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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...

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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

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“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 (translated by Meir Zlotowitz) (poems) 1999

Theodore H. Robinson (essay date 1947)

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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 formulae which would serve both purposes, and we gather from such a passage as Jer. 9:17 ff. that there was a recognized profession, composed of women, who went through a regular course of training in their work. They had to know the right words which would both allay the spirit of the dead and excite the tears of the living. Authorship of these dirges, however, was not necessarily confined to the professional women, and in II Chron. 35:25 we have a statement to the effect that Jeremiah composed a dirge over Josiah, together with a reference to a book of dirges.

It is, perhaps, this note which has given rise to the tradition that Jeremiah was the actual author of our present Book of Lamentations or “Dirges.” It is beyond dispute that they, or some of them, are worthy of his poetic genius, and the book which bears his name attests the fact that he could and did compose works of this kind, cf. Jer. 9:19, 21. These, however, are very brief, comparable to the dirge of Amos over the fallen virgin of Israel (Am. 5:2), and are very different from the long and rather elaborate poems preserved in Lamentations. Occasionally, too, we have suggestions of a point of view which we can hardly associate with Jeremiah. When, for example, the poet in Lam. 5:7 lays the blame for Judah's disasters on an earlier generation, he is directly contradicting the principle which Jeremiah laid down in Jer. 31:29-30, where the prophet insists that the sinner alone must suffer for his wrongdoing—a doctrine to be more fully developed by Ezekiel. Again, Lam. 4:20 clearly refers to the ruined and captured king, and we can hardly imagine Jeremiah speaking of Zedekiah thus:

“The breath of our nostrils, the anointed of the Lord,
                                        Was taken in their pits,
                    Of whom we said, under his shadow
                                        We shall live among the nations.”

But while we may find it impossible to accept the tradidition which ascribes the book to Jeremiah, there is abundant reason for assigning it, or part of it, to the age in which he lived, and to use it as a historical document illustrating the calamity which he had foreseen for forty years before it fell.

For the book is not a unity; it does not pretend to be. It is a collection of five poems, four of them dirges in the strict sense, and the fifth a Psalm such as Israel's poets often uttered in times of distress. Each has its own literary characteristics, and internal evidence makes it practically certain that they are not all the work of a single author. They are not of equal literary merit, and they vary a good deal in the intensity of their feeling. While the first four, at any rate, may reasonably be referred to the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar, to the fall of the city and to its consequent desolation, we get the impression that some are nearer than others to actual disasters which they describe.

Chs. 1-4 are acrostic poems, though no two of them are exactly alike in their construction. In chs. 1, 2 and 4, the poet has assigned a stanza to each letter, but it occurs only at the head of the first line in the stanza. In ch. 3, as in Ps. 119, the poem falls into groups of three lines each, one group to every letter, and each line of the group begins with the proper letter. At the same time, the groups are not stanzas in the same sense as they are in 1, 2 and 4, since it is possible for the sense to be continued from one group to another, and the first line of a letter-group may be more closely associated with what precedes than with what follows. The verse-division in the English versions reflects this difference, for in chs. 1, 2 and 4 each letter-group is counted as a single verse, while in ch. 3 every line stands by itself. Thus chs. 1, 2 and 3 have the same number of lines, though the first two have only 22 verses while the third has 66.

Looking at these external characteristics we note that the four poems take the following forms:

Ch. 1 is an acrostic poem in which a stanza of three lines begins with its appropriate letter. The order of the alphabet is that which is now universally adopted, and goes back to ancient times.

Ch. 2 is also an acrostic poem in which a stanza of three lines begins with its appropriate letter, but the order of the alphabet differs slightly from the normal, since the letter … Pe, usually the seventeenth, comes before … Ayin, usually the sixteenth (the common arrangement may be seen in those Bibles which print the Hebrew letters at the head of each stanza in Ps. 119).

Ch. 3 is an acrostic in which three lines all begin with the same letter. Here, as in ch. 2, the usual order of …[Ayin, Pe] is reversed.

Ch. 4 is an acrostic in which a stanza of two lines is assigned to each letter. Otherwise it resembles ch. 2.

The metre in all these is that which seems most appropriate to the dirge, i.e., 3 : 2 varied occasionally with 2 : 2. It was, in fact, in this book that a definite metre, of the kind now generally admitted first attained wide acceptance, and though earlier students recognized only the 3 : 2 (a theory which led to some curious results), it received the name of Qinah, or “dirge,” metre. It was not till long afterwards that it was noticed in other poems which could not possibly be classed as “dirges,” e.g., in Ps. 23.

The first poem gives us a picture of the desolation of Jerusalem and of her people. It opens with the characteristic Hebrew groan—How! It is not a question, it is an exclamation of suffering, and stands outside the metrical scheme of the verse. This “anacrusis” is not infrequently used by the Hebrew poets to give emotional emphasis to what follows. The first line gives the key to the whole poem; the city that was once so great and beautiful, the place that once stood so high in the esteem of the peoples, has now fallen to the depths. Once populous, now she is lonely, for her inhabitants are gone. She had been powerful, now she is no more than a widow. She had been the mistress of others, and now she herself has to submit to forced labour, like any subject tribe. As we read we see more and more of the desolation. The land about her is deserted, for its people have been carried away captive, and her own inhabitants too have gone with them. She can find neither comfort nor sympathy from those about her; they mock at her and glory in her fall. The poet owns that her troubles are a just punishment for her sins, and in them he sees the hand of Yahweh at work. He cannot imagine that Yahweh is helpless, but He has not even protected His own sanctuary. Priests and elders, the chiefs in Church and State, are alike helpless, and perish of starvation. Yahweh, whom she has offended, is her only hope, and to Him she appeals for aid and restoration.

As we read this deeply moving expression of sorrow, we are struck by the fact that there is little or no reference to the actual horrors of siege and sack. It is the result of the fall of the city, not the terrible event itself, which fills the poet's mind. We shall realize this more fully when we come to glance at some of the other poems, and it has an important bearing on the date of the poem. It goes without saying that it must be placed earlier than any attempt to restore Jerusalem, and comes, therefore, from the time of the exile. But it is not to be placed near the beginning of that period. The first keen anguish has died away, and left a dull aching sorrow. Though there may never have been elsewhere pain like the pain of Jerusalem, it is no new thing; the wound is far from freshly inflicted. We might almost say that she was growing accustomed to her desolation, and it is a condition rather than a disastrous event which gives rise to the poet's utterance. In spite of the somewhat artificial flavour which an acrostic inevitably produces, the language has a solemn beauty, and whether we will or no we are carried back into the actual circumstances which called the dirge forth. The poem stands high among the world's lyrics of sorrow.

Ch. 2 may well be thought to stand even higher. In form, as we have seen, it closely resembles ch. 1, differing only in the places taken by two letters of the alphabet. Like the first poem, the second is a cry of woe and desolation, but it is much nearer to the actual disaster. The poet still remembers keenly incidents of the siege, the famine which destroyed more people than the weapons of the enemy, the corpses lying about the streets, the slaughter even of sacred persons, the cannibalism of mothers driven mad by hunger. It is not so much the desolation which followed on the sack of Jerusalem as the fearful details of the siege and capture which have impressed themselves upon him. In other ways the general atmosphere is much the same as in ch. 1; we observe here also the heart-rending contrast between the glorious past and the ghastly present, the exultant mockery of jealous and hostile neighbours. An interesting feature of the poet's thought is the way in which he sees the hand of Yahweh in all that has happened. Take v. 17 for example:

“Yahweh hath done that which he had devised;
                                        He hath fulfilled his word;
                    As he had commanded in days of old,
                                        He hath cast down, pitiless;
                    And he hath caused the enemy to rejoice over thee,
                                        He hath set up the horn of thine adversaries.”

Or again in v. 21, where Yahweh is directly addressed:

“They lie on the ground in the streets—
                                        Young and old;
                    My virgins and my young men
                                        Are fallen by the sword;
                    Thou hast slain in the day of thine anger,
                                        Thou hast slaughtered, hast not pitied.”

Even Yahweh's sanctuary has not been spared:

“And he hath done violence to his tabernacle as it were
                                        He hath destroyed his place of assembly;
                    Yahweh hath caused to be forgotten in Zion
                                        Solemn assembly and sabbath,
                    And hath despised in the indignation of his anger
                                        King and priest.”

(v. 6).

Truly “Yahweh has become as an enemy” (v. 5). It is rather striking that, in these circumstances, there is little or no reference to the sins, either of the fathers or of the generation which actually suffered the horrors which the poet had seen. There can be no doubt that he had seen them; his feeling is too keen to let us think that he was relying on tradition or on hearsay. What is more, they were comparatively fresh in his memory. There is a great difference between the emotional tone of this chapter and that of ch. 1. Both are steeped in pain, but here the poignant agony of grief has not yet settled down into the ache of sorrow. We must place this poem very near the beginning of the exilic period.

When we reach ch. 3 we are conscious at once of being in an entirely different atmosphere. The metre is still that of the Qinah, but this by no means compels us to regard the poem as a dirge. The use of the acrostic letter at the beginning of each of the three lines assigned to it gives an artificial air to the whole. The gloom is far from being so intense as it was in the first two chapters. Vv. 25-27, for example, all begin with the word “good.” This may be due in part to the demands of the acrostic, for comparatively few Hebrew words start with …[that] letter, and acrostic writers often have to fall back on “…the common Hebrew word for “good.” But we have other signs of a more hopeful attitude than appears in other chapters. It seems clear that the poet either has found, or expects to find in the near future, release from his troubles and vengeance on his enemies. There is, too, a certain lack of detail, a vagueness in speaking of the distress into which the poet has fallen, which contrasts very strongly with the wealth of detail offered us by other poems in the book. Occasionally we get hints of quotation from other writings; the opening words of v. 28 suggest an acquaintance with 1:1. It is surely not too fanciful to see in v. 30 a reminiscence of Is. 50:6. We naturally recall Jer. 9:1 on reading v. 48, and with vv. 12-13 we may compare Job 6:4, 16:12. The fact is that this poem is not a “dirge” at all, even in the somewhat wide sense which allows the term to include laments over cities and communities as well as over individuals. It belongs to the same class as a number of the Psalms, especially to those which cry out for deliverance from the threats of an enemy. There is confession of sin in v. 42, though the precise type of offence is not specified. The whole would be very suitable for use on some fast day, proclaimed as a result of national disaster in order to recover the favour of Yahweh and so win deliverance and triumph.

The date of this poem is not easy to determine. The passages which remind us of other writings are never direct quotations, though their language gives us good ground for supposing that this poet was acquainted with them. It is difficult to associate the piece with the fall of Jerusalem at all, and, as we have seen, we have to admit the possibility that it is even later than the book of Job. That would probably carry it down to a point rather late in the fourth century b.c. At the same time the parallels may be accidental, however unlikely this may seem at first sight, and in that case the poem may be earlier.

With ch. 4 we are back once more in the atmosphere of 586 b.c. The poem differs from ch. 2 mainly in having a two-line instead of a three-line stanza, but in other respects the two are closely similar and may be the work of the same poet. There is, perhaps, a tendency to dwell rather more on the horrors of the siege, and especially on the reaction of the women and children. The pitiful condition of these little ones appealed to the poet strongly. He has seen them suffering the agonies of thirst, perishing of hunger, and calling for the food which none can give. Little babies cry out at their mothers' dry breasts, and older children appeal in vain to their fathers for bread. Still more horrible is the cannibalism to which the starving women were reduced, slaughtering, cooking and eating even their own offspring. Incidentally it may be noted that Josephus records similar occurrences during the final siege of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. The poet feels strongly, too, the contrast between what was and what is. In former times the city had been rich in many ways, some had lived in real luxury, and, still more, her people had been beautiful and strong. Now all was changed:

“They that did feed delicately
                                        Are desolate in the streets:
                    They that were brought up in scarlet
                                        Embrace dunghills.”

(v. 5.)

“Their visage is blacker than coal;
                                        They are not known” (i.e. not recognisable)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                “in the streets:
                    Their skin cleaveth to their bone;
                                        It is withered, it is become as a stick.”

(v. 8.)

In vv. 18-20 we live again through the actual fall of the city. The enemy is already through the walls, and, sword in hand, hunts down the wretched inhabitants, chasing them through the streets. The king, as we hear elsewhere, made his way out of the city and fled towards Jordan. The language of the poet suggests that he was among the small group who got away with Zedekiah, for he speaks as if the pursuit had been swift behind himself. He seems, too, to have been a faithful attendant on his royal master, for the climax of the disaster is reached when the enemy overtakes and captures the “breath of our nostrils, the anointed of Yahweh.”

While the leading motif is the actual suffering, there is room for some reflection, and the poet realises that the punishment now fallen on Jerusalem is due to sin. But it is especially the sin of those who should have led the people to righteousness, the prophets and the priests (v. 13), which is responsible, for they “have shed the blood of the just in the midst of her.” A study of the utterances delivered by Jeremiah will bear out this point of view, and will help to reinforce the strong impression, which we get from all sides of the matter, that this poem is the work of one who had lived through the great catastrophe and was writing while its details were still fresh in his mind.

Ch. 5 stands apart from the other four in several ways. Its metre is 3 : 3, not that of the Qinah, and it is not an acrostic poem. It does, however, contain 22 verses, the right number for an acrostic. Perhaps a writer of such pieces wrote his poem first as it came into his mind, and then went over it again, substituting for the first word in each verse one which began with the appropriate letter. The chapter may, then, have been written for acrostic treatment and been left incomplete, i.e., without the final process.

In general character it is nearer to ch. 3 than to any of the others. It is a picture of desolation and distress, of a people worn by famine and groaning under the yoke. Once only is there reference to the plight of the city itself, and that is couched in quite general terms—Zion is desolate and wild animals wander over the ruined site. But we hear nothing of the process by which this came about, no word of siege or slaughter at the hands of an enemy. The nearest thing is the treatment of the women described in v. 11. There is nothing which speaks directly of exile, though some of the language might well have been used by Jewish captives in Mesopotamia. The old social and political order has broken up, and those who once had been the most prominent among the people have either disappeared or been reduced to degrading labour. There is constant danger from violence, but it does not seem to be the more or less organized persecution of a tyrannous conqueror, but rather that which arises from the presence of marauding and thievish bands.

In a word, the conditions are those which we know to have prevailed in the later period of the exile, and, to some extent, after the first return to Palestine. There may have been other ages in the post-exilic history to which the poem might be referred, but, in so far as we have details, there is none that fits it better than the latter part of the sixth century.

We may sum up. Lamentations consists of five poems, of varying authorship and of different dates. The only thing they have in common is that they are poems written in deep distress, though this is far more intense in some cases than in others. All may, and some must, be assigned to the period of the exile, and all appear to have been written in Palestine. Two of them, chs. 2 and 4, are very early in the period, and come from a time immediately after the fatal siege of Jerusalem. They may even be the work of the same writer, for both shew a superlative degree of poetic excellence. A little behind these two, both in time and in quality, comes ch. 1, whose date may be roughly between 570 and 560. b.c. Finally, not earlier than the end of the exilic period, we have ch. 5, and, possibly, ch. 3, though this, if any, is likely to be later than the return from the exile. It is noticeable, too, that these two poems fall some way below the high artistic standard reached by the rest—again we feel that ch. 3 stands even after ch. 5. This does not mean that these two pieces are on a low level as compared with work of similar tone, either in Hebrew or in other literature. They are well up to the average, and the book, small as it is, remains the classic example of literary beauty rising out of the deepest suffering.

Norman K. Gottwald (essay date 1962)

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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 years of the monarchy, with the exception of the campaign of Shishak (c. 935), had the sacred city of Jerusalem been captured, much less destroyed, nor had the theocracy been interrupted. Now the sombre announcements of the prophets had come to pass. To the exile of king and leaders and the destruction of the city were added famine and slaughter. To an historical faith this catastrophe could well have been fatal. A survey of exilic literature, wherein is embodied the responses of Israel to the crucible of national calamity, makes it abundantly clear that Lamentations is far from being a case of literary exaggeration or warped hypochondria.1

One of the first to observe the grand scale of the tragedy lamented in our book was Bishop Lowth who said:

Grief is generally abject and humble, less apt to assimilate with the sublime; but when it becomes excessive, and predominates in the mind, it rises to a bolder tone, and becomes heated to fury and madness. We have a fine example of this from the hand of Jeremiah when he exaggerates the miseries of Zion.2

Wiesmann, noting the same fact, remarked: ‘The sensual nature comes into its own, indeed appears in its complete weakness: the travails of suffering find full expression, according to Oriental manner, with a certain extravagance.’3 This ‘fury and madness’, this ‘extravagance’ of emotion is noticeable to any alert reader. It need not be contested that this is the customary temper of the Semite, but the grief of Lamentations had the deeper significance that from the Hebrew point of view it laments a supreme historical and, therefore, religious catastrophe.

Nearly every strophe of the Book of Lamentations could be cited in proof of the magnitude and severity of the misfortune. In particular the cumulative effect of the strophes in which Yahweh is pictured as chastening his people is overwhelming (1.13-15; 2.1-8; 3.1-19). The purpose of this unrelenting heaping up of misery is to stress the unique nature of the catastrophe, the worst feature being Israel's apparent alienation from God (2.1, 6-7; 3.17, 18, 31, 33, 49, 50; 5.20, 22).

In several passages the uniqueness of the suffering inflicted is actually stated and underlined. To the passers-by the daughter of Zion importunately appeals:

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Behold and consider
If there is any pain like my pain, which was dealt to me,
Which Yahweh inflicted in the day of his fierce anger. 


This outcry is intended as more than dramatics, although its rhetorical form cannot be denied. Here is a plea for the casual traveller to pause and consider if he has ever beheld such suffering. Perhaps on the grounds of dispassionate reflection alone, forgetting for the moment that it is the despised Zion that suffers, he may have mercy. It is easy to see why Christians have applied this awesome exclamation to the crucifixion of Jesus, for it has a solitariness and anguish akin to that devastating question, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ There is the same piercing quality of irremediable desolation expressed in it.

In the second poem the pivotal strophe is that which follows the withering catalogue of Yahweh's destructive acts:

How shall I uphold you, with what shall I compare you, O
          daughter of Jerusalem?
To what shall I liken you, and how comfort you, virgin
          daughter of Zion?
For great as the sea is your ruin; who can heal you?


Here the setting has become almost cosmic. Neither heaven nor earth can adduce an analogy to the magnitude of Zion's ruin. It is plainly incalculable. Only the vast, mysterious, and chaotic depths of the sea offer any point of comparison with the extent of Jerusalem's destruction. In the wake of this sweeping pronouncement we are appropriately introduced to the various groups who are inadequate for the comfort and healing of Judah. Neither prophets (2.14), nor the passers-by (2.15), nor the enemy (2.16) are capable of assuaging her wounds. As a matter of fact, like salt rubbed in an open sore, they only intensify the suffering. Failing all human help, the poet urgently summons Zion:

Cry aloud to the Lord! … 
Arise, cry out in the night! … 
Lift up your hands to him! … 

(2.18a, 19ae)

The nadir of Jerusalem's despair has been reached, and the sun of faith begins its circle toward the zenith. Disabused of all illusions, Zion knows that all her trust in earthly deliverance, whether in prophet or king or foreign aid, is ineffectual. The picture of inconsolability in 2.13 is indeed one of the most moving expressions of grief and ruin in all literature and yet it only serves to intensify the need for turning to the Lord. Precisely as in Job, Lamentations gives not the slightest trace of a leaning toward atheism or agnosticism.

Our final example leads logically to the theme of sin but deserves to be discussed in the present context because it boldly links unparalleled suffering with unparalleled sin.

The iniquity of the daughter of my people is greater than the
          sin of Sodom;
She was overthrown in a moment and no hands were laid upon


The shock of this sort of comparison is apparent. Our poet says in effect: ‘Yes, there was one cataclysm which can be compared to Jerusalem's ruin, but, terrible as it was, the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah pales beside the present disaster!’

From the eighth-century prophets onwards, the celebrated Cities of the Plain, Sodom and Gomorrah (cf. Admah and Zeboiim, Gen. 10.19; 14.28), made famous by the vivid J story of Gen. 19, became proverbial for the divine judgment, particularly with respect to its suddenness, its violence and its finality.4 It is noteworthy that in all the pre-exilic passages Sodom and its sister cities are the stock terms for divine judgment on sin. They serve as the norm for punishment, inasmuch as these cities suffered the most terrible punishment ever meted out. In each of the above references the sins of Israel (or the foreign lands) are considered to be perilously like the sins of the wicked cities of antiquity. But in all these cases Sodom and Gomorrah remain the standard which the other judgments approximate or equal. Only in exilic times do we find the sin of the nation exceeding that of the legendary cities! The only analogy to the Lamentations passage is in the address to the harlot Jerusalem by Ezekiel, who writes at precisely the same historical juncture:

And your elder sister in Samaria, who lived with her daughters to the north of you; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you, is Sodom with her daughters. Yet you were not content to walk in their ways, or do according to their abominations; within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways. As I live, says the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. (16.46-48)

The special import of the Lamentations reference is that it reasons from the punishment to the sin in keeping with the most unerring Deuteronomic faith. In what respect was Zion's punishment greater than Sodom's? The latter fell by a divine holocaust from heaven which was presumably instantaneous and relatively painless for the inhabitants. ‘No hands were laid upon her’, but hands have been laid upon Jerusalem—the coarse, plundering, destructive hands of the enemy (cf. 1.7, 10, 14; 2.7; 5.8). So the fitness of the ancient Cities of the Plain as an analogy to the Fall of Jerusalem is rejected as inadequate. The earlier statements of unparalleled suffering (1.12; 2.13) are emphatically confirmed. A symbol long honoured as the epitome of divinely inflicted punishment is shattered and cast aside. The ruin of Jerusalem, Lamentations insists, defies all categorizing and comparison; it is sui generis.5

What has brought on the doom? The confession of sin, not once or twice but repeatedly, not perfunctorily or incidentally but earnestly and fundamentally, suggests the reason for the calamity. All five of the poems which comprise the Book of Lamentations witness to the prophetic concept of sin and thus form one link in the long chain of evidence bearing out the importance of Lamentations as a justification and preservation of the teaching of the prophets. Even chapter two, conspicuous in its accusations of the deity, has an awareness of sin. The prophets are at fault because they did not expose the national guilt in order to prevent captivity (2.14). All the frightful judgments might have been averted had the trusted leaders been faithful to their calling and had the sinful people heeded their warning.

The statements of guilt and responsibility for sin are presented in different ways. Sometimes they are found in the poet's description of the city (1.5d, 8a, 9a; 4.6, 13ab), sometimes in direct address to the city (2.4ad; 4.22ab), and then again they appear as confessions on the lips of the city or nation (1.14, 18ab, 22cd; 3.42; 5.7, 16). The admission of sin by the offender is an absolute necessity if forgiveness is desired. Prov. 28.13, ‘He who hides his sins shall not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them, shall have mercy,’ is a good summary of the Biblical ethos concerning the effectiveness of confessional prayer. In the next chapter we shall explore the character of the repentance which is implied in the very act of acknowledging sin.

With one possible exception the sin is manfully shouldered by the contemporary generation. In 5.7 we read: ‘Our fathers sinned and are not; we bear their guilt.’ It may be that the ‘fathers’ are not those of the preceding generations but rather the leaders or eminent among the Jews. In other words, it may be said of the former leaders who are now in captivity that they ‘are not’, i.e. so far as the Jerusalem community is concerned they have ceased to exist. There is evidence for the usage of … ’ābh, ‘father’, with respect to rulers, priests, prophets, noblemen (cf. Gen. 45.8; Judg. 17.10; 18.19; I Sam. 24.11; II Kings 2.12; 3.13; 6.21; 13.14; II Chron. 2.12). But even if it is to be referred more naturally to the ancestors, it is not a categorical shifting of responsibility because in the same poem the people aver: ‘The crown has fallen from our head; woe to us, for we have sinned!’ (5.16). From the Hebrew point of view there is no incompatibility in the entertaining of these two ideas, as indeed the case of Jeremiah so clearly confirms (cf. Jer. 14.20 and 16.10-13). In fact it was the attempted reconciliation of these two elements of Hebrew experience that was to beome one of the major endeavours of Judaism.6

First we note that the sin is the equal of the suffering. The sin which has invoked Jerusalem's downfall is more heinous than the coarse sensuality of Sodom and Gomorrah (4.6). Twice the infinitive absolute is used to reinforce the seriousness of the sin (1.8a, 20d). Her sin has been so blatant that the nations mock and desert her (1.5, 8). Her sharp reversal of fortune was solely because of her sin (1.9). The burden of iniquity was so great when placed on the back of the daughter of Zion that she was crushed to the ground (1.14). Her rebellion was so flagrant that Yahweh was unable to forgive (3.42). The evil of Zion and her people was as foul as leprosy (4.13-15). There can be no mistake about the sincerity of the closing summation:

The crown has fallen from our head; woe to us, for we have
Because of this our heart is faint, because of these our eyes are


As to the specific sins which constitute the great iniquity of Judah, we are surprised that more detail is not given. It may be that the incisive teaching of the prophets, contained in the denunciatory oracles of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, is here presupposed as the content of the disobedience. Or this may be a deliberate omission expressive of the poet's conviction that the sin of Judah was much more serious and deep-rooted than the combination of many overt acts. This would continue the interpretation of Jeremiah, who internalized and radicalized sin to the extent that it could no longer be thought of as simply the violation of commandments imposed from without (cf. esp. 4.14; 13.23; 17.9, 10; 31.33-35). Also, it is not typical for the lament genre to confess sin. Laments in the Psalter that are true confessions are rare (e.g., 51; 130).

The one sin that is specified in Lamentations is the irresponsible leadership of the priests and prophets who were remiss in two respects. On the one hand, they were guilty of dereliction of duty in that they delighted in frothy visions of peace and prosperity and failed to warn Judah of her sin and the coming judgment (2.14). On the other hand, they actually participated in the oppression of the righteous, even shedding their blood (4.13). Beyond this the detailed features of the national sin are not sketched. But one thing is sure: the sin is not laid solely at the door of the religious leadership, but is shared equally by the populace. This can be seen in the distinction that is made between the prophet's falsity and ‘thy guilt’ (2.14). The same is implied, furthermore, in the earnestness of the national confession of guilt and by the fact that, even when priests and prophets have been slain, banished, or carried into exile, the heavy hand of Yahweh's judgment is still upon the community. In fact the gravity of the defection of the religious leaders is only significant in terms of the national destiny and the national default.7

The scope and seriousness of the sin is indicated by the several terms employed to describe it8: … peša‘, basically ‘transgression, rebellion or infringement’, stresses activity (1.5, 14, 22; 3.42); … hēt’, primarily ‘failure or falling short’, is sin from the standpoint of a norm or formal standard (1.8; 3.39; 4.6, 13, 22; 5.7, 16); … ‘āwōn, ‘crookedness or straying’, is sin from the standpoint of content (2.14; 4.6, 13, 22; 5.7); … mārāh, ‘obstinacy, refractoriness or rebellion’ (1.18, 20; 3.42); and … tume'āh, ‘uncleanness’ (1.9; 4.15). In this connection it may be significant that … šeghāghāh, ‘sin out of ignorance and inadvertence’, which does not appear in the prophets, is also avoided in Lamentations, inasmuch as the sin of Judah had long been heralded by the prophets and was therefore inexcusable. It is evident that the several words were used to impress the sin upon the hearer and to enable the Judeans to confess wholeheartedly their iniquity before Yahweh.

The confession of sin with such radical vehemence is one of the ways in which our book shows its superiority over all extra-Biblical, and one may also add, over all Biblical laments. Apart from the unusual addendum to the Sumerian Lamentation over Ur,9 the laments of the ancient Near East known to this writer do not take seriously the connection between national sin and national judgment. This fact testifies eloquently to that deep and sensitive awareness of sin which was the fruition of the prophetic faith of Israel. It demonstrates that sin, both as disobedience and disruption, was understood in exilic Israel. Judaism, with all its defensiveness and exclusivism, developed a deep and interior sense of sin (cf. Ezra 9; Neh. 9; Dan. 9; Sir. 21.1; 39.5; Prayer of Manasseh).10

While any such distinction in Lamentations is not articulate (as it is nowhere articulate in the Bible), one senses, both in the transcendent imperious will of the deity and in the tragic brokenness of the social organism, a wedding of faith and social morality that was to be one of the great gifts of Judaism to the world. The poet in Lamentations shows us that the collective defiance of the word of the Lord (1.18) has resulted in the deepest ruptures of the community life (2.9, 14; 5.1-17). Often in the course of subsequent history there has been a tendency to turn on the one side into an arbitrary tyranny of the divine and on the other into a self-contained ethics. The latter would have been unthinkable for the Hebrews, who knew nothing of autonomous arts, autonomous politics or autonomous culture of any sort. But, the Hebrews, with the possible exception of certain apocalyptists, were not constrained to make of God an arbitrary despot. Unlike the Greek pantheon, Yahweh had the ultimate welfare of his world ever in mind. While for Lamentations, as for all Hebrew thought, there is a definite qualitative chasm between God and man, it nevertheless is true that at the same time man is the child of God and fulfills God's purposes in his historical life. This puts all the ‘commands’ of God in a new perspective and opens up the possibility of talking about natural law, even though the questions of natural law and autonomous ethics do not appear in the Old Testament itself. Nevertheless, the conditions are all there except the humanistic assumption. There is even in the naive faith of the Deuteronomist an expression of the Hebrew conviction that the good of God and good of man are One Good. In this sense Hebrew faith already presupposes and contains, though embryonically, the tensions of later theology. It is not untrue to Biblical faith to raise such rational questions as: Is God or the Good prior? Is an autonomous ethics possible? At least it is not untrue to Biblical faith if it be allowed that the modern religious man may ask religious questions in forms not precisely equivalent to those of the Bible.

The conviction that the nation which lives righteously and trusts God shall be blessed arises out of the fundamental conviction that there are not several goods at conflict with one another but One Good which is the will of Yahweh. Conversely there are not several sins but One Sin which is rebellion against the will of Yahweh. Social ethics, which lay all men under a common obligation, must, therefore, stem from monotheism. It is the given order, created by the One God Yahweh, which rescues the activities of men from sheer arbitrariness and lends them structure. This is why Hebrew religion and Hebrew ethics can never be unravelled to anyone's satisfaction. All rebellion against God is thus not simply rebellion against an ‘other’ but also against the self and the whole created order, so intimately is the welfare of all created things bound up with adherence to the ways of the creator.11 One of the great contributions of the Wisdom literature was to make this point articulate. Lam. 3.34-39 is cast against the background of the Creator God, whose ways may be mysterious, but whose purposes are always for the good of his creation. There is, then, one may venture to say, already observable in Lamentations the foundation for the insight that evil and the disintegration of human society are inextricably bound together. There is, in terms of Tillich's philosophical theology, both an autonomy and a heteronomy within theonomy.12 The terrible poignancy of the confession of sin in Lamentations is that Zion, by her rebellion, has destroyed herself.

But to attempt to rationalize sin in terms of its social consequences is not to equate the punishment thereof with a troubled conscience, or with the slow working out of requital through the process of moral ‘sowing and reaping’. The interventionist ethos of Hebraism is more vivid and direct than that. The Book of Lamentations is distinguished by the repeated emphasis upon the wrath of Yahweh which acts directly in dealing out retribution.13 Commensurable with the suffering and sin is the anger of Yahweh. The most common term for wrath is … 'aph, also ‘nostril’, a derivative of … 'ānaph, ‘breathe or snort’ (1.12; 2.1, 3, 21, 22; 3.43, 66; 4.11). Other terms are … hārōn, from … hārāhn, which has the basic notion of ‘burning or kindling’ (never alone in Lamentations but three times with … 'appō, 1.12; 2.3; 4.11); … hēmāh, from … yāam, with the idea of heat (cf. Aramaic … yeham, usually for sexual impulse of animals, 2.4; 4.11); ‘ebhrāh, from … ‘ābhar, which suggests ‘overflow, excess, outburst’ (2.2; 3.1); and … za'am, or ‘indignation’ (2.6). The verb … qāçaph, ‘to be wrathful’ (5.22) completes the vocabulary. Yahweh's wrath is represented as being ‘poured out’ … šāphakh, 2.4; 4.11) and as ‘accomplished or spent’ (… kālāh, 4.11). Elsewhere he is pictured as ‘wrapping himself in anger’ (… sākhakh, 3.43), which like a cloud is impenetrable to prayer (3.44).

The real dynamic of the motif of Yahweh's wrath, however, is lost unless one studies it in close connection with the contexts where it occurs. Only by detailed analysis of the text of Lamentations can the interpreter grasp the fierceness and violence of the divine punishment. Central to the whole matter of the inter-relation of suffering, sin, and wrath is the direct activity of Yahweh in the city's destruction. Sin against God has aroused the divine wrath and that wrath has inflicted punishment without measure or mercy. Lest the reader overlook the true nature of the disaster, the poet ceaselessly reiterates the theme of Yahweh as the relentless, destroying God. Only in the last poem is explicit reference lacking to this motif, but the framework of the chapter, beginning and ending with an appeal for Yahweh to consider and restore the city, as well as the uneasy question of the conclusion, presupposes the earlier belief in the dreadful reprisal of the Lord.

In his monograph on Yahweh as a warrior or military commander, Henning Fredriksson calls attention to the frequent idea of God as the general of foreign armies (cf. e.g. Jer. 50.9; Isa. 41.2, 25; 43.17; Ezek. 26.7; 28.7).14 Perhaps the most famous expression is that of Assyria as the rod of the divine wrath described by Isaiah of Jerusalem (10.5 ff). From this notion arose the more shocking image of Yahweh himself as the destroyer. In Amos (1.3-2.5) he sends the fire of judgment, not eschatological but simply military (cf. use of the idiom … ‘to send or kindle fire’, in Josh. 8.8, 19; Jud. 1.8; 9.49; 20.48; II Sam. 14.30 f).15 Yahweh is the one who ‘smashes the bars’, presumably of the city gates (Amos 1.4 f; Isa. 45.2; Ps. 107.16). But, as Fredriksson observes, the direct destructive work of Yahweh is exemplified in Lamentations far more baldly than in any other Old Testament book.16 More ruthless and detailed than even the judgments and punitive messages of the prophets is the inexorable coming of Yahweh as he methodically reduces Zion to ruins. The role of the Divine Punisher is most prominent in four series of strophes; in these passages is concentrated the full impact of the judgment (1.13-15; 2.1-8; 3.1-18, 43-45). The passages may, in turn, be divided into those that represent Yahweh's unmediated action against the nation and those that picture the nation in personified lament.

The second category draws into play the terminology of the individual lament which appears to have been fairly well stylized and rather widely circulated, at least in post-exilic times. Our poet has transferred this imagery of terrible affliction to the nation conceived first, in the form of the daughter of Zion and later, in the person of the prophet Jeremiah. By looking at the verbs descriptive of Yahweh's judgment we get some appreciation of the ferocity and savagery, indeed the vicious glee, with which he carried out his plan. The general term for the punishment inflicted is hōghāh, ‘to afflict’ (1.5, 12) but it is embellished by imagery declaring that Yahweh cast fire into her bones, stretched a net to entangle her feet (1.13), impressed a yoke of sin upon her (1.14), spurned her warriors, summoned a festival of slaughter and trod the bloody ‘winepress’ (1.15).

Yet the first chapter is only a foretaste of what appears in the third poem where the severity of the divine punishment mounts almost to the breaking point. The suffering man depicted is the prophet Jeremiah as a type or representative of the suffering nation; his chastisements are administered by the rod of Yahweh's wrath. … But the initial announcement of the lamenting figure is an understatement of the fury to come. In rapid succession Yahweh drives him into darkness (3.2), turns a continually hostile hand against him (3.3), wears away his bodily strength and substance (3.4), besieges him (3.5), makes him dwell in the darkness of death (3.6), walls off his path with stones (3.7, 9), burdens him with chains (3.7), ignores his prayer (3.8), ambushes and tears him like a wild beast (3.10, 11), pierces him with arrows (3.12, 13), sates him with poisonous food and drink (3.15), breaks his teeth (3.16) and forces him to cower in ashes (3.16). It is no wonder that the man cries out in despair:

Thou hast rejected me from peace; I have forgotten good,
So I say, ‘Gone is my endurance, my hope from Yahweh.’

(3.17, 18)

When we remember the historic circumstances which underlie the extravagance of the third chapter, the imagery does not appear unreasonable. Jeremiah's rejection by his countrymen was, to all appearances, the most complete which any prophet ever experienced, at least that rejection is most sensitively preserved in his writings. As to the destruction of Judah, we have already noted that never had the city of Jerusalem and the kingdom at large known such a total and humiliating defeat. While the descriptions are excessive to our Western canons of taste, they are not disproportionate to the suffering as the people of Judah, the prophet Jeremiah, and the poet had experienced it. It is important to remember that to the Israelite what we speak of as ‘the fall of Jerusalem’ was not a single instantaneous stroke but an agonizing succession of blows, a tragedy compounded of many tragedies, a lingering and excruciating pain persisting in the form of shame and reproach long after the first distresses of the siege and destruction had subsided.

For the more explicit development of the destructive fury of Yahweh, we must turn to the remaining group of passages where the divine initiative is so to the fore that the instrumentality of the judgment, namely, the Neo-Babylonians, vanishes from sight and the grim demolition of Jerusalem is carried out by God himself. This is definitely more than a poetic device; indeed, mere aesthetics would recoil from such a perverse image. It can only be understood as a calculated attempt to attribute each and every one of Zion's tragic misfortunes to the will of Yahweh. Thus the secondary cause recedes and the will which originated the destruction is pictured as executing it. He (Yahweh) has beclouded the daughter of Zion, cast her glory from heaven to earth, disregarded his footstool (2.1), destroyed the dwellings of Jacob, thrown down the fortifications, hurled king and princes to the ground (2.2), cut off Israel's strength, turned back Israel's hand before the enemy, burned in Jacob as a flaming fire (2.3), bent his bow, set his hand and slain her sons (2.4), become as an enemy, destroyed her palace and fortifications, multiplied mourning and moaning (2.5), pulled down his booth and assembly place, caused festival and Sabbath to be forgotten, spurned king and priest (2.6), rejected altar and sanctuary, measured off the walls for destruction (2.7), and caused wall and rampart to mourn (2.8).

Later in the same poem Zion addresses Yahweh on behalf of her slaughtered inhabitants:

Thou hast slain in the day of thine anger; thou hast slaughtered
                    without mercy.
Thou hast called as a day of festival sojourners from round
And in the day of Yahweh's anger there is neither refugee nor
          survivor. (2.21e-22d)

There is also a relevant passage in the third poem where the nation, in a mixture of amazement and self-reprehension, directs a prayer of protest to the Lord:

Thou hast clothed thyself with anger and pursued, thou hast
          slain and had no mercy;
Thou hast clothed thyself in a cloud, prayer is unable to pass
Offscouring and refuse thou hast made us in the midst of the


Elsewhere the mocking enmity of surrounding peoples is openly attributed to Yahweh's decree (1.17). He caused the enemy to rejoice and actually exalted the strength of the foe (2.17), and he has scattered the faithless prophets and priests with his fierce countenance (4.16).

Nowhere in the five poems do we discover any mitigation of the inexorable and pitiless performance of God in the city's overthrow. To be sure other very important and hope-producing aspects of the deity are presented, but the calamity proper is consistently pictured as planned and executed by Yahweh. Even when the ruthless enemy is the centre of attention it is taken for granted that he is the momentary instrument of God, for ‘He (Yahweh) has delivered into the hands of the enemy the walls of her palaces’ (2.7) and ‘The Lord gave me into the hands of those whom I cannot withstand’ (1.14). One suspects that the repeated insistence upon this point is the poet's way of impressing his conviction on the wavering and doubtful in Judah. How widely the proposition was shared among the Jews remaining in Palestine is difficult to estimate, but in Lamentations it is clearly axiomatic. No accident, no demon, no foreign god was responsible for the plight of Israel, but Yahweh alone. In fact this becomes the basis of the enemy's cruellest scorn: the god who, by your own definition, should have protected you, has destroyed you!

Listen when I groan! There is none to comfort me;
All my enemies rejoice over my fate that thou hast done it!


And still more emphatic is the announcement that

Yahweh has done what he purposed; he has accomplished his
Which he decreed from days of old; he has pulled down
          without mercy,
And caused the enemy to rejoice over you; he has exalted the
          strength of your enemies.


Next to the loss of community with Yahweh and his purposes, the bitterest aspect of doom is the shame and reproach of defeat. The shame of Jerusalem consists primarily in her weakness so that she is unable to stand against the onslaughts of the foe (1.7-10; 2.16). She utterly failed to live up to her self-styled image as the city honoured (1.1e, 8c). As a consequence of the devastating blow which befell her, the nation is overcome with shame. Her disgrace is seen in two directions. In the first place she is swept by revulsion because of her sins (1.8). The daughter of Zion appears in the shocking image of a brazen harlot whose filthiness is publicly known. The force of the word ‘filthy’ … niddah; in Lam. nīdhah) can be seen in its technical usage for a mestruating woman (Ezek. 18.6; 22.10; 36.17; Lev. 12.2; 15.19, 20; 24-26; 18.19). By her callous persistence in sin, the daughter of Zion has so defiled herself that she is a thing of utter abhorrence to herself and others and in her revulsion she ‘turns away’ from the gaze of her former lovers (1.8, 9, 17).

In a similar manner the figure of leprosy is used to communicate the horrible aversion felt toward the faithless persons who held positions of religious leadership. The garments of priests and prophets are polluted and the community expels them from its midst with the warning cry of the leper: ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ (4.13-15). Jerusalem's sin, then, is like a foul and infectious disease that continually contaminates the daughter of Zion, exposing her to the open contempt and ostracism of the larger Near Eastern Community. But in a more limited sense, those especially guilty within the nation, the priests and prophets, are doubly infected and bear a particular scorn and ignominy.

The cruellest shame borne by Zion is the reproach of the enemy and neighbour who delight in mockery and revel in the punishment of Israel. The sharpest sting of Judah's sinfulness is the fact that it has been uncovered to the curious and hateful view of former friends. ‘All her admirers despise her, for they have seen her nakedness’ … ‘erwāthāh, 1.8, is another word of offence, actually a euphemism for the pudenda, cf. Gen. 9.22, 23; Ezek. 16.37; 23.10, 29; Isa. 20.4; 47.3). And it is evident from 4.21, 22 that the identical shameful exposure of Edom is anticipated, when her sins will be bared to the castigating derision of all the nations, for ‘you shall become drunk and strip yourself bare … he [Yahweh] will uncover your sins.’

It was observed in the previous chapter that there is a frequent contrast in the Book of Lamentations between Judah's fall and the enemy's rise. This reversal of fortune is inextricably bound up with a sense of bitter reproach:

Her enemies have gained the ascendancy, her foes have

(1.5 ab)

The enemies see her; they laugh at her annihilation. 


So that her fall is awesome, with none to comfort her.
Behold, O Yahweh, my affliction, for the enemy magnifies


Behold, O Yahweh, and consider, for I am despised! (1.11ef)
All my enemies rejoice over my evil that thou hast done it.


So odious has Judah become that in one passage she declares that Yahweh has made her like garbage or manure (…‘what has been rejected’; …‘what has been scraped off or cleared away’, cf. Ezek. 26.4 and the Talmudic ‘refuse’ and the Targumic… ‘dirt, dung’).

Other verses tell of the nations directing taunt songs against the desolated city:

He has made me a laughing-stock to all my people, their song
                    of derision all the day.


All our enemies open their mouth at us.


Thou hast heard their taunts, O Yahweh, all their plans
                    against me,
The lips of my assailants and their thoughts against me all the
Behold their sitting and their rising! For I am their song of


The taunt or mocking song must have been a firmly established Semitic genre. One of the earliest fragments of Hebrew poetry preserves just such a derisive song against Heshbon (Num. 21.27-29). Two later taunt songs, though polished by literary finesse and reshaped by prophetic ideas, are instructive for our understanding of the type (Isa. 14, 47). But we are still more fortunate in having retained in the text of Lamentations what appear to be some of the phrases and refrains from the typical exilic taunt song. We cannot know whether they record the actual words that were hurled at Judah by certain of the enemy but it is enough if they retain the spirit. Accompanied as they are by gestures, malicious joy and hateful malignancy, the sharp whiplash of their scorn is not lost to the modern interpreter:

All who pass by clap their hands at you;
They hiss and shake their heads at the daughter of Jerusalem;
“Is this the city of which they said ‘perfect in beauty,
the joy of
                              all the earth’?”
All your enemies open their mouth at you;
They hiss and gnash their teeth, they say, ‘We have destroyed
‘Surely this is the day for which we waited. It is ours! We see

(2.15, 16)

It is interesting that in Isa. 14 and 23 we have the same ironic type of question as in 2.15, questions calculated to stress the great chasm between former pretension and present weakness and humiliation. The former accomplish by means of dramatic contrast very nearly the same effect as Shelley achieved in his sonnet ‘Ozymandias’.

