Jewish and Christian Approaches to Suffering in the Reception of Psalm 137

  • Susan Gillingham University of Oxford


his paper illustrates how Psalm 137 is used to address the question of suffering by Jews and Christians during various crises of faith. In Jewish tradition, the psalm has a “meta-narrative” which meant reading it as a story set in poetry, speaking to the people as a whole not only emotionally but also materially. Only in later Christian reception does the engagement with this psalm become more obviously physical; Christians tend to avoid seeing the psalm as a meta-narrative and instead select single verses or phrases from it in order to teach spiritual lessons, often through the use of “allegory”, where different words are used to speak to more individual concerns. A selective survey of Jewish and Christian approaches to suffering in the reception of Psalm 137 suggests that the Christian reception of Psalm 137 in times of suffering is distinct from the Jewish one. Whereas early Jewish readings had a more corporate and physical emphasis, as crisis after crisis threatened the identity of the Jews as a people, early Christian readings are more personal and spiritualised, heightened through the use of allegory.