Ps. 137: Remembering and Imagining

Jeremy Benstein leaning against a painted wall

Jeremy Benstein is one of the founders of the Heschel Center for Sustainability in Tel Aviv, and is the English language editor of the TaNaKh study project  929 – Age Old Text, New Perspectives. He is the author of Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes: A Tribal Language in a Global World (Behrman House 2019).

The first thing that needs to be said is that the words “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and there we wept…” are not originally a reggae song. They weren’t written by the Melodians’ Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton, who penned the soulful reggae adaptation some fifty years ago. They are right there in Psalm 137!

The second thing is that if you know this song primarily from the hit recording by the Melodians, or by the even more popular cover by Bobby Farrell and BoneyM, the song ends in one place—with a biblical prayer lifted from Psalm 19: “May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart…” Psalm 137, however, ends on a very different (darker) note. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

This short psalm (9 verses) can be seen as three modes or stages of emotional response to destruction and uprooting, to exile and trauma.

1. Remembering the Past: Despite their vividness and immediacy, verses 1-4 look back in time to the anguished state of the recently exiled, bowed and weeping, certain that they shall never play music or sing again. The joy of song belongs to the homeland, not to this strange country. They have, oddly, hung up their lyres on the aravim (willows). In the land of Israel, the aravim grew by the sides of the brooks (arvei-nahal, see Leviticus 23:40). The mighty rivers of Babylon (present-day Iraq), where the exiled sit, are veritable fleshpots, compared to the meager streams of Canaan, doubly emphasizing the displacement. But there the arvei-nahal, willows of the brook, were used in the celebration of the joyous fall Festival of Sukkot, filled with music and song; here the inert willows signify silence and suffering. Adorning them with lyres becomes a counter-sacrament. How indeed can they even imagine song there and then?

2. Remembering the Future: Abject sadness and grief turns to gritty determination in verses 5-6, a self-abjuration to vow eternal silence if Jerusalem, already becoming a distant memory, were ever to be forgotten. But also: tongues may cleave, hands wither, but future moments of joy are already being imagined. What then? Will we still think of Jerusalem? Remember our identities, and our homeland?

Binding these two dramatic scenes together is the poet’s emphasis on the power of memory. Speaking in the present, he describes how his people remembered Zion in the past and their pledge not to forget her in the future.      

While a version of the first four verses serve as the main text for that international reggae hit (so perhaps one can sing the Lord’s songs in strange lands?), verses 5-6 have their own Jewish performance history, as they are often recited at traditional Jewish weddings, just before shattering a glass (in remembrance of the ancient exile and as a sign of ongoing brokenness) and concluding the ritual celebration.

3. Imagining the Unimaginable: The final section, verses 7-9, calls upon God, too, to engage in remembering: there are scores to settle with both the Edomites and the Babylonians. And then comes the infamous final line, addressed to the Babylonian captors: “A blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks!” No more inspiring reggae beats here, no more bittersweet wedding moments. The bitter grief of exile and the angst-ridden imagining of forgetting home have morphed into full-on rage, and seemingly, a bloodthirsty desire for revenge. 

Commentators call for empathy for the depths of the suffering and despair of the Jewish exiles. Robert Alter, for example, writes, “No moral justification can be offered for this notorious concluding line. All one can do is to recall the background of outraged feeling that triggers the conclusion.”

Abraham Cohen, editor of the classic Soncino Press commentary of the Bible—Psalms being the first of 14 volumes—writing in 1945 (!), abandoned this line of commentary, opting instead to respond polemically to the horrors of the hour: “Refugees from the Continent, when they return and see how their native city has been turned into masses of rubble by the Germans, will share the mood of the Psalmist.”

But is this vengeful sentiment in Psalm 137 sui generis? Look at the previous psalm, 136, with the heart-warming refrain repeated in each of the 26 verses, ki le’olam hasdo—“for his mercy (or steadfast love) endures forever.” Who could gainsay that? Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, however, opens our eyes to the complexity of the psalm: “Of God, the Psalmist (Psalm 136:10-15) says: ‘To him that smote Egypt in their first-born: for his mercy endureth forever... overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea: for his mercy endureth forever.’ The question [raised by this emphatic statement is]: What do Egypt and the Pharaoh think about God’s mercy?”1

Suddenly, what we might have thought of as diametric opposites—divine mercy and human revenge—seem to blur.

How might we respond to this important interpretive challenge?  

We can imagine things that we can never, will never do, and put them down on paper, precisely so we don’t ever need to do them in real life. Imagining the unimaginable—not to prefigure action, but to preclude it.

Still, in responding to this ancient poetic reverie—an emotional outpouring driven by sadness, anger, and degradation—we must do so both compassionately and critically: We can try to empathize with the pain and suffering of our ancestors, but we must also imagine alternative ways—theological and practical—to respond to experiences of oppression and exile, as well as to possibilities for justice and reconciliation.

1 Leszek Kołakowski, in “God, or the Relativism of Mercy,” in his book The Key To Heaven: Edifing Tales From Holy Scripture To Serve As Teaching And Warning.

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.