Those who see you will stare at you,
          and ponder over you:
‘Is this the man who made the earth tremble,
                    who shook kingdoms,
Who made the world like a desert
          and overthrew its cities,
          who did not let the prisoners go home?’

(Isa. 14.16, 17)

‘Is this your exultant city
                    whose origin is from days of old,
whose feet carried her
          to settle afar?’

(Isa. 23.7)

The very fact that the greatest shame revealed in the poems is not the personal shame of sin but the public shame of reproach poses the crucial theological issue of a universal God confining himself to a particular people. The light that has fallen on Israel has been gravely refracted, for Israel has all too often understood her Lord as the protector of her national interests and, conversely, she has tended to define God's enemies in terms of her own enemies. From the standpoint of Christianity, and also in the opinion of many adherents of Judaism, a shattering of the theocracy was necessary in order to release the word of God from its too narrow and too selfish confines.

But even in its post-exilic form, Judaism did not become a world religion in actuality. This must be insisted upon in spite of widespread geographical dispersion and, for a period at least, a thriving proselyte movement.17 The loftiest sentiments of universalism did not set aside the plain fact that to share the religion of the One God Yahweh meant that one must become a Jew culturally. There can be little doubt that the rise of Christianity shut the door on whatever hope there might have been for a truly universal Judaism, or perhaps one ought to say that the universalistic tendencies in Judaism found their expression in the daughter religion of Christianity. At any rate, it appears that only the one ‘branch’ of Hebrew-Jewish faith, namely Christianity, succeeded in overcoming the connection between faith and nationality. In the very process of doing so it became heretical to the parent faith. It is true that Christianity retained an offence, but in place of the offence of nationality, it placed the offence of the cross (and the related offence of the incarnation).18 While both were scandals of particularity, the Christian offence was able to cut radically across all levels of society, culture and race—something which Judaism has never quite succeeded in doing. Christ was and is a scandal to the proud man as man; Judaism was and is a scandal to the gentile as gentile. Christianity therefore realizes all that is best in the historical faith of Hebraism and Judaism but, in addition, lifts this faith to a level where it is accessible to men everywhere, without demanding of them extraneous cultural and ritual submission. This is typified in the fact that Jesus utterly transformed a Jewish title of limited national meaning into a term of universal significance. If it is true that Hebrew faith gives us the necessary understanding of the term Christ, it is also true that Jesus invested the title with its decisive content—a content that could never have been predicted or inferred from its Old Testament antecedents.19 When the Church calls itself ‘the New Israel’ this simply means that Christians believe themselves to be participating in the promises of God which were not alone to Israel but through Israel to all the world.

In this criticism of Jewish pride, we do not mean that an insensitivity to the reproach of the enemy and the onlooker would have been the ideal attitude for the poet of Lamentations. Without this sting the lament would have been plainly insipid! Furthermore, this sensitivity shows a recognition that all the brutality and cruelty of the foe could not be equated solely with Yahweh's will. Although an instrument in Yahweh's hand, the enemy was not passive. Its wilfulness became apparent in delight over the havoc which it wrought. Nevertheless the fact persists that the great indulgence of Lamentations in the reproach of the enemy is a blemish of national pride not suited to the mission of Israel. Wiesmann argues that by virtue of Israel's uniqueness as the people of revelation, she was ‘marked’ as the special target of scorn by the surrounding nations. Because of her privileges and peculiarities, Israel was easily incited to pride and nothing would be more rancorous in the breast of surrounding peoples than such superiority.20 The destruction of Jerusalem should have taught the Jew not only humility toward Yahweh but a greater charity toward the non-Jew. While the distinction has been very hard for men to make, especially religious men, there is a difference between suffering for the sake of one's faith and suffering because of recalcitrance and stubborn pride. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in the very superbness of Hebraism with its privileges and excellencies there was a perverseness of pride which God had to judge—a perverseness which is not absent from the Christian Church or indeed from any organization or nation that has some basis for self-satisfaction.

Precisely as in the prophets, Lamentations does not totally renounce the election doctrine of Israel. In spite of that, by means of the enormity of her sin and the exhortation to patience and a wider trust in the overarching and mysterious ways of God, a number of reservations are introduced into the optimistic formulations of the election faith. Not only is responsibility primary, but there is some indication that Yahweh's purposes are too grand and unpredictable to be limited to one people. From the following in Lamentations it is only a short step to the great statements of universalism in Second Isaiah:

Who is this who speaks and it is so, unless the Lord commands?
From the mouth of the Most High has there not gone forth
                    evil and good?
Why should a living man murmur, a man because of his sins?


In our consideration of the theology of doom in Lamentations, we turn finally to the motif of the Day of Yahweh21 … (yām yhwh) which forms another link between our book and the prophets. All discussion of the Day of Yahweh begins with Amos who clearly shows that the concept as popularly held in his day was a creation of quasi-religious patriotism (5.18). His comprehension was quite otherwise, for he envisioned stern judgment on gentile and Israelite alike. It is this view of a radical ‘root and branch’ destruction of evil, regardless of national boundaries, that is perpetuated and restated by a long succession of prophets (Isa. 2.12; Zeph. 1.10-12; Ezek. 7.10; Joel 1.14; Mal. 4.1).22

When we examine Lamentations we are impressed with the extent to which it bears out this prophetic conviction. In no sense is its conception of the Day of Yahweh related to the popular idea reflected in Amos. There are several references to the Day of Yahweh, although in only one does the usual name appear and this may be a gloss (2.22). But the features of that day accord with the prophetic teaching:

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Behold and consider
If there is any pain like my pain which was dealt to me,
Which Yahweh inflicted in the day of his fierce

(1.12, … beyōm harōn ' appō)

O how the Lord has eclipsed in his anger the daughter of Zion!
Has cast from heaven to earth the glory of Israel!
And has taken no thought of his footstool in
the day of his anger!

(2.1, … beyōm 'appō)

Young and old lie prostrate in the streets;
My maidens and young men fall by the sword;
Thou hast slain in the day of thine anger;
thou hast slaughtered
          without mercy.

(2.21, … beyōm 'appekhā)

Thou hast called as a day of festival sojourners from round
And in the day of Yahweh's anger
there is neither refugee nor survivor;
Those whom I fondled and reared my enemy consumed.

(2.22, … beyōm 'aph-yhwh)

Of immediate interest in these passages is the identification of the Day of Yahweh with the fall of Jerusalem in confirmation of the prophets’ firm faith that it was to be a day of doom for Israel. As Černý observes, the designation of the Day of Yahweh as past is absolutely unique to the Book of Lamentations.23 The significance of this fact must not be overlooked. First, it shows the decisive and epochal nature of the fall of the city. If was of such world-shaking import for Israel that it could be described as the Day of Yahweh. This confirms the many other indications of the sui generis nature of the catastrophe. Secondly, it should be abundantly clear that Day of Yahweh in our period, at least for the poet of Lamentations, could scarcely have been regarded as the culmination of history, i.e. the point at which history ends in one great act of God. If it had been so regarded, it would have been impossible to equate the fall of the city, however calamitous, with that Day, for it was obvious that history was still in process. Finally, it clarifies for the exegete the basic connotation of the Day of Yahweh. We shall see momentarily that Lamentations not only regards the Day of Yahweh as past but also conceives of it as future (1.21). Were the Day a given period of time consisting of twenty-four hours, or even a single event, such a bifurcation would be ridiculous. But the Day of Yahweh is not any stated period of time.24 Temporality is involved only in the sense that Yahweh will act openly in history. Thus it is Yahweh's ‘Day’ because it is the time when God acts. ‘Day’ is simply that portion of history in which God moves decisively to judge men and to fulfill his purposes. Lamentations is thereby able to represent two or more times as the Day of Yahweh, corresponding to the twofold character of his judgment: once upon Israel in the past and again upon the enemy nations in the future. Both of these are Yahweh's Day without any sense of inconsistency. Lamentations is unique in this double reference for the Day of Yahweh. It can only be explained in the light of the enormity of the impression made by the fall of the city.

If the Day of Yahweh is essentially the period of time in which Yahweh acts (cf. Mal. 3.17), what is the character of his action? Our book is uniform in its witness that the action of God is the expression of his wrath (cf. Isa. 13.6, 9; Zeph. 1.18; 2.2 f; 3.9 f; Ezek. 7.19). In fact the accepted expression in Lamentations is ‘the Day of his anger’. We have already seen how the intense wrath of Yahweh is pictured as afflicting, annihilating, and profaning the city of Jerusalem, its citizens and holy places.

Among the imagery in which the Day of Yahweh is decked out, the most prominent is the battle-motif. Yahweh appears as a slaying warrior (2.4, 5, 21; 3.43), drenched in the ‘vintage’ blood of his victims (1.15), burning (1.13; 2.3-4; 4.11) and demolishing (2.2, 5-6) the city. Some of this imagery has a demonic coloration, attributing to Yahweh functions once cared for by the lesser divinities who intervened capriciously in the affairs of men (cf. Gen. 32.22 ff). Fredriksson singles out for consideration the blazing face of Yahweh which destroys and scatters, a tradition going back to the numinous Sinai experience when it was said that no man could look upon Yahweh's face and live (Ex. 34.29 ff).25 It is the hostile face of Yahweh that dissipates the faithless leaders (4.16). Yahweh as an archer whose arrows cause sickness and misfortune takes over that function from demonology (3.2 f cf. Job 6.4; 16.12 f; Deut. 32.22; Ps. 38.3; 64.8).26 We have noted the starkness of the imagery of God's punishment and also the extent to which the secondary cause (the enemy) is overlooked and the primary cause (Yahweh) is emphasized. S. R. Driver remarks that this habit is typical of the Day of Yahweh theme: ‘The conception places out of sight the human agents, by whom actually the judgment, as a rule, is effected, and regards the decisive movements of history as the exclusive manifestation of Jehovah's purpose and power.’27

The darkness-motif of Amos (cf. Isa. 13.9 f; Joel 2.2, 10 f; Ezek. 30.3) is not so explicit in Lamentations. The image of Zion as a star eclipsed by the wrath of Yahweh may be an instance (2.1). But unrecognized by most commentators is the sacrifice-motif in the reference ‘as to a day of appointed festival’ (2.22). This ironic word makes explicit and understandable one feature of the Day of Yahweh that appears for the first time in Zephaniah:

Be silent before the Lord God!
                    For the day of the Lord is at hand;
the Lord has prepared a sacrifice
                                                                                                                                                      and consecrated his guests.
And on the day of the Lord's sacrifice—
          ‘I will punish the official and the king's
          and all who array themselves in foreign attire.’

(1.7 f)

It is also found prior to Lamentations in Jer. 46.10:28

That day is the day of the Lord God of hosts,
                    a day of vengeance,
                    to avenge himself on his foes.
The sword shall devour and be sated,
                    and drink its fill of their blood.
For the Lord God of hosts holds a sacrifice
                    in the north country by the river Euphrates.

In exilic times and thereafter the sacrifice was developed into the great eschatological feast (cf. Isa. 34.5-7; Ezek. 39.4, 17-20; Pseudo-Isaiah 25.6-8; I Enoch 62.14; II Esdras 6.52; II Baruch 29.4; Luke 14.15-24; Matt. 7.11; 22.2-14).29 The figure originated perhaps in the popular patriotic idea that the Day of Yahweh was to be a day of joyful deliverance, a truly festal occasion.30 If the anticipated day was an outgrowth of the cult then the idea of the festival of Yahweh would be all the more understandable.31 The difficulty is, of course, that each of the facets of the Day of Yahweh permits of the same kind of provincial interpretation. The battle imagery suggests a military origin.32 The nature imagery suggests a cosmic setting supplied by myth or eschatology.33 The truth may be that military, cosmic, and cultic imagery was employed to give colour to a conception that was derived from none of these supposed ‘sources’.

The ironic twist that the prophets gave to the sacrifice-motif was strictly for the purpose of lending force to their persuasion that judgment would begin with God's people. ‘Yes,’ agrees the grieving poet, ‘we came as those who are summoned to a festival. We crowded Jerusalem in anticipation of victory over the Babylonians but on Yahweh's Day none of us escaped. The sword was turned against us and instead of feasting we were feasted upon!’ The mention of cannibalism in the context carries overtones of sadism and brutality that underline the demonic spectacle.34 It is also possible that in the third poem the statements ‘he has driven me into darkness and not light’ (3.2 cf. Amos 5.18c, 20) and ‘like a bear he ambushed me, like a lion in hiding’ (3.10 cf. Amos 5.19ab) are employed with the thought that the appalling suffering here inflicted is the Day of Yahweh now realized as Amos predicted it.

Ordinarily commentators discuss the last two strophes of the second poem simply as an instance of unbridled vengefulness. Vengeance is not to be excluded, but, in addition, we find here a crucial reference to the Day of Yahweh as a day of visitation on the nations:

Listen when I groan! There is none to comfort me;
All my enemies rejoice over my fate that thou hast done it;
Bring to pass the day thou didst proclaim
when they shall be as I!
Bring all their evil before thee! and do with them
As thou hast done with me, because of all my sins.
For great are my groanings and my heart is faint.

(1.21, 22)

Pedersen remarks that in spite of the protest of Amos, many of the later prophets fostered the view that God would one day smite the foes of Israel and reign over his people as King (cf. Zeph. 3.18, 15; Obad. 15, 21; Isa. 27; 33-35; 52; Ezek. 38.9; Zech. 14; Joel 2.28-3.20).35 In this spirit the poet of Lamentations believed not only that there is a Day of Yahweh for Israel but also a Day of Yahweh for the foe ‘when they shall be as I’, i.e. when their evils are dealt with. And this is no afterthought in the divine plan but a Day long ‘announced’ by Yahweh (1.21, … qārā). Here is something more than mere vengeance; it is the protest of outraged injustice.36 It is not denied, or in any way excluded, that the fall of the city was a bona fide judgment of Yahweh, but it is felt that the chastisement of Judah did not fully rectify the injustices of history. There is an increment of judgment yet to come. Punishment of the nations as the logical outgrowth of God's universal rule is similarly accented in the introduction to the foreign oracles of the book of Jeremiah: ‘For behold, I begin to do evil at the city which is called by my name, and shall you [the nations] escape unpunished?’ (25.29).

That all is not complete with Yahweh's administration of justice is evident in the mockery and glee of the foe. The punishment of Israel did not cure all evil; indeed, it gave opportunity for the lust and vicious traits of the enemy to be indulged (1.21; 2.7, 15, 16; 3.59-63; 4.18, 21; 5.5, 11, 12). Thus we have the germ of the universal judgment when at the Great Assize God will review the evil of all men and reward them as he has prematurely rewarded Israel. Such an outlook is not contradictory to Amos, for the reverse side of the herdsman's teaching about God's universal rule (9.7) was the conviction that the Universal Ruler would hold these nations responsible for their wrongs (1.3-2.3). Given the changed situation of the exile, it was inevitable that this other side of the doctrine would be developed.

The destructive or ‘demonic’ character of Yahweh was an apprehension of the deity which Hebraism never surrendered. It is crucial, nevertheless, to recognize the way in which pure caprice and arbitrariness were subordinated by the prophets to the righteous purposes of the Most High. In the next chapter we shall have more to say about this ‘ethicizing’ of the demonic. What is unique in Lamentations is the author's fearlessness in boldly asserting the explosive and destructive side of the divine nature. What is of importance is not merely the tremendous power and energy of Yahweh which can destroy the proudest works of man. That which is of enduring significance is the determination and ability of Yahweh to act in history in fulfilment of his announced word. The doom that he has brought upon Judah is not the result of fitful moodiness but is in accordance with the long proclaimed and inevitable requital of disobedience and rebellion. The Book of Lamentations was the first to take up the prophets' theme in the wake of the tragedy they announced and to vindicate their claims.

The consequence of this acceptance of the prophetic interpretation of national tragedy was immense. It deserves to be regarded as the greatest single spiritual achievement of the exile. The continuation of Hebrew religion depended upon it, for the survival of Israel's faith was predicated on the existence of at least a nucleus of believers who would be disposed to heed the words of men like Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah. Lamentations, originating on the home soil of Palestine, addressed to the people and intended for popular consumption, lays bare the heart of the process by which despair was turned to faith and disillusion to hope. In the attributing of the destruction and disorder of the nation to the divine will, strange as it may seem, we may discern the roots of new life. Calamity in itself might profit nothing. Humanly speaking, everything depended on a substantial number of Israelites recognizing the chastening hand of God at work in the unhappy events. Only in this way could history become revelatory with the purposes of God. Following 586 b.c. historical religion wavered perilously between collapse and reaffirmation. What was demanded in a great act of faith was the acceptance of the doom as Yahweh's doing, in large measure attributable to Israel's sins, but even in its incomprehensibility and mystery, still wholly within the designs of God.


Not many years ago the very mention of a message of hope would have been enough to demonstrate beyond the shadow of a doubt that such a message did not originate with the prophets. There was an ironclad ‘law’ of prophecy which forbade the spokesman of Yahweh ever to hold forth promises or to offer consolation. At least this was the case with the pre-exilic prophets, and, to the degree that certain exilic and post-exilic prophets departed from the word of absolute doom, to that degree they were thought of as forsaking the rigorous prophetic heights and compromising their mission by concessions to the feelings of the people at large.

But all this is changed. It is now widely recognized that the prophet was no mere automaton who had only one thing to say and only one way of saying it, like a record endlessly repeated. A study of the prophets only increases our amazement at their individuality and adaptability in the face of changing circumstances. To cut out all elements of hope from the prophecies of Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah calls for such wholesale surgery on the text and does such violence to the psychology of the prophets themselves, that the pursuit, if not wholly abandoned, is now tempered with much greater caution and reserve.

This is not to say that every passage of hope in the pre-exilic prophets is genuine.37 Each one must be tested on its own merits and, to a great extent, the negative judgments of previous critics are to be maintained. What must be decried is their doctrinaire presumption which allowed, or even forced, them to reject passages on principle. Even so historically exacting a critic as T. J. Meek has pointed to the likelihood of a prophetic message of hope inasmuch as the combination of threat and promise can be detected in Egyptian writings as early as the Twelfth Dynasty (2000-1800 b.c.).38

We have, however, not only the evidence of the writings themselves and the probabilities suggested by Egyptian parallels, but we have the historical survival of prophetic religion. Had the prophets preached destruction only, and held forth no glimmer of hope beyond tragedy, it is difficult to understand how Yahwism could have survived. Again and again students of the Old Testament have observed that Israel affords an amazing exception to the ancient Near Eastern pattern; Hebrew faith did not decline with national adversity but actually was confirmed and deepened. This was in large measure due to the prophetic conviction about chastisement, repentance, conversion, and hope. Martin Noth has given apt expression to the present tendency in prophetic interpretation:

In the midst of the annihilating events of the past one and a half centuries the prophets of the 8th and 7th centuries had not only spoken their warning of the imminent judgment of God, which was already in operation, but at the same time they had occasionally spoken of God's further plans for Israel.39

With this in mind, then, it will not seem strange or impossible that Lamentations, in its declaration of hope, is taking up a prophetic strain of thought and giving it that development and emphasis which could only have been possible after the predicted calamity had fallen. Specifically, the theology of hope in the Book of Lamentations is not a finely wrought description of future glory in the apocalyptic style. It is, rather, the intimation of a bright future which is determined by the nature of Israel's God. This rules out all speculative indulgence about the precise character of the future. On the contrary, this ‘theology of hope’ concentrates upon the revealed character of the God who determines the future and upon that response which is required of Israel if she is to participate in God's future.

We may begin our tracing of this hope by noting the frequency with which prayer appears in our book. The several imperatives directed to God are of theological importance inasmuch as they show that Yahweh's control of events is still very much alive in Israel's faith. It was true that he appeared utterly intransigent, but it was not thought of as vain to make appeal, for he might have mercy: ‘Perhaps there is hope’ (3.29b). In addition, Lamentations offers us some knowledge of the exilic ideals of prayer.

The nation begs Yahweh to behold its affliction (1.9ef), its reproach (1.11ef; 5.1), its rebellious exhaustion (1.20), the slaughter of children, youth and religious leaders (2.20). It pleads with the deity to give ear to the entreaty for help (3.56), to judge the cause of the innocent (3.59), and to restore the nation (5.22). The assumption is that Yahweh can do something about these conditions if he so wills. The most natural conclusion, granted the thought world of the ancient Near East, was the one Israel most stoutly resisted. Jerusalem did not fall because of Yahweh's impotence, but because of his strength. Since destruction is never final, affliction may be healed, reproach requited, rebellion forgiven, innocence justified, and the nation revived.

Lamentations makes it plain that appeals to all other quarters are fruitless. The passers-by do not respond with so much as a shred of mercy (1.12) but only add insult to injury by their revilings (2.15). The nations are oblivious to her pain (1.18). They boast in her downfall and make sport of her tragic lot (2.16). Healing from any human source is impossible (2.13). These categorical negations of earthly aid or comfort serve to intensify the urgent summons which the poet addresses to his people to call upon Yahweh (2.18, 19).

One word must be said about the intercessory prayer. ‘Lift up your hands to him for your children's lives!’ (2.19ef) adjures the poet. Thereupon the daughter of Zion, as the mother of all Israelites, pleads fervently for her children: the young, the priests and prophets, the aged, the maidens and warriors (2.20-22). One cannot help but think of the poignant picture of the ancestral mother Rachel weeping over her captive young (Jer. 31.15), and the later Jewish figure of the tribal ancestress in deep mourning for her offspring (Baruch 4.8-12; Syr. Bar. 10.16; 4th Esdras 10.7). The same sort of maternal pathos is encountered in the Babylonian mother goddess Ishtar who, after the great deluge, sang the funeral song over annihilated mankind. The fact that she is the goddess and not the nation personified is of course the important difference, but the same passionate intercessory concern is present, although there is no one to whom Ishtar may appeal for she herself has initiated the flood:

She bewails as one who has given birth:
                    ‘The generation passed away has become loam
                                        because I in the assembly of the gods commanded evil.
                    Yea, I commanded evil in the assembly of the gods,
                                        For the destruction of my people I commanded battle.
                    I alone gave birth to my people!
                                        And now they fill the sea like spawning fish.’(40)

A second instance of intercessory prayer is 3.49-51 where the poet in his grief vows to weep unceasingly until Yahweh looks down from heaven and beholds. There is the feeling that if he, as the bewailing poet, can be importunate enough he may gain the hearing of Yahweh who will then have mercy upon the whole city.

In his magnum opus on prayer, Heiler declares that lamentation is one of the prime ingredients of ‘Prophetic’ or ‘Biblical’ prayer and that it is quite in keeping with what he considers that type of prayer's essential content and motive: the unrestricted expression of compelling emotion, an involuntary and spontaneous discharge which the Old Testament figure ‘outpouring of the heart’ (cf. 2.19c) happily depicts.41 In the Biblical complaint, anxious questions sometimes pass over into bitter reproach (Jer. 4.10; 15.9; 20.7; Hab. 1.2). Heiler cites Lam. 2.20 ff as an example of shockingly blasphemous lament.42 ‘Behold, O Yahweh, to whom thou hast done this!’ is the audacious protest. Some construe this as a reference to the election faith of Israel. Overtones of that idea may be present, but a close study of the context would indicate that it applies to the mother and the priest and prophet. In other words, ‘Lord, consider what you have done, turning women into cannibals and slaughtering your sacred ones in the holy place!’

We have, then, in Lamentations with its insistent appeals for Yahweh to intervene, that peculiar mark of Biblical prayer which naively seems to believe that God does not see atrocity or misfortune unless his special attention is called to it. Moreover there is the belief that importunity will bring results. Was Jesus scoring this attitude when he said ‘they shall not be heard for their much speaking’ (Matt. 6.7)? Or was he commending it when he urged that by her very importunity the widow was heard (Luke 18.1-8)? One has the feeling that by the boldest possible statement of the suffering, God will be moved to pity (2.20-22; 3.42-43) and thus the grim aspects of the book, the repetitions of sorrows and horrors are not solely for the catharsis of grief but are also intended to gain God's sympathy and aid. In truth, the chief characteristic of the prayers in Lamentations is that they are motives calculated to arouse God to action. Indeed this motivation of prayer as a means of affecting God survived and took on additional forms in later centuries.

Norman Johnson, in his study of prayer in inter-testamental Judaism, points out that the petitions to God were oftentimes accompanied by fasting, sexual abstinence, donning of sackcloth and ashes, beating of the breast and tearing of garments. These habits, ancient in origin, tended to become conventionalized, but they retained, nevertheless, the coloration of motives.43

While many of these practices became a means of cultivating piety in the man himself, there can be little doubt that originally they were projected toward God's mercy and that the original function remained alongside the other.

Lamentations, with all its associated postures and gestures, offers a superb example of Biblical prayer in the starkest and most irreducible form. We see prayer in its naked objective power, passionately directed toward specific purposes. And if it is this aspect of prayer which is most baffling to the modern religious man, who would rather reduce prayer to a psychological act of piety, then it is precisely this aspect which our historical study needs to bring to the attention of Biblical theology as part of the data to which it must do justice even when that data runs counter to the mood of the day.

But what was there in the nature of God which prompted such violent prayer? Again we are thrust back upon the moral categories of sin and righteousness. That Yahweh had been perfectly justified in his harsh treatment of Zion is witnessed by the frequent confessions of sin. In the first and third poems, however, the author expressly enunciates the righteousness of God as a kind of fixed article of faith to which the doubting may cling. The daughter of Zion is made to say, ‘Yahweh is righteous for I have rebelled against his word’ (1.18ab). This is equivalent to saying, ‘I have no excuse to offer.’ In the middle poem, in what are the climactic verses of the whole composition, there is a magnificent utterance of the Lord's disavowal of all injustice:

To crush under foot all the prisoners of the earth,
To turn aside a man's right in the very presence of the Most
To mislead a man in his case, the Lord does not approve.


It is because of this assurance that the sorely tried nation is able to entrust its case to Yahweh, for he has contended for Israel's cause in days of old (3.58). He will judge the right of his people in the present crisis (3.59; 4.22). The foundations have been shaken but the divine government of the world is still administered from the steadfast throne of Yahweh. The easy optimism of the old enthronement hymns has vanished but their central affirmation still serves to express the faith of Israel: ‘Thou, O Yahweh, dost endure forever, thy throne to generation on generation!’ (5.19).

By means of this conviction about the enduring righteousness of Yahweh, his destructive demonic qualities were brought under control. Still, in sketching such a process, we must beware of thinking that for the Israelite this meant subjecting the deity to human definitions of the good.44 As a matter of fact Yahweh remained self-determined but that self-determination revealed certain fixed points of fidelity and dependability. Because of his mystery and awe, his unassailability as God, there was no criticism of deity such as one finds so openly engaged in by the Greeks, who were able to dethrone the Olympian pantheon, analysing and dismissing them as one might treat any object of sensory perception. If we are speaking from the standpoint of Biblical revelation, the ‘moralization of God’ was not something which the Hebrews achieved, but something which God himself revealed. No matter what we think of this viewpoint ourselves, a faithful analysis of the mind of exilic Israel requires at this point that we forsake our philosophic and anthropocentric categories. To say this is not to undercut the importance of the historical context in which the righteousness of God was grasped; it is actually to affirm it, for, in Israel's faith, it is only through the medium of the collective historical experience of the covenant people that Yahweh makes himself known.

Rudolph Volz has observed that with the great writing prophets ‘the demonic was separated from the holy’.45 The sheer destructive power of Yahweh was in the service, not of rationally-stated moral norms, but of a righteousness which was holy. It was the great virtue of the category of the Holy that it could take on moral dimensions and still retain the primitive sense of mystery and ‘shuddering’.46 Two outstanding instances of this deepening of the doctrine of God by the interpenetration and fusion of the moral and the ‘demonic’ so that they become the Holy are found in Hos. 11.9 and Isa. 5.16:

I will not execute my fierce anger,
                    I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not man,
                    the Holy One in your midst,
                    and I will not come to destroy.
But the Lord of hosts is exalted in justice,
                    and the Holy One shows himself holy in righteousness.

It is apparent that the Book of Lamentations perpetuates this insight, asserting it with all possible vehemence: Yahweh does not crush the captive, brush aside the clamour for justice, nor subvert a man in the rightness of his cause. We can readily understand how relevant this message was for the dark days of exilic despair. Israel is mistaken if she supposes that Yahweh has acted out of caprice or whimsey. Whatever the enormity and irrationality of the judgment from the human point of view, he has not disregarded the merits of the case. God is chastening Israel because he has her welfare at heart. He is guided by a righteous motive and a righteous goal.

Righteousness thus delineated borders on the covenant love of God.47 Yahweh's hesedh appears triumphant over the miasmal bitterness and despair of the suffering prophet. It is the sufferer's remembrance of that covenant love which renews hope within him:

O remember my affliction and homelessness, the wormwood
                    and the gall!
Thou wilt surely remember and bow down to me;
This I take to heart, therefore I have hope.
The covenant loyalties … of Yahweh that do not
                    fail, his mercies … that are not consumed,
Are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness!
‘Yahweh is my inheritance!’ says my soul, ‘therefore
I hope
                    in him!’


We are at once reminded of Zeph. 3.5:

The Lord within her [Jerusalem] is righteous,
                    he does no wrong;
every morning he shows forth his justice,
                    each dawn he does not fail;
                    but the unjust knows no shame.

Yahweh will not always afflict and reject, but will have mercy according to the abundance of his covenant loyalty. He does not arbitrarily or voluntarily mete out evil.

For the Lord will not reject forever;
If he grieves, he will have mercy according to the abundance
                              of his covenant loyalty;
For he does not afflict from his heart, nor grieve the sons of


In contrast to his hesedh, Yahweh's affliction and rejection of men is temporary, the necessity in a given circumstance, but never the final word. He brings his anger to an end, but his covenant loyalties are never consumed and his mercies are never exhausted. The expression ‘he does not afflict from the heart’ is the high watermark in Lamentations' understanding of God. As long as such a view of God was held in Israel there was no danger of the extinction of Yahwism. The angry side of his nature, turned so unflinchingly against Jerusalem, is not the determinative factor in the divine purposes. Begrudgingly, regretfully, if there is no other way toward his higher purposes, he may unleash the forces of evil, but ‘his heart’ is not in it! His deepest and truest intentions are otherwise; they are bent toward hesedh. It is easy to see how a view of educational value in suffering could develop from such a faith.

Eichrodt singles out Lam. 3.22 ff as one instance of the strong relationship of the God of love to the sufferer.48 The most outrageous blows of fortune and the severest chastisement cannot alienate the man who feels this attachment to his God. It is hardly necessary to remind ourselves that this attachment is not a matter of like attracting like, which is the moving spirit in all absorption mysticism and also in the magical religions of the Near East, among whom Israel's faith was an anomaly. The attachment which finds expression in the religion of Israel, beginning as early as Moses, is one which has been established by the prior initiative of God. Israel thus lays no claim upon God, but is claimed by him. This is the primal faith to which the prophets plead for a return. This is the faith of Lamentations. In the light of this fatherly connection, the Jews are to perceive God's grace within his judgment or, to state the matter more precisely, to recognize that his judgment was one aspect of his hesedh, even though it was not always possible to trace the direct connection between the two.

So intense had been the suffering that it was almost too much to expect that Yahweh would forgive. The poet does not come by his conviction of the divine love easily! Israel's sin had been very great (3.42) and Yahweh's anger pitiless (3.43). Köberle surely misunderstands the passage when he states that the line, ‘We have sinned and rebelled; thou hast not forgiven’ is proof that the people felt that God was obliged to forgive and therefore they are affronted.49 But the very opposite is the case. If he does forgive, it will be a marvel of the goodness of God, for ‘Why should a living man murmur, a man because of his sins?’ (3.39). God, therefore, owes nothing to Israel, but from the ground of the divine mercy it could be hoped and prayed that he might turn his anger and be gracious. Still nothing is guaranteed or automatic, for it is not God's business to forgive, and Lamentations closes with the troubled question, ‘Or hast thou utterly rejected us? Art thou exceedingly angry with us?’ (5.22). Judging by the book as a whole, the poet was thoroughly disabused of Israel's claims upon God. He makes almost nothing of the doctrine of election (2.20ab?). Central to his thought, however, was Yahweh's faithfulness to his own nature and purposes which might once again result in favour to the chastised nation. We are left confronting the unfathomable divine love and mercy which can never be calculated but comes only as a gift. This is the sole comfort which the poet has to offer his people but it casts a ray of hope over the otherwise dismal scene.

The great power and incomprehensibility of God were two aspects of the divine nature that post-exilic Judaism seized upon. They were amplified and embellished in the great flood of literature from the sixth century on. Here, after all, was the only security and refuge for a people whose superficial optimism had been crushed by the adversities of historical life. We meet the omnipotent and veiled God in Ezekiel, Deutero-Isaiah, the P Code, and then again, with renewed emphasis, in Chronicles, Job, Daniel, and extra-canonical literature like Fourth Esdras. Rankin discusses with penetration the importance of the transcendent World-Creator to the post-exilic age and, in particular, notes its significance for the book last-named:50

All that remains is faith in the Creator's will as being wise and good. This line of thought is taken up in Judaism at a much later date in the Fourth Book of Ezra when, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, the problem of suffering and of providence lay heavy on the heart of the stricken nation.

He fails to realize, however, that this very concern over providence was aroused by a similar historical situation six centuries earlier and that, in Lamentations, many of the interests and moods of the Wisdom literature are foreshadowed.

Of course it should not be overlooked that the conditions for the development of these ideas were long latent in the older prophets’ stress on God's control of history. For example, Amos’ chain of questions is a case in point (3.3-6). They may be understood as more than an effective rhetorical scheme for stating the law of cause and effect. His sense of the overpowering urgency of the divine will is clearly intended and there is more than an inkling of the later magnifying of Yahweh's majesty. But it remained for the exilic and post-exilic eras to exalt the omnipotence and inscrutability and to confess in dust and ashes that his ways were past finding out.

It is very noticeable in Lamentations that the ultimate appeal of the book is not alone to God's love and mercy but also to his unfathomed depths. Precisely as in Job, the very mystery of God is alluded to as at least a partial solution of the thorny problem of suffering:

Who is this who speaks and it is so, unless the Lord commands?
From the mouth of the Most High has there not gone forth evil
                    and good?
Why should a living man murmur, a man because of his sins?


The transcendence of God is seen in the appellation for the deity: Most High. … It is circular reasoning to date the third poem late because Elyon is a supposedly late title.51 Actually a perusal of the other passages where it appears52 indicates several which are certainly exilic and some undoubtedly pre-exilic.53 Furthermore, Elyon is a term used in Phoenician and Canaanite literature which in most cases antedates the exile by centuries.54 Even if the usage of Elyon in Lamentations is the first in Hebrew literature, it could not be imagined in a more likely circumstance and context. It is specious to shift the poem to a post-exilic date when all its characteristics authenticate the historical situation of sixth-century Palestine, simply because it uses a word that is not common until a later time.

God as the author of evil as well as good was a familiar theme in pre-exilic Israel (e.g. Ex. 4.21; 9.12; I Kings 22.23; Amos 3.6; Zeph. 3.6), but it did not become the subject of critical reflection until Israel had tasted the bitter dregs of that evil. Then the questionings were inevitable. Could this suffering, all of it and in its every grim aspect, be the will of Yahweh? Thus arose the first awareness of complexity within God himself—levels of volition, if you will, which we often designate as permissive and primary will. Some distinction of the sort is presupposed when the same poet could say that ‘he does not afflict from the heart’ and also that ‘from the Most High come forth good and evil.’

With this insight Israel confessed that slowly she was learning the bitterest lesson of the religious life—that there is no simple one to one correspondence between man's hope and God's will. In this sense, Lamentations is the true teacher of later Judaism, even more so than the other more prominent exilic books, for its author was the first to acknowledge that his people's sufferings were dealt them by a God whose purposes are not always apparent and, therefore, must forever elude the definitions of even an elected people. Lamentations thus goes beyond Deuteronomy and is not far from the chastened spirit of the Talmud: ‘It is not in our power’, said R. Jannai, ‘to explain either the prosperity of the wicked or the afflictions of the righteous.’55

It may be assumed that the frequent confession of sin in Lamentations presupposes repentance. The recovery of a right relationship with Yahweh involves not only the admission of … but repentance, i.e., ‘turning’. … Israel has turned from Yahweh to sin and her contrition must now express itself in just as definite an act of the will—a turning back to Yahweh. Repentance implies an abrupt break with the offensive conduct or state of mind (cf. Ezek. 14.6; 21.23; Amos 5.14 f; Hosea 14.2; Josh. 24.23; Dan. 4.24).

Following the assurance of God's goodness and love, the nation summons itself, as it were, to return to Yahweh:

Let us search and examine our ways, and return to Yahweh!
Let us lift up our hearts not our hands, to God in the
We have sinned and rebelled; thou hast not forgiven.


Such a ‘return’ to the Lord is more than a flight to consolation or a petulant play on the divine sympathy. It is accompanied by a searching and re-examination of the national ways (cf. Ps. 32.3, 5). Critical introspection gives way to the lifting of the heart to God and the confession of sin. There is the suggestion here that the poet is aware of the need for a new heart which was a prophetic insight so superbly stated by Jeremiah (31.31-34). At any rate there is the realization that now the people have done all within their power. They wait penitently and contritely for the divine forgiveness.

Erich Dietrich has called attention to the fact that in the Old Testament, while repentance is often pictured as the work of men, it is also frequently described as the work of God. No contradiction was felt for ‘we must herewith emphasize that the Old Testament in general has no systematic doctrine concerning efficient causation’.56 He singles out the presence of both human and divine operations in certain of the prophets.57

It is noteworthy that just this coexistence of the human and divine aspects of repentance is seen in Lamentations. The closing exclamation of the book vehemently calls upon the Lord, ‘Turn us to thyself, O Yahweh, and we shall be turned!’ (5.21). This plea must be interpreted against the backdrop of the utter supineness and exhaustion of God's people so painfully pictured throughout the poem, a lingering abjectness born of wretched servitude and the despairing conditions of life, plus the great burden of sin and guilt that Israel bears. In herself she knows no power to return to Yahweh. But, while the regal vigour of Israel is destroyed (5.16), Yahweh dwells resplendent upon his throne of world government (5.19). The consequence that our poet draws is that if the Jews are to turn to Yahweh then he must initiate the process of returning.

In Lamentations 5.21, as in the Jeremiah parallel of 31.18, it is difficult to know whether it should be interpreted politically or spiritually.58 Certainly it is not a matter of ‘pure spirit’. The parallel hemistich, ‘renew our days as of old!’ sounds suspiciously like a return of the kingship, the temple, and the religious order (cf. 1.7). However there is something additional. In the first place, as Dietrich stresses, this prayer is uttered in Palestine and cannot be explained simply as a return of the exiles.59 Furthermore if a restoration of political life were primary in the poet's mind, one might have expected the more suitable expression ‘restore our fortunes’, … cf. Deut. 30.3; Jer. 30.3, 18; Ezek. 39.25) instead of ‘turn us to thyself.’ … Here is a clear parallel to 3.41, ‘Let us lift up our hearts not our hands to God.’ But it is this turning to God which Israel, because of the magnitude of her sin and suffering, is unable to accomplish. She has exhausted herself in frenzied prayer and to no effect. Although the modes of his working are not clear, if God were to turn Israel's heart to himself then a true restoration of her fortunes would occur. So there is a definite distinction to be drawn between ‘turning to Yahweh’ and ‘return of fortune’. The one is the precondition of the other, i.e. conversion is required.

This notion becomes increasingly normative for post-exilic Jewish ideas of repentance. The heinousness of sin and the weakness of man were so keenly experienced that the great gulf between God and man had to be bridged by the divine initiative (cf. Zech. 5.5-11; Dan. 12.10). In later Judaism, the cry of Lam. 5.21 was incorporated in the Eighteen Benedictions.60 In Lamentations, therefore, we find repentance not only as the basis of favour and restoration but also repentance as an act made possible by God, namely conversion.

The submissive spirit which the Book of Lamentations inculcates is another of the motifs that can best be understood in the wider Near Eastern context. To some extent the stress upon submission is related culturally to the loss of dynamic, the weariness which overcame the Semitic world from the Assyrian era onwards.61 Albright remarks on several non-Israelite analogies to the submissiveness of the Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah.62 Valuable as this orientation may be, attention must also be directed to the Hebrew prototypes for the meekness of the Servant. The Prophets Zephaniah (2.3, 10; 3.11 f) and Habakkuk (3.16) contain early examples of the new accent on humility and passivity. But in Lamentations we come upon the most outspoken appeals for submission to be found anywhere in the Old Testament:

Yahweh is good to him who waits for him, to the person who
                     seeks him;
It is good that one should silently wait for the salvation of
It is good for a man to bear a yoke in his youth.
He sits alone and is silent since it has been laid upon him;
He puts his mouth in the dust, perhaps there is hope;
He gives his cheek to the smiter, he is sated with contempt.


Especially striking is the admonition, ‘Let him give his cheek to the smiter’, for it is in sharp contrast to the reproach and vengeance which elsewhere receive such violent expression. In this passage there is an extinction or suppression of all pride and personal feeling, the stilling of every angry protest. Why this indifference, this almost Stoic forbearance and self-effacement? Because the suffering originates with the Lord and is ultimately an expression of his goodness, the sufferer must wait upon his action (3.25-27). In fact it is good that the yoke of suffering be borne patiently, for even in adversity Yahweh displays his goodness. In the utter dejection of the sufferer, when he lay spent and crushed in the dust, at precisely that moment the possibility of hope was still alive. The grief that Yahweh has dealt out is not wilful nor perpetual but a seasonal chastening and tempering that is bound to give way to his compassion and love (3.31-33).

At first glance this strikes us as quite different from the ordinary prophetic attitude. For example, Jeremiah railed bitterly at his enemies and was restive under their scron. Yet the difference is not so great if it be remembered that submission in Lamentations is an admonition, an exemplary standard, and even within the same poem the old cry of vengeance is raised once more (3.66). But to say that submissiveness served as an exhortation is not to rob it of its meaning, for by means of his faith in Yahweh the poet was able to believe that even the smitings and insults of the foe were embraced in Yahweh's plans, and though only a pervert could delight in the mockery, the present pain could be endured.

The persistence of the submissive spirit as a motif in Hebrew literature is especially evident in Second Isaiah's characterization of the Servant of Yahweh (42.2-4; 49.4; 50.5-7; 53.7). It is easy to believe that this spirit of acquiescence in suffering, in order that God's good purposes might be achieved in his own time and way, was one of Second Isaiah's debts to the Book of Lamentations. The fact that the books were written in different lands, Lamentations in Palestine and Second Isaiah in Babylon, is no great difficulty. From the prophet Ezekiel it is clear that there was constant communication between the two areas.63 That the pupil went beyond his mentor is indisputable. For one thing, the goal of exaltation and triumph is much more articulate in the Suffering Servant passages. There is an exuberance and abounding hope which would not have been natural for the dark hours in which our poet wrote. Yet it is conceivable that the patient spirit of Lamentations, plodding though it be, was the necessary prelude to the flights of the Babylonian prophet. It is Lamentations, and not Ezekiel or Deutero-Isaiah, which shows how the Jews bore the first dismal doubts and wild griefs and deep despair of their fate and by ‘laying the spectres low one by one’ were able to preserve their common faith in Yahweh so that at the propitious hour the prophet of a more certain hope might announce the New Creation.

