Muslim polemicists often cite Psalm 137:9 to prove that Holy Bible is cruel and barbaric since this specific Psalm condones, and even blesses, anyone who brutally murders infants. Let us quote the Psalm in context to see what in fact the Psalmist meant:
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion! How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget [its skill]. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. ‘Tear it down,’ they cried, ‘tear it down to its foundations!’ O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, HAPPY IS HE WHO REPAYS YOU FOR WHAT YOU HAVE DONE TO US – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” Psalm 137:1-9
When the Psalm is read in context, we discover that the Psalmist actually desired that justice be carried out upon the Babylonians for their inhumane crimes against the Israelites. The Psalmist was echoing the following Mosaic injunctions where the punishment of a criminal must match the crime that s/he committed, no more no less:
“Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution – life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a man must be put to death.” Leviticus 24:18-21
“Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” Deuteronomy 19:21
It was a common practice for invading armies to kill and dash children and women to their deaths, as the following OT citations show:
“Hazael went to meet Elisha, taking with him as a gift forty camel-loads of all the finest wares of Damascus. He went in and stood before him, and said, ‘Your son Ben-Hadad king of Aram has sent me to ask, “Will I recover from this illness?”‘ Elisha answered, ‘Go and say to him, “You will certainly recover”; but the LORD has revealed to me that he will in fact die.’ He stared at him with a fixed gaze until Hazael felt ashamed. Then the man of God began to weep. ‘Why is my lord weeping?’ asked Hazael. ‘Because I know the harm you will do to the Israelites,’ he answered. ‘You will set fire to their fortified places, kill their young men with the sword, dash their little children to the ground, and rip open their pregnant women.’ Hazael said, ‘How could your servant, a mere dog, accomplish such a feat?’ ‘The LORD has shown me that you will become king of Aram,” answered Elisha.’” 2 Kings 8:9-13
“But you have planted wickedness, you have reaped evil, you have eaten the fruit of deception. Because you have depended on your own strength and on your many warriors, the roar of battle will rise against your people, so that all your fortresses will be devastated – as Shalman devastated Beth Arbel on the day of battle, when mothers were dashed to the ground with their children. Thus will it happen to you, O Bethel, because your wickedness is great. When that day dawns, the king of Israel will be completely destroyed.” Hosea 10:13-15
“Yet she was taken captive and went into exile. Her infants were dashed to pieces at the head of every street. Lots were cast for her nobles, and all her great men were put in chains.” Nahum 3:10
Interestingly, Isaiah even predicted that Babylon would also be ravaged and have their children dashed to pieces in the same way they had done to others:
“Whoever is captured will be thrust through; all who are caught will fall by the sword. Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be looted and their wives ravished. See, I will stir up against them the Medes, who do not care for silver and have no delight in gold. Their bows will strike down the young men; they will have no mercy on infants nor will they look with compassion on children. Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the glory of the Babylonians’ pride, will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah. She will never be inhabited or lived in through all generations; no Arab will pitch his tent there, no shepherd will rest his flocks there. But desert creatures will lie there, jackals will fill her houses; there the owls will dwell, and there the wild goats will leap about. Hyenas will howl in her strongholds, jackals in her luxurious palaces. Her time is at hand, and her days will not be prolonged.” Isaiah 13:15-22
Hence, the Psalmist was not being cruel in his request but was demanding what God’s Law required, e.g., “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” etc. This is something that the Quran completely agrees with:
“Lo! We did reveal the Torah, wherein is guidance and a light, by which the prophets who surrendered (unto Allah) judged the Jews, and the rabbis and the priests (judged) by such of Allah’s Scripture as they were bidden to observe, and thereunto were they witnesses. So fear not mankind, but fear Me. And My revelations for a little gain. Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are d isbelievers. And We prescribed for them therein: The life for the life, and the eye for the eye, and the nose for the nose, and the ear for the ear, and the tooth for the tooth, and for wounds retaliation. But whoso forgoeth it (in the way of charity) it shall be expiation for him. Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are wrong-doers.” S. 5:44-45
“The forbidden month for the forbidden month, and forbidden things in retaliation. And one who attacketh you, attack him in like manner as he attacked you. Observe your duty to Allah, and know that Allah is with those who ward off (evil).” S. 2:194
“If ye punish, then punish with the like of that wherewith ye were afflicted. But if ye endure patiently, verily it is better for the patient.” S. 16:126
This brings me to my next point, namely, the Psalmist is not literally requesting the brutal deaths of children, but is asking that justice be served in a poetic manner, can be easily seen from the phrase, “dashing them against the rocks (stones).” As anyone familiar with Babylonian geography can tell you, there were no rocks and stones in Babylon. As noted Old Testament scholar Walter C. Kaiser Jr. writes:
“… Surely someone who goes about stealing babies and slamming them down on the pavement or over a rocky embankment is more than a brute; but is that what we have here? Not at all, for the expression is a hyperbole, typical of the emotional Near East, which consciously exaggerates. The writer, however, locates this psalm in Babylon. One thing Babylon is devoid of is rocks or rocky cliffs. This is so different from Palestine where rocks are all over the place; but not in Babylon. If one were to build in Babylon, he would need to bake mud bricks first; rocks or stones simply do not exist there.” (Kaiser, The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? [InterVarsity Press (IVP), Downers Grove, IL 2001], p. 213)
Thus, the text is clearly a poetic cry for righteous retribution, i.e. do to them as they did to others, and not a literal description of the kind of punishment to be inflicted on Israel’s enemies.
