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By the Rivers of Babylon


By Emeritus Professor Philip Davies
University Of Sheffield, England
February 2011

Last week I should have been, not exactly in Babylon, but not that far away, in Qatar, participating in a conference on Jerusalem that is held every year in one of the Arab countries. It is a conference about memory, and a mixture of sorrow, anger and dreams. The participants (apart from a privileged few like myself) remember a city that most can no longer visit, but which they are determined never to lose. “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of mouth if I do not remember you”. The Jerusalem of their memory, so fast fading into history, will be reconstituted in story, in picture and in argument. Of course, not all of those talking about Jerusalem will be Palestinians. But Jerusalem (al-Quds, the Holy) is a city of all Muslims.

We Euro-Americans of course associate “remembering Jerusalem” with Zionism. In the early sixth century bce, a number of Judeans were deported on at least two occasions, and the resulting absence led, directly or indirectly, to this famous poem. In 135 ce Jews were driven from their capital (though not from the land) and Jerusalem was rebuilt by Hadrian as a Roman city, Aelia Capitolina. In both cases the immediate cause for the expulsion was military resistance to foreign powers. But since 1948 the Zionist dream has been fulfilled and Jerusalem need no longer be “remembered” by Jews in exile. Half of the city was granted by UN resolution, and the other half (illegally) annexed and now being colonized, “Judaized”. But for the moment there is still enough of another Jerusalem, a city of the Arab world, one of its three most holy cities. It is now the turn of this city to be remembered by its exiled children, who cannot return, or visit, but can only see the work of the latter-day Hadrians. These children, too, lost their city by resorting to armed resistance against outsiders.

It is of course very difficult for a biblical scholar to remain objective or neutral over the respective fate of the two Jerusalems and their exiled children. Professionally we are engaged with one story only. But we must also be responsive to the way in which biblical texts echo in other landscapes and communities. And the famous song of exile now belongs elsewhere. I have often visited the Jewish children of Jerusalem and heard their stories. But I need to hear the stories of this other Jerusalem, and from its own exiles at one of their annual gatherings of remembrance for a lost home. I have to say that personally I never much liked Psalm 137, which ends: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” Bu at least in this contemporary actualization of that Psalm, I can see the emotional logic of these lines, born of a sense of injustice and impotence.

The ability of biblical texts to migrate should not surprise modern biblical scholar. Such adventures are one of the contemporary fashions of our discipline, along with reception history and post-colonial interpretation. We are not blind, either, to the ironies of history that can turn meanings upside-down, converting the exiles into exilers. This Psalm will come alive every year among the exiles of Jerusalem. Will there ever be a Return, or will their harps remain on the willow for ever? If we are deaf to the call of the exiled Palestinians, are we also deaf to this song?