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IOSOT 2022

What Is the Problem in the Cursing Psalms? Scripture, Genre, and the Ethics of Prayer

Benjamin D. Sommer (New York)


This essay examines some of the ways Jews and Christians react to troubling texts in the Psalter – the passages that curse enemies or praise violence against them. My purpose in the essay is not to solve this problem but to clarify it, to identify it with greater specificity, to understand precisely why people consider the cursing psalms to be a problem to begin with. This work of clarification reveals that the problem at hand encompasses diverse issues, which bother different people to different extents, or perhaps do not bother them at all. Varied approaches to psalms of imprecation result from varied conceptions of scripture among Jews and Christians, and also varied conceptions of worship and of liturgy. The essay examines the relation of ethical problems raised by biblical theologians to the issue of Gattung – more specifically, to the functions that a text has in particular Sitze im Leben in Jewish and Christian worship.