Posted by: CeCe | March 13, 2012

Explicit content in the Bible? part 3

So I’ve already addressed two difficult passages in the Bible here and here, and since it has been a few days since I last posted them, I figured I’d post another.  Here, I’m going to address Psalm 137:9.  In case you don’t have your Bible handy or don’t feel like looking it up, that verse reads:
Happy is the one who seizes your infants 
   and dashes them against the rocks.

Many times I’ve had this passage come up in debate, and every single time, the interpretation that those with whom I was debating have had is that this is saying that smashing children against rocks is a good thing.  But is that really what the passage is saying?  Well, let’s back up to verse 1, and find out what’s going on here.  Here are verses 1-4:
 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept 
   when we remembered Zion. 
 There on the poplars 
   we hung our harps, 
 for there our captors asked us for songs, 
   our tormentors demanded songs of joy; 
   they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the LORD 
while in a foreign land? 

So what was going on?  Psalm 137 is about the Israelites’ captivity in Babylon.  In verses 1-4, the psalmist is talking about their captors mocking them, telling the Israelites to entertain them with song, even though their hearts were broken.  Imagine that you’ve just been violently ripped from your homeland, and your captors are demanding that you entertain them with songs about the homeland from which you’ve just been torn, the same homeland that you and your family had lived in for generations, where all your fathers and mothers were buried, where your homes (which are now smoking ruins) were.  You have been forced to leave behind the only home you’ve ever known, and now your captors are demanding that you sing about the very same place that was, and is no more.

So now skip forward a couple verses, and now it should be clear why verse 9 says what it does; these are verses 7 and 8:
Remember, LORD, what the Edomites did 
   on the day Jerusalem fell. 
“Tear it down,” they cried, 
   “tear it down to its foundations!” 
 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, 
   happy is the one who repays you 
   according to what you have done to us. 

There are a couple key things to notice about these two verses.  First, the psalmist is asking God to remember how Jerusalem was torn down to its foundations and utterly destroyed by the Israelites’ enemies.  Second, they are asking the Babylonians to be repaid for what they did to the Israelites.  Then we come to verse 9.  Basically, what they’re saying is that since the Babylonians saw fit to kill their children in front of them, they hoped that some day the same was done to the Babylonians, so the Babylonians would know their pain.  If you are a parent, imagine that someone has just ripped your young children from your arms, and has smashed their skulls with rocks.  It’s horrifying, isn’t it?  Now imagine that they’ve not only killed your children, they’ve killed your young nieces and nephews, your cousins, your brothers and sisters, your grandchildren… and laughed, and then asked you to sing songs about more joyful times for their entertainment.

Psalm 137 is anguished and full of rage.  Can you blame them?  I’m not saying that it’s right to wish such things on anyone, even one’s enemies.  But in the heat of the moment, almost anyone would have said exactly the same thing, religious or not.  When those heart-wrenching cries are still echoing in your ears and  your eyes are full of tears and smoke, you’re frightened and your future is uncertain, and you’ve lost your home,  there’s no telling what kind of thoughts will cross your mind.  This is quite possibly one of the most raw, heart-breaking, agonized, and tearful passages in the entire Bible.  It’s real.  They don’t try to sugar-coat it.  I believe that the writer was truly showing the core of humanity.  While in Christianity we are called to forgive, sometimes it’s just impossible, especially when our hearts have been shattered and the offenses against us are so grievous.  Sometimes it’s just easier to curse those who seek to hurt us.

The thing to remember is that God Himself did not write the Bible.  Humans did.  And since humans wrote it, there are things within its pages that you would expect to find.  You would expect to find anger in the face of injustice, calls for revenge in the face of dishonor, and acts that seem disgusting when people are confronted by desperation.  All of this is indeed in the Bible.  It is a reflection of humanity.  One of my fellow admin on the FB page Atheists vs. Religion often says that the Bible is a mirror.  I believe this is accurate.  The Bible is definitely an accurate reflection of humankind, both at our best… and our worst.  Psalm 137 in particular is the reflection of one of the worst aspects of humanity.

As always, if you think of passages you think I should address, please feel free to tell me about it in a comment.  I will address any passage brought to my attention in as timely a manner as I can manage.  Thanks for reading!

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