Moreover, doesn’t the Quran itself make the claim that prophets such as David and Jesus cursed unbelievers?
Cursed were the unbelievers of the Children of Israel by the tongue of David, and Jesus, Mary’s son; that, for their rebelling and their transgression. S. 5:78
Should it therefore surprise Muslims that an inspired Psalmist cried out by the Holy Spirit to God to enact the righteous judgment upon the Babylonians for the evils and crimes which they committed against God’s people? And if these polemicists really have problems with the Psalm’s comments about the children then what of the following Quranic curse?
And whoso disputes with thee concerning him, after the knowledge that has come to thee, say: ‘Come now, let us call our sons and your sons, our wives and your wives, our selves and your selves, then let us humbly pray and so lay God’s curse upon the ones who lie.’ S. 3:61 Arberry
Muhammad, or the author of the Quran, invokes Allah’s curse upon both the children and the women, specifically the wives, requesting that Allah condemn those who are lying about God. Why should Muhammad include innocent children and risk their physical well-being when they have nothing to do with it? Perhaps these Muhammadans can explain this since they obviously have a problem with the Psalmist’s prayer for judgment to befall God’s enemies.
More importantly, these Muslims cannot deny the inspiration of the Psalms if they truly believe in the Quran. The reason why they cannot is that their own scripture affirms that God personally revealed all of these Psalms:
“And if they deny thee, even so did they deny messengers who were before thee, who came with miracles and with the Psalms (Zuburi) and with the Scripture giving light.” S. 3:184
“Lo! We inspire thee as We inspired Noah and the prophets after him, as We inspired Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and Jesus and Job and Jonah and Aaron and Solomon, and as We imparted unto David the Psalms (Zabuuraa);” S. 4:163
“And thy Lord is Best Aware of all who are in the heavens and the earth. And we preferred some of the prophets above others, and unto David We gave the Psalms (Zabuu-raa).” S. 17:55
“And if they deny thee, those before them also denied. Their messengers came unto them with clear proofs (of Allah’s Sovereignty), and with the Psalms (Zuburi) and the Scripture giving light.” S. 35:25
Finally, if such a Psalm troubles these Muslims then they should definitely have problems with the following Quranic passages:
“The power of Abu Lahab will perish, and he will perish. His wealth and gains will not exempt him. He will be plunged in flaming Fire, And his wife, the wood-carrier, Will have upon her neck a halter of palm-fibre.” S. 111:1-5
Abu Lahab was Muhammad’s uncle. Both he and his wife were bitter enemies of Muhammad. Hence, it is not surprising to find Muhammad cursing his uncle and his wife for giving him a hard time. Ali Dashti claimed that these words were uttered by Muhammad seeing that it would be unbefitting for a merciful God to utter such curses:
Another utterance which, by the nature of its subject, cannot be attributed to the Sustainer of the Universe is sura 111 (ol-Masad), the retort to Abu Lahab. The Prophet had invited some relatives and influential Qorayshites to hear him expound the principles of Islam. When he began to speak, Abu Lahab angrily interrupted him, shouting “Perish you, Mohammad! Did you invite us here for this?” The sura, with its repetition of Abu Lahab’s word, “Perish,” voices the Prophet’s indignation at the rudeness of Abu Lahab and the malice of his wife, Omm Jomayyel, who had strewn thorns along the Prophet’s route. The retort as such is not out of proportion. On the other hand, it ill becomes the Sustainer of the Universe to curse an ignorant Arab and call his wife a firewood carrier. (Dashti, 23 Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammad, Translated from the Persian by F.R.C. Bagley [Mazda Publishers, Costa Mesa, CA 1994], p. 149)
The Quran says elsewhere:
“And the Jews say: Uzair is the son of Allah; and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah; these are the words of their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved before; may Allah destroy them (qaatalahumu llahu anna yu’fakoona); how they are turned away! S. 9:30 Shakir
And the Jews say, `Ezra is the son of ALLAH,’ and the Christians say, `the Messiah is the son of ALLAH;’ that is what they say with their mouths. They only imitate the saying of those who disbelieved before them. ALLAH’s curse be on them! How they are turned away. Sher Ali
The Jews said, “Ezra is the son of GOD,” while the Christians said, “Jesus is the son of GOD!” These are blasphemies uttered by their mouths. They thus match the blasphemies of those who have disbelieved in the past. GOD condemns them. They have surely deviated. Rashad Khalifah
“Some of the Jews have said that Ezra is the son of God and Christians have said the same of Jesus. This is only what they say and it is similar to what the unbelievers who lived before them had said. May God destroy them wherever they exist!” Muhammad Sarwar
Interestingly the word for “destroy,”, “condemns,”, “curse” also appears in verse 29 where it says to kill or fight against the people of the Book, unless they pay the Jizya tax. Hence, we find Muhammad calling upon God to curse and destroy Christians and Jews who believe that Ezra and Jesus are the sons of God, respectively.
