I recently overheard someone mention their personal struggle with the Old Testament’s image of the “Wrath-of-God” against the New Testament’s open armed Jesus. And my heart broke hearing this because our 21st century, western-world minds just don’t understand the ancient world. I have been convicted to defend this God of Wrath that we see. Here, in this post I am going to do something I was expressly told not to do in Seminary: defend Psalm 137. What Psalm is this? The Psalm that ends with these heart-wrenching words: “O daughter of Babylon . . .Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
If there is ever a passage of scripture that keeps people struggling with the wrath of God, it’s this one. Why would a follower of the Judeo-Christian God speak to actively killing babies! What type of God would support these words! Surely, this is the epitome of the Wrath-God we sometimes see in the Old Testament.
But I am going to defend the Psalmist – this broken-hearted Psalmist. And I’ll do it by inserting you into the Ancient world: somewhere around 3,000 BCE.
* * *
You live in a small village where you shepherd goats and farm barley. It’s a hard life because every few years bandits come through and steal your goats and dig up your barley. You cannot fight back because there are only 100 men in your village who carry wooden clubs and dented scythes which are no match for the expensive daggers the 20 bandits carry.
These bandits consist of various men who have learned how to fight, survive, and take. And they often kill the men of your village just to weaken you and take the prettiest of your women to serve their needs as they travel along their nomadic life. They move, they gain wealth, and they spend wealth. Meanwhile your village starves and dies out until a prosperous year comes . . . only to have your goats stolen again.
When you finally had enough of this lifestyle you decide to uproot your family and take them to live in the city. One with something revolutionary: fortified walls, and fighting men of your own. But this life-luxury is expensive! Bows and arrows, and bronze daggers are expensive. Feeding armed men is expensive. Living in a place where merchants can sell the finer things like tapestries, jewelry, and weapons is expensive. But you are a poor farmer and possess no coins. So what do you do?
It’s simple really. You serve the families in power – it’s a different kind of slavery or servitude than the one found in the pages of our American history books – and it’s one that almost every family took part in. It’s one where you give your life to serve a patron.
So you go before one of the leading families of the city and you tell him that you are a farmer. (And you have asked the surrounding villages which patron is the best for your needs – he has to prove his character.) And if that patron finds you and your trade agreeable, he represents you before the other patrons of the city. Then they, the patrons of the city, will give you land. You will give a portion of the profit to your representing patron, which will go into his pocket.
But this wealthy patron in power is not lining his pockets with your money for his own gain. Instead, this wealthy man will buy the arrows, and pay for the new wall that needs to go up. When coin is short, he is the one who pays for more coin to be made by stamping his mark on it so everyone knows that you work for him, and are protected by him. He is one who pays merchants from other cities to bring in new metals, new coins, and new trade. This man is one of the keepers of the city: one of only eight.
And so, every person who enters into the city must be spoken for by someone on the council of patrons. These are the men who sit at the city gate – they are responsible for every person who enters their city – from the oldest citizens, to the sojourners, to the first-day-visitor. Every person reports to someone. Because if you don’t – your walled city could fall. And you did not move into a walled city just to enter back into a war-torn life of starvation.
This is why you serve your patron. And if your farm fails, you may have to sell your son as bond-servant into the Patron’s family. He will now be under the patron directly as a part of your patron’s household. No longer will your son, who was bought, answer to you when he asks to enter into marriage or to apprentice in a new trade. Instead, he is now a of a new household. And the patron and patroness who bought him operate as his father and mother.
But what if you wanted to leave this poor life and commit yourself to a higher position? Again, it is simple. You give your child to the god or goddess of the city.
Because in the council of patrons is a king – not a king with a crown on his head and a government behind him but a king among patrons. Maybe he amassed enough wealth and wisdom to make the final decisions. Maybe he is the son of the oldest patron. Whoever he is, this king is a living embodiment of your city’s god or goddess. And the god’s temple is located in the center of the city.
For it the god or goddess who put that king in a place of power. Everyone knows that the king is the representation of that god on Earth.
So if you wanted upward mobility, the ear of the King, and the face of the god, you would give your daughter to the temple where they would learn to read, learn the ancient histories, and learn the politics of the surrounding cities, including what gods they each served and how this influenced their culture. And if your daughter was wise, and open to the powers of the world, she would excel. She would, one day, sit with the council in times of trouble, divine the future, and speak of what political moves neighboring cities were doing based on the gods that those cities served.
