Tuesday, August 7, 2012

4) Cursing Psalms - Allegorical Reinterpretation

Roland Murphy, as demonstrated in the last post, is willing to acknowledge the importance of understandings of these Psalms other than the historical. He writes,
Recent hermeneutical theories have challenged the dominance of [the historical-critical] method, arguing that every interpreter begins with certain inevitable presuppositions…. Certainly, the historical-critical method does not exhaust the meaning of a text, which in fact acquires new meanings as it is passed from generation to generation (8). 
Murphy’s own method of coming to a new understanding of the cursing Psalms is not altogether dissimilar from the spiritualizing and allegorical interpretations found in the patristic commentaries. When the early Christians inherited these Psalms of cursing, many felt quite free to imbue them with new meanings. Arnobius the Younger (c. 460), reading the curses of Psalm 35, asks,
What are we to do with this psalm? If we curse our enemies, we disregard the gospel, in which we are ordered not to curse them but to bless them…. Pray the prayer of the present psalm, not against flesh and blood but against the spirits of the air who daily harm us, who daily commit wars….What do you pray…? That the Lord will war and fight those who are against you as you grasp the arms of his own help against invisible enemies.
 St. Marina smiting a demon with a hammer
Arnobius’ solution to the difficulty of praying these curses as a Christian is to allegorize the cursed enemies as “spirits of the air,” that is, the demons. Allegory is one answer to the question of what use can be made of the cursing Psalms by those who believe that all of the Scripture – somehow including these passages which freely express the most vile and evil inclinations of the human heart – is inspired by God and that the Psalms are particularly suitable for use in our worship of him in accordance with ancient Christian custom. This is just the approach that Arnobius and many other early fathers of the Church have taken. They understood the enemies cursed by the Psalms to be the demons that Jesus spent so much time casting out. Augustine, Evagrius, and Cassiodorus support the view of the enemies as demons.  The ancient Israelites were clearly not intending to curse demons, but some early Christians thus redirected the curses.

Other fathers identify the cursed enemy as death, injustice, or the self. Benedict (c.480–547) understands the particularly cruel curse against the Babylonian babies as an allegory concerning temptations (Ps 137:9). He writes, “While these temptations are still young, catch hold of them and dash them against Christ.” The Scriptural type of Christ as the rock already existed and so Benedict simply spiritualized the “little ones” as temptations and made sense of the curse in that way (1 Cor 10:4; 1 Pet 2:4-7).  Origen and Ambrose also support this interpretation.

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