A Natural and Religious History of Compassion, Part 1

By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down and there we wept
     when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth,
     saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,
     if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
     how they said, "Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!"
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!

-- Psalm 137 (NRSV)
The first two-thirds of this Psalm have a plaintive beauty. These lines have many times been set to music. The musical versions, however, usually leave out that vicious ending. To understand the Psalm's mix of sadness, loss, devotion, and bitter hatred, let's look to its context.

The Psalm was composed -- as was much of the Hebrew Bible -- in the 6th century BCE, during the period of exile known as the Babylonian Captivity. In 605 BCE, the Babylonians conquered Judah, and the Israelites were enslaved and taken far away to Babylon. Then, in 538 BCE, Babylon in turn fell to Persia, and Israelites began to return home to Judah. In between, the 70-year period of Babylonian exile was for the Israelites a time of deep reflection on the meaning of who they were and why God had abandoned them.

During the exile, the stories about King David were compiled, incorporating earlier fragments. The figure of David reflects an exiled people's deep yearning for a story of past glory. In the process of constructing that story, a detailed ancestry for David was concocted, going back to Moses, and going further back to Abraham, some eight or nine centuries before David.

The creation and telling of these stories gave hope to the Hebrew people in a time of despair, suffering, and defeat. The stories of Abraham, Moses, and David, fictional or not, told Israelites of a past time of freedom and power, and gave them hope for a better time to come -- for the stories told them God had promised to make the descendants of Abraham a great nation.

Those stories assembled and composed during the Babylonian Captivity told the Israelites that the path of the fulfillment of God's promise was a winding one that had taken them into captivity before, in Egypt. They had emerged from past captivity into a time of freedom and prosperity, and so could again. Without that story, composed in oppression and exile, the Israelites would be known as one more Ancient Near East tribe – along with the Jebusites, Ammonites, Aramites, Midianites, Moabites, Edomites, Huttites,...Etceterites. But with that story, the Israelites coalesced around it into the religion recognizable as Judaism.

Some of the writings of the Babylonian Captivity do express deep bitterness, anger, and violent hatred of the Babylonian captors. Perhaps the bitterness of their oppression makes the bitterness of their hearts understandable. In any case, what we see at the end of Psalm 137 is a glimpse of the violent hostility that some of the Hebrews had toward their captors.

But now comes the amazing part.

In the midst of that bitterness, some of the Hebrew story-tellers had the wisdom and the courage to perceive another way: a way of hospitality rather than bitter and violent anger. The stories they wove together told the Hebrew people not only of a past time of glory, but also called them to hospitality rather than to bitterness. These story-tellers among the enslaved Israelites of the Babylonian Captivity gave us the story of Abraham’s hospitality to strangers, his heart of compassion in the midst of risk.

Genesis, chapter 18:
“The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.’”
Now, Abraham doesn’t recognize who these visitors are. Abraham's use of “my lord,” is a general term of respect. His running out to meet them and bowing down are the same generous hospitality he might show any human visitor. Abraham continues:
"‘Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refesh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’”
It was a patriarchal culture, so when Abraham decides to have guests, Sarah has to get to work – though Abraham is busy, too:
“And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the heard, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.”
In ancient times, a stranger often represented a threat. Yet Abraham rushes out to show kindness. He sets out his best offering. What he finds out, is that he is serving God.

Abraham's act of practical compassion leads to a holy encounter. As I read that story, it’s not that reaching out to needs greater than our own causes a magical being to reward us for it. Reaching out and connecting is the holy encounter. We touch the divine when we contact in compassion the other, the stranger. Whoever it is, that’s God.

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This is part 1 of 5 of "A Natural and Religious History of Compassion"
Next: Part 2

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