Psalm 137 and Infanticide

In my last two or three journal posts, I wrote about biblical narratives that seem to be about one thing but are in fact about something else–narratives in which the meaning that lies on the surface of the texts differs from the original purpose of the text.

The genocide passages in Joshua, for instance, seem to describe historical events in 1200s or 1300s B.C. But the purpose of these passages is not to transmit knowledge of historical events. It is instead to urge post-exilic Israel (in the 300s and 400s B.C.) to maintain separation from its pagan neighbors. So, we have to distinguish the literal meaning of the text (what the words of the text say–in this case, the story that they narrate) from the purpose of the text.

Likewise, the Gospel of John’s sweeping declarations that the Jews sought to kill Jesus seems, on the surface, to portray historical facts in the ministry of Jesus (in the 30s A.D.) , but in fact its purpose is to encourage Jewish followers of Jesus in the final decades of the first century A.D. to be public in their faith, even if it meant having to leave the synagogue. Once again, there is a difference between the text’s literal, seemingly historical meaning (its statements about “the Jews”) and its purpose, which is not to narrate historical events but to encourage Jewish Christians several centuries after the death of Jesus.

In passages such as these, the Christian community is interested in the purpose of texts, not in the events that they seem to describe. Our focus has to be on the purpose, because the narrated events did not happen, at least as narrated. While the leaders of the temple in Jerusalem were hostile to Jesus, many Jews supported Jesus. And there is no evidence whatsoever that Israel ever destroyed the Canaanite population prior to occupying the land. The book of Judges is adamant that such destruction did not take place.

In today’s journal post I want to talk about a different sort of biblical text whose literal-historical meaning is not the meaning that God intends for us. Take, for example, Psalm 137.

This psalm is written in the Babylonian exile (500s B.C.) and expresses the feelings of anger and pain that Jews in the exile felt. You will not hear many sermons preached from this psalm, for it ends on a shocking note:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock! (verses 8-9 [NRSV])

Like John’s characterization of “the Jews,” Ps. 137 is problematic, but for a different reason. Unlike Joshua or John’s gospel, there is in Ps. 137 no distinction between literal meaning and purpose. The purpose is to express feelings of anger and pain and the words of the psalm do just that. The problem of this psalm lies in its blessing upon those who would smash the heads of Babylonian infants.

In what sense is Ps. 137 the word of God? Most Christians will be uncomfortable thinking that these words express God’s sentiments–that God was using the psalmist as a mouthpiece to utter God’s own wishes. But it is just a difficult to call these words God’s word because God inspired them and caused them to be written. Jews in exile in Babylon did not need divine inspiration in order to feel and express pain and anger.

What, then, does it mean to say that Ps. 137 is God’s word? How can these human, all too human words of anger and hatred be the word of God?

We can get some perspective on this matter if we focus, not on this psalm, but on the themes of this psalm in the context of the entire Bible. The desire for revenge and expressions of malice are common in the Bible, as are hopes, fears, and joy. In passages such as Ps. 137, we do not hear God in any direct way. Instead, we are hearing a Jew of the exile cry out to God from a situation of pain and injustice. In this psalm God is silent; humans speak.

But in fact God is speaking in silence, for the Bible is a dialog between God and God’s people. Sometimes people express thanks for God; at other times, they express anger and frustration. Sometimes God responds; sometimes God does not respond. Sometimes God speaks directly; at other times God is silent.

In Ps. 137 God does not speak. God listens to the exiled Jews pouring out their pain and anger. Their feelings fall short of the love of enemy of which Matthew’s gospel speaks. But God does not interrupt or correct. God listens.

Ps. 137 is the word of God because it is an integral part of the Bible, in which God speaks, but also listens. God’s word, in other words, is dialogical. God’s word is not pure address. It is God speaking and God listening, for in listening, God draws human speech into God’s own word. The human words become a part of God’s word.

We don’t have to pretend, then, that Ps. 137 expresses God’s sentiments or wishes–that God blesses those who smash the heads of Babylonian infants against the rocks. We only have to acknowledge that the word of God is God’s address that also includes humankind’s response to the divine address.

Just as in the incarnation of the eternal word, so in the Bible the divine embraces the human.

The “Jews” in John’s Gospel

We are entering election season; hyperbolic rhetoric is already fills the political air like humidity in the South.

