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Psalms is considered a book of poetry, conveying the full human experience, including the desire for revenge

“Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones!” Normally when we think of the Biblical book of Psalms, we envision prayerful, peaceful meditations on patience, faithfulness, and longing, but the above quotation comes from Psalm 137, in which the Psalmist denounces the suffering inflicted upon the Israelites by their Babylonian captors, calling for his people to rise up and exact revenge on their oppressors. When we encounter Biblical verses like these which seem to condone violence, what should be our response as Universal Life Church pastors?

Several scholars have parsed the verse, offering their take on its suggestion of violence, and their thoughts were offered in a recent Huffington Post article. Joel Baron, a fifth-year student at Hebrew College, offers a more lenient interpretation, noting that linguistic discrepancies can be misleading. Echoes of verbal roots, as well as the association of close verbal roots, become lost in translation, he explains, while “[t]here is also a stunning onomatopoeia in the Psalm which one cannot hear in the English”. As interfaith ministers ordained online, it is impossible to examine every linguistic nuance of every great religious text, but these discrepancies deserve our scrutiny if and when they arise, as they may mean the difference between hyperbole and a literal call to infanticide.

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In Babylon, Hebrew slaves were often forced to play harp music for their captors

Other scholars have been less generous in their critique of the “baby-bashing” verse, suggesting the context does little to palliate its severity. Greg Carey, a professor of the New Testament, argues that “[t]here’s no need to ‘explain away’ these verses,” and that the Psalms “express the full range of human emotion” because they “are true to life,” while “many people know the bitterness that could lead to such sentiments” including, no doubt, those who become an ordained minister in order to make a difference. In other words, Carey suggests, the Psalmist isn’t bothering to sugarcoat his dark thoughts, and we ministers should be wary of this fact.

In fact, some interpreters have been so unsettled by such passages that they have tried to “fix” them, according to Julia M. O’Brien, a professor of the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament.  “The church father Origen, for example, read the psalm allegorically,” she argues: “he claimed that [Psalm 137] meant to dash your sins against the rocks of reason.” But O’Brien doesn’t view every verse as a moral injunction; rather, she views the Bible as “an ancient people’s testimony to God” and “an invitation to speak honestly about our own experience,” as when the author vents to God about the trauma endured by his people in the Babylonian exile. Sadly, he really does fantasize about avenging his people’s suffering on his enemies’ children, but that doesn’t mean we as ULC clergy should treat this as a moral injunction.

On one hand, we could treat Psalm 137 in an allegorical or metaphorical light, but on the other, we could admit the author really did entertain some very dark and evil thoughts, and treat the verse as an admission of those thoughts to God. Obviously, the Universal Life Church Monastery condemns such murderous impulses, as they do not constitute “that which is right”. How do you handle Bible verses which seem to promote violence?

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