Psalm 137:
The Waters Of Babylon…

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Entering the Psalm

“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”

In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,Sings by himself a song.

Song of the bleeding throat,
Death’s outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,
If thou wast not granted to sing thou would’st surely die.)
(Walt Whitman)

The composer(s) of Psalm 137 take us to the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, along with their many tributaries and canals, beckoning us to behold the sad sight of a displaced and downtrodden people. It “takes place” during the first exilic period of ancient Israel (specifically Judea), in and around the early to mid 6th century BCE. (v. 1).


Psalm 137 Text

עַל־עֲרָבִים בְּתוֹכָהּ תָּלִינוּ כִּנֹּרוֹתֵינוּ׃:
כִּי שָׁם שְׁאֵלוּנוּ שׁוֹבֵינוּ דִּבְרֵי־שִׁיר וְתוֹלָלֵינוּ שִׂמְחָה שִׁירוּ לָנוּ מִשִּׁיר צִיּוֹן׃
אֵיךְ נָשִׁיר אֶת־שִׁיר־יְהֹוָה עַל אַדְמַת נֵכָר׃
אִם־אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלָ͏ִם תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי׃
תִּדְבַּק־לְשׁוֹנִי  לְחִכִּי אִם־לֹא אֶזְכְּרֵכִי אִם־לֹא אַעֲלֶה אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלַ͏ִם עַל רֹאשׁ שִׂמְחָתִי׃
זְכֹר יְהֹוָה  לִבְנֵי אֱדוֹם אֵת יוֹם יְרוּשָׁלָ͏ִם הָאֹמְרִים עָרוּ  עָרוּ עַד הַיְסוֹד בָּהּ׃
בַּת־בָּבֶל הַשְּׁדוּדָה אַשְׁרֵי שֶׁיְשַׁלֶּם־לָךְ אֶת־גְּמוּלֵךְ שֶׁגָּמַלְתְּ לָנוּ׃
אַשְׁרֵי  שֶׁיֹּאחֵז וְנִפֵּץ אֶת־עֹלָלַיִךְ אֶל־הַסָּלַע׃

  1. By the rivers of Babylon,
    there we sat,
    sat and wept,
    as we thought of Zion.        

2) There on the poplars
we hung up our lyres,

3) for our captors asked us there for songs,
our tormentors,[aMeaning of Heb. uncertain.] for amusement:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

4) How can we sing a song of the LORD
alien soil?

5) If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither;[bOthers “forget its cunning.”]

6) let my tongue stick to my palate
if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory
even at my happiest hour.

7) Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall;
how they cried, “Strip her, strip her
to her very foundations!”

8) Fair Babylon, you predator,cWith Targum; others “who are to be destroyed.”
a blessing on him who repays you in kind
what you have inflicted on us;

9. a blessing on him who seizes your babies
and dashes them against the rocks!


Line-by-Line Analysis
(New Revised Standard Edition)

  • Ezekiel 1:1 – The prophet, among the exiles, experiences his first vision on the banks of the Kevar River
  • Acts 16:13 – Once in Philippi on the sabbath, Paul and the narrator go outside the city to the river where they “supposed there was a place of prayer”. Did Jews of antiquity pray near bodies of water?

  • These poplars, often times translated to “willows”, are among the species of tree ancient Israel and Jews today use during the Festival of Sukkot, the Feast of Booths. Cf. Lev. 23:40
  • “The literal sense of the Hebrew ‘there’ is, as the King James Version has it, ‘in the midst thereof.’ But that is confusing because it is not clear what the ‘thereof’ refers to presumably the land of Babylon). In any case sham. ‘There’, is twice repeated, expressing the alienation of the collective speakers from the place they find themselves, which, logically, should be ‘here’ rather than ‘there.’” – Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation  with Commentary, 2007.

The book of Qohelet / Ecclesiastes teaches that, “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven” (Ecc.3:1). Are there also “places” for everything? Is it not only about the “right time”, but also the “right place”?