The Quran, in another place, even condones the killing of an innocent young boy:
“So they journeyed on till when they met a young boy; he slew him. Moses said, ‘What! hast thou slain an innocent person without his having slain anyone! Surely, thou hast done a hideous thing’ … ‘And as for the youth, his parents were believers, and we feared lest on growing up he should involve them into trouble through rebellion and disbelief;’” S. 18:74, 80 Sher Ali
Moses’ companion justifies the killing of a young innocent boy on the grounds that the boy may have grown up to be a rebellious unbeliever. Hence, if these polemicists have issues with the Holy Bible they need to also take issue with their own book, which condones the killing of a young boy who may have, or may have not, grown up to be a disbeliever.
In other places the Quran, in agreement with the Holy Bible, says that God destroyed the people of Noah and Lot. It even mentions other places that were completely annihilated by Allah, such as the people of Ad, Madyan and Thamud (Cf. Q. 7:59-102; 11:25-95; 69:3-12). What this basically means is that Allah decreed the utter death and destruction of not just men, but of women, children and infants also!
For example, noted Muslim historian al-Tabari stated that the so-called prophet Salih allegedly commanded certain persons of Thamud to kill the children so as to prevent one of them from growing up and killing the she-camel:
According to Hajjaj- Ibn Jurayj: When Salih told the eight evildoers that a boy would be born at whose hands they would be destroyed, they said, “What do you command us?” He said, “I command you to kill THEM” (that is their male children). SO THEY KILLED THEM except one… (The History of Al-Tabari: Prophets and Patriarchs, translated by William M. Brinner [State University of New York Press (SUNY), 1987], Volume II, p. 43; capital and underline emphasis ours)
Hence, unless these Muhammadans want to argue that there were no women, children and infants in all these places, or that Allah’s prophets never commanded the death of children in any circumstances, then it is pretty clear that the Quran has no trouble with God killing infants. So what should these Muslims have problems with it?
What is more, the so-called sound Islamic narrations permit the killing of women and children in specific situations:
Narrated As-Sab bin Jaththama:
The Prophet passed by me at a place called Al-Abwa or Waddan, and was asked whether it was permissible to attack the pagan warriors at night with the probability of exposing their women and children to danger. The Prophet replied, “They (i.e. women and children) are from them (i.e. pagans).” I also heard the Prophet saying, “The institution of Hima is invalid except for Allah and His Apostle.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 52, Number 256 https://www.searchtruth.com/book_display.php?book=52&translator=1&start=0&number=256)
Chapter 9: PERMISSIBILITY OF KILLING WOMEN AND CHILDREN IN THE NIGHT RAIDS, PROVIDED IT IS NOT DELIBERATE
It is reported on the authority of Sa’b b. Jaththama that the Prophet of Allah, when asked about the women and children of the polytheists being killed during the night raid, said: They are from them. (Sahih Muslim, Book 019, Number 4321 https://www.searchtruth.com/book_display.php?book=019&translator=2&start=0&number=4321)
It is narrated by Sa’b b. Jaththama that he said (to the Holy Prophet): Messenger of Allah, we kill the children of the polytheists during the night raids. He said: They are from them. (Sahih Muslim, Book 019, Number 4322; see also Number 4323)
In light of the foregoing, it should be obvious that these Muslim polemicists really have no business critiquing the Holy Bible for what they perceive to be excessive cruelty.