Study Guide

Lamentations

by Louise Gluck

Lamentations Essay - Critical Essays

Lamentations (Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Introduction

Lamentations

c. 587 b.c.-86 b.c.

Also known as How and Dirges. Hebrew poems.

Traditionally attributed to Jeremiah, Lamentations is a short book in the Old Testament section of the Bible consisting of five poems. Each poem comprises a chapter describing the common sorrow and suffering of the survivors of the devastation of Jerusalem after the Babylonian siege of 587 b.c. The Hebrew title of Lamentations translates as How and comes from the first word of the book—a groan. With its first four poems written in the form of alphabetic acrostics, Lamentations's structure is elaborate and the exact significance of its pattern somewhat controversial. It is the first widely accepted work exhibiting the definite dirge meter. While placed with Writings rather than among the Prophets in the Jewish canon, in the Greek Septuagint and in most English translations of the Bible it is found immediately after the Book of Jeremiah. The three major sources for the text of Lamentations are the Hebrew text, the Septuagint, and the Peshitta. The Hebrew text is remarkably well-preserved and thus of great use to scholars for study of Hebrew meter. Lamentations is a classic work—some say a peerless example—in the expression of communal grief and its power and depth have been admired for many centuries.

Plot and Major Characters

Lamentations changes over the course of its five poems. Initially it chronicles the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem. The poet describes the once-great city that is now desolate. It is compared to a queen who has become a slave, crying bitter tears, feeling inconsolable grief, humiliated before her enemies. The second poem describes the human suffering and horrible living conditions closer to the time of the actual fall of the city—conditions that the poet asserts have never been endured by anyone before. Starving mothers eat their children and even walls lament. The pain goes as deep as the sea. Young and old alike have been slaughtered by the Lord, who is likened to an enemy. God has laid waste the land and pitilessly rejected all whom He once embraced. Blame is also allocated to prophets and oracles who did not perform their duties. The central poem is traditionally acepted as the most important, according to many experts, and it introduces some measure of hope. Although it continues to relate horrors, they are more general in nature. The poet finds reason for hope in the notion that God will not stay angry at his chosen people forever. They admit their sins— an essential step to forgiveness. The fourth poem is similar to the second. It says that it would have been better to have died from the sword than to starve to death or resort to cannibalism of one's own children. Sin is declared the cause of Jerusalem's fall, particularly the sins of the priests and the prophets. The final poem lays out to God all the suffering His people have endured and implores Him to restore the nation of His anointed ones. The form of Lamentations is mixed and the speaking voice of the book changes in the course of the poems. Jerusalem addresses the Lord in the first chapter. In the second the poet himself speaks, but again Jerusalem delivers the words near the end of the poem. The course of the third poem shifts from “I” to “we,” but the identity of the “I” has been interpreted variously by different scholars. William F. Lanahan contends that it is in the voice of the defeated soldier, and that chapter four reflects the voice of the bourgeoisie. The final poem is communa—the survivors of Jerusalem's ruin praying to God for relief from their torments.

Major Themes

The major theme of Lamentations is the suffering and starvation following the capture of Jerusalem and the principal question this raises, Why has this happened? Were the Babylonians used as an instrument of the Lord? Did God's destruction of the city break his covenant with the Jewish people? Was God punishing them for their sins, with the purpose of their eventual rehabilitation? Or has He forsaken them utterly? Should they no longer have faith in the Lord? Nothing so severe had ever happened to Israel before and survivors desperately try to make sense of their situation. The poet answers that sin was the cause of the decimation. The particular sins are not adequately enumerated, but they clearly must have been serious, for Zion admits that it deserves what it has received.

