“By the Waters of the Mississippi”: African-American Readings of the Bible

24 09 2006

One of the more interesting contemporary readings of the Bible is that which is undertaken by African-American Christian communities. Having been converted to Christianity by their former masters, many of them felt a particular degree of affinity with the Israelites of the Old Testament. Like them, the Israelites were a nation of slaves and, like them, the Israelites were redeemed. Similarities do not stop there, however, for African-Americans were expected to sing and dance for their patronising overlords, and there is good indication within the Bible that the same thing was expected of the Judeans.

Psalm 137, often referred to as “By the Rivers of Babylon”, expresses this very idea. Made popular by The Melodians’ cheerful version in the 1960s, this particular psalm is actually a dirge of grief, encapsulating the mood felt by the Judeans who were thrown into exile after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 596-586 BCE. Many of the psalms composed prior to this one are believed to have been sung in the temple, and this psalm indicates in particular the renown that Judea had for its singing.

The following is the JPS translation of the first half of this psalm:

By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat,
sat and wept,
as we thought of Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung up our lyres,
for our captors asked us there for songs,
our tormentors, for amusement:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing a song of the Lord
on alien soil?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither;
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.

The references to hanging up lyres in an interesting one, for it demonstrates that the Judeans were renowned for more than their singing alone. Indeed, the legendary king David is also presented as a celebrated lyre player, from whom the Israeli Hebrew word for harp (כינור דוד) is derived. The request to “sing us” a song is not to be understood as a benevolent one; rather it is much as the African-Americans themselves have experienced it. Belittling and condescending, it reduces the Judeans to the status of chattel.
The overriding theme of this particular part of the psalm is encapsulated in the question, “How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?” This is also the overriding concern for the prophet Ezekiel, whose prophetic vision commences with the image of God in a fiery chariot, moving like the wind. Scholars have indicated the wheels of the chariot along with its rapid movement as a way of indicating that even in Babylonia (which is where Ezekiel’s text is composed) prophesy is possible. The God of Israel, in other words, is a portable God and the worship of Him is not contingent upon residing in the Holy Land.

This is an issue that turns up elsewhere as well, particularly when the Aramean Naaman requests Israelite earth so that he may pray to the Israelite god (2 Kings 5:17). It would seem that the psalmist in our example is also struggling with the idea that the Israelite god may indeed be an Israelite god, and that His song may not be sung in a foreign land. While such a conception may have changed over time (although note the Rabbinic assertion that every synagogue is considered to be built on Israelite soil), it was a pressing issue for the earliest generations of exiles. Such a generation is credited with the composition of this particular psalm, not least because of the fact that the temple was rebuilt less than a century after its destruction, and there is no indication within this song of so happy an event.

I would like to make one more observation about this particular psalm, concerning the nature of its translation by JPS.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither;
let my tongue stick to my palate
if I cease to think of you

There is nothing within the Hebrew that gives any indication that the psalmist is speaking of his hand withering and, short of it being a possible reference to God indicating His strength by making Moses’ hand leprous, I do not know from where the editors are deriving this particular word. The common translation is “let my right hand forget its cunning“, but even this is a stretch.

The Hebrew reads, quite simply,

אם־אשכחך ירושלם
תשכח ימיני

In other words, “let my right hand forget“. There is no object in the sentence and therefore no indication as to what the hand is going to be forgetting. I have even seen some translations that attempt to deal with this problem by suggesting that “hand” is the object and that the psalmist is saying, “forget my right hand”, but this is only plausible if the author is speaking to a male and Jerusalem is a feminine word.

On the contrary, I would argue that the right hand is destined to forget its ability to play the harp. This would also fit with the following line that, by speaking of the tongue cleaving to the palate, would indicate the inability to sing. Just as the African-Americans have struggled to retain their culture in the face of an overbearingly European society, so too did the ancient Judeans stress that they may sing and they may play music, but only on the condition that they do not forget Jerusalem.

[Note: This post originally appeared on my former blog. For earlier comments, please click here.]

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