The Imprecatory Psalms

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I’ve written several posts on here in response to an ongoing conversation on the Reasonable Doubts blog about God’s command to destroy the Amalekites in the Old Testament. On one of the podcasts there is a brief section about the Imprecatory or Cursing Psalms. The podcast was describing how a Christian author interpreted those psalms and then further extended that interpretation as an example of how to deal with the Amalekite issue as well. The explanation was unnecessarily complex in my opinion and I didn’t quite follow exactly where he was going with it. So I decided to write about how I interpret those Psalms and other similar passages. What I’m about to write applies to the psalms only and not to Amalekite issue which I’ve addressed in other posts.

 

In the Psalms we come across several passages where the author is calling down curses on his enemies. This seems to make people uncomfortable since, after all, why would a loving God say such things about people that He Himself created. Or, on the other hand, if we say that those parts of the Bible were not inspired then how can anyone know which parts of Scripture are coming from God and which aren’t.

In my opinion the answer is quite simple and I find it strange that people actually get hung up on stuff like this:

God inspired the inclusion of those types of passages in the Bible and not the sentiments or actions described in them.

In other words, the psalms were prayers, poems and songs that people actually prayed or composed and God wanted them included in the Scripture regardless of whether He endorsed the actual thoughts expressed in them. God’s intention was to paint an accurate picture of what actually happened, of what different Bible characters were actually feeling or thinking and not some sanitized version that would leave us with an unrealistic picture of who these people actually were.

It wasn’t God’s intention that people read the Bible and come across characters that always say the right things and do the rights thing and are virtually nothing like the rest of us. But that is no reason for us to read those passages and think that God planted those curses in their minds and wants us to feel the same way.

But in that case, how can we tell which sentiments are coming from God and which aren’t?

In the Bible there is a story about King David, a man after God’s own heart, seeing a beautiful married woman, committing adultery with her and then having her husband killed to cover it all up. Sometime later, God sends the prophet Nathan to David to tell him that what he did was wrong. But did we really need a divine narrator to know this? Had Nathan not spoken up, would we be uncertain whether what David did was wrong?

When Abraham lied to Abimelech about Sarah being his wife, did we really need to read Abimelech’s dream to know that what he did was not prompted by God?

What about the story of when Lot was willing to offer up his own daughter to the Sodomites to protect his guests or about the man in Judges who cut up his concubine and sent her to the 12 tribes? There is no divine narration there to interpret those stories for us. Does that mean that I have no choice but to interpret those actions as God-prompted? I was probably 7-8 years old when I read those passages for the first time and without anyone’s help realized that those stories were a report of something that happened and not of something that God wanted to happen. Not sure why some people have such a hard time realizing this.

So now let’s come back to the Psalms and take an actual example.

In Psalm 137 (an Atheist favorite) we have a person who has had his children dashed against the rocks (see previous verse) and, in his misery cries out, “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”

Both the Fanatical Christian and the Atheist read that passage and think that the only way to interpret it is to assume it is an expression of God’s sentiments and feelings. Then, based on this, the atheist concludes God is evil and not worth believing in while the fanatical Christian uses this as an excuse to hate his enemies and maybe even commit atrocities.

A reasonable person on the other hand will read the same passage and realize that this has nothing to do with how God feels or wants us to feel but with what the person who wrote that Psalm was going through.

But why does that matter?

  • Because it helps us better relate to the historical event of the Babylonian invasion when we have a glimpse of what the people that lived through it experienced. Poems, songs and prayers help us see deeper into the heart of actual people in a way we could never do from simply reading a list of historical facts.
  • Because it helps us better understand who God’s people in the past really were; their flaws, their weaknesses as well as their strengths. They were people like us that we can relate to and not some superhuman specimen of humanity.
  • Because if I ever go through a traumatic experience and find myself struggling with hate, I can look at them and see that God didn’t give up on them so he will not abandon me either.

In conclusion, the reason why the Bible seems contradictory/ confusing/ malevolent to some people might just be because they bring a certain mentality to the text that prevents them from reading it the way it was intended to be read. And, with just a bit of common sense and a willingness to give the text the benefit of the doubt, a totally different picture might emerge.

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