The Most Troubling Verse in the Bible
The Hebrew Bible contains 23,145 verses and if I had permission to excise only one, I have no doubt which it would be: “Happy the one who seizes and smashes your infants against the rock” (Psalm 137:9).
Psalms 137 is a stirring lament over the destruction of Judah in 586 B.C.E. and the exile of a significant percentage of its population to Babylon. The rage and humiliation of the exiles, with their “harps hung on the willows near Babylon’s rivers,” is palpable as they commit to remember their beloved Jerusalem even as Judah’s captors taunt them: “Sing us some of Zion’s songs!” (Psalm 137:2-3, 5).
Coming as it does, so abruptly at the end of one of Scripture’s most poignant passages, verse 9 stuns the reader, and as Robert Alter writes in The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, “No moral justification can be offered for this notorious concluding line.”
Perhaps the greatest strength of the Hebrew Bible is its honesty. As I wrote in What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, “The Hebrew Bible knows no perfect people. All of its characters have significant flaws.”
The same must be said of the biblical author. We understand his (or her) anger at seeing his homeland conquered, his beloved Temple razed to the ground, and loved ones savagely tortured and killed. But to wish to brutally murder the infant children of the captors … that is too much. I find myself ardently wishing the editors had deleted the psalm’s final words.
Aside from the sheer horror they evoke, they distract readers from the power and beauty of connecting to the Jewish homeland, the way the poet, our people, and we ourselves do.
In the current debate about whether being anti-Israel is a form of anti-Semitism, we must remember that the land of Israel has been an inextricable part of our people’s covenant with God since God first charged Abram to go forth from the land of his birth “to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). And this, too: Since God first called us to be a people, the land of Israel has been part of what it means for us to be Jews.
Of course, it is possible to support Israel and criticize the actions or policies of her government just as those of us who love this country freely take its leaders to task for things they say and do. But saying Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state while failing to question the right of more than 20 Arab and Islamic states to exist is crossing a line to anti-Semitism.
In Leviticus Rabbah 36:5, Resh Lakish told the parable of a king who had three sons, each one brought up by one of his maidservants. So, whenever the king inquired about the well-being of his sons, he would add: Inquire also about the well-being of her who brought them up. So, too, whenever the Holy One mentions the patriarchs, God mentions the Land with them.
Psalm 137 is a magnificent statement of the centrality of Israel to our being. Can we ever forsake or forget Jerusalem? Never. Nonetheless, I would love to forget the psalm’s final verse!