Dashing Babies or Regimes? (Psalm 137:9)

Othmar Keel’s The Symbolism of the Biblical Worlddemonstrates how ancient Near Eastern iconography illuminates the conceptual world of Psalms. He includes a couple images that might reframe one’s understanding of Psalm 137:9.

Psalm 137:9 (NRSV): Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

In both images, a young prince sits on the lap of his caretaker and has captives under his feet.

Keel explains that when cities were plundered, the inhabitants of these cities often became subject to princes who were very young. There are a couple biblical examples of very young kings, according to MT: Josiah (2 Kings 22:1; 2 Chron 34:1) and Joash (2 Kings 12:1; cf.11:21; 2 Chron 24:1), “became kings” before they reached the age of 10.

Concerning Psalm 137:9 in light of these images, Keel writes:

Babylon is here personified as a queen. As is shown in Figs. 341 and 342, neighboring peoples were subject to princes who were mere babes in the laps of their wet nurses. These infants manifested the endless continuances of the power of the dynasty. Their death meant the end of despotism. (Keel, 230)

He also discusses Psalm 137:9 in the introduction to this book as an example of (1) the importance of understanding a passage’s social and historical context and (2) the importance of studying iconography:

We need to consider, however, whether these “little ones” ought not to be understood just as symbolically as “Mother Babylon.” The inhabitants of the oppressor-city or the children of the ruling dynasty concretize the continuation of the unrighteous empire (cf. 341-342). In this vein, one might translate: “Happy is he who puts an end to your self-renewing domination!” Stated thus, the sentence would presumably offend no one, though it too implies brutal consequences. Its brutality, however, is cloaked in the broad mantle of abstract formulation. Such a (often dangerous) dissociation of concrete reality from idea is as foreign to the ancient Near Eastern mode of perception as the dissociation of body and spirit. Ancient Near Eastern perception usually preserves the continuity between the concretum and its related abstract. (Keel, 9)

If Keel’s reading is correct, we can at least put to rest the idea that in Psalm 137 the worship of Israel was reduced to a vindictive cry for the horrific murder of their enemies’ innocent children.


16 responses to “Dashing Babies or Regimes? (Psalm 137:9)”

  1. I am concerned that Keel is conflating the discussion of “Mother Babylon” with a Psalm about “Daughter Babylon.” I think the pictures may yet be appropriate for this discussion, but the idea of motherhood and metaphors seems problematic to me. I think we should pursue this more philologically. What are the עולל? They can beg for bread (Lam 4:4), suggesting they may be older than sucklings, and they can appear parallel to the בחור “young man” (Jer 6:11; 9:20). I question the exclusive association with a suckling child implied by the English Bible tradition—”little ones” (KJV, RSV, NRS, ESV) “infants” (NIV) or “babies” (TNK, NLT).

  2. Joseph, I don’t think you and I have ever had a conversation where you tell me we need to pursue an issue more philologically :-). But I agree. The references you point out are very helpful. I do not think any of this resolves the ethical tension we all feel in reading this passage, but these things do help us better understand what is being communicated.

  3. Two firsts for me in this post. Joseph taking immediate recourse to philology and then Brian using the word “philologically.” It’s a word, but I had never before imagined the scenario when one would need to use philology as an adverb.
    Good times!

  4. Very interesting post along with the ensuing commentary :). Also in Ps 8:3, the עולל is parallel with יונק “suckling.” From the mouth of both, Yahweh establishes strength/praise, which probably indicates older children, who can speak. In 1 Samuel 1:24 Samuel (described as נער) is weaned and then appears to jump right into ministry! I remember ANEP having many pictures which showed much older children breast feeding. So perhaps pictorial and philological evidence come together once again. Later in 2 Macc 7, the suckling can be at least three years old. Perhaps, toddlers to minors might be the best range to describe these people.

  5. John,
    I’m not sure how much stock to put in the vowel pointing, but technically the עוֹלֵל in Ps 8:3 is different than the עוֹלָל in Ps 137:9. The former is unambiguously a suckling. To confirm some of what you said though, Jeremy Hutton posted this article on FB last night that demonstrates through images and verses (one of which you cited) that women in ancient Israel/Judah suckeled their children for a number of years, much longer than we tend to think of sucklings (i.e., infants) in our own culture.
    As for Ps 137:9, I’m wondering if it might not signify men like Daniel (cf., Lam 1:5), only within the dominant culture. This would work well with Ps 137:8.

