When Terrifying Psalms Suddenly Look Quite Tame

The stone tablet with the code written on it. This was placed in a public space so that all could read it.

The stone tablet with the code written on it. This was placed in a public space so that all could read it.

Over the last six months I have been studying ancient history from a secular point of view, in order to understand the culture of Isra’el and the forces which shaped her idolatry. It’s been a fascinating time which I have enjoyed, but it has taken me to some pretty dark places!

To understand David and what social mindsets slid into the Psalms, I have looked at a number of pagan hymns, the epic of Gilgamesh and this week, the Code of the Babylonian King, Hammurabi. One thing sure stood out to me: if you thought Psalms such as Psalm 109 were pretty savage, you aint seen nothing yet! Trigger Warning: violent, gory content.

Here is a hit of Babylonian royal ego which will make you think about David’s roughest works in a completely different way. His slant is more towards divine justice than calling down divine revenge. I will leave it to you to mull over the contrast. I am still getting my head around it.

First, here is one of David’s Psalms of vengeance, Psalm 58:

For the choir director: A psalm of David, to be sung to the tune “Do Not Destroy!”
“Justice—do you rulers know the meaning of the word?
Do you judge the people fairly?
No! You plot injustice in your hearts.
You spread violence throughout the land.
These wicked people are born sinners;
even from birth they have lied and gone their own way.
They spit venom like deadly snakes;
they are like cobras that refuse to listen,
ignoring the tunes of the snake charmers,
no matter how skillfully they play.
Break off their fangs, O God!
Smash the jaws of these lions, O LORD!
May they disappear like water into thirsty ground.
Make their weapons useless in their hands.
May they be like snails that dissolve into slime,
like a stillborn child who will never see the sun.
God will sweep them away, both young and old,
faster than a pot heats over burning thorns.
The godly will rejoice when they see injustice avenged.
They will wash their feet in the blood of the wicked.
Then at last everyone will say,
“There truly is a reward for those who live for God;
surely there is a God who judges justly here on earth.”

Now for Hammerabi. I have slashed this down to 273 words. There are another 1604 words in the epilogue where Hammurabi takes the time to say how great he is. Plus there is a heap more self exultation in the prologue. The odd names are all referring to pagan gods. I have cut it into paragraphs to make it readable.

A stele picturing Hammurabi. It's also worth noting that David didn't go wild producing pictures of himself.

A stele picturing Hammurabi. It’s also worth noting that David didn’t go wild producing pictures of himself.

“May Zamama, the great warrior, the first-born son of E-Kur, who goeth at my right hand, shatter his weapons on the field of battle, turn day into night for him, and let his foe triumph over him.

May Ishtar, the goddess of fighting and war, who unfetters my weapons, my gracious protecting spirit, who loveth my dominion, curse his kingdom in her angry heart; in her great wrath, change his grace into evil, and shatter his weapons on the place of fighting and war. May she create disorder and sedition for him, strike down his warriors, that the earth may drink their blood, and throw down the piles of corpses of his warriors on the field; may she not grant him a life of mercy, deliver him into the hands of his enemies, and imprison him in the land of his enemies.

May Nergal, the might among the gods, whose contest is irresistible, who grants me victory, in his great might burn up his subjects like a slender reedstalk, cut off his limbs with his mighty weapons, and shatter him like an earthen image.

May Nin-tu, the sublime mistress of the lands, the fruitful mother, deny him a son, vouchsafe him no name, give him no successor among men.

May Nin-karak, the daughter of Anu, who adjudges grace to me, cause to come upon his members in E-kur high fever, severe wounds, that can not be healed, whose nature the physician does not understand, which he can not treat with dressing, which, like the bite of death, can not be removed, until they have sapped away his life.”

If you would like to read more, you can find the full, mind boggling legal code here. Some of it is very fair; some of it makes your head spin. They were hard times to be alive.


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