And this is how you, the goat and barley farmer, become connected to the very gods themselves. For when famine is coming and the king needs advice on how to prepare for the coming season the King will address the council of patrons. And the wealthy patron you serve calls you to his house where he showers you with wine, meat, and a few gold coins and he asks you what your opinion is on how to prepare for the coming famine. And since you gave your daughter to the temple, and your son over to his house, you are more likely to have his ear in the coming predicament. And if your plan is chosen by the king (and by extension the god of the city) you will no longer be a goat and barley farmer. You might be overseer of all the farmers, and there will be a place for you at the city gate: nine council patrons instead of eight.
And so, because of the power of the god of your city – you have gone from a struggling farmer to a man who has the king’s ear. And so you thank the god of the city for giving you a voice in the important matters of the city. And you become a follower of the god, of the ing, and of council of patrons. So you kill your youngest child to the temple as a sacrifice so everyone knows that the city’s god takes your new position seriously.
And when war is amassing, every man who is able to fight learns to wield a weapon. Including you, including your sons, including your priests, including the king. Because if you don’t win the fight – you, and your god, and your way of life will be demolished. You will be killed and your women will be given over a slaves into another god’s city where they will create a new generation. But this generation will not serve the god of your city, they will grow up to be servants of a different patron – one that you do not know – one whose character cannot be spoken of. And they will serve different gods – not the gods that your children have served so faithfully and gained favor under.
Everything about your life will turn to dust. So every man fights.
These are the cities, that Abraham, patron of Ur and Harran, left. These are the temples that he left. And he walked in a barren land. And in that barren land he encountered a different sort of God – a unique God who didn’t ask for child sacrifice, but a ram instead.
And so, Abraham became a king of a nomadic city. And under him was the patron Lot. And this nomad city grew under Issac, and Jacob. And the twelve tribes journeyed out into the land where they created their own cities full of patrons and temples, and trade. And war reached them, and they reached war. And then they realized that this lifestyle wasn’t working – yet again – they asked for a King. A real King – one with a crown and a government. One which could really display the might of their God – just like all the other kingdoms that surrounded them.
And God granted that request. And they went to war, and they were victorious . . . until – they weren’t. The powers of Babylon – the powers of Babylon’s god proved more powerful than the powers of Jerusalem’s God.
And now, your precious Zion – your Jerusalem temple, the Holy House of God where he physically dwells has been sacked: decimated. Is your God even alive? Your sons are killed, your daughters raped and taken. Your patrons are dead and scattered. Your households no longer exist – they have been swallowed into enemy households. Even the God who you trusted and worshiped has abandoned you and been put to shame by the power of a Babylon god. Your children will grow up in a foreign land with foreign gods who ask you to abandon who you are.
So, yes. In the face of this, I too would write what the Psalmist writes as emotion overtakes me: “O daughter of Babylon . . . Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!
Because they are not just little ones. They are the future of Babylon. They are the ones who will enslave your children into a new temple, a new patron, a new god, a new way-of-life – one that leads away from the One True God!
* * *
I hope I have demonstrated that the Ancient world was a world of loyalty – one that is very different than our own. Our ancestors knew – in a way that we don’t – that we are owned by the God we serve. Your very city is defined by God. Your temple is defined by God. Your king is defined by God. Your patrons who sit at the city gate are defined by God. The workers for those patrons are defined by Him. And the families of those workers are defined by Him. It’s a network that cannot be understood in any other way other than ownership.
There are so many times that the LORD says “I have brought (and sometimes bought) you out of the Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” In other words, “I am your patron! I am the council! I am the King! I am the Temple! I am the authority in your very life-style! I have taken you from your life of starvation and I have given you in this new Kingdom!”
So yes, the Old Testament displays a God of wrath! Because when you don’t obey the words of the patron you are cast out of the city. Because every single person in the city form the oldest of citizens to the newest of visitors was brought in by a patron of the city gate.
And when the patron’s people, who He has made a covenant with, break that covenant what is the patron to do? His only options are to display wrath or give mercy. Isn’t this the entire narrative of the Old Testament? A Patron-God claiming and living with his people? And life of both wrath and mercy – because those are the only acts a patron can give to those under his protection.
And if we are being honest with ourselves, the Patron-God of the Old Testament gives much more mercy than He does wrath. So much so that our Patron-God who made covenant with us sent His only Patron-Son into the world to look for a bride of his household . . .
There will be some wrath in the biblical narrative, for wrath is the Patron-God’s due. But the more I come to know the scriptures, that more I behold his Patron-God’s mercy. And this mercy abounds tenfold. Amen and Alleluia.