Friday, May 9, 2014

Theologically Bad Scripture

One of my favorite musicals is Godspell. It is a modern day telling of the Gospel of Matthew (mostly, with elements of Luke thrown in there, too). One of the most beautiful songs in this musical is "On the Willows." It is taken from one of the most gut-wrenching psalms in the Bible, Psalm 137 (NASB).

137 By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down and wept,
When we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst of it
We hung our harps.
For there our captors demanded of us songs,
And our tormentors mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How can we sing the Lord’s song
In a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
May my right hand forget her skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
If I do not remember you,
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom
The day of Jerusalem,
Who said, “Raze it, raze it
To its very foundation.”
O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one,
How blessed will be the one who repays you
With the recompense with which you have repaid us.
How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones
Against the rock.

The last verse slapped me in the face when I first read it. This is not a Psalm that one teaches in Sunday School to our children, but let's face it:  There are so many passages in Scripture that are difficult to deal with and to explain to young people. We have incest, polygamy, infanticide, genocide, public executions, and physical mutilations; these are all condoned by Scripture in some way or another.

It is often helpful to look at this Scripture in its context. In the year 586 BC, Jerusalem was conquered and destroyed by the Babylonians, including the Temple built by Solomon. This was a huge psychological blow to the Israelis. They had assumed that Jerusalem was some magic "safe place." Although the rest of the country was being conquered around them, no one thought that Jerusalem itself would be conquered.

Not only did the Babylonians conquer Jerusalem, they also sent the inhabitants into exile and put other displaced people in Judah in its place (the foundation of the Samaritan people). The Babylonians did this for 2 reasons. The most obvious reason was to confuse the exiles in a country that was not their own. They would have to either survive or die in exile.

The second reason for sending the Israelis into exile was to separate them from Yahweh, their God. The Babylonians felt that if you separated the people from the land, their gods could not seek revenge on them. However, in order to honor the gods of that land, they had the new inhabitants learn about their gods and how to worship them. (Again, this was the beginning of the Samaritans.)

This unknown Psalmist is crying out from her/his agony. He/she had just witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem. Their neighbors, the Edomites, were having a bit of Schadenfreude at the Israelis' expense. Worse than that, the Babylonian soldiers in a bit of disturbing sport, were killing the stragglers along the route to Babylon, including the babies.

This explains the terrifying verse:  "How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock."

It explains the verse, but does it condone it?

One thing to bear in mind is that the Psalms are not always theologically sound. They are full of emotion, pain, anguish, joy, happiness, longing. So while many times they express truths that speak of the goodness of God (like in Psalm 8), there are others, such as this Psalm, that speak more of the heartache of the Psalmist and not something one should use to condone infanticide.

Other Scripture passages are often taken out of context, to be used to support one's particular view, without even looking at it in its broader context, including historical, archeological, and even theological. Luke 22:38 is often used by those advocating for loose gun laws to support their claim that it is OK to kill in self-defense. They choose to ignore the vast majority of sayings by Christ, including turning the other cheek, loving your enemy, and Jesus' own example of not defending himself from his crucifixion.

Another prime example is Psalm 109:8. This verse has been used by many conservative Christians for their "prayer" for President Barack Obama:  "Let his days be few; Let another take his office." However, I hear no one pray Psalm 109:9 for him:  "Let his children be fatherless and his wife a widow."

The constant danger is that we try to make Scripture speak what we believe rather than let Scripture speak for itself. This is irregardless of our worldview. We need to bear in mind the culture, time period, and most importantly the language of the time. Even native born Greek and Hebrew speakers have a difficult time understanding those 2000 year old texts. Think about it. Remember the first time you read Shakespeare? It wasn't exactly the easiest thing to read and that is not even 400 years old, let alone 2000. Maybe something that we can learn from Islam is that they only consider the Qur'an to be holy and authentic in the language that it was written in:  Arabic. Much is lost in translation in Hebrew and Greek.

So what do I do with Psalm 137? I realize that this was written out of a pain and hurt that I can scarcely begin to imagine. I realize that the writer experienced a loss few of us have endured. I also realize that he/she was wrong in wishing the deaths of innocent Babylonian babies. At the same time, I understand that he/she wrote this Psalm to God, expressing the hurt and anguish that the whole nation was going through. This is the proper context of the pain. This is the one to whom we should cry out our frustrations, pain, and anger:  to God.

He can take it.

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