Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Reception of Psalm 137 in Jewish and Christian Tradition

10-09-23 20:30 Presenter Sue Gillingham
Respondent: Jonathan Magonet
Post #24 of a series on the Oxford Psalms Conference

From the abstract: In reception history, it is generally assumed that one of the contrasts is that Jews apply a David centered reading and Christians apply a Christ centered focus... this paper suggests that Psalm 137 speaks most forcefully of human crises, common ground for anyone whose security is threatened... The paper argues for that Psalm 137 offers an ideal paradigm for a life-centred reading, because attention either to David or to Christ is minimal in its reception history. ... In Jewish tradition the emphasis is seen to be more corporate, physical, and political, achieved by creating layers of 'meta-narratives' to the psalm... In Christian tradition the emphasis is seen to be usually more personal and spiritual, concerned not so much with temporal realities as eternal ones, where 'Jerusalem', the heavenly city, is a symbol of a pilgrim faith. Instead of a 'meta-narrative', the psalm is given various allegorical interpretations...

Sue considers that the psalms cited in the NT are limited to 40, of which 4, 2, 22, 110, 118 are prominent and 16 others, with the Fathers also using 1, 8, 34, 45 and 17 others.

A page from the Parma psalter
It is curious to note that psalm 137 has no Davidic heading in the Hebrew but does in the Septuagint. The first strophe of this psalm is corporate and shares the same recurring 'nu' sound as Psalm 44. The second strophe is individual and an oath. The third strophe is perhaps a third voice (per Magonet). The first and last are tied together by the word Babylon and each strophe include the word Remember.

We went through at lightning speed: Babylon and Edom as cyphers for Rome, interpolated Targumim, Kimchi - Titus and the Romans as Edomites, the Parma Psalter, Rossi influenced by Monteverdi, the influence of Allegri on Jewish music in polyphony, Zavel Zilberts 1923, Konrad Schaefer 1948, Abraham Cohen, Abram Chaim Feuer, the Chagall War Tapestry Knesset 1961

Then Christian readings - Jerome, Babel as confusion, harp as pleasure, the tree as the cross. Babylon vs Jerusalem, Origen, Luther Babylon as the church of Rome.

We continued - Babylonian captivity of the church, Griffin of Gloucester Abbey, Coverdale, Milton, By the waters of watertown! forbid it Lord that those who sucked Bostonian breasts...! Byron 1851, Nabucco, Swinburne 1871, Walton Belshazzar's Feast, Rastafari Melodians 1969, John Harbison Four Psalms 1999.

The keywords above do enable a search. It was difficult for me to take the paper in with its examples in order to grasp the nettle of the thesis of the abstract. The number of examples is large - and there are many more even for this one psalm. Clearly the psalms have had a great impact throughout our social tradition. Reception history needs time to be received. I have extended my reporting here with a link to two films that use psalms 137 - The Usual Suspects and Apocalypse Now.

Rabbi Magonet's reply was short and to the point: Don't leave out the anger. The vow in 5/6 is unique in the Bible. Happy occurs 25 times in the Psalms - more than in all the other books put together. In the three parts of the psalm do we have three voices and three memories? Enclose the personal oath with religious voices (strophes 1 and 3).

Can we express anger in a liturgical context? Anger must be offered to God so that it does not turn into a military solution. We are not nice - we need liturgy to deal with these emotions. Do these verses (e.g. also Psalm 79:6) release or fuel anger?