Monday, August 6, 2012

3) Cursing Psalms - Scholarly Reinterpretation

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Dr. Jonathan Ben-Dov
Readers of the cursing Psalms sometimes have a tendency to try to explain them away, as I attempted in the last post by pointing out that the form of Psalm 137:9 was not exactly that of a curse, as if this could remove some of the horror from the image of smashing babies' heads. Some have attempted this kind of explanation for the longest and most devastating of the curses, found in Psalm 109. Ben-Dov describes how it is possible to read this curse into the mouth of the enemy rather than the Psalmist:
A simple reading of Psalm cix understands  vv. 6-19 to be the words of an individual, who is in despair as a result of his enemies' actions. However, this can also be contested, with  vv. 6-19 understood as a quotation of the prosecutors' words. This may be supported from the fact that the enemies are referred to in the plural at the opening of the psalm, while the curse refers to a single person (450).
I am uncertain whether we should critically favor the “simple reading” of this Psalm, but it causes me to wonder why some feel it necessary to seek out a more convoluted reading (then again, perhaps textual scholars enjoy that for its own sake). It seems to me that some just simply cannot stand for these passages to be in the Bible expressing sentiments they regard as so unbiblical.

Fr. Roland Murphy
Along these same lines, Roland Murphy provides a rather creative understanding of the enemies in these Psalms. Regarding the enemies, he writes in his book The Gift of the Psalms, “Are they really human beings? The descriptions are so extreme and exaggerated that they seem to portray superhuman hostile and evil powers…. Perhaps the reader of the psalms should understand the enemies as personifications of evil” (46). He has here departed from a strictly historical understanding. It seems to me that Murphy simply does not want the enemies to be human beings. He even asks, “Was the problem an evil spirit?” (47). I think he may be reaching for an explanation that the text itself does not support. I sympathize – I do not want the enemies to be human beings either – but, historically, that is what they are.

Fr. Jack Custer
No historical contextualizing, however well it alleviates certain misconceptions about these texts, can change the reality that they express hateful and destructive sentiments. Theirs is a pure and perfect hatred, however understandable or even justified it may be (Ps 139:22). As John Custer writes in his book The Old Testament: A Byzantine Perspective, “There is no reason to deny that the Psalmist probably meant exactly what he prayed for: the physical destruction of the real enemies of his nation” (167). This, in my opinion, is the accurate historical reading of the curses themselves.


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