Psalm 137 came up in the lectionary for this week. Now there was a time when we would get this Psalm at least with the final verse left out. That verse reads “Blessed is the one who seizes your little ones and dashes them against a rock.” One should understand, of course, that this was a Psalm about/by Jewish exiles in Babylon, and that the Babylonians had done precisely that sort of thing to them. One strong element of the Psalm is revenge.
I was teaching a class on the Old Testament, drawn from the book Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? once, and I asked people in the class whether they would feel the way the Psalm describes if someone had come into their community and killed their children. Would they want their attackers to suffer the same fate?
Person after person in the audience expressed their desire to be forgiving, and their disapproval of the attitude expressed in the Psalm. Then one lady, a grandmother, interrupted the flow. “I think many of us are lying to ourselves,” she said. “I would feel bad that I wanted it, because I know what Jesus said, but I would want them to suffer the same fate.”
Several people changed their minds. That one lady had given them some cover to be honest with themselves. The fact is that Psalm 137 is a very human Psalm, and a very real Psalm. It makes us uncomfortable, but I believe part of that discomfort is that we know that those feelings are not far from many of us.
Does this justify a search for vengeance? That’s another matter. It is an expression of the true desires. Perhaps what we need to do when we have such feelings is express them and then seek the grace to forgive. That’s another subject. My point right now is that the Psalm expresses who we are.
This Psalm makes me think about what the Bible actually is. I’m amazed at how frequently we decide what the Bible ought to be, and then try to force it to be whatever it is we think it ought to be. But we have the Bible itself and we can observe that it doesn’t fit these prescriptions we make for what it must be. People decide it must contain hard information sent from God by means of verbal dictation. Humanity should not have any real involvement. A little personality here and there, but no impact on the actual message.
But in fact the Bible displays a range of human attitudes, emotions, cultural baggage, and even mental capacity. God’s commands are not merely God’s commands; they are what people heard God commanding them to do. And communication is limited to the capacities of the least capable end of the line. Scripture displays both a human and a divine face. (See The One-Ended Cord.)
I also recently read a post titled Minimising mistakes in the Bible (or not). This is a good discussion of a minor Biblical error. The “error” a problem for inerrantists, who have to find a way to work around it. I would suggest, however, that it’s a natural part of the human face of scripture. The message comes through clearly, while there is a minor glossing over of fact.
People often assume that I don’t believe in inerrancy because I have a long list of errors in the Bible. But that is not my problem with the doctrine at all. For those who want to ask me for my list, I don’t have one. I’ve encountered many things that I put down to “the human face of scripture,” but I don’t keep lists of them, because to me they are not very important. I suppose that if I did not reject inerrancy on other grounds, such a list might become important to me. But as it is, I think inerrancy simply misses the point of a communication between a perfect God and imperfect (or at least limited) human beings. Such a communication is simply much more dynamic than can be described in the phrase “error-free.”
Scripture is divine, because it involves communication with God. It’s human because it is communicated through and to humans. Because it is what it is it requires careful and prayerful–Holy Spirit guided–interpretation and application, accomplished, of course, by humans, who are hopefully aware of their own limitations.