Because in the suffering there was the promise of good, it is clear that the attitude enjoined was not simply passive meekness or a mere compliance with fate. There was some apprehension of the sufferer's participation in the greater good which endures beyond the city's rubble and the nation's fallen pride (3.25-27). It was, to be sure, a punishment for sin and should be accepted without murmur (3.39), but it was also man's part in the divine plan. H. H. Rowley in a comparative study of attitudes concerning submission in suffering as found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, reports that in the Semitic religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity, the submissiveness is not prostration before an arbitrary destiny but subservience to a greater good which the deity is bringing to pass.64 Suffering becomes creative and is ‘received with an activity of spirit, that seeks to learn its lessons and to appropriate its profit, and not merely with resignation’.65

To what extent that spirit has permeated our book is another question. It is not the constant thought which Jerusalem entertains, for she is much more concerned with the bitterness of suffering and the pangs of sin. Yet when there is pause for reflection, some elements of hope and promise insistently emerge. The restive mood of the laments shows that passivity is not the total intent of the poet. His consciousness that the disciplinary suffering is only temporary indicates that the waiting is not fruitless nor without expectation of better things. An intimation of suffering that is purposeful is the central teaching of Lamentations, the axis around which all the confessing and lamenting revolves. The resulting submission and resignation became ever more firmly entrenched in the ethos of Judaism (cf. e.g. Sir. 2.1-5; the prose setting of the Book of Job; and in the Talmudic period: Berakoth 5a, and Cant. Rabba II.16.2).

As a result of our close scrutiny of the religious message of the Book of Lamentations we are compelled to assign it to the main stream of Hebrew prophecy. Again and again we have discovered points of essential agreement with the great prophetic teaching. Some critics object that if it were truly in the prophetic tradition the hope offered would be more positive in tone. For example, C. J. Ball contends:66

There is no trace of his [Jeremiah's] confident faith in the restoration of both Israel and Judah (Jer. 3.14-18; 23.3-8; 30-33) nor of his unique doctrine of the New Covenant (Jer. 31.31-34) as a ground of hope and consolation for Zion.

But it should be apparent that Ball, in his anxiety to dismiss Jeremianic authorship, has failed to take into account the several ways of expressing prophetic hope in the future, some quite different than those familiar to Jeremiah. If Lamentations deviates in certain respects from Jeremiah, it is no more than the difference between an Amos and a Hosea or an Isaiah and a Micah. Disinclination, or even actual disproof, of Jeremianic authorship must not be confused with the denial of prophetic affinities.

It is equally futile to make the hope innocuous by dating the third chapter after the restoration.67 All attempts to minimize or deny the optimism of Lamentations are in danger of ignoring the peculiar vitality of Hebrew-Jewish faith which is strikingly evidenced, as H. W. Robinson remarks, in the fact that Israel's ‘faith in Yahweh increased as her historical position decreased’.68 It deserves reiteration that the Book of Lamentations displays precisely this baffling character: it originates in a period when Israel's historical life is in decline but it bears witness to a quality of faith which has been deepened by the catastrophe and, if anything, is in the ascendancy.

Briefly, how may we formulate the content of the hope which stirred in the mind of the author of Lamentations? It is not predicated on the prevailing conditions. There is nothing in the external situation (not even a Cyrus! cf. Isa. 44.28; 45.1-14) to offer the least bit of encouragement. In fact the ruined city and wasted countryside still stagger under the burdens of defeat. Attempts at economic, social, and religious reconstruction have been largely ineffectual (Chap. 5). So it is not surprising that the poet is unable to point to any instrumentality of hope in the contemporary scene. The ground of hope is in the unshakable nature of Yahweh's justice and love. His constancy guarantees that the disappointments and defeats are not ultimate inasmuch as sovereign grace stands behind and beyond them (3.36-39). As to the particular forms the future restoration would take, we may note the following:

1. There is the hope of universal judgment. The salutary factor in the book's treatment of vengeance, as we have seen, is the recognition that not Israel alone but all mankind must conform to the divine will (1.21-22; 3.34-36, 64; 4.21-22).

2. There is the hope of the satisfaction of guilt. The enormity of Zion's sin has raised the doubt as to whether forgiveness is possible (3.42; 5.22), but the close of the fourth poem states ecstatically that ‘thy punishment, O daughter of Zion, is accomplished!’ (4.22). And this statement is made in the same poem that so firmly emphasizes the unparalleled magnitude of the sin (4.6)! The fall of Jerusalem, the ruin and bloodshed, a fate worse than Sodom's, was accepted as the just but ample recompense of the guilt of Judah. The tremendous consolation which this oracular word must have brought is conveyed in the enthusiastic praise of the Midrash:69

The Rabbis said: ‘Better was the Book of Lamentations for Israel than the forty years during which Jeremiah inveighed against them.’ Why? Because in it Israel received full settlement for their iniquities on the day of the Temple's destruction. That is what is written, ‘the punishment of thine iniquity is accomplished, O daughter of Zion.’

Immediately we recall the comforting words that introduce the prophecies of Second Isaiah (40.1-2). The prophet has taken up the assuring word of Lamentations and added the significant detail of double punishment. After years of exile and suffering subsequent to the writing of the fourth chapter, it would be natural to assume that if restitution for past sin had been fully paid at that time, then an excess of atonement had surely accrued to Israel's favour by the time of Cyrus.

3. There is the hope of the end of exile. Those who remained in the land must have felt keenly the loss of Jadah's leadership, especially after the brutal assassination of Gedaliah (Jer. 41). With several thousand of the choice citizens deported to Babylon, the Israel of God was actually a divided Israel until such a time as the exiles might return. In 4.22 the promise of their release is distinctly sounded with the words: … lō' yōsīph le haghlōthēkh, which may be translated either ‘he will never again carry you into exile’ or ‘he will keep you in exile no longer’. The sentiment is the same: the deep longing for a united Israel.

4. There is the hope of political and religious restoration. The content of the plea to ‘renew our days as of old’ (5.21) implies at the very least a return of national freedom under king and priesthood with independence of movement, re-establishment of civil order and the exercise of worship and festivity.70 All the sacred memories of a theocracy, of the favours and privileges of a select people, formed a halo around the past. It is too crass to call it political restoration alone, but it is too abstract and vapid to call it a spiritual restoration. Since Hebraism had so long been institutional, it was impossible to think of a bright future without the reconstruction of those ancient and venerated forms through which God made his will and goodness known. Lamentations thus foreshadows that compound of the devoutly spiritual and the rabidly institutional which formed the ethos of the New Israel (cf. e.g. Psalms and the Priestly Code).

Our delineation of the hope has remained rather indefinite at best. The passage which gives the most eloquent expression to that hope, namely 3.19-33, lacks any concrete account of its object, but it communicates to the sympathetic reader, better than a definition or a programme, the indestructible optimism of those who faced history with the secure faith that the future belonged to their God. With great sobriety and with earnest persuasion the Book of Lamentations proclaims Israel's incredible faith in a history creating and controlling God—a faith to which two of the solid facts of history still add their testimony: the survival of Judaism in the face of impossible odds and the rise of Christianity through which the boons of Israelite religion have been spread throughout the world.


  1. Cf. esp. James Muilenburg, ‘The History of the Religion of Israel’, The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. I, p. 331. J. C. Todd begins his Politics and Religion in Ancient Israel (London, 1904) with this sweeping claim: ‘The Old Testament is the epos of the Fall of Jerusalem. From the first verse of Genesis to the last of Malachi there rings through it the note of the Capture, the Sack, and the Destruction of the City by the Babylonian Army in 586 b.c. That terrible event is the key to the book. The circumstances which led up to it, the disaster itself, and the consequences which followed, form the subject of the whole.’

  2. Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (Boston, 1815), p. 235.

  3. H. Wiesmann, ‘Das Leid im Buche der Klagelieder' Zeitschrift für Aszese und Mystik 4 (1929), p. 109.

  4. Richard Kraetzschmar, ‘Der Mythus von Sodoms Ende’, ZAW 17 (1897), pp. 81-92, argues that Gen. 18-19 contain two literary strands, one in which Yahweh alone is present (singular person) and another where he is represented by three angels (plural person). The whole myth was originally a Canaanite elohim saga accounting for the volcanic destruction of the cities (cf. Isa. 34.9). By a long process, including several editings, it has been appropriated to prophetic Yahwism. But Kraetzschmar does not touch upon the theological significance of the basic myth nor allusions to it in subsequent centuries. In fact, among the later passages, he omits Lam. 4.6.

  5. The enormity of the catastrophe is often expressed in exilic and post-exilic writings, cf. e.g., in the confessional prayer of Daniel 9.12: ‘He has confirmed his words, which he spoke against our rulers who ruled us, by bringing upon us a great calamity, for under the whole heaven there has not been done the like of what has been done against Jerusalem.’

  6. Justus Köberle, Sünde and Gnade im religiösen Leben des Volkes Israel bis auf Christum (München, 1905), p. 277.

  7. Cf. J. Philip Hyatt, Prophetic Religion (Nashville, 1947), pp. 57-60.

  8. The explanation of the Hebrew terminology is derived from Brown, Driver and Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford, 1906) and Walter Eichrodt, Theologie des Alten Testaments (Berlin, 1950), Teil III, pp. 81 f; and G. Quell, G. Bertram, G. Stählin, and W. Grundmann, Sin (Kittel's Bible Key Words), London, 1951. Cf. also Pederson, Israel (London, 1926) I-II, p. 414.

  9. James Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, 1950), pp. 455-463.

  10. Cf. Norman B. Johnson, Prayer in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. A Study in the Jewish Concept of God (Journal of Biblical Literature Monograph Series, Philadelphia, 1948), pp. 24 ff.

  11. The idea that sin is not simply rebellion against divine fiat but is inimical to human life is implied in much of the prophetic teaching, but it is unusually clear in Hosea's stress upon the knowledge of God as the foundation of social life (cf. 4.1 f, 6, 14; 7.9; 9.7).

  12. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago, 1951), Vol. 1, pp. 83 ff. As I understand Tillich's discussion of autonomy and heteronomy, the essential point is that ethics is rooted in the created order. On p. 85 he says: ‘Autonomy and heteronomy are rooted in theonomy, and each goes astray when their theonomous unity is broken. Theonomy does not mean the acceptance of a divine law imposed on reason by a highest authority; it means autonomous reason united with its own depth. In a theonomous situation reason actualizes itself in obedience to its structural laws and in the power of its own inexhaustible ground. Since God (theos) is the law (nomos) for both the structure and the ground of reason, they are united in him, and their unity is manifest in a theonomous situation.’ So far as the Biblical world view was concerned it naturally pictured God as one who commands from without, but it is improper to conceive of his command solely as an arbitrary imposition. This command or Word of God addressed itself to the structural necessity of man. It was directed toward his best interests as when a father issues orders for the good of his son. This is seen at its deepest level in the Old Testament's insistence that the God of Israel and the Creator God are one and the same. Revelation and nature thus have one ultimate source. It seems to me that this drive toward the unification of religious experience would also have a corresponding tendency toward the relating of faith and ethics. Precisely this happened in the Wisdom literature. Thus the increasing cosmogonic reflection of Israel during the exile was not primarily speculative but religio-ethical (cf. Muilenburg, The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. I, p. 331).

  13. Otto Procksch, Theologie des Alten Testaments (Gütersloh, 1950), pp. 642 f, points out that the anger of Yahweh illustrates the peculiar vitality of the Hebrew view of God. It is in marked contrast to the emphasis of the best Greek minds upon the imperturbable, the ‘apathetic’ character of God. … But in the nature of the Hebrew-Jewish God there was something unresting, dynamic, irrational, passionate—all of which is best summarized in the category of the Holy.

  14. Henning Fredriksson, Jahwe als Krieger. Studien zum alttestamentlicben Gottesbild (Lund, 1945), pp. 23-27.

  15. Henning Fredriksson, Jahwe als Krieger. Studien zum alttestamentlichen Gottesbild (Lund, 1945), p. 93.

  16. Loc. cit.

  17. Cf. Bernard Bamberger, Proselytism in the Talmudic Period (Cincinnati, 1939) and his article in The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 9, pp. 1-3.

  18. A superb discussion of the scandal of the cross can be found in Paul Minear, Eyes of Faith (Philadelphia, 1946), pp. 270 f.

  19. This concentration of originally independent titles and expectations in Jesus of Nazareth so that, in effect, he remakes the categories, is thoroughly depicted in William Manson, Jesus the Messiah (Philadelphia, 1946).

  20. Wiesmann, op. cit., p. 108.

  21. The origin and import of the Day of Yahweh has been the subject of intense and protracted debate. The two classic works are Hugo Gressmann, Der Ursprung der israelitischen-jüdischen Eschatologie (Göttingen, 1905), pp. 141-158, and Sigmund Mowinckel, Psalmenstudien II. Das Thronbesteigungsfest Jahwäs und der Ursprung der Eschatologie (Kristiana, 1922). The most searching recent criticisms of their theories are well summarized in Stanley Frost, Old Testament Apocalyptic. Its Origins and Growth (London, 1952), pp. 39 ff, and H. W. Robinson, Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament (Oxford, 1946), pp. 139 ff. Perhaps the most satisfactory line of approach is that taken by J. M. P. Smith, ‘The Day of Yahweh’, American Journal of Theology 5 (1901), pp. 505-533, who stresses the uniqueness of Israelite eschatology as the ancillary of the historical faith in Yahweh. He sees the roots of the conception as early as the Yahwist epic. The most exhaustive recent treatment is that of Ladislav Çerný, The Day of Yahweh and Some Relevant Problems (Prague, 1948) who strongly accents the social and historical factors which shaped the development of Hebrew eschatology. When pressed to state wherein the uniqueness of the latter may be found he is driven to affirm that ‘it is only this idea of the necessity of change in the existing world which makes the conception of the Day of Yahweh unique among the Hebrews’ (p. 98).

  22. It is worth noting, however, that the Day of Yahweh, or at least the term, does not appear in Hosea, Micah or Habakkuk. The reason for this omission may well have been a desire to avoid any misunderstanding on the part of the people who, hearing mention of the Day of Yahweh, would have misconstrued it in the nationalistic sense (J. M. P. Smith, op. cit., p. 515).

  23. Çerný, op. cit., p. 20.

  24. Ibid., Chap. I.

  25. Fredriksson, op. cit., p. 90.

  26. Ibid., p. 95.

  27. S. R. Driver, Joel and Amos. The Cambridge Bible (Cambridge, 1901), p. 185.

  28. The oracle in Jeremiah 46 concerning the Battle of Carchemish is attributed to the prophet of Anathoth by nearly all commentators.

  29. Excellent discussions of the eschatological feast in its various developments are found in Frost, op. cit., pp. 52, 90, 152 f; Gressmann, op. cit., pp. 136-141; Mowinckel, op. cit., pp. 296 f.

  30. Cf. Georg Hoffmann, ‘Versuche zu Amos’, ZAW 3 (1883), p. 112.

  31. Mowinckel's forte is in the cultic interpretation.

  32. W. R. Smith, The Prophets of Israel (London, 1897), pp. 397 f, argues that the Day of Yahweh originated as a Day of Battle.

  33. W. Cossmann, Die Entwicklung des Gerichtsgedankens bei dem alttestamentlichen Propheten. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 29 (1915), pp. 178 ff, maintains that the Day of Yahweh was originally a term for Yahweh's revelation, devoid of any judgment associations, as the nature imagery clearly shows.

  34. Although no direct connection is likely, Çerný points to an Assyrian text associating cannibalism with the future judgment. It is predicted that in the reign of a certain prince ‘the brother will eat his brother’ and ‘the people will sell their children for money’ (p. 64).

  35. Pedersen, op. cit., III-IV, p. 546.

  36. Paul Heinisch, Theology of the Old Testament (Collegeville, Minnesota, 1950), p. 201, defends certain of the Old Testament expressions of hostility as follows: ‘ … every violent word reflects the consciousness of intimate union with God and a living faith in His justice. The hatred of the pious, whose sentiments the Old Testament hands down to us, is directed primarily against sin, and thereby is elevated above a merely personal or natural spirit of revenge.’ H. G. Mitchell, The Ethics of the Old Testament (Chicago, 1912), p. 235, emphasizes the same point: ‘Insofar as the instruments that Yahweh has chosen have gone beyond his instructions, they are guilty and must in their turn pay the penalty of their presumption.’ Commenting on our book he says: ‘The moral tone of the book comes out most strongly in Lam. 4.22, where the author announces to Zion the termination of her suffering, and to Edom the approach of a similar visitation, because the former has satisfied the demands of the divine justice while the latter has not yet atoned for her offences.’

  37. J. Philip Hyatt, Prophetic Religion (Nashville, 1947), pp. 96-108 suggests useful criteria for determining authentic passages of hope.

  38. T. J. Meek, Hebrew Origins (New York, 1950 rev. ed.), p. 181.

  39. Martin Noth, The History of Israel (London and New York, 1958), p. 297.

  40. Translated from the German rendering in H. Jahnow, Das bebräische Leichenlied im Rahmen der Völkerdichtung. BZ AW 36 (1923), p. 177.

  41. Friedrich Heiler, Das Gebet (M¨nchen, 1921), pp. 348-354.

  42. Ibid., p. 360.

  43. Norman B. Johnson, Prayer in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. A Study in the Jewish Concept of God. JBL Monograph Series, Vol. 2, 1948, 72 f.

  44. This is the mistake that humanism and religious liberalism usually make. Because, in terms of the evolutionary process as a whole, the moral character of God was relatively late in rising to human consciousness, it is assumed that the discovery was simply an inference from the human situation. The fallacious deduction is to make of God a pious fiction or at best a useful ideal. The historical development of religion neither proves nor disproves the unchanging nature and purpose of God. It is altogether possible that religious man in his discovery of the moral nature of deity laid hold of something as objectively real as the natural sciences in their research into the laws of nature. Only the religious realm of discourse is competent to judge the issues involved. A good example of the approach of religious liberalism to the ethical monotheism of the Old Testament is in I. G. Matthews, The Religious Pilgrimage of Israel (New York, 1947), p. 126, where it is said regarding the writing prophets: ‘That Yahweh was a moral being was one of their far-reaching contributions to religious thought. This was correlative to their interpretation that the leaders were doomed and that the existing institution violated human rights and dignity. Building on what to them was axiomatic, they concluded that Yahweh was as fair-minded and as just as was man himself. In the world of men, where right was paramount, God himself must be the embodiment of right. This was a step forward in the realm of religious ideas.’ Whatever measure of truth may exist in this analysis, when Matthews talks exclusively of human rights and dignity, of inference and ideas, he betrays a wilful disregard of the prophetic frame of thought. An appraisal of this sort completely loses sight of the divine initiative and purpose which was the primary datum of the prophetic experience and message. Such interpretations easily reduce God from the rank of creator and controller of history to a phenomenon in the history of ideas. Can Biblical theology, i.e. theology which attempts to formulate the Hebrew-Christian faith, whether for historical or constructive purposes—can such theology deny the fundamental presupposition upon which the whole tradition rests?

  45. Rudolph Volz, Das Dämonische in Jahwe. Sammlung gemeinverständlicher Vorträge und Schriften aus dem Gebet der Theologie und Religionsgeschichte 110 (1924), p. 38.

  46. Cf. Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy (London, 1950), esp. Chap. XIII.

  47. Norman Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament (London, 1945), p. 102 surveys the Old Testament usages of the term hesedh and concludes that, while it has definite associations with slowness to anger and mercy, its basic meaning is steadfastness and constancy

  48. Walter Eichrodt, Theologie des Alten Testaments (Berlin, 1950), Vol. 1. p. 124. He regards Lam. 3 as an individual lament, but his insight applies just as well to a national interpretation. Attention is called to other examples from prayer literature, e.g. Job 33.16 ff; 36.15; Jonah 4.2; Sir. 4.17-19; Neh. 9.17, 31; II Chron. 30.9.

  49. Justus Köberle, Sünde und Gnade im religiösen Leben des Volkes Israel (München, 1905), p. 368.

  50. O. S. Rankin, Israel's Wisdom Literature (Edinburgh, 1936), p. 17.

  51. Gustav Westphal, Jabwes Wobnstätten nach den Anschauungen der alten Hebräer. BZAW 15 (1908), pp. 258, 262, gives the typical arguments for regarding El Elyon as a late exilic development. He treats the significance of the name, especially in the Balaam Oracles, and concludes that it was originally a Baal title, later applied to Yahweh to express his transcendence over all other gods, and became frequent in use when out of reverence the name of God was no longer spoken.

  52. Gen. 14.18-22; Num. 24.16; Deut. 32.8; Ps. 9.3; 18.14 cf. II Sam. 22.14; Ps. 21.8; 46.5; 50.14; 73.11; 77.11; 78.17; 83.19; 87.5; 91.1, 9; 92.2; 107.11; Isa. 14.14.

  53. A. R. Johnson, ‘The Role of the King in the Jerusalem Cultus’, The Labyrinth, ed. by S. H. Hooke (London, 1935), pp. 81-85), contends that there was a preIsraelite Elyon cult at Jerusalem. If this is true then Elyon is an ancient title and our post-exilic theories need drastic revision.

  54. Cf. citations in Köhler-Baumgartner, Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros (Leiden, 1948-1953), p. 708.

  55. Pirke Aboth iv. 19. Quoted in C. G. Montefiore, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion (London, 1893, 2nd ed.), p. 451, who also remarks: ‘No feelings rooted themselves more deeply in Judasim than those of absolute faith in God and unconditional resignation to his will.’

  56. Erich Kurt Dietrich, Die Umkehr (Bekehrung und Busse) im Alten Testamnet und im Judentum (Stuttgart, 1936), p. 125.

  57. Ibid., pp. 122-125, 149-152, 161-165. Cf. e.g. Zeph. 2.1-3 and 3.11-13; Jer. 3.12 f, 22; 4.14; 7.3, 5; 18.11; 25.2; 29.13; 35.15 and 15.9; 24.7; 31.18, 31 f; Ezek. 14.6; 18.21; 33.11 and 11.9 f; 36.25 ff; 37.23; and Isa. 46.12; 55.3 and 44.21 f.

  58. Erich Klamroth, Die jüdischen Exulanten in Babylonien. Beiträge zur Wissenschaft vom Alten Testament 10 (1912), p. 36, finds that the fifth poem was written in Babylon (cf. v. 2) and says that 5.21 is simply a thoughtless imitation of Jer. 31.18 and thus refers to a purely external restoration. It means simply, ‘lead us back from exile to your land, to your residence upon Zion, in order that we may again build an independent nation.’

  59. Dietrich, op. cit., p. 127.

  60. Ibid., pp. 126 f. This is the famous Shemoneh ‘Esreh or Amidah, the principal supplicatory prayer of the Jewish liturgy, v. Elbogen, Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. IV, pp. 22-27 and A. Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Liturgy and its Development (New York, 1932), pp. 93-109.

  61. W. F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (Baltimore, 1946), p. 240 f and William C. Graham, The Prophets and Israel's Culture (Chicago, 1934), pp. 58 f.

  62. Albright, op. cit., pp. 254 f.

  63. Cf. Henry A. Redpath, The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel (London, 1907), p. xxxix, and Volkmar Herntrich, Ezechielprobleme BZ AW 51 (1932), p. 129. Herntrich theorizes that, like Ezekiel, Lamentations was a Palestinian product which underwent later Babylonian revision.

  64. H. H. Rowley, Submission in Suffering (Cardiff, 1951).

  65. Ibid., p. 62.

  66. C. J. Ball, ‘Lamentations’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Ed., Vol. 15, p. 128.

  67. Alex. R. Gordon, The Poets of the Old Testament (London, 1912), p. 77.

  68. H. Wheeler Robinson, Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament (Oxford, 1946), p. 142.

  69. A. Cohen, tr., Midrash Rabbah. Lamentations (London, 1939), pp. 234 f.

  70. J. Pedersen, Israel, I-II, p. 488, shows that such a plea does not mean to turn back the progress of time but to bring again the substance of those days for ‘the events with their character and substance make time alive’.

Georg Fohrer (essay date 1965)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2907

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 qîlnôt, “dirges,” corresponding to the name given in the translations: Greek threnoi, Latin lamentationes, German Klagelieder. In most of the translations the title also ascribes the book to Jeremiah, after whose book it is placed. This view is probably based on II Chron. 35:25, although the laments for Josiah mentioned in this passage, one of which Jeremiah is said to have composed, cannot be identified with the book of Lamentations despite Lam. 4:20. The book serves as the festival scroll of the Ninth of Ab, the date of the destruction of Jerusalem.

2. Literary type and style. The book of Lamentations comprises five separate songs coterminous with the chapters. It is impossible to assign them to a specific literary type because in many instances we have a mixture of types. The poet's purpose was not to produce an exemplary poetic form but to embody certain specific ideas, to which the form had to accommodate itself.

Chapters 1, 2, and 4, as their initial word suggests, are dirges, more precisely collective dirges mourning perished Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the poet modulates into other literary types. In 1, in contrast to a dirge, Jerusalem herself addresses Yahweh in prayer, confessing her sins; vss. 12-16, 18-22 are composed in the style of an individual lament. In 2, also, the author departs from the dirge form: the poem focuses on Yahweh; after the lament over Jerusalem, the author speaks in his own person, and finally places a prayer in the mouth of the city. Chapter 4 begins as a dirge, but in vss. 17-20 a group speaks in the style of a community lament, and in vss. 21-22 the poet addresses Edom and Zion.

Chapter 3 is for the most part an individual lament, which passes into the style of a community lament in vss. 40-47 and then returns to the earlier form. In vss. 25-39 we find a meditation on the meaning of suffering. The conclusion contains a narrative of deliverance appropriate to a thanksgiving (vss. 55-62) and a prayer that God will curse the enemies; here we have the element of confidence that God will hear the lament and respond to it favorably. The “I” of the song, which alternates with a “we,” has been interpreted as a personification of Jerusalem speaking as a sufferer (Eissfeldt*, Gottwald), as a representative speaking in the name of the whole community (Keil, Ewald, Ricciotti, Rinaldi), and as an individual who is merely describing his personal fate and not that of the community as a whole (Budde). It is probably more accurate to follow Rudolph in thinking in terms of an individual who feels himself singled out by God's wrath and presents himself as an example to his people. It is not necessary to draw the conclusion that the poet intends to place these words in the mouth of Jeremiah; he may quite well be speaking on the basis of his own experience.

Chapter 5 is a pure community lament, beginning with an invocation of Yahweh, continuing with a detailed lament over the present misery, and ending with a brief prayer for aid.

This analysis of literary types is followed by most scholars. Kraus, however, pointing to Mesopotamian laments over destroyed temples, particularly the Sumerian temple of Ur, postulates a new literary type, the “lament for the destroyed sanctuary,” with a cultic lamentation ceremony as its Sitz im Leben. In Mesopotamia, though, such laments do not constitute an independent literary type (which would be quite peculiar as a sort of liturgical composite); they form a sub-category of the general class of laments. The analogous situation in Jerusalem is sufficient explanation for their similarity to the book of Lamentations; furthermore, the considerable differences should not be overlooked. Finally, the extreme mixture of literary types found in the OT songs and the peculiarity of their stylistic form (which will be discussed below) speak against the assumption made by Kraus.

Stylistically, the first four songs are structured as alphabetic songs. In 1 and 2, the first verse of each three-verse strophe begins with the letters of the alphabet in sequence. In 3, each verse of each strophe begins in this way, and in 4, the first verse of each two-verse strophe. In 2, 3, and 4, precedes ‘ayin, which probably means that the order of the alphabet was not fixed at the time of composition. Chapter 5 is an alphabetizing song; it has as many verses as there are letters in the alphabet. As a consequence of the stylistic form, the intellectual structure of the songs is loose and the presentation somewhat disconnected.

3. Occasion and content. The songs depict and were occasioned by the misery and destruction of Jerusalem after its capture by the Babylonians. They were composed on the basis of meditation upon the reasons for this terrible catastrophe. We are dealing here primarily with expressions of personal feeling, albeit clearly intended to have a pastoral ministry toward the others whom disaster had befallen. It is most unlikely, however, that they were intended from the outset for recitation at cultic lamentation ceremonies; such ceremonies are first mentioned in Zech. 7:1-7; 8:18-19, and were probably not introduced until years or decades after the events.1 Above all, the alphabetic form argues against the assumption of an original cultic purpose; it characterizes the songs as elegies composed by a cultured man, meant primarily for reading and not for recitation.2

4. Origin. The date of the songs follows from their occasion and content: they presuppose the capture of Jerusalem. Rudolph prefers to date the first song in the time of the first occupation and deportation (597) and the others in the years following the final catastrophe (587). But even if the first song does not explicitly mention the destruction of the city and the temple, vss. 10, 17, 19-20 suggest the same situation as chapters 2-5. All the songs, therefore, probably were composed after the year 587, though we cannot fix a precise date for each of them. Chapters 2, 4, and (in part) 5 exhibit concrete details, while 1 and 3 are written in more general terms; but this is more likely due to the poet's intentions than to greater or lesser temporal proximity to the events. This alone can be safely stated: They were written by an eyewitness and before the situation was changed by Cyrus' emancipation edict in the year 538. To date 1 and 3-5 in the period 170-166 b.c. (Treves) is out of the question.

The place of origin cannot be determined with assurance. Gottwald thinks in terms of composition in Babylonia during the Exile; Sellin* places at least 1, 2, and 4 in Babylonia, while suggesting Jerusalem or Palestine for 3 and 5; Rudolph and Weiser* consider Palestine the place of origin for all the songs. There is no definite evidence for any of these assumptions, however. Since Palestine undoubtedly learned very quickly of Ezekiel's preaching, chapters 2 and 4 could quite easily have come under its influence there. On the other hand, one of the exiles could easily give the impression of having experienced the catastrophe of Jerusalem at firsthand. Therefore the question of where these songs originated must remain undecided.

The songs were probably brought together after the end of the Exile at Jerusalem, in the fifth century at the latest. They were collected for the practical purpose of assembling in one document the songs used for ceremonial commemoration of the destruction of Jerusalem.

5. Authorship. Jeremiah is out of the question as author of the songs, although recently Wiesmann has vigorously supported this position. After the catastrophe the prophet did not lament, but admonished the people to acknowledge the fate decreed by God and to obey the Babylonians; he may also have promised salvation to come, a promise contradicted by several verses of Lamentations (cf. 1:10; 4:17, 20b). Neither should the author or authors be sought among the official cult prophets (Kraus), whose guilt is recounted in 2:14 and 4:13 by someone not of their number.

Wiesmann and Rudolph, however, have shown the probability that all the songs were composed by a single author (pace, for example, Eissfeldt*). The evidence, despite the fact that ‘ayin and have a different order in 1 than in 2-4, includes similarities of language and content, stylistic form, and the pastoral purpose and basic theological approach of the songs, all of which hold them together as a unity. If 4:17-20 reflects the personal experience and thoughts of the poet, he was among those that hoped for Jerusalem's deliverance to the very last, and appears to have fled Jerusalem with King Zedekiah. The stylistic form, too, suggests that he belonged to the cultured upper class. It does not necessarily follow that he was deported after the catastrophe; he might have been assigned to the circle around Gedaliah.

6. Significance. At any rate, the destruction of the state and its capital opened his eyes to the deeper significance of the events and led him to a profound appreciation of what had taken place, a receptiveness to the message of the prophets, and an attempt to help his fellow sufferers, caught in a crisis of faith (Weiser*). He sees God's wrath as the immediate cause of the disaster and attributes God's wrath to the sins of the people, with the priests and cult prophets foremost among the guilty. The only deliverance from misery and despair he sees to be prayer to God, who will be gracious and merciful to a repentant people.


  1. The pilgrimage to Jerusalem described in Jer. 41:5 does not bear witness to such observances, but rather to the continued existence of opportunity for cultic worship at Jerusalem; furthermore, it takes place before the Feast of Booths.

  2. Cf. Jahnow, p. 169.

Works Cited

ATD: A. WEISER, 2nd ed., 1962. BK: H.-J. KRAUS, 2nd ed., 1960. BOT: B. N. WAMBACQ, 1957. HAT: M. HALLER, 1940. HK: M. LÖHR, 2nd ed., 1906. HS: T. PAFFRATH, 1932. IB: T. J. MEEK, 1956. KAT/KAT2: W. RUDOLPH, 1939, 1962. KeH: O. THENIUS, 1855. KHC: K. BUDDE, 1898. SAT: H. SCHMIDT, 2nd ed., 1923; W. STAERK, 2nd ed., 1920. SZ: S. OETTLI, 1889. Individual commentaries: H. G. A. EWALD, Die Dichter des Alten Bundes, I, 3rd ed., 1866; C. F. KEIL, 1872 (Biblischer Commentar) (Eng. 1880); G. RICCIOTTI, 1924; G. M. RINALDI, 1953; H. WIESMANN, 1954.

B. ALBREKTSON, Studies in the Text and Theology of the Book of Lamentations, 1963; J. BÖHMER, “Ein alphabetisch-akrostisches Rätsel und ein Versuch, es zu lösen,” ZAW, XXVIII (1908), 53-57; C. FLÖCKNER, “Über den Verfasser der Klagelieder,” ThQ, LIX (1877), 187-280; N. K. GOTTWALD, Studies in the Book of Lamentations, 1954; M. LÖHER, “Der Sprachgebrauch des Buches der Klagelieder,” ZAW, XIV (1894), 31-50; idem, “Sind Thr IV und V makkabäisch?” ibid., pp. 51-59; idem, “Threni III und die jeremianische Autorschaft des Buches der Klagelieder,” ibid., XXIV (1904), 1-16; H. MERKEL, Über das alttestamentliche Buch der Klagelieder, Dissertation, Halle, 1889; C. VAN DER STRAETEN, “La métrique des Lamentations,” in Mélanges de philologie Orientale, 1932, pp. 193-301; M. TREVES, “Conjectures sur les dates et les sujets des Lamentations,” Bulletin Renan XCV (1963), 1-3; H. WIESMANN, “Die literarische Art der Klagelieder des Jeremias,” ThQ, CX (1929), 381-428; idem, “Der geschichtliche Hintergrund des Büchleins der Klagelieder,” BZ, XXIII (1935/36), 20-43; idem, “Der Verfasser der Klagelieder ein Augenzeuge?” Bibl, X (1936), 71-84; J. K. ZENNER, Beiträge zur Erklärung der Klagelieder, 1905.


Commentaries Cited in the Text

ATD: Das Alte Testament Deutsch, Göttingen.

BK: Biblischer Kommentar, Neukirchen.

BOT: De Boeken van het Oude Testament, Roermond en Maaseik.

COT: Commentar op het Oude Testament, Kampen.

EH: Exegetisches Handbuch zum Alten Testament, Münster.

HAT: Handbuch zum Alten Testament, Tübingen.

HK: Handkommentar zum Alten Testament, Göttingen.

HS: Die Heilige Schrift des Alten Testaments, Bonn.

IB: The Interpreter's Bible, Nashville.

ICC: The International Critical Commentary, Edinburgh.

KAT: Kommentar zum Alten Testament, Leipzig.

KAT2: Kommentar zum Alten Testament, Gütersloh.

KeH: Kurzgefasstes exegetisches Handbuch zum Alten Testament, Leipzig.

KHC: Kurzer Hand-Commentar zum Alten Testament (Freiburg i. Br., Leipzig), Tübingen.

SAT: Die Schriften des Alten Testaments, Göttingen.

SZ: Kurzgefasster Kommentar zu den Heiligen Schriften Alten und Neuen Testamentes (ed. Strack-Zöckler), (Nördlingen) München.

Periodicals and Series

A. Alt.: Kleine Schriften A. Alt, Kleine Schriften zur Geschichte des Volkes Israel.

AASOR: Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

ABR: Australian Biblical Review.

AcOr: Acta Orientalia.

AfK: Archiv für Kulturgeschichte.

AfO: Archiv für Orientforschung.

AIPhHOS: Annuaire de l'Institut de Philologie et d'Histoire Orientales et Slaves.

AJSL: American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures.

ANET: J. B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 2nd ed., 1955.

AnSt: Anatolian Studies.

AOT: H. Gressmann (ed.), Altorientalische Texte zum AT, 2nd ed., 1926.

ArOr: Archiv Orientální.

ARM: A. Parrot and G. Dossin (ed.), Archives Royales de Mari.

ARW: Archiv für Religionswissenschaft.

ASTI: Annual of the Swedish Theological Institute in Jerusalem.

AThR: Anglican Theological Review.

BA: The Biblical Archaeologist.

BASOR: Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

BEThL: Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium.

BHET: Bulletin d'Histoire et d'Exégèse de l'Ancien Testament.

Bibl: Biblica.

BiOr: Bibliotheca Orientalis.

BJRL: Bulletin of the John Rylands Library.

BMB: Bulletin du Musée de Beyrouth.

BS: Bibliotheca Sacra.

BSOAS: Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies

BWAT: Beiträge zur Wissenschaft vom Alten (und Neuen Testament.

BZ: Biblische Zeitschrift.

BZAW: Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wisenschaft.

Canadian JTh: Canadian Journal of Theology.

CBQ: Catholic Biblical Quarterly.

ChQR: Church Quarterly Review.

ColBG: Collationes Brugenses et Gandavenses.

CRAI: Comptes Rendus de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belle Lettres.

CuW: Christentum und Wissenschaft.

CV: Communio Viatorum.

DTT Dansk Teologisk Tidsskrift.

EstBibl: Estudios Biblicos.

ET: The Expository Times.

EThL: Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses.

EThR: Études Théologiques et Religieuses.

EvTh: Evangelische Theologie.

FF: Forschungen und Fortschritte.

GThT: Gereformeerd Theologisch Tijdschrift.

HThR: Harvard Theological Review.

HTSt: Hervormde Teologiese Studies.

HUCA: Hebrew Union College Annual.

HZ: Historische Zeitschrift.

IEJ: Israel Exploration Journal.

Interpr: Interpretation.

Irish ThQ: Irish Theological Quarterly.

JAOS: Journal of the American Oriental Society.

JBL: Journal of Biblical Literature.

JBR: Journal of Bible and Religion.

JCSt: Journal of Cuneiform Studies.

JDTh: Jahrbücher für Deutsche Theologie.

JEA: Journal of Egyptian Archaeology.

JEOL: Jaarbericht van het Vooraziatisch-Egyptisch Gezelschap (Genootschap) Ex Oriente Lux.

JJS: Journal of Jewish Studies.

JNES: Journal of Near Eastern Studies.

JPOS: Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society.

JQR: Jewish Quarterly Review.

JR: Journal of Religion.

JRAS: Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

JSOR: Journal of the Society of Oriental Research.

JSS: Journal of Semitic Studies.

JThSt: Journal of Theological Studies.

MAA: Mededeelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen te Amsterdam.

MDAI: Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abt. Kairo.

MGWJ: Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums.

MIOF: Mitteilungen des Instituts für Orientforschung.

Münchner ThZ: Münchner Theologische Zeitschrift.

MV(Ä)G: Mitteilungen der Vorderasiatisch (-Ägyptisch) en Gesellschaft.

NC: La Nouvelle Clio.

NedThT: Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschrift.

NkZ: Neue Kirchliche Zeitschrift.

NRTh: Nouvelle Revue Théologique.

NThSt: Nieuw Theologisch Tijdschrift.

NTT: Norsk Teologisk Tidsskrift.

NZSTh: Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie.

OLZ: Orientalistische Literaturzeitung.

Or: Orientalia.

OrBiblLov: Orientalia et Biblica Lovaniensia.

OrChr: Oriens Christianus.

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Samuel Tobias Lachs (essay date 1966)

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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 who, in his introduction to Lamentations, made the following observation: “… and this is not the scroll burned by Jehoiakim for we do not find [in Lamentations] two statements of God which are contained in the book of Jeremiah. One verse reads (Jer. 36.2) ‘Take thee a roll of a book and write therein all the words that I have spoken unto thee against Israel, and against Judah, and against all the nations.’ The other verse is (ibid. 36.29) ‘Why hast thou written therein saying: The king of Babylon shall certainly come and destroy this land?’ In the scroll of Lamentations there is no mention of Babylon or of its king.” He raises doubts not only as to Jeremiah's authorship but as to the historical context as well. His commentary to the body of the book is exclusively grammatical and etymological in character and in it he avoids historical treatment of the material. At the beginning of chapter three he cites the rabbinic tradition of Jeremiah's authorship but also offers an alternative explanation to the passage without indicating his own preference.2

With the emergence of scientific biblical criticism, most scholars have rejected Jeremiah's authorship of Lamentations; few, however, have departed from the position that the background of the five chapters is the period of the destruction of the Temple in 586 b.c.e. They maintain that these chapters were all written not too many years after this event. Biblical scholars, in the main, have concentrated their energies on the question of the unity of the book—i.e. single or multiple authorship. Numerically the consensus favors the latter; the outstanding proponent, however, of the single authorship theory, in recent years, was the late Prof. Y. Kaufmann whose proof of this thesis is far from convincing.

At the end of the last century, S.A. Fries advanced the theory advocating the Maccabean period for chapters four and five of Lamentations.3 Unfortunately his work was poorly presented and poorly documented, as a result it was attacked and rejected.4 We feel that there is indeed sufficient evidence to make a case for Maccabean dating of chapter five of the book. Although each element in our line of argument does not constitute positive proof, taken collectively they do produce a plausible hypothesis.

It is obvious to the reader, even upon a cursory examination of chapter five of Lamentations, that it differs radically from the four preceding chapters. Structurally chapters 1-4 are alphabetic acrostics while the fifth, although apparently in imitation of them i.e. it contains twenty-two verses corresponding to the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, lacks the acrostic form. Chapters 1-4 are, in content, elegistic while chapter five is a prayer. The meter of chapters 1-4 is the qinah meter i.e. two parts of unequal length, the first has four accents, the second three. The verses in chapter five have four stress accents.

Aside from the structural differences there remains the question of content and frame of reference. Admittedly a prayer of this kind could fit a variety of historical events involving the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. It is our contention that neither the destruction of the Temple in 586 nor the sacking of the Temple by Ptolomy in 3205 fits the material. The chapter seems to be set against the background of the attack on Jerusalem in 168 b.c.e. by Antiochus IV and the events following.

In the year 171-170 the Egyptians under Eulaeus and Lenaeus, who acted on behalf of the young king Ptolomy VI Philometer made war on Antiochus IV. Antiochus defeated the Egyptians before they had even crossed the desert. On his return in the summer of 170 he invaded Jerusalem, entered the Temple, confiscated much of the gold and valuables and slaughtered many of the Judaeans.6

Again in 169-168 Antiochus met the Egyptians and again was victorious. This victory was short lived because Rome intervened and Antiochus had to withdraw from Egypt. On his return he entered Jerusalem, once again slaughtered many thousands and even more he took into captivity and slavery. He sacked the Temple and stripped it of gold and silver as before.7 After this sacking of Jerusalem Antiochus left a garrison of Macedonians under the leadership of Appolonius and built the fortress Acra near the Temple. This was followed by a number of oppressive and degrading edicts among them: A restriction on the observance of the Sabbath and on performing the rite of circumcision under penalty of death.8 Daily sacrifices in the Temple were abolished—most likely in the summer of 168.9 About five months later, on the 25th of Kislev, a heathen altar,,the Altar of Desolation” was erected on the site of the old altar and a swine sacrificed on it. The Temple became a shrine to Zeus Olympus.10

The sources for this period are First and Second Maccabees and the Antiquities of Josephus. In these works the language, events described and mood relected offer striking parallels to chapter five of Lamentations. We suggest, therefore, that this chapter was written against the background of these events sometime between 168-165 b.c.e. before the victory of Judah Maccabee and that it was subsequently appended to the other four chapters. We shall illustrate this thesis by an examination of the verses seriatim.


V. I. …

This is the invocation of the prayer. The author contrasts the former state of the people with the present condition of degradation.11 The tragedy is more than a defeat at the hands of an enemy; the hallowed mode of worship had been supplanted by the religious rite of the victor, hence the emphasis on “shame.” … This mood is paralleled in I Macc.: “And great was sadness in Israel, everywhere; both rulers and elders groaned. Maidens and young men languished, the beauty of the women was altered. Every bridegroom took up lamentation and she that sat in a bridal chamber mourned. Shaken was the earth over those who dwell therein and the whole house of Jacob was clothed in shame.”12

V. 2. …

The reference here seems to be the Temple overrun by the foreigner, i.e. the Syrian. … The importance of this verse is that it indicates that Jerusalem is inhabited by the foreigner. This agrees with the policy of Antiochus who built the Acra and stationed a garrison in Jerusalem; it does not fit the period of Nebuchadnezzar's victory, for he wanted the city destroyed, not inhabited.13

V. 3. …

The great slaughter and captivity brought about by Antiochus left thousands orphaned and widowed. Because of the confusion which followed it was not known if a man had been killed in the sacking, alive in hiding or had died in captivity hence “like widows” … rather than “widows.” …14

V. 4. …

The author choses two illustrations to show the present plight of the Judaean—they were reduced to purchasing their water and paying for their wood. The latter is paralleled by the practise of the Seleucid kings of levying a tax on wood. Antiochus III, for example, who was favorably disposed towards the Judaeans removed this tax from them.15 It may reasonably be assumed that Antiochus IV reinstituted it. The first phrase i.e. the purchase of water is not as clear. Perhaps there was a tax on the water as well.16

V. 5. …

This verse contains a linguistic problem17 and a difficulty as to reference. It is perhaps a description of the insurgents under Judah Maccabee who roamed the wilderness and were constantly harassed by the Syrian troops. We suggest that it be read before v. 9 which appears to be a continuation of the description of their hardships.

