Critiquing the Moral Failings in the Bible
Psalm 137:9—with its call for savage cruelty—is only one passage in the Bible that violates our moral sense and engenders a sense of horror in us. Who can forget the near sacrificial slaughter of Isaac (Gen 22:10), Shimon and Levi’s indiscriminate massacre of the residents of Shechem (Gen 34:25), the bloody zealotry of Pinhas (Num 25:8), the commandment to commit genocide against the Amalekite (Deut 25:19) and Canaanite nations (Deut 7:2), the rape of the captive war beauty (Deut 21:11), or David’s arranging for the death of Batsheva’s husband, Uriah (2 Sam 11:15)?
We must approach these biblical passages with an acute moral sensibility. If we accept them uncritically it will be difficult to avoid repeating these evil acts in some twisted sense of serving God or obeying divine law. If we are not morally vigilant in understanding the Bible, we run the risk of becoming fanatics ourselves, and in our fundamentalist attempt to follow the biblical word, we will defame the God and religion of Israel, for nothing so readily falsifies religious testimony as does religious violence and moral blindness.
Rabbinic Critique of Biblical Texts
Although reading the Bible with a critical moral eye may seem untraditional, in fact it is a time-honored exegetical method of many rabbinic commentators and much of halakhic tradition.
- Akeidat Yitzhak – Talmudic rabbis didn’t hesitate to claim that Abraham was in error in his attempt to sacrifice his son (b. Ta’anit 4a; Genesis Rabbah 55:5 and 56:8;Pesikta Zutra 44), while later liturgists transformed the message of the akedah into a prayer for God’s kindness and compassion.
- Slaughter of Shechemites – Jacob cursed the unrestrained violence of Shimon and Levi (Gen 49:5-7).
- Pinchas’ Zealotry – In a remarkable inversion of Bible’s praise of Pinhas, the Babylonian and Palestinian sages claimed his zealotry ran counter to the wisdom of the rabbis and it was only the direct intervention of the divine voice that saved him from execution as a murderer (b. Sanhedrin 82a; j. Sanhedrin 9:7).
- Annihilating Amalekites and the Seven Nations – The Babylonian sages effectively rendered inoperative the commandment to exterminate the Canaanites and Amalekites ( Yadayim 4:4; b. Berakhot 28a), and later in the 12th century Maimonides redefined this disturbing mitzvah to refer only to enemies implacably committed to war on Israel (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and their Wars, 6:1 and 6:4).
- The Beautiful Captive – The rabbis understood the law of the captive war bride as a lamentable concession to the aggressive “evil urge” that is unleashed in war (BT, Qiddushin 21b).
- David’s Adultery – While one talmudic rabbi, Shmuel bar Nahmani, tried to exonerate David for his adultery and lethal scheming (b. Shabbat 56a), the Bible itself makes abundantly clear that David’s sin is grave (2 Samuel 12:9-14) and the Talmud considers his fit punishment to be nearly unbearable (b. Yoma 22b).
Why do these deep critiques so often predominate, and why do talmudic and post-talmudic rabbis offer innovative hermeneutical interpretations often counter to the straightforward meaning of the biblical text? It seems that the primacy of ethical concern when reading biblical and sacred texts—even as those texts are understood to be divine—is a governing principle. If the God of Israel is a God of tsedeq (righteousness) and mishpat (justice), of hesed (kindness) and rahamim (mercy), the norms advocated by the divine text must also bear these characteristics.
Unworthy Behavior in the Bible: A Fact But Not the Norm
The Rabbis’ effort to reinterpret certain biblical passages highlights the reality that not all behavior described by the Bible is morally correct, nor are all biblical emotions worthy. Frequently the biblical narrative simply lays our life as it is. Yet the overall thrust of the Bible’s mandate for the Jewish people is to be different from the ruthless pagans surrounding Israel at the time, to be a holy, not a barbaric, people. While at times the biblical Israelites give expression to the demons in their nature, these impulses are ultimately to be rejected and expunged.
Even David, seen by tradition as the author of this verse, was denied the opportunity to build God’s Temple because he gave too much reign to his violent impulses and shed too much blood (1 Chron. 28:3) . The Bible’s moral critique of David is undeniable and we should continue that critique as we study all biblical texts.
A Descriptive not Prescriptive Verse
So what are we to make of this grisly verse in Psalm 137? Perhaps the most important insight is that this call for viciousness is descriptive, not prescriptive, despite its putative bestowal of “blessing.” Nowhere does the text say that the call merited divine approval. It should be seen as the angry cry of a wounded soul, not a value to be idealized and acted upon.
This kind of wartime cruelty was common in biblical times—indeed the preceding verse identifies it as the merciless standard of the Babylonians when they destroyed Jerusalem and decimated the Jewish people. Thus, the Psalmist’s call for vengeance is the instinctive response to repay the barbaric enemy in kind. It is the expression of the “yetser ha-ra,” the evil impulse in us all.
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February 28, 2015
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Dr. Rabbi Eugene Korn is Academic Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University and ordination from the Israeli Rabbinate. His recent publications include Plowshares into Swords? Essays on Religion and Violence, Returning to Zion: Christian and Jewish Reflections, and Jewish Theology and World Religions.
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