practice of the church—oblige the reader to search for meanings other than, or in addition to, the obvious one.’

I think the point here is that what is ‘obvious’ from one hermenutical set of lenses is not ‘obvious’ from another which is why we need each other as the church to do interpretation, which again calls into question your dismissal of church practice. I cannot comment on the book itself you are quoting from but I know that other TIS scholars try very hard to be balanced as Fowl demonstrates above.

It seems that just as you rightly assert that we have to grapple with the historical reality of the text and not sidestep the horrors that are ‘part of our story’ that equally we cannot side-step the fact that the very reason that they are part of our story is that they are part of our inspired ‘sacred scriptures’ or else we risk losing the authorial view of ‘the Lord’ that the psalmist is talking to, praying to, lamenting with, and remembering through his previous revelations’. (psalm 137:6)

I’m still just thinking and praying through this stuff so thankyou for your contribution to that thinking and devotional process.

I realised that my comment in the penultimate paragraph concerning ‘authorial view’ is a bit unclear. What I meant was that we risk losing the authors own view of ‘the Lord’ as a legitimate area of inquiry.