Critical Reception

As with all books comprising the Bible, a prodigious amount of scholarship has been devoted to all aspects of Lamentations. Contentious disagreements among scholars are common in all areas of research concerning these poems. One avenue of study concerns its theological message. Some scholars argue there is one and only one, others argue that there are many interpretations that work on different levels, while yet others say there is no theological message at all. Another area of interest is the importance of the book's alphabetical composition; many scholars believe that far from being just a display of poetic virtuosity, the acrostics emphasize the completeness of the treatment rendered in the poems. Among other major interests of biblical scholars studying Lamentations are its authorship, its date of creation, and its structure. There is extreme disagreement regarding the unity of Lamentations, not only whether Jeremiah was the author but whether only one person was responsible for the poems. Theodore H. Robinson, for example, states that “internal evidence makes it practically certain that they are not all the work of a single author.” Some scholars assert that Lamentations is in Jeremiah's style and William Walter Cannon has furnished dozens of parallel phrases and concerns in Jeremiah. Other scholars insist that these parallels are insignificant, that the differences are more important, and that “Jeremiah is out of the question as author of the songs,” as Georg Fohrer puts it. Many different compositional arrangements have been proposed, with some scholars assigning certain chapters to one author, other chapters to someone else. The majority view of scholars is that the book—or at least the first four chapters—was absolutely written almost contemporaneously with the fall of Jerusalem by an eyewitness or eyewitnesses; the minority vociferously insist that the book was composed over a period spanning up to some four hundred years. Samuel Tobias Lachs, to use the most extreme example, lays out a case that the fifth poem is from the second century b.c. While many scholars view the final chapter as clearly different from the preceding four, others, notably William H. Shea, maintain that the fifth poem is vital to the overall structure of Lamentations. Such controversies continue to be argued both seriously and passionately.Lamentations is highly praised for its literary and poetic merits. Lanahan, for example, credits the poet's “manifold creative insight” in using multiple personae in the speaking voice. The most common criticism of the work is that its creator may have occasionally subsumed his message in order to fit it into the acrostic structure; this criticism is vigorously challenged by many other critics. Scholars have made advances in grammatical analysis in modern times concerning the text itself, yielding more accurate readings of certain passages: Marvin H. Pope has rendered a highly praised version of the last three verses of the fifth chapter of Lamentations, and Mitchell Dahood has made remarkable improvements to specific lines that he believes were compromised by spelling mistakes in source texts.

Principal Works

“Song of Songs” and “Lamentations”: A Commentary and Translation (translated by Robert Gordis) (poems) 1974

Lamentations (translated by Iain W. Provan) (poems) 1991

Lamentations: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (translated by Delbert R. Hillers) (poems) 1992

“Jonah” & “Lamentations” (translated by Robert B. Salters) (poems) 1994

The Book of Lamentations (translated by Rosario Castellanos and Esther Allen) (poems) 1998

“Eichah”/”Lamentations”: A New Translation with a Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic, and Rabbinic Sources...

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Criticism

Theodore H. Robinson (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: “Lamentations,” in The Poetry of the Old Testament, Duckworth, 1947, pp. 205-16.

[In the following excerpt, Robinson discusses the general characteristics of the verses in Lamentations, their varying levels of emotional intensity, and their probable order of composition.]

We have already seen something of what a “dirge” meant in the ancient world. Originally, no doubt, a funeral spell intended to keep the dead in his place and prevent him from annoying the living, it gradually developed into a genuine expression of the grief felt by survivors at the loss of one whom they loved. We may suppose that there were traditional and conventional...

(The entire section is 3564 words.)

Norman K. Gottwald (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: “The Theology of Doom” and “The Theology of Hope,” in Studies in the “Book of Lamentations,”SCM Press Ltd, 1962, pp. 63-111.

[In the following excerpt, Gottwald argues that Lamentations stresses the unique nature of the fall of Jerusalem and Israel's sins in order to convince its audience that the destruction must have been the will of God and that, in the face of discouraging external conditions, hope of renewal can nevertheless be found.]

The fall of Jerusalem was a clarion call to the entire re-thinking of Hebrew religion. In the truest sense this historic crisis was unparalleled in all Israel's history. At no time in the four hundred...

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Georg Fohrer (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: “Lamentations,” in Introduction to the Old Testament, Abingdon Press, 1968, pp. 295-99.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally written in German in 1965, Fohrer concisely describes the literary type and style of Lamentations and discusses what can be deduced of its origin and authorship.]

… 1. Terminology. Hebrew manuscripts and printed editions call the book of Lamentations by the first word of chapters 1, 2, and 4, 'êkâ, “Alas, how. … ” This title, which usually introduces a dirge, is appropriate to the content of the songs. The earlier name, according to Talmud Bab. Baba bathra 15a, was...

(The entire section is 2907 words.)

Samuel Tobias Lachs (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “The Date of Lamentations V,” in The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. LVII, No. 1, July, 1966, pp. 46-56.

[In the following essay, Lachs contends that the fifth chapter of Lamentations was written around 168-65 b.c.e., justifying the conclusion with his interpretations of its verses.]

