Thursday, December 12, 2013

Psalm 137

If you are an American of a certain age, chances are you're familiar with some version of the song "Cotton Fields." It has been covered by many artists including Johnny Cash, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Beach Boys. It was written by Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, a folksinger/songwriter of legendary stature.

Years ago I read somewhere an author's speculation that Lead Belly first improvised this number in response to some racist lout's request, "Play us a song about them ol' cotton fields back home." With its rollicking melody and simple rhyming couplets, "Cotton Fields" starts innocently enough.

When I was a little bitty baby
My mama would rock me in my cradle
In them old cotton fields back home.

The song then quickly takes a hard left turn. "Cotton Fields" is neither minstrelsy nor nostalgia, neither work song nor romantic fiction. This ain't no "Jump down, turn around pick a bale of cotton."

When them cotton bolls get rotten
You couldn't pick very much cotton
In them old cotton fields back home.

It may sound a little funny
But you couldn't make very much money
In them old cotton fields back home.

Picking cotton was miserable, back-breaking, hard work. Lead Belly's song doesn't pretty it up. Instead he subverts a genre and undermines a hypothetical lout's expectations. The song "Cotton Fields" gives the finger to the oppressor.

One might wonder if a hypothetical lout would even notice.

So, flash back a few millenia to a Judean musician, captive in Babylonian exile, sitting beside a river far from home. It may have been a deliberate taunt. It may have just been an insensitive request. Maybe it was a single Babylonian, maybe a bullying group. For some reason, someone said, "Sing us one of your songs from back home." And so Psalm 137 was born. It begins as a fine, beautiful, heart-breaking lament:

By the rivers of Babylon—
   there we sat down and there we wept
   when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
   and our tormentors asked for mirth,
   saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
How could we sing the LORD's song
   in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4)

I couldn't begin to count the musical settings to which these words have been adapted. There was lovely one in Godspell. Sinead O'Connor included one on her album Theology. Don McLean's American Pie album ended with a version, in the form of a round composed by Philip Hayes.

None of these versions, however, include the psalm's last verses. That's because Psalm 137, which starts out so fine and sad, takes an ugly turn toward the end.

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
   what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
   and dash them against the rock! (Psalm 137:8-9)

The image is ugly but the sentiment, I think, understandable. The Judeans had suffered horrors at the hands of the Babylonians and now they lived as captives. The desire for revenge, probably in terms very much like what they had suffered, is simply human.

Human. I'm not sure how those whose doctrine of inspiration teaches that the Bible is the direct Word of God, that the Holy Spirit is Scripture's "Author," deal with verses like these. I would not try to expunge these words from the canon. I think they can be instructive; they teach us that we can express our every thought, emotion, and sentiment in prayer without self-censorship. But I will disagree strongly with anyone who suggests that these verses represent the will of God. God does not desire babies, even Babylonian babies, to be dashed against the rocks.

Psalm 137 is subversive, I think, in a way similar to that in which "Cotton Fields" was subversive. It is delicious to think that this is  the "song of Zion" which was sung, in Hebrew, to an uncomprehending Babylonian audience. Psalm 137 gives the finger to Judah's oppressor.

In a wicked and wonderful book called the Twible (page 140) Jana Reiss quotes Robert Alter on this Psalm. Alter says,

No moral justification can be offered for [Psalm 137's] notorious closing line. All one can do is to recall the background of outraged feeling that triggers the conclusion: The Babylonians have laid waste to Jerusalem, exiled much of its population, looted and massacred; the powerless captives ordered--perhaps mockingly--to sing their Zion songs, respond instead with a lament that is not really a song and ends with a bloodcurdling curse pronounced on their captors, who, fortunately, do not understand the Hebrew in which it is pronounced.

Biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

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