V. 6. …

This is one of the key verses for Maccabean dating. Were one to explain this verse as referring to the period of the destruction of the First Temple there are basic difficulties involved. When did the Judaeans appeal to the Egyptians for food? What is the meaning of Asshur? At that time Asshur was no longer a power. Were one to argue that Asshur is Babylon18 the passage is still difficult; how could the Judaean appeal to Babylon for assistance when Babylon was the menacing enemy?

Since we suggest a late date for this chapter a citation from a late source is legitimate. In rabbinic literature Asshur is employed as a term for Syria.19 Applying this meaning to Asshur in this verse we then find a perfect couplet—Egypt and Syria (Asshur) representing the Ptolomies and the Seleucids. The author is bemoaning the fact that the Judaeans, through their leadership, shifted allegience between Egypt and Syria. The best example of this was the power struggle between the Tobiades and the house of Onias, one siding with Syria, the other with Egypt. … Each side of the Judaean leadership wanted certain economic advantages which would accure were Jereusalem made a polis, and they appealed either to Egypt or to Syria for this very purpose.20

V.7. …

This approach i.e. suffering for the sins of the fathers is contrary to the view held both by Jeremiah and Ezekiel21 who both maintained individual responsibility for actions and a denial of inherited guilt. This is a strong point ruling out not only authorship of Jeremiah but it reflects the thinking of another age. Here the consequence of the acts of others must be borne. The author laments the acts of former generations in that they forsook their God and adopted the Greek way of life. He sees in this the cause of the recent misfortunes which had befallen the people. Had the Judaean remained faithful to his own culture and religion the calamity would have been averted. This verse can be compared with the following: “At that time there came forth from Israel certain lawless men who persuaded many saying, ‘Let us go and make a treaty with the heathen around us because ever since we separated from them many evils have come upon us.’”22 These “evils” may well refer to the economic problems of the Judaeans because they were not able to compete with the Hellenistic communities.23

V.8. …

The servants are the mercinaries left as a garrison in Jerusalem under Appolonius, a servant of Antiochus IV and the power of this force was represented by the Acra which the writer portrays as being unconquerable. This phrase … is one indication that this chapter was composed before any victory by the insurgents had taken place.

V.9. …

The lives of those fighting the Syrians were in danger because the enemy patroled the edges of the wilderness and also held the towns which were the source of food.24

V.10. …

One of two interpretations can be given for this verse. It is either a description of the suffering experienced by the troops in the wilderness or by the victims of crucifixion25 (see below v. 12). If the latter meaning is taken then it should be read after v. 13.

V.11. …

Part of every invasion or attack involved plunder and the rape of the female population. …

V. 12. …

The death penalty spared no one, prince or elder who violated the edicts of the Emperor.26

V. 13. …

This is a continuation of the description of the crucifixion scene. The second stich deals with the victims “stumbling while carrying the stake.” The first part of the verse, however, is difficult.

V. 14. …

Because of the persecutions and the sadness of the mood of the people social and communal gatherings naturally ceased.27

VV. 15-18. …

These four verses all refer to Jerusalem and the Temple after the latter had been converted into a heathen shrine. Verse 15 records the terms … indicating that the Temple was the place of joy and happiness28 but now all this had changed. … It is interesting to note the expression “altar of desolation in Maccabees29 and similar pharases in the book of Daniel.30 Although it is almost commonplace to connect foxes with a place of desolation31 the word might well be used here figuratively in the sense of despoilers as in the phrase …32 referring to the Syrians and the Hellenists who defiled the Temple. There may be another reason for the choice of this term—an allusion to the Greeks who cavorted as foxes in the worship of Dionysis; for the celebration of the Dionysia is mentioned in Maccabees.33

VV. 19-22. …

These four verses constitute the epilogue of the prayer. The author expresses confidence that the Temple will be restored as the permanent dwelling of God (v. 19). He appeals to God to turn His anger from the people for His rejection of them has been too long and difficult to bear (vv. 20, 22). In v. 22 he invokes God's assistance to cause the people to turn in repentance and to renew their way of life as of old i.e. before they had strayed into foreign practises.


  1. Cf. Targ. Lam 1.1. … The Bible speaks of Jeremiah composing lamentations on the death of Josiah (II Chr. 35.25) which Josephus claimed were extant in his day (Antt. X, 5, 1).

  2. Ibn Ezra to Lam. 3. 1. …

  3. S. A. Fries, “Parallele zwischen den Klageliedern Cap. IV, V undder Maccabäerzeit” in Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentlische Wissenschaft (ZfAW) XIII (1893) pp. 110-124.

  4. See M. Löhr, “Sind Thr. IV und V Makkabäische?” in ZfAW, XIV (1894) pp. 51-60.

  5. Cf. Josephus, Antt. XII, I.

  6. This historical summary is taken from S. Zeitlin, The Rise and Fall of the Judaean State (Phila., 1962) pp. 85-89. Cf. I Macc. 1. 16 ff; Josephus, Antt. XII, 5.

  7. I Macc. 1. 29 ff; II Macc. 5. 1; Josephus, Antt. loc. cit.

  8. I Macc. 1. 45, 48; II Macc. 6. 6, 10. See also Josephus, loc. cit.

  9. Cf. I Macc. 1. 45, 54. Zeitlin op. cit. p. 89.

  10. I Macc. 1. 21; II Macc. 6. 1-2; Antt. loc. cit. Cf. Dan. 11.

  11. Translating not “Remember O Lord what is come upon us” but “Remember O Lord how it was with us.”

  12. I Macc. 1. 25-28. Text and translation here and elsewhere in this article are from the Books of Maccabees of Jewish A pocryphal Literature of the Dropsie College. …

  13. II Kings 25. 8 ff; Ps. 79. 1; Is. 64. 9-10 et al.

  14. On the slaughter and the captivity see: I Macc. 1. 30 ff; Josephus, Antt. XII, 5. The fullest description is in II Macc. 5. II ff. In this last citation v. 14 we read, “Within three days eighty thousand were destroyed, forty thousand in hand to hand fighting, an equal number to those slaughtered were sold into slavery.”

  15. Cf. Josephus, Antt. XII, 3.

  16. Cf. King Demetrius' letter to the Jews (I Macc. 10. 25 ff) “. … Continue to be faithful to us, and we will requite you well for what you are doing in our behalf. We will grant you many exemptions, and give you gifts. For the present, I free you and release all Jews from the poll taxes, from the customs on salt and from the crown tax.” (ll. 27-29) Perhaps a water tax was one not yet remitted.

  17. … See other suggestions in Kahana ad hoc.

  18. Eg. Jer. 2. 18 et al.

  19. Cf. Ket. 10b. … See also Yoma 10a. …

  20. See Zeitlin, op. cit. p. 81.

  21. Jer. 31. 29; Ezek. 18. 2 et passim.

  22. I Macc. 1. 11.

  23. See Zeitlin's note to I Macc. ad loc.

  24. … On the hunger of the Judaean troops cf. I Macc. 3.17 “… then, too, we are faint, for we have had nothing to eat today.” In Antt. XII, 7 where Josephus follows I Macc. most closely we find, “ … he saw that his soldiers were backward to fight because their number was small and because they wanted food, for they were fasting.” The last phrase is probably Josephus' interpretation rather than fact.

  25. On the hunger of the victims of crucifixion and fever frequently accompanying their agonies, see for example: Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. III, 8 where he describes the sufferings of the martyrs in Egypt who were crucified and died of hunger.

  26. Cf. I Macc. 1.26, cited above, where prince and elder are taken as a couplet. …

  27. Compare the mood in I Macc. 1. 39 “Her feasts were turned into sadness, her Sabbaths into a reproach, and again (ibid. 1. 26) “both rulers and elders groaned; maidens and young men languished.”

  28. Cf. Ps. 48.3; Is. 60. 15; 65. 18; Hos. 2. 13; Ps. 149. 3; 150. 4; Jer. 31. 12.

  29. I Macc. 1. 54. …

  30. Dan. 9. 27. … Cf. also Dan. 11. 31.

  31. Cf. Ezek. 13. 4. …

  32. Cant. 2. 15.

  33. II Macc. 6. 7 “… and when the festival of the Dionysia took place, they were compelled to march in the procession for Dionysis, garlanded with ivy wreaths.” One of the practices connected with this celebration was that the participants dressed up as animals, more often as fawns and goats but at times as foxes. All of these animals had meaning in the worship of Dionysis. The fox is singled out here either because of the allusion to the fox as a despoiler or its connection with abandoned places.

Thomas F. McDaniel (essay date 1968)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5061

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 of most of these lamentations have been recovered, and parts of several of them have been published in translation, including the “Lamentation Over the Destruction of Ur”2), “The Second Lamentation for Ur”3), the “Lamentation Over the Destruction of Nippur”4), and the “Lamentation Over the Destruction of Akkad”5).

Within the past decade statements have been made by several scholars concerning the relationship of these Sumerian lamentations to the biblical Lamentations, claiming that the Hebrew book was influenced by and dependent upon the earlier Sumerian works. S. N. Kramer has stated, without going into detail, “there is little doubt that it was the Sumerian poets who originated and developed the ‘lamentation’ genre … and that the Biblical Book of Lamentations as well as the ‘burden’ laments of the prophets, represented a profoundly moving transformation of the more formal and conventional prototypes”6). Similarly C. J. Gadd, without detailed discussion, has stated that the biblical Lamentations is “manifestly under the influence” of these Sumerian lamentations. He criticizes Norman Gottwald for not giving, in his Studies in the Book of Lamentations, sufficient recognition to the alien influence upon the origin, themes and theology of the Hebrew lamentation motif. He states, “certainly not all the harps were left hanging by the waters of Babylon, and some were attuned to sing at home the songs of a strange land”7). Speaking somewhat more emphatically, H.-J. Kraus has stated, “die Klage um das zerstörte Heiligtum von Ur z.B. bietet eine erstaunliche Paralelle zu den Threni … Vergleicht man einmal sorgfältig das Klagelied über die Zerstörung von Ur (man könnte auch noch die Klage um die Zerstörung von Akkade hinzunehmen) und die alttestamentlichen Threni, so zeigen sich sowohl im formalen Ansatz wie auch in den Motiven überraschende Parallelen”8). Kraus follows these statements by briefly citing (usually with text references only) examples of these parallels.

However, not all biblical scholars are in agreement with these views of Sumerian influence upon the Hebrew Lamentations. W. Rudolph, without any discussion, simply states that the parallels are not too close and are due simply to a similar experience and situation9). Similarly, Otto Eissfeldt opposes any historical connection between the Sumerian lamentations and the biblical Lamentations10).

In view of these assertions and reservations on the question of Sumerian influence upon the Hebrew Lamentations, a fuller examination of both the evidence and the problems involved merits consideration. In this study the attempt will be made to present and evaluate the parallel motifs appearing in both the Hebrew and Sumerian works, including not only the more probable ones cited by Kraus but other motifs which could possibly suggest literary influence or dependence. A discussion of the problems involved in relating second millenium Sumerian works to sixth century Hebrew poetry, along with some general conclusions, will be given in conclusion. The writer is not a Sumerologist and has had to depend on available translations. He is aware of the limitations that this imposes, especially when it comes to a Sumerian passage where the translators treat the text differently. In such cases, the writer will cite the different translations. The procedure will be to follow the textual sequence of the biblical passages, listing first the relevant lines from the Hebrew Lamentations, followed by the Sumerian parallels. Comments and evaluation of the alleged parallels will be given after each parallel cited.

First it is important to note that certain parallels in the Sumerian and Hebrew texts should not be given undue significance in a study of possible literary influence. The experience of most cities in the ancient Near East under siege, and their fate upon subsequent defeat, were usually the same. Poets writing on the general theme of war and defeat, though at different times and at different places, would likely refer to the hunger, famine, pestilence, the social disintegration during the siege, the destruction of the city, the spoils taken by the victor, and the captivity of the conquered following defeat. Therefore, contrary to Kraus, the parallel references in the Hebrew and Sumerian lamentations to hunger and famine, the destruction of the city walls and temple, the burning of the city, the loss of valuables, and the captivity of the inhabitants speak not so much of parallel literary motifs but of the common experience of the vanquished at the hands of the victor11). One would normally expect to find in any kind of lamentation numerous references to weeping, crying and mourning. Thus the recurring parallels in Lam. i 2 a, 16 a; ii 18-19 et passim and IUr 96, 100 et passim could hardly be called upon as evidence of literary dependence. It is in these passages which deal with crying that one notes a significant difference between the Hebrew and Sumerian lamentations. In the former it is the personified city, Jerusalem, which weeps and mourns, but in the latter, Ur is never personified and the one who weeps and mourns is the goddess Ningal. Since the metaphor of bitterness which appears in Lam. i 4 c and IUr 315-316 is of such a general nature, it should be included among those parallel motifs that cannot reflect any kind of influence.

(a) Hebrew ’êkāh ‘how!’ and the Sumerian word translated “alas” (Lam. i 1, ii 1, iv 1, 2 and IUr 41, 81 et passim) have been cited by Kraus as a characteristic element of the literary genre which he calls “Klage um das zerstörte Heiligtum”12). But the expostulatory particle ’êkāh is frequently found in other elegiac and non-elegiac passages of the Bible13). It is attested in an elegiac passage in Ugaritic, ikm. yrgm. bn il ‘krt, “how (mournfully) it shall be said (that) Keret was the son of El” (UT 125:20-21)14). It seems much more probable that the Hebrew poet had in mind this Hebrew and Northwest Semitic particle than some more remote Sumerian prototype.

(b) “She dwells among the nations, she finds no resting place … We are wearied (but) we are given no rest” (i 3 b; v 5); and “I am one who has been exiled from the city, I am one who has found no rest … I am one who has been exiled from the house, I am one who has found no dwelling place” (IUr 306-308). Here the point of similarity is the reference to exile followed by an allusion to the lack of rest or a resting (dwelling) place. In the biblical text the reference is to Judah, but in the Ur lamentation the reference is to the goddess. The combination of “exile” and “no rest” into a single motif is not limited to these lamentations. One should compare the similar motif appearing in the covenant warning to Israel, “the Lord will scatter you among all peoples … among these nations you shall find no ease, and there shall be no rest for the sole of your foot” (Deut. xxviii 64-65). It seems more reasonable to assume that the poet had in mind these words, rather than knowledge of the words about Ningal which he then transformed into suitable words for the personified Jerusalem.

(c) “The roads of Zion mourn, for none come to the appointed feasts, all her gates are desolate” (i 4 a-b); and “In its lofty gates, where they were wont to promenade, dead bodies were lying about; In its boulevards, where the feasts were celebrated, … In all its streets, … In its places, where the festivities of the land took place, the people lay in heaps” (IUr 215-217). The parallel references in these lines to “roads” and “gates” are quite dissimilar. In the Hebrew text they are personified, like the city walls in ii 8, but in the Sumerian lamentation there is no parallel personification. The Sumerian poet calls attention to the gates and streets so as to contrast what used to happen in those places with what had happened in defeat and destruction. The mere mention of “gates” and “roads” together in different lamentations over destroyed cities is not suggestive of literary influence.

(d) “From on high he sent fire” (i 13 a); and “upon him who comes from below verily he hurled fire … Enlil upon him who comes from above verily hurled the flame” (IUr 259-260). Although both passages make reference to the divine use of fire, the motifs are only superficially related. Fire as a divine instrument is a recurring motif in biblical literature and Canaanite mythology15). The burning of conquered cities and the theme of divine use of fire are so sufficiently attested in Syria-Palestine that there is no need to go all the way to Sumer to find a literary parallel or prototype.

(e) “He spread a net for my feet” (i 13 b); and “über Sumer ist das Fangnetz gefallen” (IUr-F 200:30). Kraus includes these lines in his list of parallel motifs. Kramer is less certain of the meaning of this line in the Ur lamentation and translates, “Sumer is broken up by the gišburru” (IUr 195). But within the Hebrew literary and prophetic tradition the picture of Yahweh spreading a net was an established motif. Both Hosea and Ezekiel employ the motif, e.g., “I will spread my net over him, and he shall be taken away in my snare; and I will bring him to Babylon …” (Ez. xii 13; see also xvii 20; Ho. vii 12).

(f) “How the Lord in his anger …” (ii 1a); and “because of the wrath of Enlil” (Akkad 1). A frequently recurring theme in Lam. ii is the anger of Yahweh, and although not mentioned in the IUr lamentation, there are numerous references in the Sumerian lamentations to the wrath of Anu and Enlil16). Although Sumerian references to divine wrath appear in lamentations (including for the purpose of this study “The Curse of Agade”)17) Hebrew references to the wrath of Yahweh are not restricted to this particular genre. A cursory look at any biblical concordance will be sufficient to indicate how widespread the concept of divine wrath was among the ancient Israelites. The Sumerian and Hebrew emphasis upon divine wrath in the interpretation of tragic national events is more likely to reflect an older and more general common religious tradition among the two peoples than literary dependence of the Hebrew poet upon the Sumerian lamentations.

(g) “He has bent his bow like an enemy … like an enemy he has slain … the Lord has become like an enemy” (ii 4a, 5); and “Mother Ningal in her city like an enemy stood aside. … How long, pray, wilt thou stand aside in the city like an enemy? O Mother Ningal, (how long) wilt thou hurl challenges in the city like an enemy?” (IUr 253, 374-375). The simile “like an enemy” as applied to Yahweh does not appear elsewhere in the Bible, although there are other references to Yahweh's being an “enemy”. In Ex. xxiii 22, the motif appears as follows, …“I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries”. In Is. lxiii 10, a similar phrase occurs, …“he became their enemy”. Accordingly, although there is no biblical parallel as close as the same simile in IUr, the idea itself is found in Israel's religious tradition, and the Hebrew poet could well have coined this simile without recourse to a Sumerian prototype.

(h) “The Lord has rejected his altar, he has abandoned18) his sanctuary” (ii 7 a); and “Enlil has abandoned … Nippur … Ninlil has abandoned their house …” (IUr 4, 6, et passim). The first thirtyseven lines of IUr are a list of the various temples and shrines which the different Sumerian deities had abandoned. By contrast, in the Hebrew Lamentations the motif appears only once, assuming that the above translation of MT ni'ēr as “abandon” is correct. At best, the parallel is in the word and not in the meaning behind the word. Whereas in the Hebrew text Yahweh has rejected his holy city because of her sin and rebellion, Ningal and Nanna, the deities at Ur, plead for the safety of Ur and affirm her innocence. Only because the gods had not decreed eternal kingship for Ur must they bear with the calamity19). The idea of deliberate rejection is not a part of the Sumerian parallel, but it is basic in Yahweh's abandonment of Jerusalem.

(i) “Yahweh has determined to lay in ruins the wall of the daughter Zion. … Yahweh has done what he purposed, he has fulfilled his words which he commanded long ago; he has demolished without pity. … Who has given this (order) that it should come to pass? Yahweh verily20) has given the order” (ii 8 a, 17 a-b; iii 37); and “after they had pronounced the utter destruction of my city; after they had pronounced the utter destruction of Ur, after they had directed that its people be killed. … Anu changed not his command; Enlil altered not the command which he had issued” (IUr 140-142, 168-169). The same theme appears in the second lamentation, “the destruction of my city they verily gave in commission; the destruction of Ur they verily gave in commission; that its people be killed, as its fate they verily commanded” (IIUr-J). These parallel motifs of divine command and purpose are seemingly quite similar. But a closer study of the thought behind these motifs indicates that the similarity is only of words, not of meaning. According to Israelite religious traditions, the destruction of Jerusalem had not been inexorably decreed by Yahweh. What was commanded and purposed by Yahweh was a covenant relationship which could not be changed. Obedience would bring blessing; disobedience would bring destruction (see Deut. xxviii and Lev. xvi). Israel's acknowledged rebellion demanded Yahweh's just fulfillment of his word (i 8 a, 18 a). Thus, in the context of Israel's faith, things could have been different if Jerusalem had been either faithful or repentant.

An entirely different understanding lies behind the Sumerian motifs of divine commission. In the myth of “Inanna and Enki: The Transfer of the Arts of Civilization from Eridu to Erech”, the poet lists over one hundred “cultural traits and complexes” for which there is a me, i.e., “a set of rules and regulation assigned to each cosmic entity and cultural phenomenon for the purpose of keeping it operating forever in accordance with the plans laid down by the deity creating it”21). The thirty-eighth me cited by the Sumerian poet, in his list of over one hundred, is the me of the “destruction of cities”22). Apparently Ur's fate was inexorably fixed by this me, so that, innocent or not, even the gods' intercession could not change the me which Anu and Enlil had established.

There is no need to assume here that the Hebrew poet of Lamentations drew from outside his own covenant traditions when he wrote of divine purpose. The parallels with the Sumerian lamentations are only superficial.

(j) “He caused the rampart and wall to lament; they languish together (ii 8); and “O thou brickwork of Ur, a bitter lament set up as thy lament” (IUr 48, 53 et passim). The personification of inanimate objects is frequently encountered in funeral songs23). What is noteworthy here is the fact that although the verb 'ābal is used with numerous other inanimate subjects or objects (including gates, land, pastures and the deep), this is the only occurrence where it is used with bēl wehōmāh, somewhat like the Sumerian “brickwork”. But there is no reasonable basis to assume that though the Hebrew poets independently composed metaphors like “her gates shall lament and mourn” (Is. iii 26) and “her land mourns” (Ho. iv 3), they were influenced by a Sumerian prototype for the motif “rampart and wall lament”.

(k)“… infants and babes faint in the streets of the city. Cry out in the night … for the lives of your children who faint with hunger at the head of every street” (ii 11 c, 19); and “the father turned away from his son … the child was abandoned … Ur like the child of a street which has been destroyed seeks a place before thee” (IUr 235-236, 370). The most that can be said of these parallel motifs is that they both refer to children. There is no reference in the Sumerian lamentations to the starvation of the children, nor to the cannibalism mentioned in Lam. ii 10 and iv 20. Falkenstein translates IUr 370 as, “Ur sucht dich wie ein Kind, das sich in den Strassen verloren hat” (IUr-F 210:15), and this fits the parallelism which follows, “thy house, like a man who has lost everything stretches out the hands to thee”. There are no parallels to these similes in the Hebrew Lamentations.

(1) “My enemies have hunted me like a bird without cause” (iii 52); and “O my (city) attacked and destroyed, my (city) attacked without cause” (IUr 324-325). In the biblical lamentation there is no real assumption of the city's innocence or plea of ignorance, such as appears in IIUr 45-46: “what has my city done to thee, why hast thou turned from it? Enlil, what has my Ur done to thee. … ” The poet, who combines the motifs of individual and collective Hebrew laments, introduces here the theme of personal innocence, a typical motif of individual laments as found in Ps. xxxv 7, “for without cause they hid their net for me”.

(m) “The young men (have quit) their music. The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has turned to mourning” (v 14-15); and “On the uppu and alû they play not for thee that which brings joy to the heart. … Thy song has been turned into weeping. … The … -music has been turned into lamentation” (IUr 356). This motif of joy being turned into mourning is a recurring one, appearing in numerous Akkadian texts, the eighth century Aramaic Sefire treaty, and prophetic passages (Ez. xxvi 13; Jer. vii 34 et passim)24). Although the original motif could possibly go back to some Sumerian source, there is no reason to assume that the motif's appearance in v 14-15 is directly related to the Sumerian lamentations.

(n) “Restore us to thyself, O Yahweh, that we may return; renew our days as of old” (v 21); and “O father, my begetter, return my city in its unity to thy side again. O Enlil, return my Ur in its unity to thy side again” (IIUr 55-56). Gadd has called attention to the similarity of these passages25), but though they are similar it is not necessary to assume literary influence. The plea for renewal is as natural in this context as plea for renewed health in a lamentation due to sickness, e.g. Ps. vi 5, “return O Lord, and rescue my life, save me … ’ If there is a literary parallel, the poet may well be echoing words from Jeremiah, “restore me that I may return, for thou art the Lord my God” (xxxi 18).

Other more remote parallels could possibly be added to this list, but they would add little evidence either for or against the influence of Sumerian lamentations upon the Hebrew Lamentations. These fourteen examples that have been quoted are the closest parallels and include those motifs which are basic to any assumption of literary dependency. Certain preliminary conclusions can be drawn on the basis of this evidence. First, the parallel motifs do not seem to be as “amazing” as Kraus suggests in his commentary. All of the motifs cited from Lamentations are either attested otherwise in biblical literature or have a prototype in the literary motifs current in Syria-Palestine. Second, certain dominant themes of the Sumerian lamentations find no parallel at all in this Hebrew lament. For example, one would expect to find the motif of the “evil storm” (which makes up all of the fifth song and part of the sixth song of IUr, and occurs in IIUr 10) somewhere in the biblical lamentation if there were any real literary dependency.

Any attempt to postulate Sumerian influence upon the Hebrew poets must deal with the problem of how the Hebrew poets of the mid-sixth century had knowledge of this particular Sumerian literary genre of the early second millenium. There is clear evidence that a part of the scribal and learned tradition in the post Sumerian period in Mesopotamia included knowing the Sumerian language and literary works; and even in the West, a part of the (syllabic) cuneiform scribe's learned tradition involved some elementary knowledge of Sumerian26). Furthermore, Akkadian versions of Sumerian literary works were known in the West. A large quantity of Babylonian literary fragments, including fragments of the Gilgamesh epic, were found at the Hittite capital of Boghazkhoy; and fragments of Sumero-Babylonian epics have been found at Ras Shamra27). Moreover, several fragments of Babylonian literary texts have turned up at Megiddo and Amarna28). According to W. G. Lambert, these literary works and traditions moved westward during the Amarna period (14th century) when Babylonian cuneiform was the international language from Egypt to the Persian Gulf29). But there is no evidence that these literary works survived in Syria-Palestine. One has to assume with Kramer that, “Sumerian influence penetrated the Bible through Canaanite, Hurrian, Hittite, and Akkadian literature”, and with Lambert (who writes with particular reference to the Genesis parallels) that the traditions “reached the Hebrews in oral form”30).

To date there is no evidence of a literary genre of “lamentations over destroyed cities” in any of the above literatures, though according to A. Leo Oppenheim this genre of the Sumerian literary tradition is reflected in the fourth tablet of the Era Epic which includes a long lament over the destruction of Babylon31). Nor is there any evidence that this particular literary tradition moved westward, which is not surprising since there is no special reason to assume that a lamentation over the destruction of a city would have wide popular appeal. Thus without any evidence that the Sumerian literary works survived in Syria-Palestine, or that this particular lamentation genre was known in the West, it is highly improbable that one can reconstruct a reasonable chain of literary transmission. Even if this lamentation genre had been known during the Amarna period, there is no reason to assume that the tradition was kept alive. Residents of Syria-Palestine were more apt to rejoice than lament over the destruction of Mesopotamian cities. If the Hebrew poets of the sixth century had knowledge of this Sumerian lamentation tradition, it is difficult to see how they could have learned of it in Palestine.

On the other hand it is difficult to agree with Gadd that the Hebrews learned and adopted this literary genre during the exile32), since there is no evidence that the Israelites were in a mood, so shortly after the fall of Jerusalem, to adopt a foreign form to express the loss of national treasures in lieu of their own rich local literary traditions33).

Since the suggested parallel motifs discussed above have at best only general—and quite natural—similarities, and in light of the difficulties encountered in accounting for the transmission of this literary genre down to mid-sixth century Palestine, it seems best to abandon any claim of literary dependence or influence of the Sumerian lamentations on the biblical Lamentations. At most the indebtedness would be the idea of a lamentation over a beloved city. But since there is such a natural corollary to individual and collective lamentations or funeral laments, indebtedness may properly be discarded.


  1. See S. N. Kramer, “The Oldest Literary Catalogue: A Sumerian List of Literary Compositions Compiled about 2000 B. C.,” BASOR 88 (Dec., 1942), 10-19; idem, “New Literary Catalogue from Ur”, RA LV (1961), 169-176. For a listing of the lamentations with full bibliographical notations, see Kramer, Sumerian Literary Texts From Nippur in the Museum of the Ancient Orient at Istanbul, AASOR XXIII (1944), 33-36; and Maurice Lambert, “La littérature Sumérienne à propos d'ouvrages recents”, RA LV (1961), 190-191. The term “Sumerian lamentations” in this study refers only to those lamentations which mourn the destruction of Sumerian cities and city-states. It does not include those lamentations concerned with the death of Dumuzi or one of his counterparts.

  2. Kramer, Lamentation Over the Destruction of Ur, OIP XII (Chicago, 1940); idem, “Lamentation Over the Destruction of Ur”, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. James B. Pritchard, 2nd ed. (Princeton, 1955), pp. 455-463 (cited below as I Ur); Maurus Witzel, “Die Klage über Ur”, Or XIV (1945), 185-235; XV (1946), 46-63; A. Falkenstein, “Klage um die Zerstörung von Ur”, in A. Falkenstein and W. von Soden, Sumerische und akkadische Hymmen und Gebet (Zürich and Stuttgart, 1953), pp. 192-213 (cited as IUr-F and SAHG, respectively).

  3. C. J. Gadd, “The Second Lamentation for Ur”, in Hebrew and Semitic Studies Presented to Godfrey Rolles Driver, edd. D. W. Thomas and W. D. McHardy (London, 1963), pp. 59-71 (cited below as IIUR); Thorkild Jacobsen, “Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia”, JNES II (1943), 172 (cited below as IIUr-J); A. Falkenstein, “Ibbisin Klage”, in SAHG, pp. 189-192 (cited IIUr-F).

  4. See Kramer, AASOR XXIII (1944), 3; M. Lambert, op. cit.; and Wilhelm Rudolph, Das Buch Ruth. Das Hohe Leid. Die Klagelieder (Kommentar zum Alten Testament), 2nd ed. (Gütersloh, 1962), p. 213, where he cites a passage from Maurus Witzel, Perlen sumerischer Poesie, a book which this writer has not seen.

  5. This lamentation over Akkad is part of “The Curse of Agade”, a historiographic text, and not from the “lamentation” genre like the others cited above. But since it is cited by Hans-Joachim Kraus, Klagelieder (Threni) (Biblischer Kommentar Altes Testament), 2nd ed. (Neukirchen, 1960), p. 10, as a parallel lamentation and is included among the “lamentations” translated by Falkenstein (SAHG, pp. 187-189), it is included here in this list. See Kramer, History Begins at Sumer, Anchor Book ed. (New York, 1959), pp. 228-232; idem, “Sumerian Literature”, Analecta Biblica XII (Rome, 1959), 196-197; idem, Sumerian Literature, A General Survey”, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, ed. G. Ernest Wright (New York, 1961). p. 257; I. J. Gelb, Old Akkadian Writing and Grammar, Materials for the Assyrian Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Chicago, 1961), p. 201; Falkenstein, SAHG, p. 376.

  6. “Sumerian Literature and the Bible”, 201.

  7. Op. cit., p. 61.

  8. Op. cit., pp. 9-10.

  9. Op. cit., p. 9.

  10. Einleitung in Das Alte Testament (Tübingen, 1964), p. 683.

  11. Compare Kraus, op. cit., pp. 9-10.

  12. Ibid. This title seems a little misleading. The whole city-state was destroyed. The Sumerian poets did not restrict themselves to lamenting only the destruction of the temples and shrines. The Sumerians thought in terms of the “destruction of cities” as reflected in a me which deals specifically with the destruction of cities (see below, p. 205).

  13. On the occurrence in non-elegiac passages see G. S. Glanzman, “Two Notes: Amos 3, 15 and Os. 11, 8-9” CBQ XXIII (1961), 230-232.

  14. The particle is usually understood as the interrogative particle “how?” with enclitic mem (see Cyrus H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook [Analecta Orientalia, 38] [Rome, 1965], 19.147), but in this elegiac context it is more likely to be the expostulatory particle. On the necessity of adding an adverb in the English translation, see Glanzman, op. cit., p. 231.

  15. See Delbert R. Hillers, “Amos 7, 4 and Ancient Parallels”, CBQ XXVI (1964), 221-225; and Patrick D. Miller, “Fire in the Mythology of Canaan and Israel”, CBQ XXVII (1965), 256-261, for studies on the use of fire as a divine instrument in Northwest Semitic literature.

  16. The title of the lamentation over Akkad in the Old Babylonian literary catalogue is listed as, “Because of the Wrath of Enlil”. See Kramer, BASOR 88 (1942), 15.

  17. See p. 198, note 5.

  18. See L. Koehler and W. Baumgartner, Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros (Leiden, 1953), sub voce ni'ēr.

  19. See Gadd, op. cit., p. 61.

  20. Reading here the asseverative particle lu’ for MT lō’. For a full discussion with bibliographic notes, see the writer's “Philological Studies in Lamentations”, Biblica XLIX (1968).

  21. S. N. Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character (Chicago, 1963), p. 115.

  22. Ibid., p. 116.

  23. See H. Jahnow, Das hebräische Leichenlied im Rahmen der Völkerdichtung (ZAW Beiheft 36) (Giessen, 1923), pp. 102-103.

  24. See Delbert R. Hillers, Treaty-Curses and the Old Testament Prophets. (Biblica et Orientalia, 16) (Rome, 1964,) pp. 57-58.

  25. Op. cit., p. 70. Gadd cites (p. 66) one other parallel, namely Lam. ii 6 and IIUr 5, but does not elaborate, and this writer fails to see any similarity between, “Ur like a single reed makes no resistance (?)”, and ii 6, “he has broken down his booth like that of a garden …” (RSV).

  26. See Kramer, “Sumerian Literature”, p. 253; idem, “Sumerian Literature, A General Survey”, 186; and D. J. Wiseman, “Some Aspects of Babylonian Influence at Alalah”, Syria XXXIX (1962), 180-187.

  27. See Hans G. Güterbock, “Hittite Mythology”, in Mythologies of the Ancient World, ed. S. N. Kramer (New York, 1961), pp. 154-155, 178; and for a recent discussion on Mesopotamian literary works in Syria-Palestine, with references, see W. G. Lambert, “A New Look at the Babylonian Background of Genesis”, JTS NS XVI (1965), 287-300. See also M. Jean Nougayrol, “L’influence babylonienne à Ugarit, d'après les Textes en cunéiformes classique”, Syria XXXIX (1962), 28-35.

  28. See W. G. Lambert, op. cit., 299.

  29. Op. cit., 299-300.

  30. Kramer, “Sumerian Literature, a General Survey”, 190; and W. G. Lambert, op. cit., 300.

  31. Ancient Mesopotamia (Chicago, 1964), p. 267. For the Era Epic itself, see F. Gössman, Das Era-Epos (Würtzburg, 1956), and reviews of this work by W. G. Lambert in Afo XVIII (1958), 395-401; and B. Kienast in ZA LIV (1961), 244-249. Lambert suggests that the historical background of this epic is in the Sutü raids and civil war during the reign of Adad-apal-idinna (1067-1046) and that it was composed at the order of Nabû-apal-iddina (c. 880-850) to chronicle the fall and rise of Akkad. See also Erica Reiner, “Plague Amulets and House Blessings”, JNES XIX (1960), 148-155, for a discussion on the use of parts of the Era Epic on amulets to preserve one from the plague. For an English translation of portions of the text, see Kramer in Mythologies of the Ancient World, ed. S. N. Kramer (New York, 1961), pp. 127-135. In terms of literary form, style and motifs, there is little, if any, resemblance between Tablet IV of the Era Epic and the Sumerian lamentations; there is no resemblance to the Hebrew Lamentations. The only apparent parallel is that the three works are concerned with the destruction of a city and references are made to wailing and crying.

  32. “The Second Lamentation for Ur”, p. 61.

  33. For a full discussion of Northwest Semitic lexical and syntactical elements in Lamentations, see the writer's “Philological Studies in Lamentations”, Biblica XLIX (1968).

Dilbert R. Hillers (essay date 1972)

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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.]


“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 house of Yahweh, and the king's house; and all the houses in Jerusalem, including every great man's house, he set on fire and burned. The whole army of the Chaldaeans tore down the walls of Jerusalem, all around. … The rest of the people who were left in the city, and those who had deserted to the king of Babylon, and the rest of the populace, Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard, took to Babylon as prisoners. The captain of the guard left only some of the poorest in the country to tend the vines and farm the land” (II Kings 25:8-12).

Thus the book of Kings states the facts about the fall of Jerusalem in 587 b.c. Lamentations supplies the meaning of the facts. It is first of all a recital of the horrors and atrocities that came during the long siege and its aftermath, but beyond the tale of physical sufferings it tells of the spiritual significance of the fall of the city. For the ancient people chosen by Yahweh it meant the destruction of every cherished symbol of their election by God. In line after line the poet recalls all the precious, sacred things which had been lost or shattered: the city itself, once “the perfection of beauty, the joy of the whole earth”; the city walls and towers, once the outward sign that “God is in the midst of her”; the king, “the anointed of Yahweh, the breath of our nostrils”; the priests, and with them all festive and solemn worship; the prophets, and with them all visions and the living word of God; the land itself, Israel's “inheritance” from Yahweh, now turned over to strangers; the people—dead, exiled, or slaves in their own land. Every sign that had once provided assurance and confidence in God was gone.

Thus Lamentations served the survivors of the catastrophe in the first place as an expression of the almost inexpressible horror and grief they felt. Men live on best after calamity, not by utterly repressing their grief and shock, but by facing it, by measuring its dimensions, by finding some form of words to order and articulate their experience. Lamentations is so complete and honest and eloquent an expression of grief that even centuries after the events which inspired it, it is still able to provide those in mute despair with words to speak.

The book is not only an expression of grief, however, but a confession. It is not a perplexed search for the meaning of the catastrophe, still less an attempt to evade responsibility for it. Israel's prophets had foretold with unmistakable clarity the destruction of the nation, and divine punishment for the iniquity of the fathers was the well-known, inescapable darker side of the covenant with God. Lamentations says “Amen” to the prophetic judgment on the sin of the people, and calls it greater than that of Sodom and Gomorrah. Worst of all had been the iniquity of the spiritual leaders. Hence it was Yahweh himself who had consumed Israel. What had come on them was nothing less than the day of the Lord, the day of his wrath.

Central to the book, however, is an expression of hope. It is the merit of Lamentations that it does not quickly or easily promise away the present agony. It does not encourage the remnant of Israel to take comfort in the fathers, or in the exodus, or in the land, or Zion, or the line of David, or any of the old symbols of her status with God. The series of “mighty acts of God” toward Israel had ended with an unmistakable act of judgment, so that the nation's history could be no source of hope. Nor does it at any point forecast a speedy turn in the fortunes of Israel. Instead the book offers, in its central chapter, the example of an unnamed man who has suffered under the hand of God. To sketch this typical sufferer, this “Everyman,” the language and ideas of the psalms of individual lament, a tradition quite separate from the national history, are drawn on. From near despair, this man wins through to confidence that God's mercy is not at an end, and that his final, inmost will for man is not suffering. From this beginning of hope the individual turns to call the nation to penitent waiting for God's mercy.

The medium through which these various meanings are expressed is a series of poems composed with deliberate artistry. As is the case with any work of poetic art, so with Lamentations, the meaning is not fully statable apart from the form in which the author clothed it. It cannot be reduced to a set of propositions without serious loss. The present writer offers the above merely as a rough restatement of some major themes in the poems, and prefers to take up more detailed discussion of the meaning of the book only in the Comments which accompany the poems.


In the Hebrew Bible Lamentations has the title 'ēkāh, “How,” the initial word of the book. In the Babylonian Talmud, however (Baba Bathra 14b), and in other early Jewish writings, the book is called qīnōt, that is, Lamentations. The title in the Greek Bible, threnoi, and in the Vulgate, threni, is a translation of this Hebrew name. Quite frequently manuscripts and printed editions of the versions will add: “of Jeremiah,” or “of Jeremiah the prophet.”


The canonicity of Lamentations has never been a matter of dispute. The position of Lamentations in the canon of the Hebrew scriptures, however, is of some importance for the question of authorship. It is never placed among the Prophets, where the book of Jeremiah stands, but is always somewhere in the third division of the Hebrew canon, the Writings (Ketubim). Its exact position among the Writings has varied in different ages and in different communities. The Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra 14b) records a very old tradition which lists the Writings “chronologically,” that is, according to their traditional date; the five Scrolls (Megillot) are not grouped together, and Lamentations, which refers to the Babylonian captivity, comes near the end of the list, just before Daniel and Esther. Hebrew bibles, however, reflect liturgical practice in that within the Writings they group the five short books (the “Scrolls,” Hebrew Megillot) which had come to be read in public worship on five important festivals. The edition commonly used in scholarly study today, Kittel's Biblia hebraica (BH3), is based on a manuscript of a.d. 1008 (Codex Leningradensis) which lists the Scrolls in “chronological” order: Ruth, Song of Songs (from when Solomon was young!), Ecclesiastes (from his old age), Lamentations, and Esther. In many manuscripts and printed bibles, however, especially those used by Ashkenazic Jews, the order is that in which the festivals come in the calendar: Song of Songs (Passover); Ruth (Weeks, Shabuot, Pentecost), Lamentations (the Ninth of Ab), Ecclesiastes (Tabernacles, Succoth), and Esther (Purim). The second major tradition puts Lamentations just after Jeremiah (Baruch comes between them in some cases). This is the order followed, for example, in the Septuagint (LXX), the ancient Greek translation of the Bible, in the Vulgate, Jerome's Latin translation, and in English Bibles commonly used among Christians. This order was anciently known to Josephus, as may be inferred from his account of the Hebrew canon (Contra Apionem I 8), and is also followed by Melito of Sardis (d. 190; see Eusebius Historia ecclesiastica IV xxvi 14) and by Origen (Eusebius VI xxv 2). As Jerome explains, this listing fits with an enumeration of the Old Testament books which makes their number agree with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet; “Jeremias cum Cinoth” counts as one book. Jerome, however, does mention the existence of a varying tradition which put Lamentations and Ruth with the Writings (“Prologus Galeatus,” Patrologia Latina 28, cols. 593-604).


The view commonly held by modern scholars agrees closely with the traditional view, that is, that the book of Lamentations was written not long after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 b.c. The memory of the horrors of that event seems to be still fresh in the mind of the author or authors. Moreover, the book at no point testifies to a belief that things would soon change for the better; the kind of hope that appeared in later exilic times had not yet arisen.

Considerable scholarly effort has been expended on determining the order in which the five separate poems were written, but no consensus exists. Wilhelm Rudolph has argued that chapter 1 must date from the first capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, that is, from shortly after 597, not from after 587 b.c. His main reason for this view, which has won some adherents, is that chapter 1 does not speak of the destruction of the city and temple as do the other chapters, but only of its capture.1 This is essentially an argument from silence, and is not a secure basis for separating the chapter from the others chronologically. Before Rudolph, other scholars argued for putting chapter 1 somewhat later than 2 and 4. Furthermore, the evidence of the new Babylonian Chronicle shows that the first siege must have been quite short,2 which does not fit with the references in the chapter to severe famine (1:11, 19; see commentary on 11). Others have wanted to put chapter 3 later than the others because it has a less vivid description of events in the siege than 2 and 4. The truth is that there is insufficient evidence for a precise chronological ordering of the separate laments.3


That the prophet Jeremiah wrote Lamentations is so firmly rooted in traditions about the Bible, in western literature, and even in art, that even after the ascription to Jeremiah was challenged (first in 1712, by H. von der Hardt4), discussion of the book's authorship has tended to take the form of listing reasons why Jeremiah could not have written the book, or why he must have, as though the tradition was unanimous. Ancient tradition on this point is not in fact unanimous, however, and it may clarify the question best if the separate traditions are first listed. Then, as though it were a problem of deciding between textual variants, we may ask: which tradition can best account for the origin of the other?

