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. 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. 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.