Psalm 137 Translation and Comment

By the waters of Babylon,

there we sat down and wept

When we remembered Zion.

On the city willows

We hung up our harps;

For there our captors commanded song,

And our minders, merriment:

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

How can we sing a song of Yahweh on foreign soil?

“Jerusalem, if I should forget you

May my right hand rot!

May my tongue be attached to the roof of my mouth

If I do not remember you,

If I do not put Jerusalem

Above my greatest joy!

Remember, Yahweh, what the Edomites did

On Jerusalem’s Day of Disaster

‘Strip her, strip her,’ they were saying

‘Down to her bare foundations!’

Ah, Daughter of Babylon doomed to destruction,

How blest the one who rewards you

With the wage you paid to us:

How blest the one who batters your babies against the rock.

This is of course a famous, even notorious psalm. Its depiction of the passionate grief of exile and enslavement, may very well be accurate now for Ukrainian people captured and taken to Russia; while many Ukrainians may share the savage hope of tit for tat revenge expressed by the psalm.

The beginning with its conventional picture of sad exiles sitting by the canals of Babylon, and the theatrical gesture of hanging harps on willow trees, is interrupted by the realistic picture of Babylonians demanding entertainment. Immediately the psalm leaves the Babylonians and homes in on the anger and loyalty of the Jewish exile. The Hebrew appears to say, “iF I forget…..may my right hand forget” The KJV translators completed the sentence by adding “its cunning”, which still seems an acceptable guess. Modern scholars however realised that a very simple correction of the Hebrew text gives the verb “to wither away”, which is my preferred option.

The root meaning of the Hebrew usually translated “raze it, raze it” is to “strip” which well expresses the almost sexual aggression of the Edomites, neighbours and traditional enemies of Israel.

When the speaker addresses the daughter of Babylon, she is described as destroyed/ defeated, but most modern translators make this passive into an active verb, calling Babylon a destroyer. That seems unjustified to me, as this psalm was certainly written after the Jewish return from conquered Babylon. Here the perspective of the writer merges with that of the fictional exile. A defeated/ destroyed Babylon might well undergo the same atrocities it had meted out to its conquests. I have therefore retained the Hebrew reading.

As to the appalling last verse the writer is careful to depict it as an instance of eye for eye justice. There will be some people, not all of them Ukrainian who have hoped that smug and careless Russians might experience some of the horrors their army has unleashed on Ukrainians. The psalmist portrays honestly and viscerally the hatred of the victim for the conqueror. It is what many Palestinians today feel towards their Jewish persecutors.

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