The first tradition does not name any author for the book, and implies that it was not Jeremiah. This is the tradition represented by the Masoretic Text (MT), which says nothing whatever about the authorship of the book, and in which Lamentations is separated from Jeremiah and put among the Writings (Ketubim); for details see “Place in the Canon,” above.

The second tradition is that Jeremiah wrote the book. The Septuagint prefixes these words to the first chapter: “And it came to pass after Israel had gone into captivity, and Jerusalem was laid waste, that Jeremiah sat weeping and composed this lament over Jerusalem and said—.” This heading found in the Greek translation may possibly go back to a Hebrew original, for it is Semitic rather than Greek in style. In the Septuagint Lamentations is placed with other works by Jeremiah. The Vulgate follows the Greek closely, both in the ordering of the book, and in the heading. The Targum (Aramaic translation) ascribes the book to Jeremiah, but in different words and more briefly. It is in accord with other Jewish tradition as recorded, for example, in the Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra 15a). In rabbinic writings passages from Lamentations are often introduced by “Jeremiah said.” The heading in the Syriac version (Peshitta) titles the work: “The book of Lamentations of Jeremiah the prophet.” The oldest of these ancient authorities is the Septuagint.

In spite of the great antiquity of this tradition, it is relatively easy to account for it as secondary to the other. In the first place, there was a very natural desire in the early days of biblical interpretation to determine the authorship of anonymous biblical books. As the one major prophetic figure active in Judah just before and after the fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah was a candidate sufficiently qualified to meet the demands of a none-too-critical age, especially since certain of his words seemed to fit the theme of Lamentations: “O that my head were waters, and my eyes a fount of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of my people” (9:1[8:23H]). Secondly, there was an explicit statement in the Bible that Jeremiah wrote laments, II Chron 35:25, which is translated here as literally as possible so that some of the difficulties of the verse may stand out: “And Jeremiah sang a lament [or laments] over Josiah. And all the male and female singers spoke of Josiah in their laments, unto this day. And they made them a fixed observance for Israel. And behold they are written in the [book of] Laments.” Actually nothing in the extant book of Lamentations can be taken as referring to the death of Josiah in 609 b.c. The reference to the king in 4:20 must be to Zedekiah, who was king at the fall of Jerusalem. It is difficult to suppose that the Chronicler is simply mistaken, that he actually intended to ascribe authorship of the canonical book to Jeremiah. It is easier to suppose that he gives correct information: Jeremiah, and others as well, composed laments over Josiah, and these were gathered in a book called Lamentations, but this has nothing to do with the extant biblical book. Nevertheless, the Chronicler's statement that Jeremiah wrote Laments would have encouraged the idea that he was the author of Lamentations, especially since very early on some passages in the biblical book were taken to refer to Josiah (see the Targum on 1:18; 4:20).5 To sum up, given the anonymous book of Lamentations, it is possible to give a plausible account of how it could have come to be ascribed to Jeremiah, and eventually to be placed after the book of Jeremiah.

If one assumes the opposite, that the book was understood as Jeremiah's from the beginning, it is difficult to suggest any good reason why it was ever separated from his other writings, or circulated without his name. Wiesmann's argument that this was done for liturgical reasons, in order to group Lamentations with the other Scrolls (Megillot), is without force, for the oldest listing of the Writings does not group the Scrolls together, and yet includes Lamentations (see above, on “Place in the Canon”).

In addition, there is evidence within the book which makes it difficult to suppose that Jeremiah wrote it. Certain statements would be, if not impossible, then at least out of character in the mouth of Jeremiah. For example, 4:17, with its pathetic description of how “we” looked in vain for help from “a nation that does not save,” is at variance with Jeremiah's outspoken hostility to reliance on help from other nations (Jer 2:18), and the fact that he did not expect help from Egypt (37:5-10). Would Jeremiah, who prophesied the destruction of the temple, have written 1:10? The high hopes set on Zedekiah in 4:20 (“the breath of our nostrils … of whom we said, ‘In his shadow we will live among the nations’”) are not easy to square with Jeremiah's blunt words to the same king: “You will be given into the hand of the king of Babylon” (37:17). “Her prophets find no vision from Yahweh” (2:9) is in the last analysis a rather odd statement from one who prophesied before, during, and after the catastrophe. If 4:19 refers to the flight of Zedekiah (see II Kings 25:4-5) and implies that the author took part, as many suppose (see Comment on the passage), then the author was not Jeremiah, who was in prison at the time (Jer 38:28). It may be granted that any of the above-mentioned details has seemed to some scholars compatible with authorship by Jeremiah, and that those who oppose it do not fully agree on which set of arguments proves the case! Even so, these and other details in the book suggest an author or authors more closely identified with the common hopes and fears of the people than it was possible for Jeremiah to be.

Arguments from the language of the book, especially from the vocabulary employed,6 and from the acrostic form have been used to argue against Jeremianic authorship. These seem indecisive. The lexical evidence seems to suggest that the book has ties with Ezekiel, Second Isaiah, the Psalms, and Jeremiah—that is, its vocabulary not surprisingly resembles that of roughly contemporary writers in some respects.

There is no conclusive evidence as to whether the book is the work of one author, or of several, and both views have been defended in modern times. The unity of form, that is, the fact that all the poems are alphabetic in one way or another, and that the first four have metrical features in common, does suggest that all are the work of one author. One may also point to the fundamental unity in point of view through the whole book, and to resemblances in linguistic detail between one chapter and another. It is possible to read the sequence of chapters as meaningful, which suggests unified authorship or at least intelligent editing. Other scholars, however, find differences in point of view from chapter to chapter (thus 2 and 4 are said to have more of an “eye-witness” character than 1 and 3). The present writer has attempted to interpret the poems as an intelligible unity, whether or not this unity results from one author or from an editor who ordered originally separate works. So as not always to be saying “author or authors,” the singular form is regularly used in the Notes and Comments.

Some modern commentators, notably Gottwald, Albrektson, and Kraus, have devoted much effort to delineating the theological traditions on which the author drew, and on this basis have offered conjectures as to the circles from which the book must have come. In Kraus's opinion the author was apparently from among the cult-prophets or the priesthood of Jerusalem, while according to Gottwald he unites the spirit of both priest and prophet, so that the book may offer evidence that there were indeed cult-prophets in ancient Israel.7 In spite of the value of these minute examinations of the book's theological content, they come close to overemphasizing the individuality of the writer's theology. In actuality the book betrays little one-sidedness, and if it contains themes from various carlier traditions, it seems possible that the author was a layman, and perhaps, as has often been supposed on the basis of 4:19-20, someone connected with the royal court.


The events and conditions with which the book of Lamentations deals are without exception located in Judah. Conversely, the book evinces no acquaintance with or special interest in the plight of exiles in Babylon or Egypt. In the absence of any strong evidence to the contrary, then, it seems best to suppose that the book was written in Palestine. Scholars have proposed that the whole book, or parts of it, were composed elsewhere, and it must be conceded that Jews in exile—Ezekiel is a notable example—could be very well informed about conditions back home, but nothing in the book furnishes positive evidence that it was written by an exile.


All five poems in Lamentations are in one way or another shaped according to the Hebrew alphabet. This is most noticeable in the first four poems, which are alphabetic acrostics. Chapters 1 and 2 are of a relatively simple type, in which each stanza has three lines, and only the first word of the first line of each is made to conform to the alphabet, so that stanza one begins with aleph, stanza two with beth, and so on through the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapter 4 is of the same type, but here each stanza has only two lines. Chapter 3 is more elaborate: each stanza has three lines, and all three lines are made to begin with the proper letter, so that there are three lines starting with aleph, three with beth, and so on. No attempt has been made to reproduce this acrostic feature in the translation given below, for obvious reasons, though the Hebrew letters listed beside the stanzas are intended to call the reader's attention to this phenomenon in the original. Monsignor Ronald Knox did carry through the tour de force of reproducing the acrostic in his translation of the Bible, and a sample is quoted here (Lam 3:1-7) to give readers an idea of its effect, though it must be said that Knox strains the English language more than the author of Lamentations did the Hebrew.8

Ah, what straits have I not known, under the
                                        avenging rod!
Asked I for light, into deeper shadow the Lord's
                                        guidance led me;
Always upon me, none other, falls endlessly the
Broken this frame, under the wrinkled skin, the
                                        sunk flesh.
Bitterness of despair fills my prospect,
                                        walled in on every side;
Buried in darkness, and, like the dead,
Closely he fences me in, etc.

Chapter 5 is not an acrostic, but has exactly twenty-two lines and thus conforms to the alphabet to a lesser degree. Other biblical poems with twenty-two lines exist—Pss 33, 38, 103—and it is reasonable to suppose that in all these cases the number of lines is chosen intentionally, though none are acrostics.

There are many acrostic poems in the Bible and in other literature, and this commentary is not the place for a full discussion of the form, about which a good deal has been written.9 Yet it is so prominent a characteristic of Lamentations that some explanation of its purpose and effect must be given. There are really two separate questions involved: the history and purpose of the acrostic form as a whole, and the purpose of the author of Lamentations in using it.

Acrostic compositions were written in both ancient Egypt10 and ancient Mesopotamia.11 As is well known, the writing systems of these civilizations were not alphabetic, and therefore their acrostics are not alphabetic either. The most elaborate Mesopotamian acrostic is syllabic. The poem has twenty-seven stanzas of eleven lines each. Each line within an individual stanza begins with the same syllable, and taken together the initial syllables of the stanzas spell out a pious sentence: “I, Saggil-kinam-ubbib, the incantation priest, am adorant of the god and the king.”12 The date of this composition is uncertain, but is probably about 1000 b.c., earlier by far than any datable biblical acrostic. It has been common for scholars to minimize the possibility of a connection between biblical use of acrostics and these extra-biblical works, on the ground that these are syllable or word acrostics as opposed to the alphabetic acrostics inside the Bible, and that they are meaningfully connected with the sense of the poem, as opposed to the meaningless sequence of the letters in the alphabetic type. In spite of these differences, it seems likely that the basic idea of an acrostic, the idea of weaving a pattern of syllables or letters separate from its content into a composition at the beginning or end of the lines, came into Hebrew literature from outside. The major implication is that in discussing biblical acrostics we are apt to be dealing with a phenomenon that is quite ancient and far from its source.

Many explanations for the purpose of acrostics have been suggested, and it is likely that more than one motive was involved. Especially in later times, in medieval magical and speculative works, ideas about the mystical power of the letters of the alphabet seem to have occasioned use of the acrostic form. A more prosaic purpose of acrostics was to aid the memory. Verse is easier to get by heart than prose, and still easier when the sequence of lines follows a set pattern. Finally, acrostics were written for what may be called artistic purposes, to display the author's skill and to make his work a more skillfully wrought offering to his god and to contribute to the structure of the poem. Several writers have proposed that alphabetic acrostics convey the idea of completeness, that is, that “everything from A to Z” has been expressed.13

Against this background we may inquire what led the author of Lamentations to use the acrostic form. There is no reason to believe that he or his contemporaries associated magical powers with the alphabet, as was done later. On the other hand, though it is true that acrostic form makes the poems easier to memorize, we have no way of knowing whether this was the author's conscious purpose, or simply an incidental effect. The suggestion that the book was deliberately written as a school exercise (so Munch) is extremely improbable. If the author had any dominating conscious purpose in mind in choosing the acrostic form, it was perhaps to contribute to the artistry of his poems; he thought it made his poems more beautiful. In addition, the acrostic has the effect of controlling and giving form to the poems. It limits and shapes material which is somewhat monotonous and at some points lacking any clear progression of action or thought. Again, it is impossible to be sure that the author consciously intended such an effect.

Those who have expressed an opinion on the artistic worth of these and other acrostic poems in the Bible have generally rated them rather low. Gunkel, for instance, speaks of their composition as “the pious practice of a modest art.”14 Skehan probably speaks for many in confessing to “being immensely and overwhelmingly bored by Ps. 119,”15 and others may feel similar ennui at Lamentations. Certainly there is no great intrinsic merit in being able to compose acrostics; as a technical task it cannot have been very difficult. But not all acrostics are of the same merit. In Ps 119 one has the impression that the writer has chosen a large and difficult form which he labors mightily to fill up, like a tax-blank. In Lamentations, the impression is rather of a boundless grief, an overflowing emotion, whose expression benefits from the limits imposed by a confining acrostic form, as from the rather tightly fixed metrical pattern.

A minor peculiarity of the acrostics in chapters 2, 3, and 4 is that two of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet stand in the reverse of their normal order. Usually it is ayin before pe, and this is the order in chapter 1, but in the other acrostics the sequence is first pe, then ayin. This peculiarity is found also in the Greek version of Prov 31, and in the opinion of many scholars should be restored in Ps 34, where the conventional order of the alphabet seems to violate the sense. A common explanation, going back to Grotius, is that the order of these letters of the alphabet was not yet fixed at this time. This is sheerly hypothetical, and rather improbable in view of the consistent sequence ayin-pe in Ugaritic abecedaries almost a millennium older than Lamentations, and in view of the order of the Greek alphabet, but no more reasonable hypothesis has been advanced. In any case, this variation need not point to different authors for chapter 1 and chapters 2-4.


Hermann Gunkel carried out an analysis of the five poems in Lamentations which has been very widely followed since. Chapter 5, he wrote, is a communal lament. Chapter 3 is an individual lament in the main, and chapters 1, 2, and 4 are funeral songs—not for individuals, of course, but political or national funeral songs.16 As Gunkel himself stated, however, all but chapter 5 are mixed, impure specimens of the categories to which they belong: the individual lament in 3 is interrupted by a communal lament (vss. 40-51). The funeral songs contain elements which do not properly belong there, such as the short prayers for help and the invocation of the name of Yahweh. In Gunkel's view, this admixture of alien elements is due to the relatively late date of Lamentations; the book comes from a time when the literary types are no longer kept separate, but are intermingled so thoroughly that even the dominant motif of a particular type may be lost.

Whether this generalization concerning the course of Israel's literary history is valid or not lies outside the scope of this commentary, but it is important to note that we derive relatively little help from from-criticism of the book. If one agrees, for example, that 1, 2, and 4 are funeral songs, one must immediately go on to note the fundamental differences from what is assumed to have been the classic form. Who is supposed to be dead?—the question makes the difficulty evident at once, for the basic situation to which every genuine funeral song is directed is not dominant in these poems. Similarly, in its earlier portion especially chapter 3 may be linked to the psalms of individual lament, but the poem as a whole bursts the confines of this form. Only chapter 5 stays relatively close to the pattern of a traditional literary type. Otherwise, it seems that the writer had no liturgical or literary models which he followed slavishly. On the other hand, in language and imagery he follows tradition rather closely.


The question of Sumerian influence on Lamentations is a separate one. S. N. Kramer, who has edited and translated the principal Sumerian laments over ruined cities, has repeatedly stated that the biblical book of Lamentations is under the direct influence of Sumerian laments. The latest statement of his opinion is as follows: “Just how deeply this mournful literary genre affected the neighboring lands is unknown, no lamentations have as yet been recovered from Hittite, Canaanite and Hurrian sources. But there is little doubt that the biblical Book of Lamentations owes no little of its form and content to its Mesopotamian forerunners, and, that the modern orthodox Jew who utters his mournful lament at the ‘western wall’ of ‘Solomon's’ long-destroyed Temple, is carrying on a tradition begun in Sumer some 4,000 years ago. …”17 The Assyriologist Gadd is of the same opinion18 and such a view has won the adherence of a distinguished commentator on Lamentations, H.-J. Kraus, who writes that the parallels are astounding.19

On the opposite side of the question is T. F. McDaniel. Having examined and compared the Sumerian and Akkadian lamentations translated so far, McDaniel concludes that the parallels are not such as to compel one to assume that there was any connection.20 Such resemblances as do exist can be explained as the result of a common subject matter. Weiser also in his commentary, finds the resemblances to Sumerian laments very general and unconvincing, and the differences in thought and style much more impressive. He rejects emphatically Kraus's idea that before the fall of Jerusalem there was in Israel a liturgical “Lament over the Ruined Sanctuary.”

In the opinion of the present writer, it is difficult to see how the Sumerian texts can have had direct influence on the biblical Lamentations. How could an Israelite writer or writers in the sixth century b.c. have had firsthand acquaintance with these Mesopotamian compositions? One must agree that there are genuine, and occasionally close parallels in wording but these are to be explained in a wider context. In some cases at least, the literary motifs in the Sumerian laments are paralleled elsewhere in Mesopotamian literature, and where there is a parallel in Lamentations there are parallels elsewhere in the Bible. When we find resemblance between these laments from the early second millennium b.c. and Lamentations, it is most likely evidence of the general truth that in many respects Israel's literature is dependent on an older tradition, and that Mesopotamian literature made a rich contribution to the tradition.

To illustrate the point made above, note the following examples; the Sumerian texts are quoted in Kramer's translation:21 “Ur … inside it we die of famine // Outside we are killed by the weapons of the Elamites.”22 This is a genuine parallel to Lam 1:20c and the resemblance is rather striking: “Outside the sword killed my children; inside, it was famine” (on the last word, see Note). But it is also parallel to Ezek 7:15: “The sword outside, and pestilence and famine inside,” and also to Jer 14:18 and Deut 32:25. From a Sumerian text related to the lament genre, the “Curse of Agade” comes a close parallel: “Over your usga-place,23 established for lustrations, // May the ‘fox of the ruined mounds,’ glide his tail.”24 Compare Lam 5:18 “On mount Zion, which lies desolate, foxes prowl about.” But the idea that a ruined city should be the haunt of wild animals is found also in Assyrian royal inscriptions, in an Aramaic treaty (Sefîre I A 32-33) and repeatedly in the Bible. Hence the true situation is that we have to do with a literary convention common to Mesopotamian and biblical literature, and not restricted to the lament genre. A few other Sumerian parallels are quoted in the Notes below; they are meant to illustrate the persistence of ancient literary motifs into late biblical literature, and not to prove a specific connection of Lamentations to Sumerian laments.


The acrostic form of the first four chapters permits us in most cases to divide the poems into lines as the author intended. It is partly due to this fortunate circumstance that Lamentations has occupied so prominent a place in the study of Hebrew meter. A more important factor, however, has been the recognition that these lines follow a rhythmic pattern that seems relatively easy to detect and distinguish from other varieties of Hebrew verse. The classic essay on the meter of Lamentations is Karl Budde's “Das hebräische Klagelied” (The Hebrew Song of Lament), which appeared in 1882 (ZAW 2, pp. 1-52). Although Budde's views still merit restatement, subsequent studies have made important modifications necessary, and in general the unsatisfactory state of our knowledge of Hebrew metrics, a field in which no theory can claim general acceptance, makes it necessary at present to be very cautious in describing the meter of Lamentations.

A brief survey of some competing views may make clear the nature of the difficulty. One major school of thought, the chief representatives being Hölscher,25 Mowinckel,26 Horst,27 and Segert,28 holds that the decisive characteristic of Hebrew meter (at least in the period we are concerned with) is alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables of the same length, much as in Syriac meter. A more widely followed system has been that of Ley29 as modified by Sievers30 and subsequent students. In this system, the basis of Hebrew meter is not syllables, but accents. The various types of lines are distinguished by various numbers and patterns of accents. It is characteristic of followers of this school that rhythmic patterns are symbolized by numbers, thus a line made up of two parts (bicolon), each containing three accents, will be described as 3+3.31 In recent years a different view has been advocated by David Noel Freedman who describes lines of Hebrew verse according to the number of syllables per colon (part of a line) or bicolon, and the rhythmic pattern of syllables within the line, or the number of accents, are not treated as relevant.32 No full statement of this last theory is yet available, yet it is bound to attract notice if only because older theories encounter great difficulties and have failed to win general acceptance.

With this present uncertainty over the most basic questions in mind, we may turn back to Budde's views about Lamentations. According to Budde, the formal unit in Lamentations is a line divided into two parts by a break in sense. The first part of each line is a normal half-line (colon) of Hebrew poetry, while the second part is shorter than the normal colon. This second half-line cannot be only a single word, however, but must be a group of two or more words. Since the first half-line must be at least one word longer, the lines are of the pattern 3+2, 4+3, 4+2, and so on.

Budde found this meter most readily evident in chapter 3, where apparent exceptions are, in his opinion, either indications of textual corruption, or examples of some permissible variants to the normal pattern. For example, occasionally the first colon is shorter than the second, producing a 2+3 line; in such cases one must assume a tension between the artificial poetic rhythm and the actual, natural sentence rhythm. At the cost of somewhat greater effort he goes on to discover the same sort of unbalanced verse in all the lines of chapters 4, 1, and 2, without exception.

Budde went on to assert that this type of verse is found elsewhere in the Bible also, and the evidence suggested that it was the specific meter traditionally used for singing laments over the dead. He therefore titled it “Qinah” meter from the Hebrew word for a lament. The potential significance of this theory for the interpretation of Lamentations is obvious, for if it is correct the student of the book is given a very useful tool for reconstructing the text of difficult passages, and also possesses clear evidence connecting Lamentations to the tradition of funeral songs. (There is very general agreement that chapter 5 is in a different rhythm, being divided into cola of equal length, a pattern extremely common in the Old Testament.)

Since Budde wrote, Sievers especially has shown that in Lamentations a sizable proportion of the lines are not in Budde's unbalanced “Qinah” meter, but consist of evenly balanced cola.33 Though scholars would disagree with details of Sievers' own analysis, as he himself anticipated, many would now agree that Budde overstated his case. Some lines are better described as 2+2 (e.g., 4:13a, b) and some are probably 3+3, though there is greater reluctance to recognize the latter type as legitimate, many scholars preferring to emend lines of this sort. Possible examples of 3+3 are 1:1a, 8a, 16a, 21b; 2:9a, 17c, 20a; 3:64, 66; 4:1a, 8b. Thus Budde's view must be modified by saying that the “Qinah” line is at best the dominant line in Lamentations; other metric patterns occur more or less at random throughout the first four chapters. Atypical verses are especially common in chapter 1, and less so in chapter 3. The result of this mixture is that the meter is not nearly as useful in text-criticism as it might be.

A second major modification of Budde's theory is equally important: the dominant verse-type cannot properly be called “Qinah” (Lament) meter, because it is used in various classes of Hebrew poems having nothing to do with laments for the dead. Sievers, one of the first to raise this objection, cites as other passages in this meter Isa 1:10-12 (a prophetic oracle of judgment); Isa 40:9 ff. (an oracle of hope); Jonah 2:2-9[3-10H] (psalm of lament by an individual); Song of Songs 1:9-11 (part of a love song), as well as others.34 Moreover, certain funeral songs are not in “Qinah” meter, notably David's lament over Saul and Jonathan (II Sam 1: 17-27). Though scholars have been willing to concede that this “rhythm that always dies away,” as Budde called it, seems very appropriate for poetry of a somber character, we cannot use the meter of Lamentations to connect it to a tradition of funeral songs. On the other hand, it is convenient to keep the name “Qinah” meter as a handy way of referring to the type.

No attempt has been made in the present translation to reproduce or imitate the meter of the original.35 Occasionally a line, literally translated, falls into something like the typical “Qinah” verse, for example, 3:4:

He wore out my flesh and skin;
                                                  he broke my bones.

Characterization of the poetic style of Lamentations is not complete without some account of the parallelism found in the poems, and as it turns out this raises further questions concerning the meter. Poetic parallelism may be illustrated by almost any verse from chapter 5 of Lamentations, for example, 5:2:

Our land is turned over to strangers;
                                        Our houses, to foreigners.

The second colon corresponds to and resembles the first, that is, there is a semantic association between “land” and “houses” and between “strangers” and “foreigners,” and in this case the verb of the first colon is to be understood also with the second though it is not repeated. Such resemblance between poetic units is, as is well known, a pervasive feature of Hebrew poetry, and is found to some extent throughout Lamentations. But parallelism is not present in all the lines of Lamentations. (By line I mean a line of Hebrew text as printed in Kittel's Biblia hebraica,36 which is a satisfactory working definition.) Disregarding what has traditionally been called “synthetic” parallelism, that is, cases where a line may be separated into two parts but where there is no clear semantic or grammatical resemblance between the two.37 104 out of the 266 lines in the book do not exhibit parallelism (39 per cent). More significant is the contrast between chapter 5 and the first four chapters. There is a much higher proportion of parallelism in 5, where only three lines out of twenty-two (14 per cent) do not have parallelism. One may note that two of these lines, 5:9 and 10, while without internal parallelism, might be regarded as parallel to each other (external parallelism). By contrast, in the first four chapters 101 of 244 lines (41 per cent) do not contain parallelism. This contrast amplifies our notion of the different poetic style employed in chapters 1-4 as over against 5, which is not solely a metrical difference.

Even though others would undoubtedly disagree with the present writer concerning the presence or absence of parallelism in individual verses, the general pattern sketched above may probably be regarded as correct. If so, our description of the meter is affected. We have described it above as consisting of “Qinah” verse for the most part, that is lines having a longer first colon, followed by a shorter second colon. Interspersed, it was said, are lines consisting of equal parts. When parallelism is obviously present, there is no difficulty with this description; for example, in 2:7: “Yahweh rejected his own altar; he spurned his sanctuary,” there is no problem in deciding what are the cola, and where the division between them lies. But when parallelism is not present, the question of where to divide the verse becomes acute. Or is it correct to assume that the verse is divided at all? Budde, and others after him, speak of a division produced by a “break in sense,” but this is vague, and in practice it seems that Budde and others have followed a kind of intuition as to where the caesura comes, rather than any rigorously defined principle. Lines without parallelism consist for the most part of a single sentence, thus, for example, 1:2b: 'ēn lāh menahām mikkol 'ōhabehā (word for word: “There-is-not to-her a-comforter out-of-all her-lovers”). To make two parts out of these lines with only one sentence, it is necessary to divide at a great variety of places with respect to syntax: between nominal subject and verb in 1:1c; between a prepositional phrase modifying a verb and a following nominal subject, in 1:1b; between a nominal subject and a prepositional phrase modifying it, in 1:2b; between verb and prepositional phrase modifying it, in 1:3c—and so on through almost every combination of sentence elements. To put it in another way, it seems impossible to define syntactically where the division between cola (caesura) is to be made in these lines. At least no one has yet offered a satisfactory definition.38 If one is to continue to describe these lines as made up of two cola, then probably it will be necessary to argue that the dominant pattern set up by the lines with parallelism shapes our reading of these lines. Otherwise one may prefer to describe the lines without parallelism as undivided.

Several further observations concerning the poetic style of Lamentations arise from studying the syntax of the verbal sentences in the book. In a study so far published only in part,39 Francis I. Andersen has analyzed all the verbal sentences in Genesis which have more than one modifier following the verb. By modifier is meant any element such as direct object, indirect object, adverb, prepositional phrase functioning as an adverb, etc. The subject of the verb is also classified as a modifier, and studied in relation to the other post-verbal elements. On the basis of over a thousand sentences of this sort, Andersen is able to present an abstract theoretical model of the verbal sentence, showing the relative order of the modifiers with respect to each other. As it turns out, there is a great regularity in this respect, and only about 4 per cent of the examples diverge from the normal order. This study of prose usage provides an extremely useful basis for comparison with Lamentations. The results obtained by applying the same methods of analysis to the verbal sentences in Lamentations show that a much higher proportion of sentences with two post-verbal modifiers display abnormal order, about 26 per cent (32 of 122 sentences). Most of the abnormal examples in Lamentations involve the position of a nominal subject or a nominal direct object with respect to a prepositional phrase. In this sort of sentence the “abnormal” order is nearly as common as the “normal.” In sentences with three post-verbal modifiers the contrast is still more marked. According to Andersen's study 64, or about 15 per cent of the 409 examples in Genesis, were aberrant, differing from the normal pattern. Of twenty-seven such sentences in Lamentations, nineteen, or 70 per cent, do not follow the pattern most common in Genesis.

It is reasonable to propose as a hypothesis that metrical or rhythmic considerations have dictated this divergence from normal prose order where it takes place. Somewhat surprisingly, this is not obviously true, at least not from the point of view of an accentual system of meter, or as far as “Qinah” meter is concerned. In 2:20c, for example, ‘im yēhārēg bemiqdaš’adōnāy kōhēn wenābī’ (word-for-word: Are-slain in-the-sanctuary of-the-Lord priest and-prophet?), the order is prepositional phrase=subject, abnormal as compared to what is most common in Genesis. Yet the opposite order would seem to be possible here from the point of view of meter. Variant orders appear within the space of a single colon; compare 1:20b nehpak libbī beqirbī (word-for-word: Is-turned-over my-heart inside-me) to 2:9a tabe‘ū bā'āre—še‘ārehˆ (“have-sunk into-the-earth her-gates”). Until further refinement of our metrical conceptions or of our knowledge of Hebrew syntax is achieved, the proper conclusion seems to be that in the ordering of these sentence-elements the poet of Lamentations was freer than the writers of Genesis, and his choice of a particular order was dictated by what may vaguely be called “stylistic” considerations, rather than meter. Whether this is a characteristic of other Hebrew poetry is as yet undetermined.

One rhythmic consideration does seem to have played a part, however. In sentences with three post-verbal modifiers, the poet shows a marked tendency to put the longest element last, regardless of its normal relative order. For example, in 2:6b it is syntactically unusual for the prepositional phrase to precede the nominal direct object: …

(“has-made-forgotten Yahweh in-Zion festival and-sabbath”).

But the compound direct object is very long as compared to the other modifiers in the sentence. Andersen noticed a similar tendency in sentences in Genesis where word order was unusual, so that this may be a rather widespread characteristic of Hebrew sentence rhythm. On the other hand, it is present in such a high proportion of sentences in Lamentations that it may deserve notice as a feature of poetic style.

The acrostic pattern in chapters 1-4 quite obviously divides these poems into units which may for convenience be called strophes, or stanzas. In some cases these strophes correspond to units of thought. Thus, for example, 1:2 presents a unified picture—Zion weeps by night, forsaken by all her friends—quite clearly separated from what goes before and follows after. In other cases, however, the pattern marked off by the acrostic does not coincide with the pattern of thought. Ideas and images may be run-on from one acrostic unit to the next. The last line of the Daleth strophe is 3:12, but the image of God as an archer is continued into the first line of the He strophe, 3:13. This syncopation seems particularly common in chapter 3; see Comment there.


Phrases of the pattern “daughter (Heb. bat) X,” or “virgin daughter (betūlat bat) X” occur twenty times in Lamentations, a remarkable number in so short a book, since such phrases occur only about forty-five times in all the rest of the Old Testament. Jeremiah has sixteen of these other occurrences, including eight occurrences of bat ‘ammī (lit., “daughter of my people”), practically the only occurrence of the term outside Lamentations (the exception is Isa 22:4). It is reasonable to conclude that this poetic device was especially popular in the seventh and sixth centuries b.c., although it was no doubt very ancient, since Micah and Isaiah use it.

Lamentations uses bat Siyyōn, “Zion,” seven times; betūlat bat Siyyōn, once; bat ‘ammī, “my people,” five times; bat yehūdāh, “Judah,” twice; betūlat bat yehūdāh, once (these last two are not used elsewhere in the Bible); bat yerūšālaim, “Jerusalem,” twice, and bat 'edōm, “Edom,” once.

These phrases serve a poetic purpose in two ways. First, they help make explicit the personification of the people or city as a woman. Secondly, they seem to serve metrical purposes. The longer forms, the ones with three elements such as “virgin daughter Zion” are used to stretch out a name so as to make a whole poetic unit (colon) out of it. The shorter, two-part, phrases such as “daughter Zion” seem also to serve metrical purposes, though these are not clearly definable given the present state of understanding of Hebrew metrics. The most easily observable pattern is that phrases of the type “daughter X” tend to stand last in the unit of parallelism (colon). This is true of all occurrences in the Bible with a few exceptions (Jer 4:31; 6:26; 8:21; 51:33; Ps 137:8). There are practically no exceptions to this rule in Lamentations, the only possible case (4:3) being open to question textually (see Note).

As has been observed by others, the renderings familiar from older English translations, and the Revised Standard Version (RSV), “Daughter of Zion,” “virgin daughter of Zion,” etc., are potentially misleading, since the Hebrew phrases refer to the people or city as a whole, and not to a part of it. To put it another way, the relation between the two nouns in such a phrase is one of apposition; the second is not the possessor of the first. Since the main purpose of “daughter” and “virgin daughter” seems to be metrical, they have in most cases been omitted in the present translation. Where this has been done it is mentioned in the NOTES. This omission seemed advisable especially since no thoroughly idiomatic English is available. The new Jewish Publication Society (JPS) version uses “Fair Zion,” “Fair Maiden Judah,” “my poor people,” and the like, which seem fairly close to the effect of the Hebrew.


The Hebrew text of Lamentations is in a relatively good state of preservation, compared to the text of some other biblical books. This advantage in the commentator's favor is to some extent balanced by a corresponding disadvantage: the ancient translations offer relatively little help at those places where the Masoretic text, that is, the received Hebrew text, may be suspected of being corrupt. At the end of a recent thorough study of the text, Bertil Albrektson concludes that the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation, was based on a text in all essentials identical with the Masoretic text, and the same verdict is offered for the Syriac version.40 It is now believed that the Greek text of Lamentations belongs to the recently identified kaige recension,41 that is to say, the Greek text in our possession is the outcome of a deliberate attempt to accommodate the original Greek translation as closely as possible to a near forerunner of the Masoretic text. Thus the Greek also gives us for the most part a text that already contained the errors and difficulties that are in the standard Hebrew text. Under these circumstances, commentators are compelled to rely to a greater degree on conjectural emendation of corrupt passages than might otherwise be necessary.

Among the Dead Sea scrolls published so far, in addition to small portions of the canonical book Lamentations, are several fragments of a poetical composition which incorporates many quotations from Lamentations, often in paraphrased form (4Q179).42 This composition is occasionally cited in the Notesas an early interpretation of the sense of the text.


The poems in Lamentations may have been used in public mourning over the destruction of Jerusalem immediately after they were written, though the evidence is inconclusive. Nothing in the poems precludes such a use. Formal characteristics, such as the use of “I” in many passages, do not rule out the use in corporate worship, nor does the use of acrostic form compel us to think that chapters 1-4 were intended only for private study and devotion (so Segert). On the other hand, the alternation among various speakers in some of the poems does not justify the conclusion that they were acted out publicly as a ritual drama. Nor is there evidence for the existence of a fixed liturgical practice of “Lament over the Ruined Sanctuary” already in pre-exilic times (against Kraus; see above under Literary Types). Direct evidence for liturgical use of Lamentations is not available until the Christian era.

Public mourning over the destroyed city was carried on from earliest times. Jer 41:5, narrating an event just after the death of Gedaliah, the governor installed over Judah by the Chaldaeans, tells of “eighty men from Shechem, Shiloh, and Samaria who had shaved off their beards, torn their garments, and lacerated their skin,” coming to make offering at the house of Yahweh in Jerusalem. Zech 7:3-5, dated to 518 b.c., hence shortly after the return from exile, makes it clear that mourning and fasting in the fifth month (Ab) had been going on ever since the city fell. Zech 8:19 also refers to a fast in the fifth month. It is, therefore, reasonable to suppose that the Lamentations were used in connection with this regular public mourning already in the exilic period.

Presumably continuing this ancient practice, later Jewish usage assigns Lamentations a place in the public mourning on the 9th of Ab, the fifth month, which falls in July or August according to the modern calendar. The 9th is chosen in preference to strict adherence to either of the two biblical dates (II Kings 25:8-9 gives the 7th of Ab; Jer 52:12 gives the 10th) because of the tradition that the second temple fell to Titus on the 9th of Ab, and that Bar Kokhba's fortress Betar fell on that date in a.d. 135.

In various Christian liturgies portions of Lamentations are used in services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, a custom which has resulted in the composition of eloquent musical settings of the text.

In modern times, Leonard Bernstein has used texts from Lamentations in his “Jeremiah” Symphony (1942), for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, as did Igor Stravinsky, in his “Threni” (1958), for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra.


  1. See Rudolph's commentary on chapter 1 for details.

  2. See Abraham Malamat, “The Last Kings of Judah and the Fall of Jerusalem,” Israel Exploration Journal 18 (1968), 144-45, for a discussion of the chronology of the events.

  3. The idea that one or more chapters of Lamentations come from the Maccabean period was advanced by S. A. Fries, “Parallele zwischen den Klageliedern Cap. IV, V und der Maccabäerzeit,” ZAW 13 (1893), 110-24, but found few adherents. S. T. Lachs, “The Date of Lamentations V,” JQR, N.S. 57 (1966-67), 46-56, has revived the idea, but his arguments are equally unconvincing.

  4. Hardt proposed that the five chapters were written respectively by Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and King Jehoiachin! See Giuseppe Ricciotti, Le lamentazione di Geremia (Turin, Rome, 1924), p. 35. To say that modern critical opinion in this matter was anticipated by Ibn Ezra, as does Lachs, JQR, N.S. 57 (1966-67), 46-47, is erroneous. Ibn Ezra rejects only the rabbinic tradition that Lamentations was the scroll burned by Jeremiah, but not Jeremiah's authorship of the book.

  5. The idea that Jopsiah is spoken of in 4:20 was picked up by Saint Jerome and from him by the Glossa interlinearis, and thence by later medieval commentators; see Ricciotti, pp. 32-34.

  6. The lexical evidence is exhaustively presented in Max Löhr, “Der Sprachgebrauch des Buches der Klagelieder,” ZAW 14 (1894), 31-50; cf. “Threni III. und die jeremianische Autorschaft des Buches der Klagelieder,” ZAW 24 (1904), 1-16, and “Alphabetische und alphabetisierende Lieder im Alten Testament,” ZAW 25 (1905), 173-98, also by Löhr.

  7. Gilbert Brunet, in his Les lamentations contre Jérémie (Paris, 1968) has recently argued at length that the first four Lamentations were written by a (half-repentant) representative of the nationalist party, probably the high-priest Seraiah, against the unpatriotic prophetic party of Jeremiah. The conclusions reached do not agree well with the relatively untendentious character of the book, and are achieved only by a very strained exegesis, a main prop of the argument being that one must distinguish sharply between “enemy,” and … “foe,” throughout the book. Giorgio Buccellati, “Gli Israeliti di Palestina al tempo dell'esilio,” Bibbia e Oriente 2 (1960), 199-209, argues from passages in Lamentations that the book comes from a party hostile to Gedaliah: a group of Jerusalemites who opposed his governing from Mizpah, of patriots who hated collaborators. The evidence cited is insufficient to render any of these conclusions probable.

  8. The Holy Bible, trans. Ronald Knox, London, 1955.

  9. Extensive discussions, with bibliography, are offered by P. A. Munch, “Die alphabetische Akrostichie in der jüdischen Psalmendichtung,” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 90 (1936), 703-10; Ralph Marcus, “Alphabetic Acrostics in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods,” JNES 6 (1947), 109-15; Norman K. Gottwald, Studies in the Book of Lamentations, Studies in Biblical Theology, 14 (London, 1962), pp. 23-32.

  10. Adolf Erman, The Ancient Egyptians, trans. A. M. Blackman (New York, 1943), pp. lviii-lix, describes several compositions which, while not acrostic in the strictest sense, have the peculiarity that all the stanzas have the same opening word.

  11. W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford, 1960), p. 67.

  12. Lambert, pp. 63-68.

  13. Enno Janssen, Juda in der Exilszeit. Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten and Neuen Testaments 69 (Göttingen, 1956), p. 97; Gottwald, loc. cit.

  14. Hermann Gunkel, Die Psalmen, Handkommentar zum Alten Testament, Göttingen, 1926, on Ps 111.

  15. Patrick Skehan, “Wisdom's House,” CBQ 29 (1967), 468, note.

  16. “Klagelieder Jeremiae,” in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 2d ed. (Tübingen, 1929), III, cols. 1049-52. In his discussion of the funeral song, Gunkel draws on the study by Hedwig Jahnow, Das hebräische Leichenlied im Rahmen der Völkerdichtung, BZAW 36, Giessen, 1923.

  17. S. N. Kramer, “Lamentation over the Destruction of Nippur,” Eretz-Israel 9 (W. F. Albright Volume, Jerusalem, 1969), 89. Cf. his “Sumerian Literature and the Bible,” in Studia Biblica et Orientalia, III: Oriens Antiquus, Analecta Biblica, 12 (Rome, 1959), p. 201.

  18. C. J. Gadd, “The Second Lamentation for Ur,” in Hebrew and Semitic Studies presented to G. R. Driver (Oxford, 1963), p. 61.

  19. In the introduction to his commentary, pp. 9-11.

  20. T. F. McDaniel, “The Alleged Sumerian Influence upon Lamentations,” VT 18 (1968), 198-209.

  21. The principal extant Sumerian laments over destroyed cities may be conveniently read in ANET: “The Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur,” pp. 455-63; “Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur,” pp. 611-19; the related “The Curse of Agade,” pp. 646-51.

  22. ANET, p. 618, lines 403-4.

  23. The word usga, whose proper translation is uncertain, refers to a part of the temple used for lustrations, according to Kramer, ANET, p. 651, n. 70.

  24. ANET, p. 651, lines 254-55.

  25. Gustav Hölscher, “Elemente arabischer, syrischer und hebräischer Metrik,” BZAW 34 (1920), 93-101.

  26. Sigmund Mowinckel, “Zum Problem der hebräischen Metrik,” in Festschrift für Alfred Bertholet (Tübingen, 1950), pp. 379-94.

  27. Friedrich Horst, “Die Kennzeichen der hebräischen Poesie,” ThR 21 (1953), 97-121.

  28. Stanislav Segert, “Versbau und Sprachbau in der althebräischen Poesie,” Mitteilungen des Instituts für Orientforschung 15 (1969), 312-21, with references (n. 7) to his earlier studies.

  29. Julius Ley, Grundzüge des Rhythmus, des Vers- und Strophenbaues in der hebräischen Poesie, Halle, 1887.

  30. Eduard Sievers, Metrische Studien, I-III, Leipzig, 1901, 1904-5, 1907.

  31. Occasionally the same practice is followed in the Notes and Comments below, without the intention of indicating adherence to the accentual theory.

  32. Archaic Forms in Early Hebrew Poetry,” ZAW 72 (1960), 101-7; “The Structure of Job 3,” Biblica 49 (1968), 503-8.

  33. Metrische Studien, I, Erster Teil, 120-23; Zweiter Teil, 550-63.

  34. Metrische Studien, I, Erster Teil, 116.

  35. Such an undertaking lies beyond my powers; when I attempt metrical translation I achieve something like the following by Vavasour Powell, Sippor Ba-Pach, or The Bird in the Cage (London, 1662), p. 143:

    How doth the city sit alone
                                  that full of people was?
    How is she become a widow?
                                  she that was great alas!

    Quoted in Rolf P. Lessenich, Dichtungsgeschmack und althebräische Bibelpoesie im 18. Jahrhundert, Anglistische Studien, 4 (Cologne, Graz, 1967), p. 11.

  36. Otto Procksch, Theologie des Alten Testaments (Gütersloh, 1950), pp. 642 f, points out that the anger of Yahweh illustrates the peculiar vitality of the Hebrew view of God. It is in marked contrast to the emphasis of the best Greek minds upon the imperturbable, the ‘apathetic’ character of God. … But in the nature of the Hebrew-Jewish God there was something unresting, dynamic, irrational, passionate—all of which is best summarized in the category of the Holy.

  37. If it were desired, one could restate the results in terms of the proportion of synonymous to synthetic parallelism, without change.

  38. J. Begrich asserts that the caesura cannot interrupt a construct chain, or fall between the two accented syllables in a word with two accents; obviously these restrictions still leave a great deal of room open. See his “Der Satzstil im Fünfer,” ZS 9 (1933-34), 173.

  39. The writer regrets the necessity of referring to the conclusions of a work not easily available to readers, and which Professor Andersen would doubtless revise and amplify in some respects before publication. There is, however, no similar work available for comparison. I have taken the liberty of altering Andersen's technical terminology in some respects in favor of terms which, while less precise, are more traditional and hence apt to be more readily intelligible without lengthy explanation. For verbless clauses, the reader is referred to Andersen's monograph The Hebrew Verbless Clause in the Pentateuch, New York, Nashville, 1970. For a fuller discussion, see the writer's contribution to the forthcoming Festschrift for J. M. Myers.

  40. Bertil Albrektson, Studies in the Text and Theology of the Book of Lamentations, Studia Theologica Lundensia, 21 (Lund, 1963), pp. 208-13. The other most important recent treatment of the text is Wilhelm Rudolph, “Der Text der Klagelieder,” ZAW 56 (1938), 101-22.