We all know that often political rhetoric often seems to be about one thing but is really about something else–it has a subtext that is known but not talked about. Discussions about immigration are, for some people, about the United State’s loss of sovereignty and status.  For others they are about the loss of American identity as hordes of people not like us storm our borders. Talk about the Common Core is about more than just educational theory. It is also about state and local rights, about apocalyptic fears of big governments, and about the place of the United States in the world. Debates about the Confederate flag encode beliefs about heroism and racism.

This phenomenon, of discourse seeming to be about one thing but actually being about something else, is quite common. Think of the film, “Wizard of Oz.” It seems to be about a dream, but it is also about, or perhaps mainly about, the struggles of 1930s America to come to terms with a society moving from a predominantly rural culture to an urban culture. It expresses a nostalgic preference for farm (Kansas) over city (the Emerald City)–Dorothy finds her home only when she leaves the city and returns to the farm.

Or think of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. At one level they are escapist entertainment with no literary pretensions. But they are also expressions of the 1950s feeling that United Kingdom had lost its pre-eminent status as a world power and was subservient to the United States. James Bond represents the literary reversal of all that: He single-handedly and repeatedly saves western civilization with only token help from Britain’s allies. The novels are thus commentaries the British establishment’s desire for status and meaning in a world of super-powers.

Or, consider the Gary Cooper film, High Noon, in which the sheriff has to face a group of criminals alone, his fellow-townspeople finding excuses to avoid helping him. It is generally recognized that this film is an indictment of the political atmosphere surrounding the hearings, in the 1950s, of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, in which many people were unjustly accused of being communists and had careers and lives ruined while their friends and colleagues did little or nothing to stop the lunacy.

This phenomenon helps us understand the subject of my previous journal entry. That entry described the Old Testament’s affirmation that God had commanded Israel to destroy the native inhabitants of the land of Canaan and (in the book of Joshua) its description of that destruction. I pointed out that in fact nothing of the sort actually happened, as the book of Judges acknowledges, and that the narrative in Joshua is a projection backwards into history of what Israel wished had happened. After the Babylonian exile, with Israel small and threatened by its members marrying outside the Jewish community, a narrative about destruction symbolized the need for separation and identity.

This phenomenon is found in the New Testament as well. In John’s gospel, there is a feature of the narrative that is odd, disturbing, and historically impossible. It is John’s way of referring to “the Jews.” Here are some examples:

• John 5:10 So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.”
• John 5:16 Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath.
• John 7:13 Yet no one would speak openly about him for fear of the Jews.
• John 9:22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.
• John 18:14 Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.
• John 5:18 the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
• John 7:1 the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him.
• John 10:31 The Jews took up stones again to stone him.

What is odd is that the gospel makes it seem that the entire Jewish nation rose up in opposition to Jesus. “The Jews took up stones again to stone him.” This is historically absurd. Jesus and his followers were Jews. In fact, virtually every character in this gospel is a Jew. John’s monolithic portrait of “the Jews” as a group acting in unison against Jesus is not historically accurate.

John’s gospel even acknowledges that “many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus” (John 12:11), telling the reader that “the Jews” were not a homogeneous group uniformly opposed to Jesus. Why then does it insist on saying that “the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him”?

What we have here is a projection into the narrative of a reality at work when the gospel was written. John’s gospel is usually dated to the late first century. We know that this was the period when, in Judea and Galilee, there was growing tension between the Jewish Christian community and the synagogue. Prior to this time in that part of the world, Christians were Jews and seem to have maintained a relationship with the larger Jewish community and its synagogues. But in the late first century tension and alienation emerged, so that increasingly Jewish Christians did not feel welcome in the synagogue.

John’s gospel is written in this context. In chapter 9, the blind man’s parents are fearful of being cast out of the synagogue if they seem favorable to Jesus.  What we are reading is an expression of the fears of Jewish Christians in the last decades of the first century, not a description of historical fact during the ministry of Jesus. “The Jews,” in John’s gospel, represent, not the historical people whom Jesus encountered, but the leadership of the synagogues decades later, a leadership that, from John’s perspective, was hostile to Jesus’ followers.

John’s gospel has thus projected the fears and anxieties of the 80s and 90s A.D. backward into the narrative about Jesus, just as the book of Joshua projects the fears and anxieties of Israel in the 400s and 300s B.C. backward in time.

Recognizing that John’s gospel is engaging in deliberate anachronism is important, because otherwise we might be tempted to agree with the many generations of Christians who blamed “the Jews” for killing Jesus and thus justified their persecution of Jews. Without intending to do so, John’s gospel laid the foundation for Christian hatred of Jews, just as the book of Joshua justified the launching of crusades against unbelievers.