The Hebrew root sh’k’ḥ is used twice in this verse, translate once as “forget” and again as “wither”.

  • “There are places where they are accustomed to breaking a cup during the wedding ceremony, or placing a black cloth or other such items of mourning on the head of the groom. And all these things are in order to remember Jerusalem, as it is said, ‘If I forget you, Jerusalem…if I do not raise up Jerusalem over the height [head] of my joyfulness…’ ” Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530-1572) writing a gloss in Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 560:2.
  • +“The paralysis of the ‘right hand’ and ‘tongue’ make it impossible to play the lyre and to sing.” Rabbi David Kimhi 1160-1235.

A particularly hurtful memory for the narrators. The Edomites were neighbors and kin to ancient Israel. Their presence at and instigation of the destruction of Jerusalem added insult to injury. Cf. Deut. 2:4-5, 23:7, Obadiah 1:9-12

  • Other, particularly graphic, verses also employ the same image of infanticide. Cf. 2 Kings 8:12, Isa. 13:16, Hos. 14:1, Nah. 3:10.
  • “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: The Babylonians have laid waste to Jerusalem, exiled much of its population, looted and massacred; the powerless captives, ordered – perhaps mockingly – to sing their Zion songs, respond instead with a lament that is not really a song and ends with this bloodcurdling curse pronounced on their captors, who, fortunately do not understand the Hebrew in which it is pronounced.” – Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation  with Commentary, 2007.
  • What are the little ones of Babylon? Evil desires at their birth. For there are those who must fight with inveterate lusts.  When lust is born, before evil habit gives it strength against you,  when lust is little, by no means let it gain the strength of evil habit;  when it is little, dash it.  But you fear, lest though dashed it die not;  “Dash it against the Rock”; and that Rock is Christ.” -St. Augustine (354-430 CE) Expositions on the Psalms
  • “Following an overnight flight, my feet touched for the first time the soil that gave birth to humanity – Africa the mother of us all. I sighed. Standing on the shores of the Atlantic and looking west, I confronted the pain, sadness, and range of my ancestors’ displacement. Our group retraced our people’s steps and walked back through the Door of No Return”… Have you ever seen child-sized shackles? While you can imagine them, try to grapes not just the sadness, but also the rage. This kind of rage could easily manifest as it does in the concluding words of Psalm 137, a desperate cry to avenge terrible violations inflicted on innocent children by their captors. People who can brutalize children don’t usually stop until someone or something else stronger makes them stop. The irony and tension of exile is that we make our home in places that we know on a cellular level are never fully home. But it is not just the indignities of this land that remind us that another land exists, it is also the soul-deep refusal to forget that some place – beyond any specific geographical location – more like home exists. It is the ancestors singing in our ears of the places we come from and destinations yet unseen.” Rev. Dr. Leslie Callahan.
  • Although Babylon would indeed fall, less than a century after the destruction of Jerusalem, it did not occur as the Psalmist(s) had imagined it would. The “Cyrus Cylinder” describes the entrance of the Persian king Cyrus the Great into the city of Babylon in 539 BCE facing no resistance from its population. This would end Babylon’s hegemony in the ancient world and launch Persia to its new place as the dominant empire of the region. More can be learned about this artifact here.

Frederick-DouglassFrederick Douglass:
“I hear the mournful wail of millions!”

1852 speech given in New York on the occasion of the 76th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The entire speech can be found here

In the speech Douglass quoted Psalm 137. He went on to say… “Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view.”