  41. Jean-Dominique Barthélemy, Les devanciers d'Aquila, Vetus Testamentum Supplements 10 (Leiden, 1963), pp. 33, 138-60, is quite positive about the identification of the Greek text of Ruth, the Song of Songs, and Lamentations as belonging to the kaige group, and bases a theory about the beginning of liturgical use of these books on the identification. Frank M. Cross, Jr., “The History of the Biblical Text in the Light of Discoveries in the Judaean Desert,” Harvard Theological Review 57 (1964), 283, is somewhat more reserved: “Ruth and Lamentations are good candidates” (to be representatives of the recension). See also J. M. Grindel, “Another Characteristic of the Kaige Recension: nsh/nikos,” CBQ 31 (1969), 499-513; note that LXX has nikos for nsh at Lam 3:18 and 5:20.

  42. J. M. Allegro, with Arnold A. Anderson, Qumrân Cave 4, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert of Jordan, V (Oxford, 1968), pp. 75-77; cf. J. Strugnell, “Notes en marge du volume V des ‘Discoveries in the Judaean Desert of Jordan,’” Revue de Qumrân 7, No. 26 (1970), 250-52.


ANET Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. J. B. Pritchard, 3d ed., Princeton, 1969
BDB F. Brown, S. R. Driver, C.A. Briggs, eds. of Wilhelm Gesenius’ Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, 2d ed., Oxford, 1952
BH3 Biblia hebreica, ed. Rudolf Kittel, 3d ed., Stuttgart, 1937
BZAW Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft
CAD Chicago Assyrian Dictionary
CBQ Catholic Biblical Quarterly
CTA Corpus des tablettes et cunéiformes alphabétiques, by Andrée Herdner, Paris, 1963
GKC Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, ed. E. Kautzsch, revised by A. E. Cowley, 2d Eng. ed., Oxford, 1910
JNES Journal of Near Eastern Studies
JQR Jewish Quarterly Review
KB3 Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, Lexikon in Veteris Testamenti Libros, 3d ed., Leiden, 1967
ThR Theologische Rundschau
UT Ugaritic Textbook, by Cyrus H. Gordon, Rome, 1965
VT Vetus Testamentum
ZAW Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft
ZS Zeitschrift für Semitistik und verwandte Gebiete

William F. Lanahan (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4916

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, literary criticism sometimes uses the term persona, i.e., the mask or characterization assumed by the poet as the medium through which he perceives and gives expression to his world.

The persona is not to be thought of as a fiction. It is a creative procedure in the displacement of the poet's imagination beyond the limitations of his single viewpoint so that he may gain a manifold insight into the human experience. The poet's manifold creative insight then becomes the ground by which the reader achieves a more powerful perception of the creative situation. If the use of one persona by the poet enriches his intuition, the use of the five personae discernible in Lamentations should of itself deepen and broaden the reader's grasp of the dynamics of the spiritual experience embodied by the book. Another man's consciousness of the world is available to us only through his statements, and only imperfectly at that; the richer his statement, the more rewarding our entrance into his experience.

The most obvious example of the existence of a persona in the Book of Lamentations appears in the first two chapters, in those verses (1:9c, 11c-22; 2:20-22) during which Jerusalem speaks in her own voice. Obviously, the city of Jerusalem cannot speak except in some figurative sense, but it is precisely this personification of the city which expresses the anguish of these verses. However, this Jerusalem does not merely register a community complaint as a political abstraction; it characterizes itself as a particular woman whose specific feelings are embodied in a certain texture of imagery.

The very existence of the easily identified persona of Jerusalem provokes in the reader a reflex awareness of the second voice to be heard in these chapters (1:1-11b, 15a, 17; 2:1-19): a more objective reporter whose cooler descriptive statements contrast with the passionate outbursts of Jerusalem. It is this reporter's voice which may strike the reader as the poet's authentic voice, but such an assessment appears manifestly inadequate and even simplistic after reading the entire book. Distinct voices are discernible in each of the subsequent three chapters. Are we then to stipulate that only one of the five voices speaking in Lamentations is the “sincere mode” of expression used by the poet? To equate impersonation with hypocrisy in this way would be to confuse an aesthetic category with a moral judgment. When the poet chooses to write certain passages without adopting an alien characterization as his focus of perception, he is making just as explicit and deliberate a decision as he does in adopting a persona. Furthermore, to presume that the least radical departure from the comfortably objective viewpoint must be the most authentic speaking voice would be to equate sincerity with the most banal level of imagination and deny vitality to those levels of the poet's consciousness on which he is attempting to grasp a world which is dissolving before his eyes.

On the other hand, if this examination of Lamentations should succeed in distinguishing five separable personae in the course of the book, would it not succeed in destroying the unity of the book, dissecting a totality into a series of discrete statements? Would such a success imply multiple authorship?

On the contrary, the variety of voices sketches the topography of a unique spiritual consciousness which can realize itself only by projecting its grief in its constituent phases by adopting different personae. This ultimate unity should emerge as a single controlling awareness from the detailed examination of the five personae to which we shall now proceed.

The first voice to be overheard in Lamentations is that of someone who approaches the city of Jerusalem only to find it deserted and forsaken, abandoned by its inhabitants and oppressed by its enemies, resembling a widow forced to work like a serf (1:1). The roads to Zion and the city gates no longer bustle with traffic; the speaker is particularly aware of the absence of crowds he had seen on some earlier visit to Jerusalem. The precise event which has turned the city into a ghost town is not identified here; only the vacuum is described, the picture of the city's desolation and its emptiness under the punitive will of God (vs. 5). The speaker is preoccupied with the dialectic of past glory and present misery; he perceives the misery only within the memory of the glory. He provides neither continuity nor crisis between past and present; he depicts an image of the suddenly empty city against his recollection of its former activity by a verbal diptych.

He sees that Jerusalem has abruptly become the mere object of the scornful gaze of the passers-by who had once respected her. Now they see her naked, whining, fallen to the ground, her skirts fouled with pollution (vss. 8-9), ravished (vs. 10), her people so hungry that they have sold their own children in order to buy food for themselves (vs. 11). The reporter does not maintain a stringent distinction between Jerusalem-as-city and Jerusalem-as-woman through to the end of this sequence of verses. In either capacity, however, Jerusalem is an object bereft of all dignity, reduced to the level of a thing to be gawked at. The personification functions at this point merely as a rhetorical device by which the city's degradation is intensified. Converting the city into a woman makes her fall all the more shameful. The speaker sees the disgrace of the city as the other passers-by see the disgrace, but he sees it with a certain rudimentary pity when he sees a despondent woman in the ruins of Jerusalem.

When this first voice resumes speaking at the beginning of ch. 2, the emphasis on visual imagery which distinguishes the reporter from the voice of Jerusalem returns as well. He now describes the Lord in the act of destroying Israel. Like an angry warrior the Lord has torn down the fortresses of Judah (vs. 2), he has caused the defeat of the armies (vs. 3), he has turned his own bow and sword against his people and destroyed them with the fire of his wrath (vss. 4-5). Not only did God spurn his own sanctuary, he carefully planned the tearing down of Jerusalem's walls (vss. 7-8). The princes are captives, the prophets without visions, the people without hope (vss. 9-10). At this point, however, a significant shift in tone modifies the reporter's description.

Up to this point the speaker has depicted God as the sacker of the city: epic in his stature, gigantic in his anger, relentless in the totality of his destructiveness. The emptiness of the city noted in ch. 1 can be explained: God has devastated his own city. The reporter is following the sequence of his own perceptions rather than the chronological sequence of events; he has seen the devastation before depicting its infliction, he has discovered the effect before fully identifying the cause for the reader. The imagery of the opening verse of ch. 2 is energetically pictorial, fully presenting God in terms of physical activity. If the descriptive passages at the beginning of ch. 1 may be classified as static tableaux, this anthropomorphic portrait of God is cinematic. And yet with vs. 9 there is a sudden abatement from the violent activity, a crash of silence.

No one preaches in Jerusalem; everyone now sits mute in the dust. The reporter becomes noticeably sympathetic, for his heart is moved by the starving children, whimpering, fainting, dying (vss. 11-12). He is left without poetic resources, for he feels the grief deeply; and grief like all other pain defies any adequate expression beyond screams and tears. The only simile he can find for the ruination of the city is the wide sea—chaotic, elemental, unbridgeable. Jerusalem fell because her prophets had failed her. Their words were whitewash and frauds (vs. 14), and now the city lies in rubble and silence.

Now there reappear in vss. 15-16 those passers-by who mock the nakedness of Jerusalem in ch. 1 (vs. 8) and to whom Jerusalem has addressed the opening phrases of her soliloquy (v. 12). The reporter has also seen the city but has not mocked; his sympathy for her has so far transcended mere observation that he experiences the same churning of the bowels (2:11) that Jerusalem has also experienced (1:20). The only appropriate procedure now is to lament the misery of the city, but since that is Jerusalem's personified role in the earlier chapter, the reporter now invites her to resume her outcry (vss. 18-19).

The reporter might have seen no more than the jeering passers-by saw except for the entropic spasm sparked by the sight of the starving children. In that one moment of commiseration with its kinesthetic reflex the description loses its purely analytic, pictorial texture. Now the voice of Jerusalem is not merely inserted between two reportorial statements; it responds to the reporter's invitation to speak, as if the surrender of the aloofness of the spectator prompted a dialogue.

The second voice of Lamentations is that of Jerusalem herself, i.e., the hypostatized anguish of the fallen city. She begins by appealing to God to consider her humiliation (1:11c) and to the passers-by to consider her pain (vs. 12). The cry is not for further looking at her misery but for pitiful looking; no longer can Jerusalem allow herself to be a mere object to be observed, but rather she requires humane attentiveness, a look accompanied by compassion. True, she has been demeaned by God in his anger, burnt, trapped in the net, yoked by the neck (vss. 13-14), but she is also the mother of the dead young soldiers, weeping for the misery of her children (vss. 15-16). Jerusalem willingly admits the folly of her past behavior towards God in her making of futile alliances with the gentiles (vss. 18-19), but her poor people are now suffering captivity (vs. 18), famine (vs. 19), and violent death (vs. 20), while her oppressors rejoice (vs. 21). Jerusalem is totally powerless and abandoned, inconsolable and despondent; her only prayer is not for delivery, but for the equal affliction of her oppressors by God's anger (vs. 22).

The imagery employed by Jerusalem in her lament is in striking contrast to the visual imagery employed by the reporter. Through these verses she speaks of herself as trapped in a net, given over to her enemies; in her midst lies a heap of her dead warriors who have been crushed out in the winepress; her eyes run with tears; she is filled with pain; her bowels are churning and her heart is turning over; she is groaning and heartsick. Not only do such statements convey her deepest feelings, but they also associate her passions with a sense of kinesthetic oppression. The subjective awareness insisted upon in these verses is that internal experience one has of one's own vital organs, one's posture, one's musculature, one's freedom to move within one's personal sphere of space.

The kinesthetic sense is the most personally experienced, the most interiorly focused, the most difficult to communicate in words of the human sensorium. Of all the senses it is the most unlike seeing; it allows no distancing, no perspective, no proportion, no analytical judgment. From the vague discomfort of subliminal indigestion to the blinding pain of insupportable anguish, it cannot be blinked away by the conscious mind. One blurs one's awareness with analgesics or one falls into unconsciousness, but one cannot think oneself free. Even her admission of guilty responsibility cannot alleviate Jerusalem's suffering. Self-reproach does not soften the pain.

The judgmental attitude belongs rather to the passers-by, and it is only the reporter's rush of compassion for the children which stands between him and the “Jerusalem is simply getting just what she deserves” sneers of those other, disengaged observers of her misery. It is through entropy, the physiological accompaniment to his sympathy, that the reporter enters into the sorrow of Jerusalem. When towards the end of ch. 2 (vss. 18-19) he invites the city to cry out once again, he phrases his cue to Jerusalem in the kinesthetic range of imagery: cry from the heart, weep like a perpetual flood, and pour out your heart; arise and do not rest, lift up your hands.

The voice of Jerusalem offers a final prayer lacking in any petition for specific help. She simply calls upon God to look upon the effects of his angry handiwork with pity (2:20-22). Her prayer evokes the imagery of falling and lying still, of failing to run away and of being wiped out, the awareness of stasis, of nightmare paralysis. But if God will but look at this ruin, Jerusalem need ask nothing more.

The voices in chs. 3 and 4 seem to express individual perceptions in concrete situations. If the reader wishes to interpret certain aspects of the statements in these chapters as metaphor and convention because of parallel usages elsewhere in the Scriptures, he simply shifts the level of characterization from the individual speaker to the typical or even the allegorical speaker. In doing this, however, the reader who would detach the metaphor from its concrete basis in an individual persona runs the risk of accusing the poet of weaving a fabric of clichés without cohesive reference to a successfully rounded characterization. Thus, in ch. 3, the poet has assumed the persona of a defeated soldier; for a soul beleaguered by the world to assume the guise of a crusader is familiar enough in the mystical tradition since Paul, but to regard this as an outworn convention in our time is to ignore the original power of the persona. The speaker in ch. 3 may or may not have been a veteran of the siege of Jerusalem; the fact is that the poet perceives his spiritual downfall through the eyes of a defeated soldier.

That the speakers of chs. 3 and 4 enjoy the right to be distinguished from each other as well as from the reporter and Jerusalem receives some support from a consideration of formal patterns of composition in the first four chapters of Lamentations. These four chapters practise that deliberate manipulation of words common enough in Hebrew poetry, the acrostic structure. Chs. 1, 2, and 4 begin each of their strophes with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in sequential order; ch. 3 is even more insistent on the structure by beginning each line within its three-line strophes with the same initial letter, changing from strophe to strophe in sequence. Ch. 4, on the other hand, provides only two lines to a strophe, while the earlier chapters have three lines to the strophe. Poetic form, therefore, unites chs. 1 and 2 into a unit while it sets off chs. 3 and 4. And yet the poetic form in each chapter is still a variation on the same fundamental structure of the alphabetical sequence. Such a structure offers the lamentations a movement of irreversible progression towards inevitable completion with the last letter of the alphabet. There is an inexorable certitude about the total fulfillment of God's punitive will. No chapter reaches a climax; there is merely the sense of denouement, the realization that the experiences march on and on towards exhaustive recitation.

The voice in ch. 3 is the persona of a soldier, a veteran who has endured hard use in the war. He protests that he was led into defeat by an officer who wished him to be defeated; we have already been told that it was God who led the army to defeat (1:15; 2:3-5, 22). The speaker has suffered fatigue and hunger (vs. 2), was held prisoner, and then wandered about amidst obstacles (vs. 3), fearfully and warily expected ambush at every turn (vs. 4), has been wounded in his vitals (vs. 5). His final bitterness is that he has become the butt of everyone's contempt (vs. 5). God has trampled him in the dirt so that he feels only despair (vs. 6). Despite his pain and dishonor, however, the young man (vs. 8) is still flexible enough to hope for an ultimate exoneration (vss. 7c-13), because God will not deny justice to anyone forever. A battle has been lost, but perhaps not the war.

The distinction between past and present in the chapter thus far is the veteran's shift from recollection to evaluation. The speaker is now pausing in the memories of his pains to reflect on God's nature and to discover some measure of vague hope. The future can be envisioned only as that time beyond the present moment when God will no longer continue to punish his people. The only real time for the veteran is the present moment of reflective pause; the veteran can now dismiss his former sufferings since they were deserved by his past sins, and he can at least find some comfort in his boast that he has managed to survive into this present moment (vs. 13), an authentic axiom in the mouth of a regular soldier.

The veteran now turns to exhort some unidentified comrades (vs. 14), rallying them, urging them to admit their own guilt and to seek God in prayer as he has done. He leads them in prayer, but his self-confident intention fails him, and he erupts in an outburst of grief over God's withdrawal from his people (vss. 14c-15), the mockery of the victorious enemy (vs. 16), his blinding tears of defeat (vs. 17), and his entrapment in a pit filling up with water (vs. 18). At vs. 16c, the veteran reverts to the first person singular, giving up his group role in order to express his individual grief. He beseeches God to look with pity on his plight, for he is the victim of plots and jeers, and he invokes God to punish his enemies in the measure they deserve (vs. 22).

The veteran has passed through several phases of guilt, which he expresses in terminology most appropriate to a defeated soldier. At first he gratifies his desire to rationalize his own guilt by blaming his dishonor on God or on circumstances beyond his own control: his officer betrayed him into defeat, he was poorly supplied, he was captured, he was wounded. But he must still sustain the contempt of his countrymen, who find in him a scapegoat for their ruin, and of his enemies, who despise him as a loser. Another opportunity to evade his own guilt now presents itself: since God will someday provide another chance for him, he may simply disown his own share in the recent catastrophe. But this ready decision to confess and forget his own responsibility through a gesture of quick dismissal leads him not to the consolation of prayer and comradeship but to another outburst of self-pity.

The dominant image throughout the chapter has been that of encirclement: the speaker has been imprisoned, trapped in the drowning-pit, surrounded by his enemies, the guilt-ridden veteran can really escape neither by prayer nor by the subterfuge of self-exoneration. No delusion can release him from the inescapable trap, his own memory. If a man's memory constitutes his identity, the pit from which the veteran cannot rescue himself is himself.

In a final outburst of defiance against his enemies, he in fact admist his own impotency to strike out on his own behalf. His is no more than a partial vision of the meaning of his own condition: while acknowledging his own guilt and the justice of God's punishment, he cannot surrender to the whole truth of his own share in the responsibility for the catastrophe.

If the voice of the veteran seems to echo the voice of Jerusalem, the voice of ch. 4 corresponds to the reporter's. The veteran feels himself trapped, the victim of the mocker's jeers; the city feels herself fallen, the object of the scorn of the passers-by. Their outcries are passionate, subjective, self-expressive, concerned with pity. The reporter is, in the main, detached, objective, descriptive, analytical; his compassion is evoked, a mirror, a reaction rather than a statement. The bourgeois who is the voice of ch. 4 recapitulates these attitudes in several ways.

The bourgeois is surprised by the economic and social upheaval within the fallen city. That gold and jewels are now treated with scorn is not only an exclamation leading to a simile comparing the maltreated citizens of Jerusalem, formerly of high regard, to discarded potsherds in their present condition (4:1-2) but also a transcendent statement about the devalued standards of life in the city. In this thoroughly disrupted society, gold is despised because it can no longer buy anything. There is nothing to buy: the starving children are worse off than the jackals' cubs, the rich are eating garbage (vss. 3-5). The aristocrats, once so fair to behold, are now reduced to skeletons; mothers cook and eat their own children (vss. 7-8, 10). God in his anger destroyed Jerusalem to the surprise of the world (vss. 11-12) because of the corruption of the prophets and priests (vss. 13-16). The harshness of this description of the aftermath of Jerusalem's fall and the analysis of its causes are hardly relieved by the cynicism: Jerusalem must have been worse than Sodom, which was destroyed in an instant and without all this agony (vs. 6); similarly, those who were killed violently in the fighting were luckier than those who survived only to starve to death in the city. The awareness of the difference between past and present, the note of mockery, and the pictorial presentation not only echo the reporter, but also introduce a comparison between this voice and the mocking passer-by who has appeared as a shadowy observer in all three of the earlier chapters of Lamentations.

The speaker is describing the total collapse of the state as a nation, as a people, and as a culture. His mind has operated on the level of social regalia, and he is both horrified and fascinated by the disjointing of the hierarchical structure of his world. In his old world, there were aristocrats above and beggars below. Now the aristocrats have lost the emblems of their prestige. Those who had built their identities on wealth and status now reveal in their downfall the destruction of that social structure which had once afforded them the deference due to their position. They have come to disregard the gold and jewelry, clothes and grooming which were the props of their former glory. Ironically, it was the failure of leadership that incurred God's wrath; since the leaders refused to fulfill their function, they have been deprived of its forms. The utter devaluation of what was once considered the measure of achievement and dignity is itself God's judgment on Jerusalem: the emptiness of the aristocratic class has been revealed as both the cause and the symbol of the ruination. The speaker does not seem to grasp this clearly. He is the average citizen who is both amazed and somewhat gratified at the reversal which has reduced his leaders to beggary and which has inverted society so thoroughly that the first have indeed been made last, the exalted have indeed been humbled.

But the bourgeois has some sense of identity with his fellow-citizens. He shifts to the first person plural in order to describe the widespread foreboding of danger experienced either while staying in the besieged city (vss. 17-18) or while attempting to flee to the mountains or into the desert (vss. 19-20). He is a man who had accepted the social structure of his world at face value, and his feelings have seemed less intense than any of the other three voices heard in the book. His has been but a kind of dismay at the dissolution of familiar social distinctions by which he had once oriented his life. Now the reader discovers the great shock to the bourgeois, the peril he feels in the once familiar streets of his own city. There is neither security within the city nor freedom from fear outside it. His sense of comfortable space, as well as his sense of hierarchy, has been destroyed. The formlessness of his society consequent to the unmasking of the instability of its values has found a spatial correlative. His present world is, therefore, a wreck of shattered perspectives. His categories of orderliness and precedence have been totally ruptured. His complacency in a world filled with landmarks is now replaced by the vertigo of nothing; the vacuum resides in his absolute surprise before the hollowness of everything he had previously assumed to be successful and safe.

Yet the bourgeois is incapable of understanding the bitter irony of all this. All that is left to him is the spiteful wish that his own sense of chaos may now be transferred elsewhere so that the distant enemy will also suffer this same shock of dislocation. His final word, his curse on Edom and Uz (vss. 21-22), implies that willful indulgence in moral anarchy functions as the universal cause of inevitable material ruin in any society. His ultimate resolution thus comprises neither insight nor resignation, but merely an ineffectual tantrum of vindictiveness. He thus falls short of the reporter's final empathy and compassion. After he has observed the chaos and experienced the confusion, his reaction is the wish that the evil be spread out even further.

The voice of ch. 5 of Lamentations is a choral voice. It is made up of the people of Jerusalem as a community, out of a shared misery and a common purposive atttitude towards God. The chorus is not simply the reporter, the city, the veteran, and the bourgeois speaking together; the chorus has its own character, subsuming each individual persons in an act of prayer which transcends the viewpoints and the inadequacies which the poet perceived and expressed through the first four chapters.

The first four chapters enjoy a certain unity in that they share significant underlying perspectives, a unique spiritual orientation towards the experiences they convey. They share a narrative constant in the passers-by who jeer at Jerusalem, who resemble the reporter without achieving his compassion, who mock the veteran as scapegoat and victim, who may include the bourgeois whose wonderment at the downfall of the city does not preclude an element of cynical satisfaction. The heckling laughter of those who walk by without emotional involvement echoes through the chapters as a counterpoint to the appeals for pity, the prayers, the curses of the suffering. The passers-by act as a pivot of recognition on which the reader can swing from the passionate outcries to the detached observations as on a fixed moment in time. The reader can recognize that the subjective examination of one persona has been simultaneous with the objective description by another by the sound of mockery from the passers-by.

The first chapters also share the thematic constant of the hungry children. Jerusalem as the desolate woman represents the continuum of past guilt into present degradation, but the destruction of the children testifies to the impossibility of a future. In the present misery, the children are not only starving, they are even being soid so that their parents may buy food and ultimately they are being consumed by their own mothers. The poet sees that the cannibalism is wiping out the final vestige of instinctive human love as the nation consumes the vehicles and creators of its future. The present moment of anguish is thus the absolute pause between a corrupt and irrecoverable past and an unimaginable future.

The first chapters, as already noted, share an acrostic structuring in their poetic formulation. The final chapter, however, has no such acrostic pattern. The inevitable conclusion intended by the alphabetical sequence is inconceivable in the final moment of the book. No new sequence of events or emotions has been initiated. There has been, after all, no real progression in the course of the book: shock, fatigue, despair, disorientation have reached in the fifth chapter a declaration of the communal awareness of Jerusalem's total destruction.

The chorus addresses its prayer to God to express its need for relief, not to express any firm hope in prompt deliverance. The fund of torments has simply been exhausted; there remains no possible suffering which has not already been inflicted and endured. Now the people have seen the nothingness underlying the life which had separated them from God. They grope their way towards him as towards the only plausible explanation of their human finitude and the only possible source of relief from their anguish.

The chorus voices its sense of imprisonment within the present bankruptcy of the people whom God has abandoned. The community is left in a vacuum, with nothing as strong as hope or confidence or trust. It retains only conviction, the conviction that God will finally lift his punishing hand from his people. Quantity rather than quality is now the issue. No longer need anyone ask, “Should Jerusalem suffer?” Admittedly she must, and does. The question is, “How long shall Jerusalem continue to suffer?” The chorus ends its prayer, suspended without a definite answer.

The only answer to the mystery of God's relationship to his people is provided, not by a sixth persona speaking for the Name, but in the community's conviction that accompanies and supports the implicit litotes: our God is not unrelenting.

Robert Gordis (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2159

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 as of old,” vs. 22 … seems hardly appropriate, particularly as the conclusion of the prayer.

(1) The extent of the difficulties posed by the verse may perhaps be gauged by the desperate expedient adopted, e.g., in the (1917) JPSV, of virtually inserting a negative into the text, thus diametrically reversing its meaning: “Thou canst not have utterly rejected us, and be exceeding wroth against us.”

A variety of other interpretations have been proposed, all of which suffer from grave drawbacks:

(2) To treat the verse as an interrogative: “Or have you rejected us, are you exceedingly angry with us?”2 There is, however, no evidence for rendering kî’ im as “or,” whether interrogatively or otherwise, and this interpretation has found few modern defenders.

(3) To delete ’im on the grounds that it is not expressed by the LXX or the Peš and is missing in six medieval Hebrew MSS. The verse is then rendered: “For you have indeed rejected us, etc.” It is probable that the ancient versions, endeavoring to make sense of a difficult phrase, rendered it ad sensum. As Hillers notes, the MT is to be preferred as the lectio difficilior. Moreover, the idea remains inappropriate at the end of a penitential prayer for forgiveness and restoration.

(4) A better approach is to treat the verse as a conditional sentence: “If you should reject us, you would be too angry against us,”3 or “If thou hast utterly rejected us, then great has been thy anger against us.”4 Actually, there is no true conditional sentence here, stich b being completely parallel to stich a, and adding nothing new to the thought.5 In addition, the difficulty mentioned above inheres in this view as well—it offers a very unsatisfactory conclusion to a penitential poem.

(5) To understand the ki’ im as “unless,” on the basis of such passages as Gen 32:27, … “I shall not let you go unless you bless me,” and to render this passage, “Turn us to yourself … unless you have despised us,” i.e., completely rejected us.6 But as Albrektson points out, in all such instances ki’ im is used only after a clause containing or implying a negative. The syntactic difficulty aside, the problem of meaning remains: a plea for divine favor is logically and psychologically incompatible with the idea of a possible total rejection by God. A despairing Job may contemplate the possibility of complete alienation from God; a psalmist, however harried and embittered by misfortune, has not surrendered the hope of succor and restoration.

(6) Having rejected all other interpretations, Hillers finds “one remaining possibility—to render the verse adversatively, “But instead you have utterly rejected us, you have been very angry with us.”7 He seeks to buttress this view by three lines of argument:

(a) This interpretation is supported by Jewish liturgical practice, which ordains that in the synagogue reading of the closing sections of Isaiah, Malachi, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations the last verse of the text is not to be the conclusion, by having the penultimate sentence repeated, so as not to end with “a somber verse.”8

But even if the synagogue usage be allowed as evidence, it offers no proof for this interpretation. In each of these instances, the reason for not concluding with the final verse is not “the somber verse,” but the negative character of the closing phrase. In Isa 66:24, the prophet describes the utter destruction and degradation of the wicked. Malachi 3:24 foretells the restoration of unity between parents and children. Eccl 12:12 declares that God will judge all men's actions. None of these ideas are felt to be negative either in biblical or post-biblical thought. They all deal with manifestations of God's power and justice. What the ancient reader found unpalatable and, therefore, sought to avoid ending with was an unpleasant phrase, “a stench to all flesh,” “I shall smite the land in total destruction,” “upon every deed, good or evil.” Similarly in this passage, the closing phrase, “you have been very angry with us,” is the reason for the synagogue practice. Hence nothing can be inferred with regard to the specific meaning assigned to the verse as a whole or to the conjunction and to stich a in particular.

(b) In further justification of this rendering, Hillers declares that “other laments similarly end on a low key, e.g., Jer 14:9; Ps 88, 89.” However, the description of the passage as being “in a low key,” would seem to be an understatement. If it is, as Hillers avers, a statement of present realities, it is strongly negative.

Nor can these other passages cited be adduced in favor of this view. Jer 14:9, far from ending on a low key, has a highly appropriate conclusion, paralleling vs. 21 in this chapter. It is a passionate plea for God's help: “Your name is called upon us, do not forsake us!”

In Psalm 89, the plea is expressed in vs. 51a, while vs. 52 is a subordinate clause, giving the grounds for the urgency of the appeal:

Remember, O Lord, how thy servant is scorned
                                        How I bear in my bosom the insults of the people
with which thine enemies taunt, O Lord,
                                        with which they mock the footsteps of thy anointed.(9)

Of the three passages adduced, Psalm 88 does, indeed, end upon a negative note. It seems clear, however, that the surviving text is incomplete and that we have only part of a description of the poet's estrangement and isolation from his fellows. The theme is very similar to that of Job 19:13-19. The conclusion to Psalm 88 can scarcely be described as a satisfactory close to the poem on any count.10

(c) Hillers explains that the verse “merely restates the present fact: Israel does stand under God's severe judgment.” However, the alleged matter-of-fact statement contradicts the cry of vs. 20: “Why have you forsaken us so long?” and is totally incompatible with the plea of vs. 22, “Turn us back to you, etc.”11

In sum, this interpretation, like those cited above, offers what must be described as an inappropriate conclusion to the poem.

I would venture to propose another approach. As we have noted above, Psalm 89 ends with a plea extending over two verses, the petition being expressed by a main clause containing the petition (vs. 51), while the supporting grounds or circumstances are presented in a following subordinate clause (vs. 52). The passage in Lamentations exhibits the same syntactic structure, the plea being expressed by the main clause (vs. 21), and the circumstances surrounding the petition being contained in a subordinate clause (vs. 22).

The problem here has been the precise meaning of the conjunction. I believe that in this passage ki’ im is to be rendered “even if, although.” This dual conjunction is used widely and rather loosely in biblical Hebrew in a variety of meanings listed in the lexicons. However, in several instances, the conjunction is best rendered “even if, although.”12 That this meaning has not been clearly recognized is due to the difficult passages in which it occurs:

Jer 51:14: … “though I have filled you with men like the locust (i.e., increased your population), yet they (i.e., your assailants) lift up their shout against you.”13

Isa 10:22: … “even if your people, O Israel, will be like the sand of the sea, only a remnant will return.”14

Amos 5:22: … “even if you offer up to me your holocausts and gift offerings, I will not accept them.”15

This meaning is highly appropriate in Lam 3:32 as well: …“though he has afflicted, he will have pity according to his great mercies.”

The meaning “although, even though” which we have postulated for the double conjunction may be the result of a transposition, kî’ im = ’im kî. We may cite as an analogy the use of kî gam which has the meaning “although” in Eccl 4:14: 8:12, 16. This usage, characteristic of Qoheleth, is equivalent to gam kî, “even if, although” (Isa 1:15; Hos 8:10; 9:16; Ps 23:4), and likewise introduces a subordinate clause.16

A syntactic change in the use of the conjunction “although” appears to have developed in the post-exilic period. In the pre-exilic usage, the subordinate clause introduced by the conjunction precedes the main clause (kî’ im, Amos 5:22; Isa 10:22; Jer 51:14; gam kî, Hos 8:10; 9:16; so also Ps 23:4; Prov 22:6). Though post-exilic writers continue this sequence (Lam 3:8, 32), they nevertheless feel free to vary it by having the main clause precede the subordinate clause (kî’ im in this passage; kî gam in Eccl 4:14; 8:12, 16). Obviously, from the standpoint of logic, either sequence of clauses is entirely proper.17

It remains to add that the verbs in this passage are to be understood as pluperfects.18 We now have a vigorous, clear, and appropriate conclusion to the penitential prayer in the last three verses of Lamentations:

Why do you neglect us eternally,
          forsake us for so long?
Turn us to yourself, O Lord, and we shall return;
          renew our days as of old,
even though you had despised us greatly
          and were very angry with us.


  1. As recognized by D. R. Hillers, Lamentations (AB 7A; Garden City: Doubleday, 1973) 100.

  2. So RSV: “Why dost thou forget us for ever, why dost thou so long forsake us?”

  3. So Ehrlich, Randglossen zür hebräischen Bibel (Leipzing: Hinrichs, 1914), 7. 854; T. Meek, IB (Nashville: Abingdon, 1956), 6. 38.

  4. So NEB.

  5. The verbs in both stichs are virtually synonymous, and the infinitive absolute construction in stich a parallels ‘ad meōd’ in stich b.

  6. So W. Rudolph, “Der Text der Klagelieder,” ZAW 51 (1933) 120.

  7. AB, following the Vulgate, Luther, AV and P. Volz (TLZ 22 [1940] 82-83).

  8. AB, 101.

  9. So RSV.

  10. It is, of course, possible to assume that this poem is also incomplete, but this approach is a procedure to be adopted only when no other is available, and Hillers properly does not include this view among the possible options. In addition, virtually all scholars are agreed that the existence of 22 verses in the chapter, identical with the number of letters in the alphabet, is not accidental; it represents a variant of the acrostic pattern characteristic of chs. 1-4.

  11. As Rudolph correctly points out.

  12. Cf. BDB, s.v., 474-75; KB, 431.

  13. See BDB, 475a, who cite Ewald, Keil, Cheyne; so also W. Rudolph, Jeremia (HAT; Tübingen: Mohr, 1947), 266. Other commentators render the clause, “I will surely fill them with assailants” (Hitzig, RSV), but this requires construing millē’tik as a perfect of certitude, which appears awakward in this context. Hence NEB follows the view we have adopted, rendering freely, “Once I filled you with men, countless as locusts, yet a song of triumph shall be chanted over you.”

  14. The rendering as “for” disguises, but does not obviate, the difficulty involved in treating vs. 22 as the reason for vs. 21. Actually, the second verse offers no reason for the first; it expresses the same idea as the first, but with greater emphasis.

  15. Here, too, does not introduce the reasons for vs. 21.

  16. For a discussion of these passages in Ecclesiastes, see R. Gordis, Koheleth—The Man and His World (3rd ed.; New York: Schocken, 1968), 244, 297-98. There is virtually complete agreement on the meaning of kî gam in 4:14; on 8:12, see BDB, 169, s.v. § 6. We believe this meaning for the double conjunction most appropriate in all three passages.

  17. It may be added that in medieval Hebrew, we’im is frequently used in the sense, “although, even if.” Thus in Berah Dōdî, the Ge’ûlāh piyyût recited on the Second Day (as well as the other days) of Passover, the usage occurs no less than nine times in the meaning “though,” e.g., berah dôdî’ el mâkôn lešibtāk we’im ‘ābarnû ’et berîtāk, ’ānā zekōr, “Fly, my beloved, to your established dwelling and though we have transgressed your convenant, remember, pray, etc.” (Sabbath & Festival Prayer Book [New York: Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue, 1946], 182-83).

  18. Cf. S. R. Driver, Hebrew Tenses (Oxford: Clarendon, 1892), 22: “The perfect is used where we should employ by preference the pluperfect, i.e., in cases where it is desired to bring two actions in the past into a special relation with each other, and to indicate that the action described by the pluperfect was completed before the other took place. The function of the pluperfect is thus to throw two events into their proper perspective as regards each other; but the tense is to some extent a superfluous one—it is an elegance for which Hebrew possesses no distinct form, and which even in Greek, as is well known, both classical and Hellenistic is constantly replaced by the simple aorist.”

Michael S. Moore (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8301

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, Gottwald believes that this “key” to the theology of the book is to be found in the tension between deuteronomic faith and the tragic facts of history underlying the book. During the Josianic reform the older, more conservative beliefs were re-asserted in certain Israelite circles with regard to the perpetual problem of evil. The deuteronomic solution, according to Gottwald, consisted of the simplistic view that sin always brings punishment while faith always brings forth vindication of the faithful elect.

To this neat and tidy solution, however, history quickly raised several unexplainable tragedies. Josiah, the righteous reformer, dies in battle (608). Jehoiachin and several thousand citizens are deported to Mesopotamia after an abortive rebellion attempt (597). Even Jerusalem suffers the ignobilities of besiegement, starvation, defeat, and slavery (586). To Gottwald, therefore, Lamentations is a serious theological document struggling with this perennial dilemma: Why do the righteous suffer? It is the first time in Israel's turbulent history that a sensitive writer has to face this problem, stripped of all the old symbols of Yahweh's favor the city, the temple, the people, the torah. The “daughter of Jerusalem” must now deal directly with the “divine warrior,” Yahweh of Hosts. The prophetic warnings have now been fulfilled, but in such a terrible way that the simplistic approach of the deuteronomists is found wanting.

Albrektson challenged this interpretation by going directly to the heart of Gottwald's thesis and asking whether there had ever existed, in fact, any such “tension” between deuteronomic faith and history. Accepting Gottwald's basic premise that Lamentations was written to explain the hideous circumstances attending the events of 586 within an overall framework of tension between Israelitic faith and the tragic events of history, he nevertheless rejected outright the view that such a pristine “deuteronomic” faith had ever commanded the full attention of the populace.4 More probably, Albrektson submits, the people living in and around Jerusalem had allowed themselves to be lulled to sleep via the hundreds of sermons and liturgies they had repeatedly heard extolling ad absurdum the beauty, sanctity, and even impregnable inviolability of Zion, God's “footstool.” Thus, when Zion fell, so did their faith. Albrektson sees Lamentations, therefore, as a document designed to lead Israel back to faith in a person rather than a place. In fact, Albrektson submits, Gottwald's thesis holds only if one can prove that such a deuteronomic faith was universally (or at least quasi-universally) held in Israel—that Israel could ever have been, in toto, truly “righteous.” In other words, Albrektson is simply not willing to build a theology of Lamentations on such an attractive, yet unproven assumption, though he is not then trying to dismiss Gottwald's work as completely misguided. In the latter pages of his approach he seems to be trying, in fact, to offer a synthesis of the two theses,5 a process which is later picked up by P. Ackroyd within his broader attempt to articulate a “theology of the Exile.”6

The problem with both of these hypotheses is that both put forward the conviction, a priori, that a single theological focal point can not only be found in this mini-collection of laments over Jerusalem, but also that such a postulated focal point might then serve as the major theological trust of the book; all else is secondary. This kind of a methodological approach is often suspect in works wherein authorship, time, and place of composition are generally recognized and accepted; it is highly suspect in a diffuse collection of poetic compositions like the “books” of Psalms and Lamentations. Accordingly, there will probably always be critical minds who justifiably question this kind of biblical theological approach, based as it is on so many unproven (and unproveable) assumptions, correlations, and questionable conclusions. It seems to me that one might safely go as far as to say that deuteronomic and Zion traditions serve as contributing traditional sources for the development of the theology articulated in Lamentations, but to focus either upon one of these or even upon some sort of synthesis between the two eventually proves to be inadequate for the following reasons:

(1) To posit a single theological focus one most likely will have to base such a focus upon some kind of theory of unity between the individual chapters. As will be shown below, neither Gottwald nor Albrektson are the first to try this (theological focus+unity of form/material), even though neither of them explicitly link the two together in their respective analyses.

(2) To posit a single theological focus would most likely imply that the poet(s) responsible for this collection of laments was calculatedly conscious of “doing theology” in the modern sense of the expression: i.e., that there was a deliberate attempt here to go beyond the crying need to begin Israel's “grief work”7on to the development of a theological treatise. Is Lamentations really an objectively thought-out theological treatise? Is this document anything more than what it claims to be, viz. a lament over Jerusalem? Doubtless the author(s) stood within a particular traditional framework (deuteronomistic? zionistic?), but was he consciously and methodically employing all the stock symbols, phrases, and poetic word-pairs8 of this alleged historico/theological tradition in order to facilitate a communal lament? In other words, was he intentionally attempting to construct a theology?9 I am more inclined to believe that the hard theologizing about these events came later.10 There had to be some time to think it all through first. Such tragedies have to be absorbed into one's consciousness before one can then begin to “explain” them in any coherent way. How many soundly-reasoned books on the holocaust in Nazi Germany were written (by Jews) within the first decade or two after the liberations of Dachau, Buchenwald, or Auschwitz?11 How many carefully-reasoned historical analyses about the Vietnam war have yet been written (by Americans) since the fall of Saigon?12 In addition, the persistent uncertainty among so many scholars as to the very existence of a theological focal point within this collection of poems makes it seem much more likely that Lamentations, composed and collected as it was so close to the events depicted within it,13 was primarily designed only to lament the nation's destruction, to put forward a first step toward picking up the emotional pieces, to articulate the anger, guilt, despair, and stubborn hopes of a nation too shell-shocked to begin this necessary “grief work” without help.14 This is not to deny that significant theological themes surface and resurface here and there throughout the book, but it is to affirm that the historical context within which it was composed precluded the kind of theological questions and answers one finds more carefully articulated in full-fledged works like Deutero-Isaiah and Ezekiel.

(3) To posit a single theological focus tends, in the final analysis, to reduce and constrict the variegated impact of Lamentations' broad theological thrust. It tends to force the “secondary” themes out of the picture. One could well reissue here the question that H. H. Schmid has raised to pentateuchal research and apply it to the present state of research into Lamentations' theology:

Has the text more often been adjusted to our hypotheses than our hypotheses to the text?15

This paper is an attempt to shed more light on one of these “secondary” themes, to try to place it in some kind of a proper perspective within the overall message of the book without distorting the theological impact of the whole. I am suggesting here that one of the primary messages of Lamentations is the theme of human suffering.16 This seems to be such an obvious conclusion from even a cursory reading of the book, yet few (if any) of the treatments I have read have assigned this theme more than a peripheral place. This is unfortunate, because a careful study of the metaphorical as well as historical passages which deal with human suffering—from the starving of infants to the sorrow of the aged—not only points the way toward the illumination of a major theme in a biblical document, but also opens the door a bit wider to the kind of biblical interpretation which can speak more directly to the present needs of a war-torn world. What is God saying here about his relationship to suffering humanity? What was the poet(s) trying to accomplish here? What were his priorities? What theological (and even psychological) value might Lamentations have today were the light of interpretation focused squarely on this neglected theme?

I. The problem of unity within the book of Lamentations has long intrigued scholars. Many expressed profound doubt at the end of the previous century that Lamentations might ever be characterized a unified document in any sense of the term—neither formally nor in terms of its theological content.17 Others had allegedly uncovered what they believed to have been the author's (in most cases, Jeremianic authorship was assumed) conscious attempt to structure the book. Some sought a middle solution—that the poems were individually composed, and that a later redactor deliberately arranged and modified them according to his pre-thought-out plan. Some of these theses are worth re-examining here.18

Hermann Wiesmann has been quoted often by modern scholars as one who championed the theological unity of the book, yet even though his work laid the foundation for later serious theological inquiry,19 both Gottwald and Albrektson (to take two prominent examples) hastily dismiss the implications of his approach, linking it to primitive Roman Catholic theology.20 Perhaps his later work (particularly his Die Klagelieder commentary)21 has gone far enough to earn this opprobrium, but his earlier work, particularly his article “Der planmässige Aufbau der Klagelieder des Jeremias,” cannot fairly be so criticized.22 In it, Wiesmann stakes out a carefully balanced position, meticulously distinguishing his views from some of the more radical “unity” theories then in circulation, particularly among German scholars. Though descriptive in approach (i.e., not tied exclusively to form-, literary-, or traditio-critical foundations), I found none of the theological excesses in it of the sort Rudolph describes (though not in a description of Wiesmann per se).23 Instead, I found what can only properly be described as the beginning point for the modern theological discussion.24

Though several scholars in Wiesmann's day rejected outright the unity of the book, a few older, conservative scholars tried hard to construct strong “unity” hypotheses, often linking them to attempts to salvage Jeremianic authorship from critical attack. W. M. L. de Wette proposed that the destruction of the city seemed to be set out in clearly recognizable stages from poem to poem, thus leading one to the conclusion that such linkages had been deliberately arranged from a pre-set structural outline.25 Wiesmann rejected this “gradational” approach because the text presents no evidence for it. Each poem assumes, either implicitly or explicitly, that Jerusalem has been utterly destroyed (even chapter 1, contra Rudolph). H. Ewald held that the author took five pre-written, scattered laments and re-worked them into a unified whole.26 C. F. Keil accepted this theory with the proviso that the author/collector did not work around a definite theological focal point (such as the theology of hope embedded in 3.22-33), yet still must have operated from some sort of “well thought-out plan.”27 Wiesmann saw through this inconsistency right away by noting wryly that Keil failed to spell out what exactly that “well-thought-out plan” might have been.28 He saved his strongest criticism, however, for the “unity” thesis put forward by Eduard Naegelsbach.

