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.