Ancient tradition ascribes the authorship of the book ofLamentations to the prophet Jeremiah and interprets its content as referring to the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 b.c.e.1 Down to modern times few have questioned this assumed authorship or the event described. One notable exception in this regard was R. Abraham Ibn Ezra...

(The entire section is 2829 words.)

Thomas F. McDaniel (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: “The Alleged Sumerian Influence upon Lamentations,,” in Vetus Testamentum, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, April, 1968, pp. 198-209.

[In the following essay, McDaniel examines and rejects the supposed relationship of Sumerian literature to Lamentations, basing his conclusion in part on the fact that the parallels that exist are general and that no convincing means of transmission has been found.]

Sumerian literary catalogues from the early second millenium contain the titles of numerous lamentations over the destruction of Sumerian city-states, including Akkad (Agade), Eridu, Lagash, Nippur, and Ur, and over the whole land of Sumer1). Portions...

(The entire section is 5061 words.)

Dilbert R. Hillers (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Anchor Bible: “Lamentations,” Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972, pp. xv-xli.

[In the following essay, Hillers provides an overview of Lamentations and explores a number of topics including its place in the biblical canon; its alphabetic acrostics; its meter, parallelism, syntax, and strophic structure; and its liturgical use.]

THE MEANING AND PURPOSE OF LAMENTATIONS

“In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, in the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard, an official of the king of Babylon, entered Jerusalem. He burned down the...

(The entire section is 10852 words.)

William F. Lanahan (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “The Speaking Voice in the Book of Lamentations,” in Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 93, No. 1 March 1974, pp. 41-49.

[In the following essay, Lanahan offers a detailed examination of five distinctive narrative personae in Lamentations and explains how their use benefits the work.]

This examination of the speaking voice in the Book of Lamentations will not discuss the authorship of the book. The attribution of the work to the prophet Jeremiah is fundamentally a question of historical judgment. The attempt to identify the speaking voice, the subject of our concentration at the moment, is a stylistic concern. In this context,...

(The entire section is 4916 words.)

Robert Gordis (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “The Conclusion of the Book of Lamentations (5:22),” in Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 93, No. 2, June, 1974, pp. 289-93.

[In the following essay, Gordis considers and rejects assorted approaches to the problematic closing verse in Lamentations and offers his own interpretation based on a different reading of the syntactic structure employed.]

The closing verse in Lamentations is crucial for the meaning and spirit of the entire poem.1 In spite of the simplicity of its style and the familiarity of its vocabulary, it has long been a crux. After the plea in vs. 21, “Turn us to yourself and we will return, renew our days...

(The entire section is 2159 words.)

Michael S. Moore (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Human Suffering in Lamentations,” in Revue Biblique, Vol. 90, No. 4, October, 1983, pp. 534-55.

[In the following essay, Moore critiques attempts at finding unity in Lamentationsand contends that its theme and structure work together to express grief and promote hope.]

Among most recent studies of the theological import of Lamentations, the approaches of Norman Gottwald1 and Bertil Albrektson2 have dominated discussion. It is Gottwald's view, first of all, that a single “key” to the theology of Lamentations can be found—a position which is problematic from the very outset.3 Secondly,...

(The entire section is 8301 words.)

Delbert R. Hillers (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “History and Poetry in Lamentations,” in Currents in Theology and Mission, Vol. 10, 1983, pp. 155-61.

[In the following essay, Hillers explores the reasons behind the lack of historical material in Lamentationsand explains that what little of it can be found owes more to literary and religious traditions than to history.]

While in Jerusalem several years ago I remarked to a friend, an historian at the Hebrew University, that I was working on a commentary on Lamentations. He expressed great interest, attracted by the possibility of extracting from the series of poems some historical data to flesh out the bare picture of the fall of...

(The entire section is 3564 words.)

W. C. Gwaltney, Jr. (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “The Biblical Book of Lamentations in the Context of Near Eastern Lament Literature” in Scripture in Context II: More Essays on the Comparative Method, edited by William W. Hallo et al., Eisenbrauns, 1983, pp. 191-211.

[In the following essay, Gwaltney summarizes the history of Mesopotamian laments, analyzes their forms, and argues that the gaps in the record that caused Thomas F. McDaniel (see excerpt above) to reject the notion of Sumerian influence on Lamentations have now been bridged.]

1. INTRODUCTION

The biblical book of Lamentations has enjoyed a surprising renewal of interest in recent years. In...

(The entire section is 8522 words.)