Naegelsbach took this developing line of approach (i.e., the attempts of de Wette, Ewald, Keil, and others to build a portrait of the book's unity primarily upon external characteristics) to its logical extreme. For Naegelsbach, the expression of hope in 3.22-42 is the “culmination-point of the whole book.”29 Like the peak of a mountain, everything in the preceding verses leads up to it, while everything in the succeeding verses leads back downward. Chapters 1 and 2, 4 and 5 represent the night of misery after the fall of the nation. For Naegelsbach, however, these chapters served merely to bracket what for him was the dominant thrust of the poet's message. Chapters 1 and 2 were constructed like a crescendo leading to this volcanic peak; chapter 4 and 5 served as decrescendo. Chapter 3 itself was separated into three parts: (1) 3.1-21 was supposed to represent the night of doubt (3.1-18), followed by the dawn of hope (3.19-21); (2) this hope then bursts forth like the rays of the sun (3.22-40)—heavenly trust is rekindled, God's love is reaffirmed; (3) this paroxysm then subsides back into the twilight (i.e., historical reality begins to sink back in—3.40-42), followed by ultimate return to a night of anguish (3.43-66). Naegelsbach also found it important to stress, in support of his thesis, that the poetic intensity of the first two chapters built to a high point in chapter 3, whereas chapters 4 and 5 were not to be considered artistically comparable to chapters 1 and 2. The 3-line acrostic of chapters 1 and 2 intensifies in chapter 3 where every line has to be chosen with care, while chapter 4 suddenly abandons this style for a 2-line structure. Chapter 5 then abandons the acrostic altogether.

Without even pausing to salute the ingenuity of Naegelsbach's thesis, Wiesmann promptly rejected it30 because (1) if the poet truly wanted to structure his work thus around a message of hope, why lead the people to the light of day only to lead them back down into the gloom of night? This makes no sense. Further, it might even be characterized as a cruel, teasing joke to so play with their emotions like that. What might he have been trying to accomplish with such a message? (2) Though the poet indeed struggles through from “night” to “day” in a literary sense in the third chapter, the theological message could not have been that suffering is only a proof from God that he still cares; i.e., the more one suffers under God's punishing hand, the more one might be convicted of God's chastening concern. Rather, the point of chapter 3 is that one who stands in the midst of suffering should never give up hope in God's love and grace, even when it is most difficult to perceive these positive qualities in the Deity.31 In fact, Wiesmann would argue here against Budde32 that the misery of the people is introduced in an individual lament in chapter 3 not merely to provide a literary focal point for the whole book, but to give suffering people a tangible model of dignified behavior in the midst of famine, war, and cannibalism. (3) Finally, Wiesmann crisply rejects the notion that chapters 4 and 5 are in any way inferior to the rest of the book.33

What kind of unity, therefore, did Wiesmann ascribe to the book? Wiesmann was the first to reject the placement of any artificially-constructed external schema over the book while at the same time insisting that the book's internal characteristics coherently set forth a substantive unity upon which one might then go on to build a relevant theology.34 He summarizes his position in a cogent résumé:

Our five songs do picture a unity, and indeed, not merely from external considerations (because they are unified in a collection like some of Psalms), but also on inner grounds. Therefore, (a) they are first of all composed around a similar situation: all set forth the destruction of Jerusalem and the misfortune which thereby came over the people. Further, (b) they collectively draw these mournful events into the realm of their concern and place them opposite similar situations: there resounds within all of them a lament over the terrible fall of the kingdom (as well as) the voices of profoundest pity for its unfortunate inhabitants. (c) The same basic views are then drawn through all the fragments: concerning the reasons for this fate, the results of the affliction, the instruments of punishment, etc. (d) All follow, further, the same goal: the consolation of the people and their return to the Lord.35

The advantages of Wiesmann's thesis of internal unity are several:

(1) His thesis rests on the text itself, not on a superimposed literary schema (Naegelsbach), a hypothetical explanation for the historico/theological background of the book (Gottwald, Albrektson),36 a cultic hypothesis which lays too much stress on the unproved assumption that these laments (particularly the mixture of individual and communal laments in chapter 3) were originally composed to be sung by an individual+a chorus (Kraus),37 nor a complex theory of compositional stages (several years, same author—Rudolph;38 chapters, in order of composition: 4, 1, 2, 3 over a 27-day period—Brunet).39 Whatever else one might say in criticism of Wiesmann's thesis, it is hard to find fault with him here. Granted, he sometimes gets carried away‘ as, for example, when he asserts that all five chapters have a description of Yahweh's righteousness40 (neither chapter 4 nor chapter 5 explicitly ascribe righteousness to Yahweh), or when he overreacts to the theses of Budde and Naegelsbach on chapter 3 and neglects to point out the genuine lexical and historical points-of-contact between chapter 3 and the rest of the book,41 but his basic desire to let the text interpret itself is quite refreshing.

(2) Wiesmann's emphasis on internal unity may be unpalatable to form critics interested in artistic purity (Jahnow),42 or to source critics interested in multiple-authorship hypotheses (Löhr),43 but it has already proved acceptable (and should so continue) to many scholars, probably because it is so adaptable.44 One can accept it and still remain consistent to positions either for or against Jeremianic authorship, Babylonian vs. Palestinian Sitze im Leben, deuteronomistic vs. Zionistic background, oral vs. written original composition, multiple vs. single authorship, or any number of still-unsolved external problems related to the book. This needs to be underscored, especially to anyone truly interested in uncovering the theological message concealed here (cf. 3.44!). The alternative is to posit that neither the poet (if individual authorship is assumed) nor poet(s)/redactor(s) were at all interested in conveying an intelligible theological message to Israel at a time when she most needed a word from God.

(3) Lastly, Wiesmann's approach, via emphasizing the internal unity of Lamentations, effectually opens the way for further theological investigation into the several themes articulated in the book as well as the way in which these themes are interwoven and interlocked. Moreover, it helps to open up clearer avenues for contemporary exposition, interpretation, and application.45 Application of a process hermeneutic, for example, to the themes of human suffering or divine consolation might yield fruitful results, if responsibly administered.46 The same could be said for either a structuralist or a non-structuralist literary analysis.47 The following discussion, in fact, will seek to focus on the theme of human suffering in Lamentations from such a predominantly nonstructuralist literary approach, operating within these minimal formal guidelines:

(a) The intention here will be to set aside, for a moment, the historical problems associated with the book and focus instead on its literary structure. The risk inherent in this kind of approach, of course, is that the meaning of the text will be distorted into something it was never intended to be. This risk will be placed here under a watchful eye. I have no desire to follow in the foot-steps of Naegelsbach or de Wette. Further, the objection could be raised that this kind of approach is applicable only to material that was self-consciously written as literature.48 In Lamentations' case the manifest employment of the acrostic literary form ought to quell objections from this quarter.49

(b) Secondly, the intention here is to focus on deep structures underneath the surface of the text, rather than surface structures like words, metaphors, or genres. This should prove particularly fruitful in a work like Lamentations, since it is a document of such deep human emotion. One will need to deal with words and metaphors in order to begin this process, but the intention here, so long as it can be objectively justified, is to try to dig deeper into the mind and heart of the poet(s) who composed this series of laments over Zion. I am consciously attempting to construct a theological statement about the book in the tradition begun by Wiesmann. The only major difference here is that I will be making use of some contemporary hermeneutical tools which Wiesmann either could not or chose not to employ in his own distinctive approach. Moreover, since it is highly doubtful that the poet(s) was consciously trying to construct a theology in the modern sense,50 it seems to me that one eventually has to adopt some sort of internalistic approach in order to get at the full meaning of the text. I am under no illusions that the approach offered here will enable us to “map the mind”51 of the author(s) of Lamentations—the sour impression which is sometimes left by practitioners of this methodological approach. The goal here will be simply to focus attention upon one (and only one) of the major themes of the book, not offer a composite, complete theology.

II. Delbert Hillers,52 in the introduction to his Anchor Bible commentary on Lamentations, notes the unusually large number of metaphorical epithets for the Israelite people found in the book. The phrase bath—X or bethūlath bath—X occurs 20 times here whereas it occurs only about 45 times in the entire OT. In addition, the majority of the other occurrences are to be found in Jeremiah. Hillers then goes on to make some valuable comments which seek to explain this exceptionally prevalent usage in Lamentations; viz., (1) that it appears to offer the poet a flexible metrical unit which can be expanded or contracted according to need,53 and (2) “they help make explicit the personification of the people or city as a woman.”54 This second explanation deserves further development. Why did the poet seek to personify the misery of the people via such epithets? What was he trying to make explicit; i.e., what are the historical referents behind these epithetical symbols?

A careful concordial analysis of the text of all five of these poems reveals that behind these metaphorical epithets stands an astonishingly complete spectrum of non-metaphorical terms for nearly every age, sex, and class of humanity. Babes, sucklings, children, boys, young men, young women, mothers, fathers, and old men are portrayed in the book suffering differing degrees of trauma. Slaves, priests, prophets, widows, orphans, princes, and kings are all there as well. …

In addition to this mass of data, some rather striking structural characteristics come immediately to light when one begins to note the fashion by which this theme of human suffering is presented. I agree with Gottwald that the writer(s) of Lamentations was much more interested in conveying his message than in maintaining artistic purity. In particular, Gottwald's response to Jahnow's assertion (that the free mixture of types and images in the first four poems was due to a lack of “… the powerful originality of a unitary artistic conception”)55 lands right on target: (1) Had the poet focused only upon the figure of the mother of Zion, the poem would have lacked concreteness; (2) had he focused only upon the actual scenes of the dead, the work would have lacked the communal appeal which he sought to effect. The author “would not sacrifice a realistic lament in order to achieve artistry.”56

The debate over literary types, however, offers little help to the expositor interested in probing underneath the surface to the deeper meaning of these epithets and historical word-symbols. Agreement with the contention that theological intention overrides artistic design does not necessarily mean that this book is therefore a-structural. The question is, what kind of structure? Deep structure or surface structure? Debates over acrostic forms and types of lament-forms are predominantly interested in analyzing the surface structures of this material. A closer reading into the deeper structures reveals a very interesting pattern—a pattern which explicitly has to do with the way in which the theme of human suffering is interwoven throughout the book. Perhaps the most convenient way to present this pattern would be to trace its contours within each chapter:

Chapter 1—Four times in this chapter there is a sudden shift from 3rd to 1st person. In three of the instances57 the poet turns to the 1st-person prayer (1.11), lament (1.16),58 and admonition to the nations (1.18) in particularly noteworthy contexts. In 1.11 he employs a metaphorical term for children (mahamaddēhem—Qere) which could have been designed as a word play with mahamaddēhā in 1.10: i.e., it is one thing for the enemy to invade the sanctuary compound and steal what is precious to him, but the thought of little children having to be sold for food wrenches out of the poet a sudden 1st-person prayer to Yahweh: “Look, O Lord, and behold!” Similarly, in v. 16 the shift comes not after a complaint about the activities of the enemy (v. 14), but after pointing out the outcome of the human tragedy (cf. bahūray, bethūlath bath yehādāh in v. 15; bhānay in v. 16). The 1st-person admonition which concludes the chapter (beginning in v. 18) commences the delineating description of “my pain” (mak‘ōbhī) with a mourning over the captivity of bethūlōthay ūbhahūray before any other kind of pain. This is complemented by another prayer for Yahweh to behold the poet's distress (vss. 20-22).

Chapter 2—The first ten verses of chapter 2 read like a 3rd-person laundry-list of images and metaphors which all attempt to describe the depth and breadth of Yahweh's destructive power. Significantly, however, it is not until the visual images of the ziqnā bath siyyōn and the bethūlōth yerūšālāim flash across the poet's mind that we find the first shift to the 1st person in v. 11. In that verse the poet elaborates the reasons for his lament by narrating what he had seen which could have so moved him to tears: the sight of ‘‘ōlēl and yōnēq starving to death in their mothers’ laps. Note that here the metaphorical epithet (bath ‘ammī) is placed in parallel with the historical term(s) (‘ōlēl weyōnēq), a device which is often repeated throughout the book (1.6, bath siyyōn & śārehā; 1.15, bethūlath bath yehūdāh & bahūray/’ abbīray: 2.5, bath yehūday & yisrā’el; 2.15, bath yerūšālāim & hā‘īr; 3.48, bath ‘ammī & 3.51, benōth ‘īrī;59 4.3, bath ‘ammī & ye‘ēnīm (Qere); 4.6, bath ‘ammī & sedōm). This heartbreaking memory promptly leads to a short series of rhetorical questions which underline the helpless agony he was trying to put into words (v. 13). The intervening 2nd-person material is finally disrupted again by a series of imperative verbs which begins in v. 18 and extends through v. 20 (sa‘aqī,60horīdhī, 'al tittenī, qūmī, rōnnī, šiphkī, śe’ī). As the last of these ever-louder hammer-blows strikes the page, the poet … s thoughts stubbornly return to his now-frantic concern for the “lives of your childre.” This recurrent theme finally drags out of him a concluding prayer, wherein he begs Yahweh to watch: the starvation of women compelling them to eat their own children; the choice young men and maidens dying violently by the sword; the enemy utterly destroying “those whom I fondled and nurtured.”

Chapter 3—Saturated as this chapter is with the 1st-person format of the individual lament,61 no dramatic 3rd to 1st person shifts occur here. This is not surprising. Moreover, the overt personalization of the poet's agony (which is more communally expressed in the other four laments) consequently inhibits his concern here for the suffering of the various social groupings within his community. His interests are dominantly personal, not public. Accordingly, there are no terms for suffering humanity here and only two brief epithetical symbols in vss. 48 and 51 (bath ‘ammī in v. 48; benōth ‘īrī in v. 51). The first person plural contexts within which these two epithets are found switch smoothly to the first person singular in the verse which concludes with bath ‘ammī and continues through its parallel in v. 51, but the frenzied statements thereafter which lead up to the vocative prayer-plea in v. 55 make it clear that the poet's concern in this third chapter has been deliberately focused more upon personal suffering than upon collective suffering.

Chapter 4—In chapter 4 the first ten verses are structured around three comparisons. Each of these comparisons is itself structured around the repeated phrase, bath ‘ammī. In verse 3 the jackals are portrayed as creatures which remember, even under stress, to feed their young, but bath ‘ammī has become cruel. The second contrast follows up on this ominous beginning, sketching a pathetic picture of starving children (who once had so much to eat, such nice clothes to wear) and comparing the present destruction of bath ‘ammī with the well-known judgment over Sodom (v. 6): the poet asserts that Jerusalem's chastisement is greater. Verse 10 is one of the most poignant passages in the book. Compassionate women, no longer able to stand the sight of their little ones in such unbearable agony, and realizing that even death by the sword was preferable to the slow, lingering pain of starvation (cf. Josephus, Wars VII, 8, 6), mercifully kill and cook their children for food. All three comparisons move relentlessly deeper into the poet's horror-numbed mind as the scenes of these atrocities are poured out on the page.62 The second half of the poem begins yet another 3rd-person laundry-list of the afflicted (3.12-16). Standard word-pairs63 are employed via well-worn formulae: nābhī’ /kōhēn (4.13; cf. 2.20; Isa. 28.7; Jer. 2.8, 26; 4.9; 5.31, etc.); and kōhēn/ zāqēn (4.16; cf. 1.19; Ezek. 7.26; Jer. 19.1; 29.1). Zāqēn, however, has a double meaning in Lamentations. Of the 6 times it is employed, 4 occurrences are in rather standard word-pairs. Twice, however (2.10; 5.14), the word broadly refers to the aged men of the city, not necessarily the political/business leadership. At any rate, the shift from 3rd to 1st person occurs right here in v. 17 after the word zeqēnīm. It is difficult to say how deliberate this shift may have been, or whether the term's other connotation might have been at all the poet's mind when he decided to make this shift.

Chapter 5—This final chapter, which so many have relegated to a later date64 (and sometimes separate place)65 of composition, nevertheless admirably serves as a strong recapitulation of the “suffering humanity” theme we have already traced through the first four poems. This 1st-person plural communal lament, a prayer from start to finish, is carefully stocked with references to a large segment of the human groupings heretofore discovered underneath the surface of this material:

(a) orphans (5.3)

(b) mothers (5.3)

(c) fathers (5.7)

(d) women (5.11)

(e) virgins (5.11)

(f) princes (5.12)

(g) elders (5.12)

(h) young men (5.13)

(i) young boys (5.13)

(j) old men (5.14)

(k) young men (5.14)

Some are placed in standard word-pairs, though not all; some are repeated with different connotational nuances; some are mentioned here for the first time in the book. The semantic weight, however, in this last chapter appears to be laid more upon what these people used to do (but have now ceased doing) than upon who they are and how much they have suffered. So many distinctively human activities have now been silenced. So many distinctively human institutions have been battered and bludgeoned. So many distinctively human freedoms have been violently and callously taken away. The aftermath of human carnage is here grimly charcoaled for us in chiaroscuro shades of greys and browns. Life now limps along without direction or zest. The sparkling colors which could have brought animation to this scene no longer radiate from the poet's palette. The canvas is grey and vacant. Yahweh's wrath has burned them away.

III. Patrick D. Miller's remarks in a recently-published article have particular relevance here at the conclusion of this paper:

The interpretative task is not tied to the search for a single explanation for a particular lament, but can center in opening up through different stories and moments examples of the human plight that may be articulated through the richly figurative but stereotypical language of the laments.66

(1) Although Miller is responding (a) to rather slavish attempts to locate precisely who the “enemies” in a particular lament might have been,67 and (b) to the debate over the exact historical sequencing of Jeremiah's laments and the Psalms of lament by (c) attempting to relocate the laments more closely to their narrative and historical contexts, the implications of his statement go much farther than this. I heartily agree with him that there needs to be more flexibility with regard to contemporary analyses of lament-forms. In fact, a review of Lamentations' history of theological interpretation, as it has been briefly sketched above, confirms his concern that this kind of flexibility is acutely needed. It is particularly applicable here because so many interpretations assume (a) that a single “key” to the theology of this corpus might be produced, and (b) that such a theological “key” might then lead the way to full exposition of the biblical message, almost as if the poet consciously intended that such a theological “key” be found. Furthermore, (c) such a methodological approach overly reduces and constricts the message of the book, because all other themes must now be labelled “secondary.” This usually means that they do not receive adequate attention and are therefore simply allowed to lie dormant in the text.

(2) Wiesmann intuitively understood this when he pleaded for a theological interpretation which focused more on internal than external characteristics. Not surprisingly, this approach has not endeared him to critics, even though so many of his original theological insights, following his own careful approach, have been recognized, elaborated, and synthesized in several of their own theologies of Lamentations. Because there is still so much uncertainty over so many external characteristics related to this document, Wiesmann's approach is very attractive as a way out of the impasse, even though it, too, has to be treated critically. His stubborn insistence that God's judgment as well as his compassion are held in tension throughout all five chapters points the way toward a balanced methodological blueprint for further investigation. “Dissective” approaches are no more of an attractive alternative than are “single key” approaches. Wiesmann managed to avoid both extremes, at least in his earlier work. Therefore, a critically-adapted version of his methodological approach to these texts ought now to make it possible for one to fashion a relevant, balanced theology on any one of these long-dormant “secondary” themes, as long as one steadfastly guards against the temptation to make such analyses new “keys” to the Theology of Lamentations.

(3) With the aid of some newer hermeneutical tools, the deeper structures of the book might now be made a bit more accessible to the expositor's eye. The analysis offered here has shown that a preeminent concern of the poet was to portray the horrifying scope of human suffering which he had witnessed with his own eyes when Jerusalem fell (could a redactor really have captured this?). Subtle shifts of viewpoint as well as macabre word-plays68 lying under the surface of these laments most often occur in explicit contexts of human suffering as the poet(s) pours out the condensed pain stored up in the depths of his heart. Though his thoughts often turn to God, his feelings just as often turn to his beloved ‘ammī. Like a survivor from a concentration camp, he had had to suppress some grisly, nauseating memories. Wisely, he decided not to repress these powerful emotions, but tried instead to give artistic expression to them. Lamentations, the result of this “grief work,” itself becomes the focal-point for the grief work of an entire nation. Its psychological insights profoundly stimulated the survivors of the holocaust to grieve the loss of their loved ones. Its theological underpinnings, however, insured forever that this grieving process would remain a therapeutic one. Thus, Lamentations provided (and still provides) the essential, fundamental element which every survivor needs to carry on—hope.


  1. Studies in the Book of Lamentations, Studies in Biblical Theology 14 (London: SCM, 1954), esp. pp. 47ff.

  2. Studies in the Text and Theology of the Book of Lamentations, Studia Theologica Lundensia 21 (Lund: CWK Gleerup, 1963), esp. pp. 214ff.

  3. Curiously, none of the primary reviews of Gottwald's book noted this deficiency. Cf. J. F. McDonnell, CBQ 17 (1955): 517-18; J. Mauchline, ET 66 (1954-55): 230; J. H. Gailey, Jr., Inter 9 (1955): 471-72; D. W. Thomas, JTS 6 (1955): 262-65; W. A. Dowd, TS 16 (1955): 282. Cf. Albrektson, Lamentations, p. 238: “It (is) … debatable whether one can speak at all of ‘the key’ in the singular.”

  4. Albrektson, Lamentations, p. 218.

  5. Ibid., p. 219, 231ff.

  6. Ackroyd, Exile and Restoration, OTL (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968), s.v. “Gottwald” and “Alkrektson” in the author's index.

  7. “Grief work” is a phrase which will be used repeatedly in this paper. An excellent introduction to this psychological process can be found in Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York: MacMillan, 1969). In this landmark study, Kübler-Ross sets out her now-famous “five stages” of this process: (1) denial and isolation, (2) anger, (3) bargaining, (4) depression, and (5) acceptance. Traces of all of these stages might quite readily be noted in Lamentations. Kübler-Ross would be the first to caution, however, that these five stages should not be set into an overly-rigid, staircase-type continuum (cf. p. 138).

  8. Cf. W. R. Watters, Formula Criticism and the Poetry of the Old Testament, BZAW 138 (Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 1976), esp. pp. 132f, 210-215. His conclusions appear most succinctly on pp. 146-47: “While formula criticism is not the final solution to all the questions about Hebrew poetry, it nevertheless will go a long way toward helping us repair and relate texts. And it alone just might be the key to a better understanding of the meter.” While not uncritically accepting this thesis in toto, J. Scharbert BZ 22, 2 (1978): 289, nevertheless feels that his discussion of the important function played by word-pairs in OT poetry is much more digestible than his broader discussion about “formulas.”

  9. Contra Albrektson, Lamentations, pp. 215f, 238f, though Albrektson does concede that “elements from different traditions can be found in the same author or in the same work, but this does not in itself mean that any real synthesis has been established.”

  10. For example, simple confessions of sin (Lam. 5.7) are _ater spelled out in more categorical detail (Ezek. 18), as theologians are forced to deal with the questions raised by the great catastrophe: individual vs. collective sin; justice vs. injustice, particularly of Yahweh's actions; the need for a new spirit, not just a chastened heart, etc. Lamentations is a theological document, but one which “presupposes and contains, though embryonically, the tensions of later theology,” Gottwald, Lamentations, p. 71. Cf. also W. Rudolph, Die Klagelieder, KAT XVII-3 (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1963), p. 194.

  11. One of the survivors in Dorothy Rabinowitz's New Lives: Survivors of the Holocaust Living in America (New York: Knopf, 1976), p. 222, is described in a precise prose which relates how one had to learn to think in order to survive the holocaust of the 1940's: “A person had to summon all his wits, and to focus entirely on the present. One had to learn the rules and search for the signals that told how things were done in the new situation, to find out what the dangers were, whom to trust, what resources to count on. In a new situation there was no place for yesterday's problems. It was only when he was much older that he took to brooding. And he did take to it: he had the brooder's memory, the passion for details, the tireless capacity for rage. But that was in the future, when life was easier.”

  12. Donald Zagoria, Vietnam Triangle: Moscow, Peking, Hanoi (New York: Pegasus, 1967), writing at the height of U.S. involvement in the war, stated: “Our action has resembled that of a bull in a china shop more than that of a surgeon performing a delicate operation on the body politic of a distant and strange nation. One can only hope that the lesson of this tragic experience is being learned. But the signs are not hopeful. We continue with what must be a vain effort to rescue political failure by crude military pressure.” Apparently, the hard thinking that was lacking in 1967 is still lacking in 1983, if the developing chaos in Central American/U.S. relations is any indication of the “lessons learned” in Vietnam.

  13. On this point I am in basic agreement with W. W. Cannon, The Authorship of Lamentations, BS 81 (1924): 43ff, and W. Rudolph, Die Klagelieder, p. 193, against H. Wiesmann, Der Verfasser der Klagelieder ein Augenzeuge?, Bib 17 (1936): 84, viz. that Lamentations contains all the qualities of an eyewitness account.

  14. H.-J. Kraus' argument, Klagelieder (Threni),2BK 20 (Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 1960), pp. 13-14, that all five songs stand in close relationship to the events depicted in 587, seems to me to be the safest explanation for the phenomena contained in the text. Rudolph at least agrees (Klagelieder, p. 193) that there probably was not a “Babylonian reworking” of this material; I hold a similar view, though for different reasons (cf. below).

  15. Der sogenannte Jahwist (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 1976), p. 12.

  16. Gottwald's criticism (Lamentations, p. 52) of Wiesmann's overdevelopment of the “suffering” theme, as an abstract notion cut off from its historical roots, is well taken.

  17. Cf. the views of F. Montet, Étude sur le livre des Lamentations (Genève, 1875), p. 27, who believed that the “livre” was little more than a loose ensemble of poems thrown together “sans ordre.” E. Reuss, Das alte Testament (Braunschweig, 1892), V, p. 295, was of the opinion that neither a logical development of thought nor an ordered series of pictures was traceable in the book. T. Nöldeke accused the exegetes of his day, at least those who had claimed to have found such logical developments of thought from chapter to chapter, of gross eisegesis, of “reading back conceptions which cannot be found therein from an unprejudiced reading” Die alttestamentliche Literatur (Leipzig, 1868), p. 145.

  18. Some delimitations before reviewing these opinions: (a) nothing prior to the 19th century will be consulted; (b) there will be no attempt here to deal directly with the issues of date, authorship, or place of composition, though my own views will inevitably be intimated as the discussion unfolds; (c) the focal point of the following section will be the arguments both for and against the unity of the book. Since so few modern discussions have dealt with this problem, the opinions of older scholars had to be consulted to lay the foundation for the analysis here. For lack of time and space, only a representative sampling can be presented.

  19. Gottwald's praise is magnanimous—“Wiesmann (is) the only scholar known to the present writer who has made a close scrutiny of the theology” (Lamentations, p. 52)—even if strongly tempered. Similarly, Rudolph, after criticizing him for his opinions on the book's date, 1 efers the reader to Wiesmann's commentary for detailed exposition of the factors which bring internal harmony to the biblical material (Klagelieder, p. 193).

  20. Gottwald, Lamentations, p. 52; Albrektson, Lamentations, p. 215.

  21. H. Wiesmann, Die Klagelieder übersetzt und erklärt (Frankfurt, 1954).

  22. Biblica, 7 (1926): 146-61.

  23. Rudolph, Klagelieder, p. 195.

  24. Most of the following citations were taken directly from H. Wiesmann's article, Der planmässige, I have not checked all these sources.

  25. Lehrbuch der hist.-krit. Einleitung in die kanon. und apokryph. Bücher des AT,6 (Berlin, 1845), para. 273.

  26. Die Dichter des alten Bundes2 (Göttingen, 1866), 1/2, p. 323.

  27. Die Klagelieder Jeremia's (Leipzig, 1872), p. 546.

  28. Der planmässige, pp. 155-56.

  29. Die Klagelieder, (Leipzig, 1868), p. viif.

  30. Der planmässige, pp. 156-57.

  31. From Wiesmann's own review of Naegelsbach's thesis, I wonder if he is fairly representing him at this point.

  32. Das hebräische Klagelied, ZAW (1882): 1ff.

  33. Der planmässige, p. 157.

  34. Ironically, Rudolph has fundamentally misunderstood what Wiesmann was trying to say when he lumps him into the same category as Ewald, Keil, and Naegelsbach (Klagelieder, p. 196).

  35. Der planmässige, pp. 155-56.

  36. This statement should be interpreted only as a tempering criticism, not a complete rejection.

  37. Kraus, Klagelieder, pp. 12, 15. Kraus' postulation of a new literary type, the “lament for the destroyed sanctuary,” as well as its alleged Sitz im Leben among the cult prophets has come under strong criticism. Cf. Lam. 2.14; 4.13, and G. Fohrer, Einleitung in das alte Testament (Heidelberg: Quelle and Meyer, 1965)—ET by D. Green (Nashwille: Abingdon, 1968), pp. 297-98; T. F. McDaniel, The Alleged Sumerian Influence upon Lamentations, VT, 18 (1968): 198-209; B. S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979), p. 592.

  38. Der Klagelieder, p. 193. I fail to see Rudolph's evidence for identical authorship of chapters 4 and 5 from the passages he cites on p. 194: Lam. 4.1f & 5.16a; 4.16b & 5.12; 4.17 & 5.6.

  39. G. Brunet, Les Lamentationes contre Jérémie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968). Eissfeldt rejected his thesis entirely (as have many others) as strained and artificial, but applauded his attempt to draw parallels between modern history and Jerusalem's situation in 587 b.c.e. as “a deepening of the understanding of Lamentations,” ThLZ 94 (1969): 819.

  40. Der planmässige, pp. 150-51.

  41. Ibid., p. 156. N. B. Rudolph's critique, Der Klagelieder, pp. 193-94.

  42. H. Jahnow, Das Hebräische Leichenlied, BZAW 36 (Berlin, 1923).

  43. Threni III und die jeremianische Autorschaft des Buches der Klagelieder, ZAW 24 (1904): 1-16.

  44. Cf. nt. 19 above.

  45. I fail to understand either why (a) Wiesmann chose only to emphasize the themes of punishment and lament in his concluding remarks, or (b) why he felt compelled to return to a quasi-external structure by submitting a rise-and-fall developmental pattern for these two themes, since he so carefully avoids it, even criticizes it in the preceding pages (“Der planmässige,” pp. 160-61).

  46. See the thorough analysis and critique of process theology by N. L. Geisler, Process Theology, in S. N. Gundry and A. F. Johnson., eds, Tensions in Contemporary Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1976), pp. 237-84. For an interesting application of such a process hermeneutic to a biblical text, cf. G. W. Coats, The Way of Obedience: Traditiohistorical and Hermeneutical Reflections on the Balaam Story, Semeia, 24 (1982): 53-79.

  47. Cf. J. Barr, Reading the Bible as Literature, BJRL, 56 (1973): 10-33; J. D. Crossan A Basic Bibliography for Parables Research, Semeia, 1 (1974): 236-73.

  48. Cf. D. Robertson, Literature, the Bible as, IDBSupp (Nashville: Abingdon, 1976), p. 549.

  49. Even W. R. Watters, in a study which is primarily concerned with the characteristics of oral poetry, candidly admits that Lamentations “was written poetry from the beginning” (Formula Criticism, p. 133).

  50. Cf. above.

  51. Cf. Roberston, Literature, p. 549.

  52. Lamentations, AB (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972).

  53. Cf. F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1973), p. 52, on the flexibility of even the most ancient near eastern epithets. Cf. also chapter 4, Word Pairs and the Creativity of the Hebrew Poet, in Watters, Formula Criticism, pp. 81ff.

  54. Lamentations, p. xxxviii. …

  55. Jahnow, Leichenlied, p. 172.

  56. Gottwald, Lamentations, p. 36.

  57. The shift in 1.9c seems premature. N.B. (a) only 3 f s suffixes elsewhere in the verse; b return of 3 f s suffix in vss. 10-11b; c Bohairic and Ambrose read ‘onyāh for ‘onyī in 1.9c.

  58. Granted, the shift here is not from 3rd to 1st person. An analysis of the usage of the first person singular pronoun 'anī, however, reveals that this is one of only 4 verses in the book wherein 'a occurs—and here in conjunction with mimmennī (cf. 1.21; 3.1, 63).

  59. bath ‘ammī and benōth ‘īrī (3.51) could also be taken as parallel metaphorical epithets. There seems to be no convincing reason to drop the suffix (cf. Albrektson Lamentations, p. 161f).

  60. Reading saca with Budde, Die Dichter, p. 335, in view of horīdhī and 'al titte in v. 18b and c.

  61. Previous debate has centered on genre: individual vs. communal lament-forms in chapter 3. Cf. Löhr's review of the arguments both for and against each position (“Threni III”). Gottwald thinks that the poet, steeped in the milieu of “corporate personality,” never had a real problem with genre and cautions moderns not to become chained to “ironclad rules” and “sheer arbitrariness” (Lamentations, p. 41). W. Whallon attacks Gunkel's programmatic categorization of Gattungen in Gunkel's Einleitung in die Psalmen (Göttingen, 1933), noting these fundamental weaknesses: (a) assumption of a uniform culture; (b) primitive association of the literature we possess with the religious life of the ancient community; (c) overemphasis on the Psalms as liturgical from the very first, and the source of all Gattungen in the OT (cf. Formula, Character, and Context, p. 162, cited in Watters, Formula Criticism, p. 34).

  62. Cf. Josephus, Wars, V, 10, 2-3, for a grisly description of what famine can do to a family under wartime conditions. J. J. M. Roberts (private correspondence) offers another reason for this maternal cannibalism: “The point is not that they mercifully kill, but that hunger drives these women to lose their compassionate character and to eat their children to still their own tormenting hunger!”.

  63. Watters, Formula Criticism, pp. 212-213.

  64. All of the commentaries already cited plus the standard Introductions of Fohrer, Eissfeldt (The OT: An Introduction, 1965), Childs, and Harrison (Introduction to the OT, 1969) deal extensively with the opinions found in the literature.

  65. Ibid.

  66. Trouble and Woe: Interpreting the Biblical Laments, Inter, 37, 1 (Jan. 1983): 45.

  67. Building on C. Wastermann's categories of “God,” “mourner,” and “enemies” in Struktur und Geschichte der Klage im AT, ZAW, 66 (1954): 44-80.

  68. R. Gordis, The Song of Songs and Lamentations2 (New York: KTAV, 1974), frequently notes the existence of word-plays scattered throughout the text; e.g., ad loc. on 1.8, where he suggests that niddāh was deliberately chosen because it might mean either “unclean” or “object of scorn.” Cf. also zōlēlāh in 1.11: older meaning, “gluttonous,” secondary meaning, “despised, worthless.” The sinister word-play on maha maddē (1.10; 1.11) has already been noted above (). Perhaps the most menacing example is found in the way the poet plays with the root ‘ll. Cf. the way in which the noun ‘ōlēl and the verb ‘ālal dance together in 2.20; 1.22; 1.12 (N.B. mahamaddēhem in 1.11); 3.51.

Delbert R. Hillers (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3564

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 Jerusalem given in Kings. Encouraged by his suggestion, I dived into the book again and came up almost completely empty. For though Lamentations was written soon after an overpowering historical event, it provides almost no historical information and is related to “history” in an indirect, mediated fashion.

These conclusions will be elaborated in more detail below, but are stated thus baldly here because they raise the question of how central “history” is in Old Testament religion. That “history” is the particular arena of divine action and divine revelation has been a prominent assertion of many recent theologians. “The Old Testament is a history book” (von Rad). “God reveals himself in historical events, and not in ageless myths or in a system of propositions” (Noth). “Israel is distinguished by the fact that it experienced the reality of God not in the shadows of a mythical primitive history but more and more decisively in historical change itself” (Pannenberg). Thus in these and many other thinkers about the Old Testament—also in America—history is considered significant and vital as contingent, concrete event, free and unexpected, as opposed to any timeless scheme, either the myths of the ancient world or the rigid dogmatics of the present time.

Such stress on history as a religious category is probably somewhat less popular now, but is perhaps still sufficiently alive that an examination of a biblical book in this connection may not be completely out-of-date. This critical review of history as a religious category is deliberately exegetical rather than philosophical, and is deliberately limited to Lamentations and some related compositions, with no claim to be more universal in scope.

One is struck, in reading Lamentations, by the dearth of specific dates and such details as personal names and placenames. The Kings account of the Fall of Jerusalem is rich in these respects: the conquerer is Nebuzaradan, and his specific title …, “Captain of the Guard,” is added; he enters the city in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, which was the 19th year of King Nebuchadnezzar. Lamentations does not even inform us that the conquerers were from Babylon, and far from telling us the name of Babylon's king or the name of the general, does not even supply us the name of Israel's king. Of foreign nations only Edom is mentioned, in a curse on her for her part in the spoiling of Israel. And there is a great reduction in contrast to the prose account. The cast of actors is reduced to two: Yahweh and Israel, and the latter is so passive that one can almost speak of Yahweh as the only actor. Of course one may observe that if, as is likely, Lamentations was written soon after the event, then the congregation of worshippers knew the details; they knew the dates, they knew the names, and did not need to be reminded. But this objection to the point made here seems rather irrelevant to me. The related passage in Kings was evidently also written soon after the events, and the author did think it important to give the details. We have to do with a question of the writer's intention, and his conception of what was important, and the poet, however much his hearers may have known or forgotten, did not think it important to give historical details in the same way that the prose writer did.

Some of what Lamentations does seem to tell us turns out to be shaped by the literary and religious tradition, not by observation. There is much material in the book that cannot conceivably be called historical information, long passages where the language is obviously metaphorical, or where Yahweh is presented as the destroyer of Israel in a series of poetic images. This does not at the moment concern us. But there are some passages where one might suppose historical evidence is being communicated, even if that was not the author's main purpose. On examination, however, these prove to reflect literary and religious tradition more than fact. Chapter 5:18 provides a simple, almost trivial example. “On Mount Zion, which lies desolate, foxes prowl about.” The historian Enno Janssen, writing of Judah in the Period of the Exile (Juda in der Exilszeit), quite understandably turns to Lamentations to support the meager amount that we know about this period, and he lights on this verse. The question concerning him is a typical historian's question: how many people were left in Jerusalem, if any? Evidently there were some, he answers, yet the city is badly enough ruined that wild animals live there, even right on the site of the temple: see Lam. 5:18. Beginning with Mesopotamian texts from the end of the 3rd Millennium b.c., we have many examples from outside the Bible of a rather stereotyped description of a ruined city, often including the idea that wild animals now roam in the streets of the ruin.

This turns up in the Bible also, in Isa. 34 and 13, and in Zeph. 3. Thus for example Isa. 34:11f speaks of Edom: “The hawk and the porcupine shall inherit it, and the owl and the raven shall dwell in it. It shall become a dwelling of jackals, an abode for ostriches; and desert animals shall meet with jackals, the satyr shall meet with his fellow.” This is not only literary convention, but reflects a religious conviction as well. One of the curses attached to the first Sefire treaty (Sef I A 32-33) says: “And may Arpad become a mound to (house the desert animal) and the gazelle and the fox and the hare and the wildcat and the owl and the (?) and the magpie.” Israel conceived of her relation to Yahweh under the form of a treaty, from very early times, I believe, but certainly by the time of Jeremiah, and part of this treaty with God was the conception that if Israel broke it, the curses of the covenant would come upon her. The author of Lamentations is at this point making a religious point, that Jerusalem has suffered the typical fate of a rebellious city, and he is following a literary commonplace—Jerusalem is described the way ruined cities have been described for a very long time.

As a further example of how the literary tradition shapes a poet's description of historical events, we take a more problematic case: the description of famine and specifically of cannibalism found in Lamentations. There is no doubt that the people of Jerusalem suffered famine. According to Kings “On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine was so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land.” As a result the king and a party of others fled. This episode came after the city had been under siege for a year and a half; even though the siege was lifted at one point when the Egyptians diverted the Babylonian army, which probably happened in summer of 588, we still must reckon that the people had lived for a solid year on what was stored within the town.

Thus it is not problematic that Lamentations makes repeated reference to hunger. “As the children and babies fainted in the streets of the city they said to their mothers. ‘Where is there grain and wine?’” (2:11-12) Commentators have wondered whether the little children would have called out for wine along with their bread, but that is probably being hyper-critical. There is no difficulty with the main point: “My priests and elders expired in the city while seeking food to keep alive.” The problem is with the references to cannibalism: “Look, Yahweh, and consider who it was you treated so—Should women eat what they bore, the children they have raised?” (2:20) “The very women, the kindly women, cooked their own children. That was the food they had when my people was ruined.” (4:10) There is no mention of this in the prose accounts of the fall of Jerusalem. Does Lamentations thus provide us with a grisly detail to add to our histories?

One can raise this question if only because cannibalism as a result of prolonged starvation is an extreme of human behavior which is not so terribly common. People can starve to death without sinking to this. Yet these passages in Lamentations are not completely isolated in the Bible. In a well-known passage from the cycle of Elisha stories set in the time of the siege of Samaria (2 Kings 6:28-30), a woman complains to the king: “This woman said to me, ‘Give your son, that we may eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow.’ So we boiled my son and ate him.” The other woman does not keep her part of the bargain, as it turns out. One would be more certain about this reference to cannibalism if it were in a source with higher historical reliability; the Elisha stories, as is well-known, contain many touches of legend and folk-lore. Josephus does tell of cannibalism on the occasion of the great siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70a.d. (Jewish War VI 3, 4.) His account is highly circumstantial, with the name of the guilty woman and many details, and so is perhaps not to be questioned, though it also contains calculated literacy devices, such as dramatic speeches which Josephus made up. Oppenheim has gathered references to cannibalism in Akkadian literature. In historical writing we have such references to two version of Ashurbanipal 's campaign against the Arabs who were on the side of Shamashshumukin: “The remainders (of the Arab troops) who succeeded to enter Babylon ate (there) each other's flesh in their ravenous hunger.” In another version: “Irra, the Warrior (i.e., pestilence) struck down Uate’, as well as his army, who had not kept the oaths sworn to me and had fled before the onslaught of Ashur, my lord—had run away from them Famine broke out among them and they ate the flesh of their children against their hunger.” Provisionally we may say that cannibalism is mentioned in Assyrian historical records, but we will later want to reexamine these passages.

Cannibalism is also a feature of the literary tradition, and this is where the doubt arises. In Mesopotamia, we have mention of it in the Atrahasis epic, an Old Babylonian composition of greatest interest to Bible students because of its flood account, which supplements that in the Gilgamesh epic and is in some respects closer to the Noah story. According to this epic, before Enlil hit on the idea of using the flood against the bothersome race of mankind, he tried to wipe them out by hunger. (Assyrian recension “S” rev. vi 1-15) “When the second year arrived they suffered the itch. When the third year arrived the people's features were distorted by hunger. When the fourth year arrived their long legs became short, their broad shoulders became narrow, they walked hunched in the street. When the fifth year arrived daughter watched the mother's going in, But the mother would not open her door to the daughter. The daughter watched the scales at the sale of the mother, The mother watched the scales at the sale of the daughter. When the sixth year arrived they served up the daughter for dinner, they served up the son for food … One house consumed another. Their faces were overlaid like dead malt. The people were living on the edge of death.” This is the end of the description. Note that cannibalism is the limit, the extreme stage. The earliest reference to cannibalism known to me is in the Curse of Agade, a text I mentioned above, from about 2000 b.c. “May the oxen-slaughterer, slaughter (his) wife (instead), May your sheep-butcher butcher his child (instead).”

