Obama Psalm: Curses in Politics
Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg:
let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.
Let the extortioner catch all that he has;
and let the strangers spoil his labor.
Let there be none to extend mercy unto him:
neither let there be any to favor his fatherless children.
Let his posterity be cut off;
and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.
Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the LORD;
and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.
Let them be before the LORD continually,
that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.
And things get considerably darker. And after a moment's reflection, another thought arises -- it that a curse? Yes it is. Turns out the Psalms, like the rest of the Bible, defies our stereotypes. The Psalms have all sorts of peculiarities. For example, Ps. 45 is neither a prayer nor a paean to God. It's a rather obsequious ode to a king. And the Psalms are sometimes just as surprising for what they don't contain. For example - the themes of brit (covenant) and mitzvah (commandment), so central to the Torah and post-biblical Judaism, are essentially non-entities in the Psalms. Virtually no psalm references these concepts as a framework for the writer's faith. Ps. 119 stands out as the exception. So does what does this imply for the centrality of Torah to ancient Israel?
And curses. There are actually several Psalms that are, or contain, extended curses. Ps. 35, 58, 137, all invoke hair-raising afflictions upon the writer's enemy, and 109 is the ultimate execration text.
This shocks our modern sensibilities...its seems so unreligious. But as I tell my students in my Bible as Literature course at UNT, this idea that religion only engages in the uplifting is a relatively modern rethinking of what constitutes "religion." For virtually every religion until very recently, God is expected to protect his own and punish their enemies. Truly, the idea that what God wants is the repentance of the sinner, not his destruction, is a theme already found in the Bible. But as for God's followers, well...they want satisfaction.
Of course some would argue that these aren't "curses" in the magical sense, but "prayers" venting anger. Perhaps. But, as I have discussed before in this blog, the distinction between an incantation and a prayer is very fine distinction indeed. Thus we read:
Moses is not mentioned in the parashah [Tetzaveh]....The reason for this is that Moses said to God: 'Wipe me out from Your book [Ex. 32:32]" and the curse by a righteous person is fulfilled, even if it is made conditionally. (Ba'al ha-Turim)
Many modern scholars of ancient religions would eschew the distinction entirely, lumping glamors and petitionery prayers together under the category of "rituals of power," speech-acts that will lead to constructive (or in this case, destructive) results. People want their pleas to be answered and the things they ask for, come to pass.
All this needs to be placed in historical context. Biblical Israel. The Psalms were written in a period of human history when most people lived either in a tribal environment, or one step away from it in farming villages or a fortified urban environment. Brutality from within and without the society was commonplace, armed conflict would visit people at least once in their lifetime, and at some point most tribes/nations fought using what amounted to atrocities directed against their rivals. The hope that one could escape persecution, plunder, or worse via the intervention of one's god was an understandable hope, and the idea that the deity would visit upon them what they planned to mete out to you was pretty appealing.
So much for history. We live in a different age, with different expectations for and from our enemies. In our time, law prevails by and large, and even the worst leaders are subject to election, re-election, and term limits. The time for asking for God's wrath to fall upon our political enemies and their families seems, well, a kind of curse of its own visited on our modern body politic. As Nahal Kedumim teaches, "...even if a person has good intentions, he should not allow a curse to escape his lips."