The Cycle of Judahite and Edomite Violence
This is a lamentation from the Jerusalem exiles who remember not only their Babylonian captors but also, and perhaps even more acutely, their Edomite neighbors who stood opposite the Babylonian army as it marched on Jerusalem, clapping their hands and crying out to the Babylonians (v. 7): “Strip her, strip her, to her very foundations!” The Judahites expected that the Edomites, descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau, would have acted more empathetically with regard to their suffering.
Significantly, it seems that the bad blood between Judah and Edom went back hundreds of years. The verse, “Happy is he who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks,” is in conversation with a story that is purported to have occurred, to our great chagrin, in the time of King Amaziah of Judah, in whose days there was war with the Edomites (2 Chron 25:12).
יא וַאֲמַצְיָ֙הוּ֙ הִתְחַזַּ֔ק וַיִּנְהַג֙ אֶת עַמּ֔וֹ וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ גֵּ֣יא הַמֶּ֑לַח וַיַּ֥ךְ אֶת בְּנֵי־שֵׂעִ֖יר עֲשֶׂ֥רֶת אֲלָפִֽים: יבוַעֲשֶׂ֨רֶת אֲלָפִ֜ים חַיִּ֗ים שָׁבוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יְהוּדָ֔ה וַיְבִיא֖וּם לְרֹ֣אשׁ הַסָּ֑לַע וַיַּשְׁלִיכ֛וּם מֵֽרֹאשׁ הַסֶּ֖לַע וְכֻלָּ֥ם נִבְקָֽעוּ:
11 Amaziah took courage, and led out his people; he went to the Valley of Salt, and struck down ten thousand men of Seir. 12 The people of Judah captured another ten thousand alive, took them to the top of Sela, and threw them down from the top of Sela, so that all of them were dashed to pieces.
Perhaps the Edomites had reason for their cruel attitude toward the Judahites, but this would not end the cycle of violence. The Babylonian exiles who authored Psalm 137 were likely alluding to this story in the poem, and they prayed for a day that they could return to power and smite their enemies with a deadly blow as they once did.
The verse, “happy is he who grasps…” cannot be separated from the traumatic context in which it was written, as the Judahites sit in the bonds of exile opposite their captors, who taunt them with requests that they, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
Try to imagine to yourself sitting in a concentration camp, Majdanek or Birkenau for instance, with Nazis taunting you and your traditions. You look up and you see not only the cursed Germans but also, and no less importantly, in your mind’s eye you remember your Polish neighbors, who clapped their hands while the Germans forcibly removed you from your homes.
As we sit by the rivers of blood in Europe, we cry about the loss of our homes, and we remember in anger the offensive clapping of our neighbors. The curse that leaves our mouths, “happy is he who seizes” is one that escapes from our broken hearts. This image may be as close as we can come to imagining what the Judahites felt about the Babylonians and the Edomites during the early years of their exile in Babylon.
And what about us? We pray for an end to the spilling of blood. We pray to find paths of peace and reconciliation between Esau and Ishmael on one hand, and Jacob and Isaac on the other. We pray that all the children of Abraham can live together in peace, without vengeance and without hatred. If only.
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February 28, 2015
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Dr. Rabbi Binyamin (Benny) Lau is the director of the Center for Judaism and Society at Bet Morasha of Jerusalem and the founder of their Beit Midrash for women. He is also the rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in Katamon. Lau is one of the driving forces behind 929 and is the author of, among other publications, the multi-volume series The Sages.
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