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There are times when the Bible really speaks to me. Then there are those texts that make me cringe; that make me wish whoever that ancient guy who felt inspired to write things like “Blessed is anyone who smashes your babies’ heads against the rocks.” had just kept it to himself. Go ahead and read it, it’s in Psalm 137. When I come across these passages, it’s tempting to skip them, to explain them away, or to muter some bull about God’s ways being higher than our ways. Don’t me wrong, God’s ways are probably way higher than mine. But even my lowest ways know it’s not cool to dash little ones against rocks. And if I think God will bless me for it, they will likely put me in an institution. But there it is, in the Bible, glaring at me like a ripe zit on a cute face. Here’s the whole Psalm. It’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful, except for the zits at the end:
Psalm 137 1 Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem. 2 We put away our harps, hanging them on the branches of poplar trees. 3 For our captors demanded a song from us. Our tormentors insisted on a joyful hymn: "Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!" 4 But how can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a pagan land? 5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget how to play the harp. 6 May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I fail to remember you, if I don't make Jerusalem my greatest joy. 7 O LORD, remember what the Edomites did on the day the armies of Babylon captured Jerusalem. "Destroy it!" they yelled. "Level it to the ground!" 8 O Babylon, you will be destroyed. Happy is the one who pays you back for what you have done to us. 9 Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks!
To give it context, one can, and should, check out what commentaries and history books have to say about difficult passages like this. “Dashing infants” is mentioned in 2 Kings 8:12, Isaiah 13:16, Hosea 10:14, and Nahum 3:10 as well. Killing infants was common in Ancient Near Eastern warfare, not only among the Israelites, but among other tribes as well. That doesn’t make it right, it just means the guy who wrote this Psalm didn’t make it up.
If we dig further into the context, we see that this Psalm was written during the exile. Israel had been attacked, and Jerusalem burned by the armies of Babylon in 537BCE. The exiles were carried off to a foreign land after seeing loved ones killed, homes burned, and everything they had worked for taken away. You can hear the agony in their voice as they recall weeping on the ground in a land not their own.
As we have seen in very recent history, torture changes people. Trauma does something to the mind that is indescribably awful. In the process of grief, anger flares up and thoughts of forgiveness, civility, or hopes for safety are clouded by fantasies of vengeance. In this Psalm, we have exactly that. But it’s not just a fantasy, it’s a prayer to God. And perhaps that is the important part; the writer felt comfortable enough with God to pray awful things honestly and not edit them later.
I wonder; could freely expressing our worst thoughts to God interrupt the cycle of violence? Could writing it down “get it out of our system” enough that we don’t actually go smash any heads? Maybe. But this psalmist doesn’t say, “I want to smash heads,” he says, “blessed is the one who smashes heads.” He’s making a theological statement. When I’m angry I make a lot of theological statements too.
But if he’s wrong, and I think he is, then how can this still be scripture? I would posit that the reason this can still be holy, even while it is inconceivably immoral, is that it is only one half of the conversation. Just as the writer felt free to express himself to God and make theological claims, so God feels free to respond, just as honestly. And that is our task in interpretation. What would God say back? From my experience, I’d guess God might respond with, “No, I won’t bless you if you do that. But I love it when you’re honest with me. Let’s wait till you can think clearer to talk about revenge. Right now, just know that you’re safe.”
What do you think God would say to this traumatized writer? What has God said to you when you were hurt and burning mad?
Sometimes the Bible drives me nuts. But, difficult texts like this remind me that the Bible is only half of a very ancient conversation. Perhaps the Bible is holy, not in spite of, but because of this frustrating limitation.
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Katie Jo Suddaby is a five-foot tall rabble rouser from Upstate New York. Currently in the final stretch of her seminary education, she hopes to be ordained next year, in the American Baptist Church. Katie Jo is a big fan of nerdy things like Star Trek. She has a little dog named Gus. In her spare time, Katie Jo walks said dog, wrestles unsuccessfully with her lawn mower, does Buddhist sand painting, and cooks vegan delicacies like mac-n-not-cheese and peanut butter and jelly.