Psalm 137: Dashing Little Ones

“Remember the day of Jerusalem, O Lord, against the people of Edom, who said, “Down with it! down with it!” even to the ground!”

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy the one who pays you back for what you have done to us!

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (Ps. 137, BCP 792)

This last line is perhaps the most objectionable line in the psalter to modern Christians. Our lectionary leaves out these last three lines. I was reading a chapter by a Jewish poet last week and she discussed this psalm from the point of view of a Jewish non-violence activist. She used the King James version of the psalm and reading it over, I think the King James version makes the sentiment more clear and the tone is quite different.

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom, in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou has served us.

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth they little ones against stones. (Ps. 136, King James version)

First the King James version makes it clear that it  is the children of Edom, not the children of Babylon, who are cursed. It more clearly identifies the children of Edom as those upon whom the curse falls. Further, the first reference to the children of Edom clearly refers adults since only adults will be jeering a foreign army on to destroy Jerusalem. It endorses that their worst punishment is the destruction of their little ones. Edom is the daughter of Babylon, perhaps a minor ally of the Babylonians. Edomities were a tributary people of Israel, who the Jews said descended from Esau  son of Isaac, therefore also descendants of Abraham. Edom today is in southern Israel, Jordan and perhaps part of the Siani. Basically it looks like Negav area of southern Israel but their capital was at Petra, currently in Jordan.

They were first defeated by King Saul and held tributary by the House of David. They rebelled against Israel several times ultimately siding with Nebachadnezzar II of Babylon whose destruction of Jerusalem triggers this psalm.  Edom is allowed to extend its territory into Hebron where they remain for centuries.  The exiles are vowing revenge against Edom, a people they had frequently defeated in the past, rather than the great power of Babylon. As a tributary people and descendants of Abraham,  Israel must have expected them to stand with the Jews against Babylon/Perisans so there is a betrayal angle here as well. The first line of the psalm that places it in their Babylonian exile caused me to jump to the unwarrented conclusion that Babylon was being cursed. Recall that they will eventually see the Babylonian king Cyrus as a kind of Messiah for allowing them to return and supporting the rebuilding of the temple.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the King James version states more clearly that this is kind for kind destruction, an eye for an eye, a child for a child. Give them what they gave us! While Christians can never support such revenge, it does take an eye for an eye to its fullest extent. It also reminds us that the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem would not have occurred without much blood shed and many innocent little ones killed, as always happens in war. How many innocent little ones die in violence around the world today? How much of that violence is done in retaliation for violence done their innocent ones? How many conflicts in the world today see children as an acceptable target? The poet I was reading last week, Alicia Ostriker, quoted Osama bin Laden’s first message to the Islamic world after 9/11: “They champion falsehood, support the butcher against the victim, the oppressor against the innocent child. May God mete them the punishment they deserve.”

In response to the last line of this psalm , “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth they little ones against stones.” Ostriker writes:

And there we have it, human history, the justification of every blood feud, every literal dashing of children’s heads against walls by conquering armies, guerrilla armies, occupying forces, terrorist suicide bombers, Arab and Jew, Serb and Bosnian, Hutu and Tutsi, Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics… The righteous, with God on their aide, joyously washing their feet in the blood of the wicked. The righteous confident that they, and they alone, know God’s wishes, and are the only ones pure enough to carry out God’s will. …

The psalms are the prototype in English of devotional poetry and possibly lyric poetry in general. Let nobody say that poetry makes nothing happen. Let nobody say that poetry cannot or should not be political. We have the model before us. (p. 28-29)

References:

Alicia Ostriker, “Psalm and Anti-Psalm: A Personal Interlude” in Poets on the Psalms, ed. Lynn Domina. Trinity University Press, 2008

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One thought on “Psalm 137: Dashing Little Ones

  1. You are right – on the surface of it, this psalm is appalling. And we are right to react to it with horror, and to see in it a glimpse in the literature of ancient Israel one of the most dreadful aspects of human history – one which appears in countless histories.

    But I think it’s too easy to simply drop it out of our liturgies and prayers. It is there in the Psalms, and it utters a darkness which lurks in all human hearts – revealing to us who we are, or who we might be should the circumstances arise.

    But my grandmother, who also took deep offence at this psalm, managed to continue to pray it. When she sang about the dashing of children on the rock, she had to remind herself of what she meant: ‘Who is the Rock?’ Once that question was answered in the person of Christ, the psalm could begin to mean something quite different. In Christ, our enemies can be left to his mercy. Casting our enemies onto that rock, we can trust that in Him the violence and hatred that makes them our enemies will somehow be brought to a place of peace.

    It’s all a little bit patristic-sounding, stretching the typologies etc., but perhaps it works nonetheless.

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