  6. Joseph,Thanks for your response. HALOT has listed both words as derived from the same root II עול “to suckle.” Therefore both words appear to have the same meaning.
    The second picture in the article is the one I remembered from ANEP. The words in Hebrew mean “suckling,” but the confusion sets in when we apply our meaning of “suckling” “nursing” etc to the ancient culture. For us, these terms indicate small and young babies. For theirs the term indicates one as young as an older toddler to one as old as a minor or young man. So an understanding of young men would work.
    Regarding Lam 1:5, what is the connection of verse 5 to verse 6? The latter contains a reference to the daughter of Zion and her majesty departing. Is this connected at all to the idea of the daughter of Babylon and her majesty being destroyed along the lines Keel suggested? Just throwing that out there.

  7. John,
    I am questioning HALOT here. I think the definition for עוֹלָל commits the etymological root fallacy. It doesn’t seem to recognize how the uses of the word are distinguished from those of עוֹלֵל. But yes, I do agree that even where we see “suckling” we need to have a broader age range in mind than what modern society might expect given contemporary nursing habits. And yes, I’m considering there are numerous connections between Lamentations and Psalm 137 along the lines Keel is suggesting (though without needing to invoke the idea of “metaphor”).

  8. Good stuff, but we don’t need to look outside the Bible to pagan empires for the solution. The Psalm follows a fivefold Covenant structure which can be traced right back to early Genesis and shapes every book of the Bible – the Covenant as a mission or tour of duty:
    1 – Transcendence: Who’s the boss? (Initiation)
    2 – Hierarchy: Who’s in charge? (Delegation)
    3 – Ethics: What are the rules? (Purification)
    4 – Sanctions: (Vindication – blessings and curses)
    5 – Succession: (Representation – offspring and the future)
    This is why Genesis 5 is a genealogy, it is why this Psalm ends with the destruction of offspring, it is why Elisha healed the miscarriages of Jericho and set the bears on the children of Israel, it explains the shape of the Gospel of Matthew, and it is why New Testament epistles end with greetings to the spiritual offspring of the apostles. You might also notice that the Revelation follows the same pattern.

  9. Mike,
    What form of covenant is that? It doesn’t quite fit the few formulations that I’ve seen (namely biblical formulations and Hittite treaties). Are you drawing on previous work there?
    Also, I think it goes too far to say that the five-step form you listed shapes *every* book of the Bible. I don’t see how Song of Songs fits into that five-fold structure, not to mention Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations (and that’s just Wisdom literature).

  10. Hi JonathanThe foundation is Ray Sutton’s ‘That You May Prosper,’ which argues that the Hittite treaties were derived from God’s Covenants, not the other way around.
    On a cumulative reading of the Bible, each step of the structure picks up a lot of symbols, so one has to move beyond the basics, but it’s definitely there, and usually working at multiple levels (as a fractal) – seven-line stanzas in groups of seven, most often working through the Creation Week, the Tabernacle furniture, or Israel’s festal calendar as a structural theme.
    I haven’t looked into Proverbs in depth but it seems to have seven sections. It begins with “the Man” and ends with “the Woman” as the Revelation does. The Covenant Ethics section “expands” into three (law given/law opened/law received) which gives us the sevenfold pattern commonly found. We can see this in both the two sets of tablets given at Pentecost, and also the giving of the Law at Sinai and its repetition in Deuteronomy.
    Too much to go into here, but if you are interested I have a free ebook which is a basic intro, and other books and a blog which go into more depth. I’ve been doing this for eight years and the premise keeps playing out. Have just worked through Galatians and currently working through Matthew. The structure explains many of the odd turns of phrase as well.


  11. Mike, thanks for reading and commenting. You and I approach the text with two very different sets of assumptions. I have no problem whatsoever in using literature and images from “pagan empires” to understand the Bible in its social and historical setting. I’m not interested in debating this. I do genuinely appreciate your time in reading and commenting.

  12. Thanks Brian – I’m not arguing against the use of pagan literature or ancient history at all. I think your blog post is on the money. I’m just saying that the answer is also found in the Psalmist’s allusion to the biblical Covenants and their implications.

  13. Brian – Historical continuity (Succession/offspring) was a blessing for Covenant obedience. It is likely that the Psalmist refers to the promise to Abraham that those who cursed his offspring would be cursed. We see the same debate concerning the age of the youths slain by bears, but their age is made irrelevant by the focus on historical continuity. That passage also has a Covenant reference (Leviticus 26:22). Exodus has the same focus. I’ll leave it at that. Cheers.

  14. Mike,
    I’m grateful for your reply. Thank you for taking the time to answer my question!
    Grace and peace,