Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Uncomfortably Violent Passages

I was wondering about the topic of Divine Inspiration and Biblical Fallibility in the canonization of the Bible. There are some passages, like the supplication prayer of Psalm 137, that ask God to act as the avenger of Israel. Some of the things the psalmist prays for makes me squirm, like

8 O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays youfor what you have done to us-
9 he who seizes your infantsand dashes them against the rocks.

What would be the role of passages like these in the Bible? Is it also divinely inspired, or did it find its way into the Bible as a consequence of human fallibility? How should we treat such passages?


Daniel Kim said...

First of all, I'm glad that we get to start up Gracepoint Forum again. We'll try to keep it up longer this time...

Regarding this question, I think we need to get a little more clarification from you...

What do find to be problematic in this passage? The fact that the psalmist prays to God for revenge against the Babylonians for what they did to Israel?

Or the description of what that "revenge" entails?

I would guess it's both.. but which one is the more problematic one for you? I'm just trying to get a gauge on whether or not you're having problems with the fundamental idea of vengeance or more with the explicit descriptions.

Wynn said...

I'm really glad that this forum is back up also! I think it will be an extremely helpful tool for the summer. =)

As for the problematic part, it's both, but I guess it's more of the request. It's difficult to think that statements like these are divinely inspired. Maybe I don't quite grasp what it means to be divinely inspired...

Daniel Kim said...

Okay, yes, there is perhaps a misunderstanding of what it means to be the word of God..
Think about what Satan says to Jesus, or the countless instances where God is mocked in the Bible, or the countless times when there are records of the psalmist complaining to God.

As a whole, they do still constitute what we call "Word of God", but that does not mean that those words are from the mouth of God. Does that make sense?
The Bible is brutally honest about the human condition, and especially in the Psalms, there are many expressions and requests for vengeance. That does not mean that those prayers or incidents actually express the heart of God. So I think perhaps you can rethink your conception on what it means to be "the word of God".

Now, there's another historical fact that is relevant. The fact is that when one country conquered another during those times, it was customary for the victorious country to demonstrate the dominance of their nation by 1) destroying the temple or religious center of the nation that lost, 2) publicly killing their respected men, and/or 3) killing their infants by dashing them against the ground or a rock while insulting their god. I'm sure there are more ways that they demonstrated their dominance, but the idea was that they were trying to insult the conquered nation's deity, saying that their god is more powerful. This was something that Babylon (and Assyria, and even Greeks, hundreds of years later) did as a part of what just happens in wars.

It is hard for us to imagine such a barbaric world where infanticide was so common. Even hundreds of years after the Babylonians, in a more "elevated" civilization as the Greeks, we still find this coldness when it comes to treatment of infants. Even their most elevated teacher, Aristotle, in Politics (VII.16), wrote:
"There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed [i.e. thrown on the trash heap or left out in the woods to die]. For a limit must be fixed to the population of the state."

So we must understand that they were living in different times, where how life was treated was quite different, especially in wars. On the other hand, the people of the ancient times, if they were to look at our world, would probably find it strange and hypocritical that we would press a button to kill hundreds and even tens of thousands of people (a rather dishonorable way to fight wars), and yet would balk at them killing some infants. Anyway, that was a tangent.

The point is that infant-killing happened as a part of war, and it was just a rather common thing. If you are interested in a discussion on how we can make sense of the violent ways of the Old Testament, you could try looking at another post: Islam Similar to Old Testament.

So what this psalmist wishes upon Babylon is the "eye for an eye" repayment of what Babylon did to Israel. Isaiah says the same thing in Isaiah 13:16-18.

Talking about Babylon, Isaiah says, "Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be looted and their wives ravished. See, I will stir up against them the Medes, who do not care for silver and have no delight in gold. Their bows will strike down the young men; they will have no mercy on infants nor will they look with compassion on children."

Notice that what is prophesied here is that as a vengeance against Babylon, God is going to "judge" them through another people group, Medes (not Israelites). And the description of the Medes as having no compassion for children or infants is not an expression of God's heart.

Likewise, the prayer of the psalmist is not a statement that therefore God delights in war or infants being killed in wars, nor that God would bless the Medes.. but it was a prayer asking for justice, prayer asking for vengeance from God, because they saw themselves as victims of the exceptional cruelty that Babylonians committed. And what God does is to stir up another nation (rather than command the Israelites to commit this heinous act) to judge the Babylonians.

This whole concept of using wars among the pagan nations as His tool for judgment is a ethically difficult concept to understand, and I myself don't emotionally understand it... but perhaps the post "Islam similar to OT" would help thinking through it.

Hope that helped.

Wynn said...

Thank you for the clarification! =)

Eddie C said...

Yes, I remember C.S. Lewis writing something very similar in a book about his reflections on the psalms. Thanks for the help, Daniel. I remember you telling us something similar in a small group bible study years and years ago about what we mean when we say that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God. That little piece of teaching is something that dramatically changed the way I read the Bible and ever since the Bible has been far easier to make sense of and apply into my life. I am really looking forward to this gracepoint forum and all the ways it'll help me and our whole church in our faith.