Sunday, 3 October 2010

Psalm 137 continuing the exploration of reception history

Given the immense amount of information in Sue Gillingham's presentation on Psalm 137, I have decided that I have done the psalm an injustice in being unaware of how it is used - so apart from the sources I already know like Neale and various commentaries and my comfort level with the text, I will now consider some of the leads in the Conference information.

First - the text again for remembering (my translation)
Three voices - plural first person, singular oath first person, second and third person report as prayer
By the torrents of Babel
there we sat
yea we wept
in remembering Zion
on willows in the midst of her
we hung our strings
for there our captors asked us the words of a song
and our tormentors mirth
"Sing to us a song of Zion"
how will we sing such a song of יְהוָה
on strange ground?
If I forget you Jerusalem
let my right hand forget
let my tongue cleave to my palate
if I do not remember you
if I do not take you Jerusalem
as my chief mirth
Remember יְהוָה of the children of Edom
in the day of Jerusalem
those saying
expose her to the foundations
Devastating daughter of Babel
happy the one who makes peace with you
even weans you as you have weaned us
happy the one who takes and dashes
your unweaned against the rock.
The first thing I came across is a critique of canonical criticism1 - as limiting the reading of Scripture. But he quickly moves to commendation because "the forces operating within the canonical approach itself did not allow me to accept the readings already available to me". And this note too: "two thousand years of opportunity does not necessarily mean that we have become very good at reading the canonical text". So Lyons offers here a reading of the films Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) in the light of their reception of Psalm 137.

Lyons begins with Origen's analogy - My unreported notes read: "the allegories are awful. Origen - Christian readings have lost their material reality." Here is a citation of Origen. He has allegorized the children away:
The infants of Babylon, which means confusion, are the confused thoughts caused by evil which have just been implanted and are growing up in the soul. The man who takes hold of them, so that he breaks their heads by the firmness and solidarity of the Word, is dashing the infants of Babylon against the rock; and on this account he becomes blessed (Contra Celsum, VII.22).
C.S. Lewis is quoted next further informing our present with Origen's analogy
I know things in the inner life, which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments, which may one day become dipsomania or settled hatred… Knock the little bastards’ brains out, And “blessed” is he who can, for it’s easier said than done.
I recommend the rest of the article - it is a good summary of the history which Lyons is critical of as hiding the reality of the psalm. The film applications are quite striking.
The psalmist sees the inflicting of shame on his enemies as a way of negating the ongoing loss of honour which had been inflicted on him. Since Babylon had already fallen, this was to be achieved rhetorically, by the constant repetition of the psalm within the ongoing life of Israel. Babylon’s destruction was to be made obvious to all Israel by the open recitation of an Israelite desire which could never have been voiced openly within the living Babylonian Empire.
I wonder if there is more to say.

References (1) William John Lyons, ‘A Man of Honour, A Man of Strength, A Man of Will? A Canonical Approach to Psalm 137’, Didaskalia 16 (2005), pp. 41-68.

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