A Microcosm of an Imperfect Bible
Putting the Psalm to Music
Long ago, as a music student, I was allotted the exercise of setting Psalm 137 for unaccompanied choir. What could be more inspiring than the opening words, “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat; we wept, as we thought of Zion … If I forget you, O Jerusalem …”? For six verses the music flowed, weaving a counterpoint to evoke the sadness and nostalgia of exile. But then, “Remember … against the Edomites … happy is he who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks.” Should I simply follow what most composers have done when setting the psalm to music, and restrict my setting to the first six verses only?
A Unified Theme
Is the shift to the second half of the psalm an abrupt change of mood? I don’t think so; I believe that is a misreading. The mood throughout is one of bitterness and resentment –bitterness at being asked to sing the “songs of the Lord” in a foreign land, aggravated by resentment towards the Edomites – even more than the conquering Babylonians – who had gratuitously taken advantage of an opportunity to inflict cruelty on those they should have regarded as brothers.
It is not difficult, especially after the holocaust, to understand how the exiles felt, having suffered bitter defeat and seen their children torn from their arms and wantonly slaughtered. The psalmist perfectly portrays their emotion; to end on an elevated note would be preaching at the victims rather than sharing their pain.
Violent Retribution in the Bible
If the psalm empathizes, it stops short of mandating violent retribution on Israel’s enemies. Nevertheless, other parts of the Bible do precisely that.
- Genocide of Canaanites – Deuteronomy, at the same time as it sets out an idealized system of law designed to establish an equitable and compassionate society, calls for the extermination of the tribes of Canaan (7:2; 20:16-18).
- Genocide of Amalekites – Saul kills every Amalekite other than their king, Agag, including women and children, and is only castigated for failing to kill the king and for taking spoils (1 Sam 15).
- Slaughtering Midianite women and children – Moses (Numbers 31:2, 15-18) orders the cold-blooded slaughter of the captive women and boys of Midian.
- Indiscriminate killing of enemies – David (1 Samuel 27:9) “leaves no man or woman alive” on his random raids into Geshurite, Amalekite, and Gizrite territory, which he does to deceive Achish about where he has been campaigning.
- Capital punishment for religious infractions – The Torah mandates death sentences for Sabbath breaking (Exod 31:14, Num 15:35), male homosexual acts (Lev 20:13), and a host of other transgressions.
The modern ‘believers’, nurtured on ideals of religious freedom and universal human rights, is left bewildered and uncomfortable, cornered by their own conscience into a defensive position.
The Good and the Bad in the Bible
So what is to be done? How can we proclaim the Bible as our sacred, inviolable, perfect, ground-text, while at the same time proclaiming a message of tolerance, equality and universal human rights? Not that hints of such doctrines cannot be found in scripture. Of course they can. Does not scripture teach that all humanity is descended from Adam, made in the image of God, and do not prophets such as Isaiah and Jonah carry forward the message of universality? Of course. The Bible is the repository of much of the highest wisdom and moral teaching to be found in the ancient world, and we rightly treasure it. The problem is, that it contains much else, that we would prefer to overlook or forget entirely.
The two extreme options are (1) abandon any pretence of faith in the Bible, or (2) abandon commitment to the ideals of liberal, egalitarian democracy and universal human rights. If forced to choose I would regretfully opt for the first; fortunately, more nuanced responses are possible.
Marching Together with Moral Progress
Problematic texts say what they say and, ultimately, it is not enough to read or reinterpret texts in a far-fetched, if morally acceptable way. Such an approach lacks intellectual integrity. It may be that earlier generations, when interpreting against the plain sense, thought they were revealing the “true meaning” of their texts. This possibility has been closed to us by the development of historical-critical methods of textual study; we must beware of self-deception in claiming, “This is what the Bible really means”.
Instead, somehow, we must find the courage to critique biblical passages and say that this is how they thought then but not how we think now, to see the divinity behind biblical texts as contextualized historically and meant to develop and adapt with the progress of human moral consciousness. To do otherwise is to ossify the biblical text and leave it in a stance that defies the moral progress that has enabled productive cooperation across nations, cultures, and religions.
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February 28, 2015
October 21, 2023
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Dr. Rabbi Norman Solomon was a Fellow (retired) in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He remains a member of Wolfson College and the Oxford University Teaching and Research Unit in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was ordained at Jews’ College and did his Ph.D. at the University of Manchester. Solomon has served as rabbi to a number of Orthodox Congregations in England and is a Past President of the British Association for Jewish Studies. He is the author of Torah from Heaven.
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