Sunday, August 5, 2012

2) Cursing Psalms - A Historical-Critical Interpretation

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The enemies cursed by these Psalms represent extreme examples of wickedness and injustice. The text presents this reality of injustice even at times when it is not clearly apparent in certain translations. In his article, The poor's curse,” Jonathan Ben-Dov provides some helpful textual analysis of the term  עָנִי, as used in Psalm 35:10 immediately following a curse. This term is usually translated “poor” and it appears in six cursing Psalms. For example, as if to give in part the reason for the preceding brutal curses, such as, “Let their eyes be darkened,” and, “Make their loins continually to shake,” and, “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living,” Psalm 69:29 explains “I am poor” (Ps 69:23, 28-29 KJV). On face value, such an understanding of this term might make these passages appear to be a poor person cursing the rich, as if inequity of capital were so great an injustice as to justify the hope that “ruin come upon them unawares,” but there is more implied by the term than simple poverty (Ps 35:8). Ben-Dov writes,
The root ‘nh in nominal and verbal forms does not necessarily express lack of capital. עָנִי  is a passive form of the verb ‘nh when implying oppression and the עָנִי is therefore one who has suffered oppression or injustice. Lack of property naturally accompanies this situation, but is not the major aspect of it; it is the social status, not the poverty, which leads to violence and oppression (434). 
The victim crying out for God to curse his enemies is not reacting to simple inequities or minor slights, but to actual and severe injustices. Ben-Dov further points out that the word is textually similar to an Akkadian idiom which “can indicate a person, just as it can indicate a field or any other object that has been forcefully confiscated” (434). The oppression referred to can be as severe as enslavement, such as was experienced by the Jews in the Babylonian captivity. For these reasons, I think the term is better translated “afflicted,” especially when associated with a curse, as it occasionally is in the RSV (e.g. Ps 69:29).

Babylonian Siege of Jerusalem
L'Histoire du Vieux et du Nouveau Testament
by Nicolas Fontaine
Foremost among the oppressors cursed by the Psalms are the Babylonians, who consequently receive the most terrible of the curses: “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Ps 137:9). This Psalm calls the Babylonians “captors,” “tormenters,” and “devastators” for what they have done to Jerusalem and its people (Ps 137:3, 8). The brutal devastation that they inflicted upon the Israelites involved all the atrocities of war, likely including the slaughter of children and the enslavement of the people. The psalmist is not demanding a curse upon his enemies worse than that which his enemies have already visited upon the psalmist’s people. The psalmist is invoking the law of just retribution: “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exod 21:23-25; see also Lev 24:17-22). Further, it is worth keeping in mind that this most sadistic passage is not a curse in the proper sense. It does not say “O God, dash their babies against the rock!” but, “Happy shall he be” who does so, as if to say, not that the psalmist intends to carry out infanticide, but that, if someone were to do so, they would be justified, given that the Babylonians have committed equivalent atrocities.

Historically, it seems clear to me that the psalmist composed these curses, for the most part, against actual human enemies of the people of Israel. The Israelites suffered terrible atrocities. Seeing themselves as a people in relationship with God, to call upon God to curse those they would curse was, in a sense, only natural. The human reaction to severe injustice is to cry out for retribution.


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