Reading Guide to Psalm 137:

  • The composer(s) of Psalm 137 take us to the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, along with their many tributaries and canal, beckoning us to behold the sad sight of a displaced and downtrodden people. It “takes place” during the first exilic period of ancient Israel (specifically Judea), in and around the early to mid 6th century BCE. (v. 1)
  • Its composers, acknowledging that they are in a strange land far from home, remember what their lives used to be. Their captors mock their situation, causing the ancient Judeans to forfeit the little comfort that remains – their ancestral prose (v.v 2-4)
  • However, a glimmer of hope remains, as they swear to never forget from where they came, to never lose the memory of home, even during the best moments of one’es life. To forget home is so unthinkable, it would be as if their own body became an unfamiliar and defected tool (v.v 5-6).
  • The Psalm’s attention shits for the remaining three verses. The focus shifts from the plight of the narrator(s) to the crimes of others. It is not only the Babylonians who are the subject of the Psalm’s animosity, but the Edomites as well who, unlike their captors, were both kin and neighbors to ancient Judea.
  • The verbs sh-kh-ḥ – “forget” – as well as the negative of z-kh-r – (to not) “remember” – are both used in this Psalm, effectively carrying the same meaning; “to forget” and “to not remember” (v.v. 5-6). God is also implored to z-kh-r in verse 7.
  • The verb ’-sh-r – “happy” – is used twice, once in each of the last two verses (8-9).
  • In Jewish tradition, Psalm 137 is read on the eve of Tisha B’Av – literally the “9th of the month of Av. The day is a fast day among Jewish communities, remembering and lamenting over the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the city itself, and the eventual loss of Judean (and later Jewish) autonomy. Later Jewish tradition ascribes other calamities that befell the Jewish people on this day, ranging from the Biblical story of the “sin of the spies” (Num. ch. 13-14), to the start of the first Crusade, from the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition, to the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.
  • Psalm 137 is a composition of absolute and total longing. It’s lines convey a sense of the deepest sorrow, traumatically recalling the horror caused when others completely upend one’s entire life. Its narrators remember the abuse and humiliation of their neighbors, their own families, and themselves. It is a lamentation of what was lost, all the while retaining a glimmer of hope in the chance that perhaps, one day, a return to what was could be made possible. Its tone, though, takes a turn in the last three verses. While maintaining its sense of longing, it is not a desire to return to a secure and familiar life as expressed by the narrator(s) in the first two-thirds of the text, but rather a yearning for, at best, unforgiving justice, and at worst, violent revenge. The consuming anger felt by the narrator(s) pushes them to the point of wishing the worst for not only their abusers, but for the helpless among them. The Psalm’s concluding vengeful wish for a “what goes around comes around” kind of world leaves many readers in an uncomfortable, but perhaps all too relatable position.

  • Why is the setting “by the rivers of Babylon?”
  • What do you make of the image of weeping by the rivers?
  • Why are the lyres retired upon the trees?
  • What might be the concern and/or difficulty of singing a song from “the old country” on “alien soil”?
  • Why are the right hand and the tongue singled out as the parts of the body to suffer if Jerusalem is forgotten?
  • What do you think is the greater wound to the Psalmist; the abuses handed out by the unfamiliar Babylonians, or the betrayal of the Edomites, a neighboring nation with kindred ties to Israel/Judah?
  • In verse 8, the word bat – “daughter”in the Psalm’s case ‘“fair” – and ha’shehdudah – “the violent one”, “the destroyer” – are linked (Fair Babylon, you predator….” What do you make of this unique descriptive pairing?
  • What insights can you glean from the concluding verse? What blessing/happiness is there to be derived from, what can be seen as a vindictive retribution?

Musical Interpretations:
Early Modern Era

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Salomone Rossi, “Al Naharot Bavel” (1622). Performed by Profeti della Quinta
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Salomone Rossi, “Al Naharot Bavel” (1622). Performed by Apollo's Fire · Salamone Rossi Hebreo · Jeannette Sorrell
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Johann S. Bach, “An Wasserflussen Babylon”

Musical Interpretations: Contemporary Renditions

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The Melodians, “By the Rivers of Babylon”
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Don McLean, “Waters of Babylon”
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Amos George Tetteh, “Song in Exile (Rivers of Babylon)”

 

By the rivers dark
I wandered on.
I lived my life
In Babylon.