By recognizing these books’ use of deliberate anachronism, we can perhaps avoid unchristian feelings and actions.

Of Genocide, Joshua, and the Jewish Community after the Exile

So far, my posts in this journal have been fairly abstract, dealing with the question of whether or not we should think of God’s revelation in terms of the transmission of facts, data, information. In the last hundred or so years, militant Fundamentalism has said Yes with a very loud voice. The result has been absurd claims about the Bible’s creation stories and a hostile attitude toward scientific accounts of origins. But militant Fundamentalists are not alone in saying Yes, even if most Christians are not as strident in their affirmation. Many, probably most, in the Christian tradition would answer Yes. As I noted in an earlier post, the authority and truth of the Bible seems to require that it be a communication of truths from God.

My concern in denying this claim is to do understand the Bible as well as to avoid attributing unworthy attributes to God. To make my point, I want to consider the passages in Joshua in which God commands Israel to exterminate the inhabitants of the land.

Deuteronomy 7:2 and Joshua 11:19-20

Dt. 7:2 commands Israel, when it enters the promised land, to defeat and utterly destroy the inhabitants, showing them no mercy. 7:3 tells Israel not to intermarry with the inhabitants, a curious command if they’ve already been destroyed–who would be left to marry? The book of Joshua narrates the execution of this command. According to Joshua 11:19-20, God hardened the hearts of the locals, prompting them to fight Joshua and Israel, with the result that were exterminated and received no mercy.

There are several problems with these passages:
• I’ve already noted the oddity of commanding Israel not to intermarry with the pagans who were supposed to have been destroyed.
• I for one don’t want to believe that God commanded Israel to kill all of the men, women, and children of the land.
• The book of Judges contradicts the book of Joshua by showing in great detail that, Joshua notwithstanding, Israel did not exterminate the locals. Of course, Judges laments this fact, wishing that Israel had done so, but it nonetheless records Israel’s failure to do so, thus contradicting the claims of Joshua.

This is all very strange if Joshua is a bunch of historical facts that God communicated to the biblical writer(s).

But everything makes more sense if we attend to Dt. 7:3, with its prohibition of intermarriage. At what point in Israel’s history was there anxiety about intermarriage with pagans? It was in the post-exilic community (400s B.C. and later). Both Ezra and Nehemiah rail against intermarriage because it seems to threaten the well-being of the community.

What we have in Dt. 7:2 and in Joshua are the concerns of the Jewish community, small and feeling threatened after the Babylonian exile, expressing its fears in a historical narrative about its past. Dt. 7:2 and Joshua do not, therefore, represent historical facts or the command of God. They represent instead an expression of the Jewish community’s struggle to survive and to be faithful to God, an expression given narrative form. It’s as though post-exilic Israel were saying, “If only our ancestors had exterminated the pagans, then we would not have to worry about our sons marrying the local pagan girls.”

The Old Testament’s talk about extermination, in other words, does not directly reflect God’s wishes, but is instead a violent way of talking about the Jewish community’s need for purity and separation from its pagan neighbors, especially after the Babylonian exile.

The lesson to draw from this is that, in the Bible, we have to distinguish 1) the historical and grammatical meaning of passages (the “literal” meaning) from 2) the actual meaning. In Joshua, the historical meaning seems to be a reference to historical events. The problem is that, according to Judges, these events did not take place (as Joshua claims they did), at least not nearly as thoroughly as Joshua narrates. The actual meaning relates to the post-exilic community’s understanding of itself in relation to its pagan neighbors and its need to enact separation and prevent intermarriage.

The distinction between the historical meaning and the actual meaning explains why allegorical methods have been so popular in Christian history. Most Christians have felt that there is something more to these stories than just historical narration.

So, to the extent that the Bible contains information in these sorts of narratives, it is information about the struggles of the community to come to terms with its situation. But this is not the communication of information from God. The Bible is, accordingly, best thought of as the record of a dialog among God’s people as they struggle to understand their calling and to be faithful to God.

Next week I want to use the same approach in dealing with those passages in John’s gospel that characterize all Jews as persecuting Jesus and hating the disciples. I’ll make the point that here, as in Joshua, the struggles of the community have been projected back onto the time of Jesus, so that the actual meaning has to do with the Christian situation in the last decades of the first century.

As always, comments are welcome.