And I did forget
My holy song
And I had no strength
In Babylon.

By the rivers dark
Where I could not see
Who was waiting there
Who was hunting me.

And he cut my lip
And he cut my heart.
So I could not drink
From the river dark.

And he covered me,
And I saw within,
My lawless heart
And my wedding ring,

I did not know
And I could not see
Who was waiting there,
Who was hunting me.

By the rivers dark
I panicked on.
I belonged at last
To Babylon.

Then he struck my heart
With a deadly force,
And he said, This heart
It is not yours.’

And he gave the wind
My wedding ring
And he circled us
With everything.

By the rivers dark,
In a wounded dawn,
I live my life
In Babylon.

Though I take my song
From a withered limb,
Both song and tree,
They sing for him.

Be the truth unsaid
And the blessing gone,
If I forget
My Babylon.

I did not know
And I could not see
Who was waiting there,
Who was hunting me.

By the rivers dark,
Where it all goes on
By the rivers dark
In Babylon.

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Activities

Although Psalm 137 recounts the experiences of a people forced to leave their physical home, all of us, at one point or another, had to face the inevitable reality of leaving a “home” we once knew. Whether an actual space, or something else, be it a relationship, a dream, an expectation, a goal, anything, every adult has had an experience of rupture. Famously, in the Hebrew Bible, Abraham and Sarah (then Abram and Sarai) are told to leave the land they know to set out for a new home, one which God promised to show them (Gen. 12). [Text Wrapping Break] Consider the moments in your life when you were forced to leave home / a home. What were the circumstances? What was the first step you took on that journey? Was it a departure you now look back on fondly? Did you think of it as being “for the best” at the time of leaving?

  • Write your own Psalm about leaving home / being forced to leave home.
  • Illustrate your experience of leaving/ being forced to leave home.

The Psalm ends on a note of wrathful vengeance. The narrator(s) wish the worst of fates upon the helpless of their own abusers. In the book The Sunflower by Simon Weisenthal a story is told about a young Jew during the Holocaust. One day, he is taken from his work detail and brought to a make-shift hospital. There he meets another young man, a severely injured, twenty-two year old SS soldier with bandages covering his whole head. The German is nearing death and knows it.

The SS man recounts a most horrible event he participated in: on the eastern front, his platoon rounded up an village of Jews – mostly woman, children, and the eldery – stuffed them into a house in which they poured gasoline, locked the doors, and threw grenades through the windows. He recounted how his fellow soldiers stood ready with rifles in hand ready to shoot anyone who tried to escape. He particularly remembers a woman who, holding a child, lept from a second story window. [Text Wrapping Break] The German, wanting to confess his most brutal sins, asks a nurse to bring him a Jew so that he may ask for forgiveness as he lay dying. At the end of story, the narrator in Wiesenthal’s book, without saying a word, gets up from the bedside of this dying man and leaves the room. At the end of the book he writes, “Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong…? The crux of the matter is, of course, the question of forgiveness. Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision.” The narrators of Psalm 137 categorically do not forgive their tormentors.

  • Imagining yourself in the place of the narrators (of either the Psalm or The Sunflower) consider if you are obligated to / have the right to / are even able to forgive such heinous acts of brutality.
  • Discuss this with a partner while reflecting on the Psalm or on the closing question from The Sunflower, asking yourself, “What would I have done?”

Examine each of the images in the above slideshow. With a partner, take no less than one full minute (time yourselves) explore the image in detail.

  • Notice the background, the foreground, the people in it, physical action being made, the colors etc. Imagine what it might sound like, feel like, smell like. Is it a hot day? Is that water cool? Nothing is off limits or beyond the scope of reasonability.
  • With a partner, share your findings. Are the questions that come up based on the images? Does it help you make a more defined snapshot of the scene than previously when only reading the text? Can you hear the words of the Psalms in the image?

Copyright 2022. Lesson by Josh Greenberg, Hebrew College rabbinical student.