The curses attached to Mesopotamian treaties from the eighth and seventh centuries b.c. repeatedly threaten treatybreakers with cannibalism, and this is done in terms at times very close to the literary tradition. To quote just one specimen, note Esarhaddon's treaty: “A mother [will close her door] against her own daughter. In your hunger eat the flesh of your sons. Let one eat the flesh of another.” Here two stages are cited in the same order as in the Epic: first the mother refuses her daughter access to food by barring the door in her face; then the climactic stage, namely cannibalism. It is this very frequent occurrence of cannibalism among the treaty-curses which leads me to question the historical value of such references in Ashurbanipal's annals. Let me cite again the passage on the sufferings of the Arabians for an example of how it is possible that the treaty pattern, or covenant theology if you prefer, may have shaped Assyrian “history”: “Famine broke out among them and they ate the flesh of their children against their hunger. (The gods) inflicted quickly upon them (all) the curses written down in their sworn agreements.” The writer goes on to quote almost verbatim another curse attested in the treaties.

Israelite covenants also had such a curse—one mentioning cannibalism—attached, to judge from the conclusion to covenant legislation in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Thus Lev. 26:29 “You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters.” The version in Deuteronomy is much expanded, and is too gruesome to quote. I will mention only that the author of Deuteronomy heightens the effect of his curse by saying this will be done by “the most tender and delicately bred” man or woman. As you may recall, Lam. 4:10 makes the same point: The women themselves, “the kindly women” committed the awful crime. Jeremiah threatens Israel with doom in similar words: “And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters. Each shall eat another's flesh.” Isaiah (9:19-20) and Ezekiel (5:10) say much the same thing.

This may suffice to make clear the problem with history as depicted in the poetry of Lamentations. The events are not given to us direct, but as refracted through an age-old tradition, a tradition both literary and religious. In literature this was how one stated that the utmost starvation had taken place. This we may propose is one of the traditional limits in Israelite literary style. The sky is the traditional limit for height, the earth for depths, stars and locusts for great number, the sea for breadth, Sodom and Gomorrah for wickedness, and cannibalism for the limit, the extreme of famine. If the author of Lamentations says “For your ruin is as vast as the sea” using a simile as old as Ugaritic literature, or can say that the iniquity of his people was greater than that of Sodom and Gomorrah, then we may suppose him capable of saying that the people turned cannibals, as a traditional and expressive way of depicting the severity of the suffering. From the religious side, this was a way of asserting that Yahweh had done what he threatened. The author of Lamentations quotes one curse from (or at any rate a traditional curse) Deuteronomy at 1:5 when he says “Her enemies have become the head.” Compare Deut. 28:44 “He shall be the head, and you will be the tail.” So it is not inconceivable that also in referring to cannibalism his main interest was in asserting that covenantbreach had brought its inevitable consequences. One of the apocrypha, Baruch, makes this connection explicit: (2:1-2) “Nowhere under heaven have such deeds been done as were done in Jerusalem, thus fulfilling what was foretold in the law of Moses, that we should eat the flesh of our children …”

Thus such “history” as we have in Lamentations is not told with an eye to the unique, particular unrepeatable, contingent circumstances; it is experienced and narrated in conformity to certain pre-existing literary and religious patterns.

Turning to the more strictly theological question with which we began, is God represented in Lamentations as revealing himself in history? In one sense, the answer is obviously in the affirmative. Long passages in the book speak of what happened to Judah in 587 b.c. as the action of Yahweh. “You who pass by on the road, consider and see: Is there any pain like my pain—that which he caused me, Which Yahweh inflicted on me the day of his burning anger? From on high he sent fire and sank it into my bones. He stretched a net for my feet; he turned me back. … The Lord heaped up in my midst all my strong men, then summoned an assembly against me to crush my young warriors.” There is no question that Yahweh is active in human history; he so dominates the book as to make it more appropriate to question whether Babylon had anything to do with the fall of Jerusalem! Yahweh's sphere is obviously not a remote divine world, where he confronts other gods in myth, but the world of human beings, and conversely, the world of mankind is not sealed off from divine action, but open to it at every point.

But in another sense the book provides a basis for questioning the point of view of the theologians cited above. Historical events are not presented as though by themselves they are revelatory. Instead there always seems to be present the idea that an event must be expected or predicted in some way to be meaningful. It must conform to an existing conception of what divine action is. “Yahweh has done what he planned; he has carried out what he said he would, What he commanded from olden times.” To say, as Pannenberg does, that he is revealed “in historical change itself” does not seem to apply to this book. I wonder if it applies even to the prose narrative in Kings? One can raise a similar objection to the rather more extreme statements by Hans Walter Wolff, who asserts that the Old Testament person was interested neither in the thought forms of myth, with its idea of return and recurrence, nor in a world-order of action and consequences—“Rather now it is the unforeseen fact which attracts interest, the change in history, the new in the irreversible progress of events.” The fall of Jerusalem was scarcely an unforeseen fact, yet it is the only one our author is really interested in. He presents it in a style which emphasizes, not the new and particular in the situation, but its conformity to old pattern; he presents the catastrophe as the fulfillment and confirmation of a preexisting religious conception. If so, this reduces the contrast between “history” and myth or propositional theology.

Was an Israelite's self-understanding, his hope, grounded in a set of events in history as some theologians have affirmed?

When we turn to Lamentations, it is to discover that Israel's history plays practically no role in this book, intended to help a despairing community, whatever. The only meager references to anything in the national past other than the recent destruction of the city are the statement “Our fathers have sinned,” the allusions to the sin of prophets and priests, and to the sinful policy of foreign alliances. But there is no reference to the mighty acts of God, for very good and obvious reasons! The last mighty act of God had been an act of judgment. Yahweh had brought about his “day”—judgment day, we might say, and our author is sufficiently imbued with the spirit of the prophets to know that there can be no appeal now to the ancient acts by which God had given Israel assurance of her election.

Instead of turning to history, he turns to another area of religious experience to be able to interpret the catastrophe. That is the area of individual experience, what the individual faithful Israelite had found to be true of God in his private life, not in the national life. The individual is not here called on to interpret his destiny in light of the national history, but the nation is called on to learn from individual experience. At a time when it was pointless for them to say, “We have Abraham as our father,” they are directed to a separate resource of assurance: the typical experiences of the hard-pressed believer (e.g., Lam. 3:22-36). Lamentations is demonstratably not unique in this respect. The Psalms of complaint by the individual are the most common type in the psalter, and in all of them there is not one reference to the national history. I am not suggesting that history, the particular events which Israel identified as acts of God, did not ever provide assurance and self-understanding to the Israelite. But Lamentations and the psalms of Lament (not to mention the wisdom literature) suggest that Israel's religion was complex enough to encompass a wider range of ideas.

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

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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.]


The biblical book of Lamentations has enjoyed a surprising renewal of interest in recent years. In extensive studies over the past twenty years the text, philology, and theology of Lamentations have received the lion's share of attention.1 Other questions remain unanswered, however. What are we to make of the five compositions comprising Lamentations in terms of poetic analysis? May we reconstruct these compositions in a metrical pattern as Biblica Hebraica did? Is Freedman's syllable-count method2 to be preferred to the older system of counting stresses? May we even use the concept of meter in regard to Hebrew and Near Eastern poetry? What are the characteristics of Near Eastern poetry anyway? The question of poetry, metrics, and the use of acrostics is far from settled.

Another matter of serious note has been treated in the commentaries in a somewhat cavalier manner. What are the Near Eastern antecedents of the kind of literature we find in the biblical book of Lamentations? To date only one serious attempt (that of McDaniel3) has appeared in print to explore the claim of Kramer:

There is little doubt that it was the Sumerian poets who originated and developed the “lamentation” genre—there are Sumerian examples dating possibly from as early as the Third Dynasty of Ur … and as late as the Parthian period … and that the Biblical Book of Lamentations, as well as the “burden” laments of the prophets, represent a profoundly moving transformation of the more formal and conventional Mesopotamian prototypes.4

Ten years later Kramer wrote:

But there is little doubt that the biblical Book of Lamentations owes no little of its form and content to its Mesopotamian forerunners, and that the modern orthodox Jew who utters his mournful lament at the “western wall” of “Solomon's” long-destroyed Temple, is carrying on a tradition begun in Sumer some 4,000 years ago, where “By its (Ur's) walls as far as they extended in circumference, laments were uttered.”5

Because of advances in the realm of Sumerian and Akkadian literary analysis during the 1970s, a reappraisal of Thomas F. McDaniel's pioneer critique is imperative to investigate this question of possible Sumerian antecedents. This paper will argue that McDaniel's conclusions can no longer be maintained and that Kramer's views are more defensible now than when he made them in 1959 and 1969.

McDaniel begins by pitting Kramer,6 Gadd,7 and Kraus8 against Rudolph9 and Eissfeldt10 to demonstrate that scholarly opinion is divided on the question of Sumerian influence on the biblical Lamentations (pp. 199f.). He then proceeds to “present and evaluate the parallel motifs appearing in both the Hebrew and Sumerian works … ” (p. 200). These “parallel motifs” number fourteen and represent terms, concepts, and choices in wording. McDaniel then judges, “All of the motifs cited from Lamentations are either attested otherwise in biblical literature or have a prototype in the literary motifs current in Syria-Palestine.”11 Furthermore McDaniel affirms that

certain dominant themes of the Sumerian lamentations find no parallel at all in this Hebrew lament. For example, one would expect to find the motif of the “evil storm” … somewhere in the biblical lamentation if there were any real literary dependency.12

Next McDaniel questions how a second millennium Mesopotamian genre could have influenced a first millennium Palestinian work. He argues that evidence is lacking to demonstrate the survival of an eastern cuneiform tradition in Iron-age Syro-Palestine. The only possible means he sees to bridge this spatial and temporal chasm is the intervening Canaanite, Hurrian, and Hittite literature whose remains have failed to provide us with exemplars of the lament genre. He also disagrees with Gadd's contention that exiled Judeans adopted this genre in Babylon. He reasons that exiled Israelites would not have been in any mood to adopt a literary form of their captors, especially since they had “their own rich local literary traditions” (p. 209). “At most the indebtedness would be the idea of a lamentation over a beloved city.”13 Of his arguments, the most crippling to Kramer's, Gadd's, and Kraus's position is the spatial and temporal gap separating Lamentations from the Sumerian city-laments. This paper will summarize the history of the Mesopotamian lament genre, give a brief analysis of the later evolved lament form, and show that there no longer exists a significant spatial and temporal gap between the Mesopotamian congregational lament form and the biblical book.



Following the pioneering publications of Kramer14 and Jacobsen15 in the 1940s and 1950s a younger group of scholars (W. W. Hallo,16 Mark E. Cohen,17 Raphael Kutscher,18 Joachim Krecher,19 and Margaret Green20) has delineated and analyzed the Sumero-Akkadian genre of laments in dissertations, articles, and monographs. Although it is still premature to attempt a definitive treatment of the genre, the broad outline of the development of laments in Mesopotamian culture can be shown to span nearly two millennia.

Kramer remarked as early as 1969 that the “incipient germ [of the lament genre] may be traced as far back as the days of Urukagina, in the 24th century B.C.”21 He cited a list of temples and shrines of Lagash which had been burned, looted, or otherwise defiled by Lugalzagessi as being the first step in the creation of the lament genre. No laments are extant for the Akkadian, Gutian, or Ur III eras. Laments were invented as a literary response to the calamity suffered throughout Sumer about 2000 B.C.E. immediately after the sack of Ur in the days of Ibbi-Sin, the last of the Third Dynasty rulers of Ur.

At present five Old Babylonian Sumerian city-laments form the earliest stage of the lament genre. They are the “Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur”22 which has received the greatest amount of attention, the “Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur,23” the “Nippur Lament” to be published by Å. Sjöberg,24 the “Uruk Lament,” edition in preparation by M. Civil and M. W. Green,25 and the “Eridu Lament,” critical edition by M. W. Green.26 The so-called “Second Lamentation for Ur,” the “Ibbi-Sin Lamentation,” and the “Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Akkad” have all turned out to be parts of the “Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur.”27 Nor are we including here the so-called “Curse of Agade” even though it employs lament or complaint language.28 The usually accepted terminus ante quem for the five major city-laments is 1925 b.c.e.29

The city-laments describe one event,30 were written largely in the Emesal dialect of Sumerian31 by gala-priests, and were composed to be recited in ceremonies for razing Ur and Nippur sanctuaries in preparation for proper restoration.32 They were not reused in later rituals and did not become a part of the priests' ritual stock of available religious poetry for liturgical use. In the Old Babylonian scribal schools they became a part of the scribal curriculum but ceased to be copied during the First Millennium. Kutscher, remarking about the literary merit of these city-laments, writes, “From a literary point of view these laments display a masterful use of the classical Sumerian language, freshness of style and a sincere creative effort.’33


The second stage in the history of the Mesopotamian lament genre occurred in the Old Babylonian era with the nearly simultaneous creation of the eršemma-composition and the balag-lament. Cohen suspects that the eršemma, a liturgical composition of the gala-priests in Emesal dialect, may have preceded the balag slightly on the grounds that the eršemma had a more compact form while the balag appears to have had a more composite nature.34 Unfortunately, clear textual evidence is lacking for us to fix priority within the Old Babylonian period.

Although the term eršemma means “wail of the šèm-([Akkadian] ‘hal ‘allatu-) drum,” not all eršemmas are completely mournful since at points the subject matter served to praise a god.35 However, a large percentage of eršemma-subject matter centered on catastrophes or the dying-rising myth of Inanna, Dumuzi, or Geshtinanna.36 Kramer as recently as 1975 published two Old Babylonian eršemma-incipit catalogs from the British Museum from which he isolated no less than 109 eršemmas.37 Of these, about 100 are unknown to us at this time. Cohen has demonstrated that in general the Old Babylonian eršemmas are characterized as being a single, compact unit addressed to a single deity.38 Cohen has also contended that the gala-priests, when called upon repeatedly to provide more liturgical compositions to be chanted on the occasion of rebuilding cities and temples, borrowed eršemma material to create new eršemmas and appropriated hymnic Emegir material for insertion into new eršemmas.39 Also Old Babylonian eršemmas and balags occasionally shared lines of text.40 Cohen was not able to determine the direction of this borrowing.41 The exact Old Babylonian cultic use of the eršemma remains a mystery, although we may speculate that they were intoned in a liturgical context similar to that of the balag-laments.42


The balag was created as a lamentation form about 1900 b.c.e. as a literary outgrowth of the older city-lament. In support of this thesis Cohen has established a “high probability of direct relationship between the city-laments and the balag-lamentations”43 by examining four factors: 1) the structure and form of city-laments and Old Babylonian balags,44 2) their content,45 3) their ritual use,46 and 4) whether there was sufficient opportunity for development to occur.47 Even though we may conclude there was a close association between the balag-lament and its older city-lament predecessor, we must note several differences between the two. City-laments were composed for one specific “performance” to be retired afterwards to the scribal academy as a classical work;48balags were adopted for further liturgical use and were copied over and over down into the Seleucid era. City-lament subject matter concentrated on one specific disaster in detailed description; balags were more general in their description of disaster and could be borrowed from city to city. City-laments were used in a narrow setting of temple demolition and reconstruction; balags were recited in broader contexts apparently as “congregational laments.”

Although most compositions of this genre were not called by the title “balag” in the Old Babylonian era, five examples in which such was the case have been recovered.49 One of these five, a balag to Dumuzi (CT 42, 15), was composed in the Larsa period about 1870 b.c.e.50 Kutscher has explained this low number of labeled examples as arising from the fact that the term “balag” in Babylonian times designated function, not generic title. The composition was to be intoned to the accompaniment of the balag-instrument,51 in all likelihood a drum.52 Cohen observed that the unusual length of the balags caused them to be written on large tablets or in series of smaller tablets so that the final lines with their colophons were lost in many cases with the result that the designation “balag” is missing.53 The form of the general all-purpose lament had already emerged in the Old Babylonian era even though the label “balag” was not always attached to the extant Old Babylonian recensions.

Kutscher's publication of YBC 465954 which preserves stanzas IV-XIII of the balag, a-ab-ba u-lu-a (Oh Angry Sea), makes clear that even in its Old Babylonian form this particular balag may be roughly divided in half.55 The first half was devoted to lamentation presumably to be chanted during ceremonies at the demolition of an old temple. The second half (a hymn and prayer to Enlil) was probably “recited during the ceremonies marking the laying of the foundation to the new temple.”56 Cohen points to the concluding line in some Old Babylonian balags, “This supplication … return the ‘x-temple’ to place,” as indicating the use of the balag in temple-restoration ceremonies.57 The Old Babylonian balags also appear to have been included in liturgies for various festivals and for certain days of the month.58


The Middle Babylonian period marked an advance in the lament genre although documentary evidence for it is meager. In fact, none of the main Emesal hymnic types of the first millennium—the balag, the eršemma, the šuilla, and the eršahunga—are attested in Middle Babylonian times.59 Several eršemmas were possibly composed during Kassite times, however. Cohen somewhat tentatively suggests that the joining of balag-laments with eršemma-compositions to form a new composite genre occurred at some point during the Kassite era (ca. 1600-1160 b.c.e.).

During the Middle Babylonian period the two genres [balag and eršemma] had apparently been so closely identified with each other, presumably on the basis of ritual function, that each balag was assigned one eršemma as its new conclusion. The eršemma was then reworked, adopting a second concluding unit which contained the plea to the heart of the god and the concommitant [sic] list of deities, although this list was drastically reduced in size from the final kirugu of the Old Babylonian lamentation.60

Interestingly, Kutscher was able to amass exemplars of the Old Babylonian balag titled a-ab-ba hu-luh-ha (Oh Angry Sea) for the Old Babylonian, Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, and Seleucid periods but could not locate even a one-line scrap of Kassite origin.61 Even the Middle Assyrian era provided two scraps consisting of eight lines of text.62 A Middle Babylonian catalog may, however, list Kutscher's balag under the title a-ab-ba hu-luh-ha den-líl-lá.63

Precisely how the text of earlier balags and eršemmas passed into the first millennium from their Old Babylonian point of origin is not totally clear. We may postulate, however, that these compositions had become essential ingredients in liturgies and were, therefore, preserved by the clergy. At any rate, from the Neo-Assyrian period through the Seleucid, balag-eršemma laments are exceptionally well documented from three major sources: 1) incipit catalogs, 2) ritual calendar tablets, and 3) copies of the laments themselves together with their colophons indicating inter alia the nature of the genre.

During the first millennium older lament material from both balags and eršemmas became somewhat interchangeable. Cohen was able to produce two eršemmas of this era which had been created from earlier balag material with some modification.64 The more general term ér = “lament,” came to be used for the wide range of lamentations in keeping with the broadening of both the form and its function.

The ritual use of the balag-eršemma in the first millennium was even broader than in the Old Babylonian era. Numerous texts detailing the cultic performance of gala-(Akkadian kalû-) priests reveal how the balag-eršemma laments were integrated into complex rituals for a variety of situations.65 Furthermore, the balag-eršemmas provided the ritual wording for ceremonies conducted on certain days of the month as noted in numerous calendar texts.66 Often on such occasions a lament was recited while offerings and libations were being presented to a deity. The balag-eršemma continued to be sung on the occasion of razing an old building.67 Caplice has given us a case of a lament's being chanted as a part of a namburbi-ritual for warding off a portended evil.68 Cohen has also presented other examples when an evil portent prompted a namburbi-ritual which included a god-appeasing lament.69 Thus the lament served the purpose of tranquilizing the potentially destructive god so that catastrophe could be prevented. The ritual for covering the sacred kettledrum involved the singing of a balag with its eršemma accompanied by the newly covered kettledrum later on in the rite.70 Libations and offerings were not presented on this occasion. Cohen interpreted the occasion as a formal testing of the drum.



On its most superficial level of organization the city-laments were divided into “songs” called kirugu, usually equated with Akkadian šēru = Hebrew šîr.71 The number and length of these stanzas were seemingly at the composers' discretion. Each stanza, except the last, was followed by a one or two line unit called gišgigal, usually interpreted as “antiphon.”72 The gišgigal summarized the content of its kirugu or repeated a key line or two from the kirugu. Beyond these divisions the city-laments seem not to have had further formal external structure.73

Margaret Green in an unpublished Chicago dissertation74 has discussed the poetic devices used in the city-laments.75 Significant among these devices are: 1) the use of couplets, triplets, and even longer units of lines in which only one element is changed from line to line, 2) parallelism, 3) repeating units of a part of a line or a whole line or several lines, 4) complex interweaving of two or more refrains, and 5) use of lists. All these devices appear in Sumerian poetry of various genres and are not restricted to laments. Beyond these structural techniques two other characteristics appear to a greater or lesser extent in all five citylaments. For one thing, the composition alternates between first, second, and third persons. Such change in speaker possibly reflects the dramatic function of the city-laments. Furthermore, the dialect alternates between Emesal and standard Emegir Sumerian. This alternation has provoked a minor debate over whether the city-laments were “Emesal compositions” or “Emegir compositions.”76 Without entering the technicalities of this question, we may observe that whenever a goddess speaks the Emesal dialect is used. In spite of Green's argument, however,77 we are not yet entitled to judge that every occurrence of Emesal implies a female speaker. Gala-priests intoned a wide range of liturgies in the Emesal dialect even when a female speaker is not implied.78

Although the five preserved city-laments are quite individualized in theme and theme development as well as in style and structure, they have certain underlying themes in common.79 The most prominent theme is destruction of the total city: walls, gates, temples, citizens, royalty, nobility, army, clergy, commoners, food, crops, herds, flocks, villages, canals, roads, customs, and rites. Life has ceased. A second common theme lies in the concept that the end has come upon Sumer by virtue of a conscious decision of the gods in assembly. The invading hordes, whether Subarians, Elamites, Amorites, or Gutians, “storm” the land by the “word” of the gods. A third theme centers around the necessary abandonment of the city by the suzerain-god, his consort, and their entourage. The lament may scold the god for his callous abandonment. The goddess in longer or shorter monologues pleads with either her divine spouse or Enlil or the council of gods to show mercy and relent. In the fourth place, the city-laments either specifically mention, or at least presume, restoration of the city or sanctuary. As a fifth common element, the chief god eventually returns to his city with his entire company. The five laments do not all handle this theme in identical fashion, but in every case the gods' return is indispensable to the plot. The final common thematic element is a concluding prayer to the concerned god involving either praise, plea, imprecation against the enemy, self-abasement, or a combination of these elements.

The exact cultic circumstances for the recitation of the city-laments is not totally agreed upon. Jacobsen proposed that their “Sitz im Kultus” was the demolition of the ruins of a temple and its rebuilding.80 Hallo81 and Cohen82 have followed this line of thinking. Green, however, offers the alternative that the lament was performed by the king in his priestly function at the installation ceremony when the god's statue returned to its refurbished shrine.83 The god's leaving may not always have been caused by foreign devastation but may have been forced by needed renovations of the temple in peacetime.84 That the five major city-laments arose from something more serious than a renovation in peacetime appears evident from the extreme violence they depict. Perhaps Green's suggestion has merit in explaining the function of Old Babylonian balags and eršemmas. As for the king's reciting the lament before the cult image, we may question the king's acumen and literacy to read and recite both Emesal and Emegir dialects in complex poetry.


The first millennium composite lament form, the balag-eršemma, has been clarified by Kutscher in his study of the history of the long-lived balag called a-ab-ba hu-luh-ha (Oh Angry Sea). He shows that this balag originated in Old Babylonian times but was expanded for public ritual use during Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, and Seleucid times in at least nine recensions.85

In terms of poetic devices this balag in Emesal makes use of the usual techniques: repetition, refrain, parallelism, listing, division into stanzas (unlabeled in some recensions), use of divine epithets, and apparent antiphonal performance. The gišgigal-unit (antiphon) is absent.

The later form of this lament may be outlined as follows:86

A. “Prayerful Lament,” lines 1-152 (stanzas II-X)

1. Enlil's epithets, lines 1-12 (stanza II)

2. Nippur's and Babylon's ruin, lines 13-27 (stanza II)

3. “How long?” plea to Enlil, lines 28-40 (stanza III)

4. Wailing and mourning, lines 41-48 (stanza IV)

5. Enlil's power, lines 49-72 (stanza V)

6. Enlil's dignity, lines 73-98 (stanzas VI-VII)

7. “How long?” plea with “return to the land!”, lines 99-118 (stanza VIII)

8. Enlil's dignity, lines 119-25 (stanza IX)

9. Plea to Enlil to “restore (your) heart,” lines 126-52 (stanza X)

B. Hymn to Enlil, lines 153–236 (stnzas XI-XVII)

1. Enlil sleeps, lines 153-59 (stanza XI)

2. List of devastated areas of the city, lines 160-71 (stanza XI)

3. Let Enlil arise!, lines 172-84 (stanza XII)

4. Enlil sees the devastation, lines 185-91 (stanza XIII)

5. Enlil caused the destruction, lines 192-212 (stanzas XIV-XV)

6. The exalted Enlil, lines 213-24 (stanza XVI)

7. Lines 225-36 (stanza XVII) broken

C. Eršemma, lines 237–96

1. Plea for Enlil to “turn around and look at your city!”, lines 237-53

2. Plea for Enlil to “turn around and look at your city!” from various locations, lines 254-72

3. The flooded cities in couplets, lines 273-80

4. The gluttonous man starves, lines 281-82

5. The fractured family, lines 283-87

6. The population rages, lines 288-91

7. Death in the city streets, lines 292-96

We may observe that section A (stanzas II-X) calls attention to Enlil's destructive power as evidenced by the devastation. Section B (stanzas XI-XVII) concentrates on awakening Enlil in hopes of encouraging his return so that the city may regain its lost glory. The eršemma seeks to inspire some spark of pity within Enlil.

Cohen demonstrates that the balag exhibited a certain development within its history.87 In its Old Babylonian form the balag like the city-lament had a rather formal external structure of kirugu-divisions in which each stanza was followed by “first, second, etc. kirugu.88 In some cases there followed a one-line gišgigal (antiphon) as in the city-lament. Many scribes set the kirugu and gišgigal off by horizontal lines across the text both above and below these labels. As time passed, the labels tended to drop out leaving only the horizontal lines to mark stanzas. Another Old Babylonian convention of balag construction was the “heart pacification-unit” in the concluding stanza of older Enlil-balags.89Balags to other divinities omit this plea that the wrathful god's heart and liver might be pacified. Following this unit comes the formula expressing the wish that x-temple should return to its place, then the rubric kišubim which means something like “coda.”

Modification in balag structural organization became necessary, however, following the later joining of balag and eršemma. Each first millennium balag-lament had an eršemma attached to its end. In its new function as last stanza the eršemma had to be redesigned.90 For one thing, even though their first millenium counterparts always were one-unit compositions, the first millennium eršemmas often consist of two or three units each.91 In these cases the last unit either begins with or contains a “heart pacification-unit” which seems to have originated in Old Babylonian Enlil balags. The “heart pacification” is followed by a list of gods who were to add their pleas to those of the priests and worshipers. In this composite form the balag-eršemma continued to serve as liturgical material during hundreds of years through the Seleucid era.

When comparing these later laments with their ancient ancestors, the city-laments, the modern literary critic may think of them as grossly inferior. Kutscher,92 for example, uses such descriptions as “repetitive,” “unimaginative,” “composed to a large extent of clichés, and devoid of poetic rhythm,” “stereotyped,” and we may add boring. Their longevity and broad range of use suggest to us, however, that the ancients found great merit in them.


In order to draw meaningful comparisons between the book of Lamentations and Mesopotamian laments we will create a typology in summary form for the first millennium Mesopotamian lament genre under four major headings: Ritual Occasions, Form/Structure, Poetic Techniques, and Theology. Then we will compare the book of Lamentations with this typology to formulate a hypothesis regarding the relationship of the two.

In the present state of cuneiform scholarship93 we find four categories of religious circumstances when lamentations were employed in the cults of Mesopotamia. They are: 1) before, during, or after daily sacrifices and libations to a wide range of deities, 2) special services, feasts, or rituals like the Akitu festival or the ritual for covering the sacral kettledrum, 3) namburbi incantation rites to forestall impending doom, and 4) especially those circumstances of pulling down sacred buildings to prepare the site for rebuilding.

The structure of first millennium laments was flexible but usually followed a broad pattern as follows:

1) praise to the god of destruction, usually Enlil

2) description of the destruction

3) lamenting the destruction (“How long?”)

4) plea to the destructive god to be pacified

5) plea to the god to gaze upon the destruction

6) plea to other deities (often a goddess) to intercede

7) further description of the ruin.

Those poetic techniques employed by lament composers may be outlined under the following captions:

1) interchange of speaker (third, second, first person) involving description (third person), direct address (second person), monologue (first person), dialogue (first, second, and third persons)

2) use of woe-cries and various interjections

3) use of Emesal dialect apparently to simulate high-pitched cries of distress and pleading

4) heavy use of couplets, repeating lines with one word changed from line to line, and other devices of parallelism

5) antiphonal responses

6) tendency to list or catalog (gods, cities, temples, epithets, victims, etc.)

7) use of theme word or phrase which serves as a cord to tie lines together, or whole stanzas.

We may outline the underlying ideas under three major captions: divinity, humanity, and causality.

A. Divinity

1) The god of wrathful destruction, usually Enlil, abandons the city, a signal for devastation, often called a “storm,” to begin.

2) This chief god may bring the havoc himself or may order another deity to attack the city or sanctuary.

3) In any case, Enlil's will is irresistible; he has the backing of the council of gods.

4) Enlil is described and addressed in anthropomorphic terms:

a) a warrior

b) the shepherd of the people

c) his word destroys

d) his “heart” and “liver” must be soothed

e) he must be roused from sleep

f) he must inspect the ruins to see what has occurred

g) he must be cajoled to change his mind.

5) Yet there is an unknowable quality to Enlil; he is unreachable.

6) Lesser deities must intercede with the chief god to bring an end to the ruin.

B. Humanity

Surprisingly, humans are of little significance in the laments. The gods occupy the limelight. The following ideas about the place of human beings do emerge, however:

1) Human tragedy is described in terms of

a) death

b) exile

c) madness

d) disruption of families

e) demolishing the buildings associated with the general population.

2) Mesopotamian society placed great emphasis on job definition; it is a tragedy when people cannot fulfill their jobs.

3) The citizens were seen as Enlil's flock but were “trampled” by Enlil.

4) The only response the population can make to the disaster is to mourn and offer sacrifices and libations. There seems to be a pervading sense of helplessness before the gods' power.

5) A gap separates the citizens and the gods. People must keep their distance. A sign of the tragedy is that the temple is demolished and people can see into the holy sanctuary.

C. Causality

In Mesopotamian experience ultimate causation lies in the largely unseen world of the gods. Storms of barbarians may crash upon the city, but they were called upon the scene by a decision of Enlil in consultation with the council of the gods. The emphasis of the laments is upon the power of the divine, not upon the rightness of the decision. There appears no resort to the justness of the gods. The humans have committed no particular crime or sin which moves the gods to their decision. The devastation is not judgment on evil humans. In fact the Eridu lament says, “The storm, which possesses neither kindness nor malice, does not distinguish between good and evil.”94 There does appear to be a primitive magical use made of the laments, however. To recount the havoc and recite the appeasement of the god is the same as experiencing the disaster physically. The lament becomes a means of avoidance of ruin, in other words, a means of controlling the causality which resides with the gods.

When we look at the biblical Lamentations in the light of this typology, we are impressed with both similarities and differences. In order to move from the clearest to the least clear category, we begin with some observations relative to the theology of Lamentations. Those points of similarity and difference are:

1) God's majesty and irresistible power, 5:19 (but Lamentations goes beyond Mesopotamian laments by insisting on God's righteousness in 1:18, 3:22, 26, 32)

2) God was the cause of the city's fall, 1:5, 12-15, 17; 2:1-8, 17; 3:1-16 (God brings misery on the “man”), 32-38, 43-45; 4:11, 16; 5:22

3) God abandoned his city, 2:1 (refused to remember), 6 (spurned), 7 (spurned and rejected), 8 (thought to destroy); 5:20-22

4) God as a mighty warrior, 2:2-8, 20-22; 3:4-13, 16, 34; 4:11

5) God's wrath, 2:1-4, 6, 21, 22; 3:1, 43, 65-66; 4:11

6) God caused the destruction by his word, 2:17; 3:37, 38

7) God called upon to look at the havoc, 1:9, 11; 2:20; 3:61 (God is to hear the enemy's plots), 63; 4:16 (God refuses to look); 5:1 (God is to remember)

8) a goddess wanders about the destroyed city and bemoans its sad plight (Of course, Israelite theology could not tolerate such an idea, but the city Jerusalem fulfills this role especially in 1:12-17)

9) God to be aroused from sleep is totally lacking in biblical Lamentations

10) God's heart to be soothed and his liver pacified is likewise missing

11) God called upon to return to his abandoned city is missing

12) The theme of lesser gods called upon to intercede with the destroyer god is obviously lacking.

More space is devoted to humans and their plight in biblical Lamentations than in Mesopotamian laments. In both, the personified city occupies much of the description. Social grouping appears in rather general terms: king, princes, and elders; priests, prophets, and Nazirites; army men, pilgrims, and citizens; old men, mothers, young men, virgins, children, and infants; orphans and widows. Skilled craftsmen are not enumerated. The description of the horrors of war suffered by the population is in some ways a bit more gruesome in the biblical Lamentations. For example, young and old dying in the streets of thirst and hunger, the lethargic march of the priests, mothers eating their children, cruel enslavement of one-time nobles, the shame of ridicule and exposure—all are expressed in poignant detail.

As in the Mesopotamian laments the biblical Lamentations clearly placed ultimate causation with God, but God is justified in the decision since the citizenry of Jerusalem was guilty of numerous crimes (1:5, 8, 18, 20; 4:6). The prophets (2:14; 4:13), priests (4:13), and fathers (5:7) must bear a large portion of the guilt for their failure to correct the evils which prompted God to take his angry action. God's extreme action in warring against Jerusalem has produced repentance on the part of the survivors, however. Now the mercy and love of God are being sought to change the fortunes of the people and, especially, the city.

In comparing poetic techniques, we find the interchange of speaker involving first, second, and third persons with accompanying change in perspective reminiscent of dramatic or liturgical performance. Likewise woe-cries and interjections occur to intensify dramatic effect. Parallelism of various orders runs throughout the five Lamentations poems. Only the Mesopotamian predilection for cataloging is lacking in biblical Lamentations.

In addition, other strategies utilized by Mesopotamian laments appear in biblical Lamentations either directly or with modification. Among these devices are: the poet addresses God (1:10 and the whole of chapter 5), but God never answers; the poet addresses or questions Jerusalem who seems to function in Lamentations much as the goddess functions in Mesopotamian laments (2:13-16, 18-19; 4:21, 22); invective against the enemy (1:21, 22; 3:55-66; 4:21, 22), the city which weeps or speaks (1:1-3, 8, 9, 11-15, 16, 18-20, 22; 2:11, 20-22; 3:48-51, 55-66; 5:17), the city ridiculed or embarrassed (1:7, 8, 17, 19, 21; 2:15-17; 3:14 (the “man”), 30 (the “man”), 45 (the citizens), 46, 63; 4:12, 15), detailed description of the carnage (1:4, 5, 18-20; 2:2, 5-12, 20-22; 3:4-16 [the “man” is a prisoner]; 4:1-10, 14-15, 17-19; 5:1-18). The stock-in-trade woe-cry “How long?” does not occur in biblical Lamentations. Neither is restoration stated though we may infer that the total work envisions Jerusalem's rebuilding as do several statements which recall God's mercy (3:22-27, 31-33; 4:21, 22; 5:20-22).95

When we come to a comparison of structure and organization, we find a decided lack of similarity. God is not honored by reciting a long list of epithets. The simple order of movement perceivable in Mesopotamian laments does not occur (abandonment, invasion by the “storm,” plea to the god to awake, rouse himself, and gaze upon the ruins, lesser gods involved to add weight to the pleas, further recalling the ruination). Each of the five poems does show “poetic development” especially discernable in change of speaker, but not a plot type of movement.

We come finally to the question of cultic context. On this question we are without documentation to inform us. Of the four cultic occasions when first millennium Mesopotamian laments were recited, the most likely candidate for the biblical is that of temple restoration.

Jer 41:5 informs us that some 80 mourners of Shechem, Shiloh, and Samaria brought offerings and incense to the “House of Yahweh” during the Gedaliah days following the temple's destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. The signs of their mourning were shaved off beards, ripped clothing, and gashed skin. Zech 7:3-5 refers to mournful fasts at Jerusalem in the fifth and seventh months which have been observed “these 70 years.” Apparently a commemoration of the sack of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple occurred in the fifth month and a memorial to the slain Gedaliah in the seventh month. Zech 8:19 adds to the fifth and seventh month fasts by citing fasts in the fourth month (the breaching of the walls) and in the tenth month (the onset of Nebuchadnezzar's final siege). We may assume from the statement in Jer 41:5 that some form of religious practice continued on the site of the largely demolished Temple. The other fasts likewise focused on the ruined city, walls, and Temple. Finally the time came for rebuilding the Temple immediately following the Persian conquest of Babylon and Cyrus's edict of toleration in 539. Exiles, including priests from Babylonia familiar with long practiced Mesopotamian liturgies for rebuilding demolished shrines, joined with their brothers who had been left behind “these 70 years” to live within sight of the ruins and to fast and mourn among the Temple's ruins. Together they bewailed the fallen sanctuary as clearing the site began in preparation for reconstruction. Such an occasion would provide a fit setting for the recitation of Lamentations and could have provided the impetus for writing or editing these five lament-poems for the performance.


McDaniel rejected direct Sumerian influence on the biblical Lamentations on the grounds that there was too great a gap between them in terms of both time and space.96 Furthermore he argued that there were no distinctively Mesopotamian elements in the biblical book.97 On the basis of the discoveries of the 1970s we can now fill the gap in time between the city-laments and biblical Lamentations with the lineal liturgical descendants of the city-laments, the balag-eršemmas. Gadd's suggestion98 that the Babylonian Exile provided the opportunity for the Jewish clergy to encounter the laments has proved correct. We may add that the exiles of the Northern Kingdom also had similar opportunities in the cities of Assyria to observe or participate in these rituals. Thus the spatial gap has been closed also. Beyond these considerations, we have demonstrated strong analogies between the Mesopotamian lament typology and that of the biblical book of Lamentations though there were dissimilarities also. Because of the polytheistic theology underlying the Mesopotamian laments and their ritual observance, they could not be taken over without thorough modification in theology and language. Still the biblical book of Lamentations was more closely associated with the Near Eastern lament genre than simply borrowing the “idea” of a lament over the destruction of a city as McDaniel conceded.


Mark E. Cohen's significant study, Sumerian Hymnology: The Eršemma (HUCA Supplement 2 [Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1981]), appeared while this study was in press, and consequently, could not be incorporated into the body of this essay. Although most of Cohen's later conclusions were anticipated in the earlier form of his dissertation, one major refinement requires a modification in the discussion of the first millennium eršemma offered above.

On pages 27, 41, and 42 Cohen calls attention to eršemmas labeled kidudû which appear in incipit lists unrelated to any balag. These independent eršemmas were recited in various ceremonies such as those relating to the covering of the sacred building. Thus the eršemma enjoyed two forms of usage in the first millennium, that is, as a separate work and as the last section of the composite balag-eršemma, The recognition of this independent status of the eršemma does not alter the conclusions drawn concerning the composite balag-eršemma, however.]


  1. Several studies must be highlighted as bringing scholarly criticism up to date on Lamentations. Delbert Hiller's volume, Lamentations, in the Anchor Bible series (Garden City: Doubleday, 1972) is a good starting point because of its clear statement of the critical problems relating to Lamentations, its selective bibliography, and its informative and balanced notes. Hillers made good use of several noteworthy studies from the 1960s which applied the best of available scholarship to questions of text, philology, higher criticism, theology, and form analysis. Those leading commentaries were A. Weiser's Klagelieder (ATD 16; G¨ttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1962) pp. 297-370, W. Rudolph's Das Buch Ruth—Das Hohe Lied—Die Klagelieder (KAT 17/1-3; Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1962), and Hans-Joachim Kraus's Klagelieder (BKAT 20; 3d ed.; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1968). These three German commentaries provide exhaustive bibliographies as well. Norman Gottwald's chief contribution, Studies in the Book of Lamentations (SBT 1/14, 2d ed.; London: SCM, 1962), lies in his perceptive treatment of Lamentations' theology. Specific texts within Lamentations have been elucidated by numerous detailed studies. Bertil Albrektson (Studies in the Text and Theology of the Book of Lamentations [Lund: CWK Gleerup, 1963]) has communicated an extremely valuable tool, a critical Syriac text of Lamentations, and has made a detailed study of the MT in the light of LXX, Peshitta, and Latin versions. Gottlieb's shorter study (A Study on the Text of Lamentations [Århus: Det Laerde Selskab, 1978] = Acta Jutlandica 48, Theolgy Series 12) discusses textual matters either not treated by Albrektson or those where Gottlieb wishes to take issue with Albrektson or others. The essay of Lanahan, (“Speaking Voice in the Book of Lamentations, JBL 93 [1974] 41-49) draws attention to the literary and dramatic effect of the change of speaker in Lamentations.

  2. D. N. Freedman, “Acrostics and Metrics in Hebrew Poetry,” HTR 65 (1972) 367-92.

  3. Thomas F. McDaniel, “The Alleged Sumerian Influence upon Lamentations,” VT 18 (1968) 198-209.

  4. S. N. Kramer, “Sumerian Literature and the Bible,” AnBib 12 (Studia Biblica et Orientalia 3 [1959]) 201, n. 1.

  5. S. N. Kramer, “Lamentation over the Destruction of Nippur: A Preliminary Report,” Eretz Israel 9 (1969) 90.

  6. McDaniel draws from Kramer's published work as of 1968 including “The Oldest Literary Catalogue: A Sumerian List of Literary Compositions Compiled about 2000 B.C.,” BASOR 88 (1942) 10-19; “New Literary Catalogue from Ur,” RA 55 (1961) 169-76; Sumerian Literary Texts from Nippur in the Museum of the Ancient Orient at Istanbul (AASOR 23; New Haven: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1943-44) 32-35; Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur (Assyriological Studies 12; Chicago: University of Chicago, 1940); “Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur,” ANET2 455-63; “Sumerian Literature, A General Survey,” The Bible and the Ancient Near East (Albright Anniversary Volume; Garden City: Doubleday, 1961) 249-66.

  7. McDaniel cites C. J. Gadd, “The Second Lamentation for Ur,” Hebrew and Semitic Studies Presented to Godfrey Rolles Driver (ed. D. W. Thomas and W. D. McHardy; Oxford: Oxford University, 1963) 59-71.

  8. McDaniel cites Hans-Joachim Kraus, Klagelieder (Threni) (BKAT 20; 2d ed.; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1960) 10.

  9. McDaniel cites Wilhelm Rudolph, Das Buch Ruth—Das Hohe Lied—Die Klagelieder, p. 9.

  10. McDaniel cites Otto Eissfeldt, Einleitung in das Alte Testament (3d ed.; Tübingen: Mohr, 1964) 683.

  11. McDaniel, “Sumerian Influence,” 207.

  12. Ibid.

  13. McDaniel, “Sumerian Influence,” 209.

  14. See above, n. 6. Add to the Kramer bibliography: “Literary Texts from Ur VI, Part II,” Iraq 25 (1963) 171-76; “Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur,” ANET3 611-19; and “Two British Museum iršemma ‘Catalogues,’” StudOr 46 (1975) 141-66.

  15. See T. Jacobsen in his review of Kramer, Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur in AJSL 58 (1941) 219-24; Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 107 (1963) 479-82.

  16. See especially W. W. Hallo, “Individual Prayer in Sumerian: The Continuity of a Tradition,” JAOS 88 (Speiser Anniversary Volume, 1968) 71-89, where he traced the development of the individual lament from the older letter-prayer genre. Other articles of W. W. Hallo relating to Sumerian literary genre history include: “The Coronation of Ur-Nammu,” JCS 20 (1966) 133-41; “The Cultic Setting of Sumerian Poetry,” Actes de la XVIIe Rencontre assyriologique internationale (Ham-sur-Heure: Universite Libre de Bruxelles, 1970) 116-34; “Another Sumerian Literary Catalogue?” StudOr 46 (1975) 77-80 with additions in StudOr 48:3; and “Toward a History of Sumerian Literature,” Sumerological Studies in Honor of Thorkild Jacobsen on His Seventieth Birthday (Assyriological Studies 20; Chicago: University of Chicago, 1975) 181-203.

  17. Mark E. Cohen, Balag-compositions: Sumerian Lamentation Liturgies of the Second and First Millennium B.C. (Sources from the Ancient Near East, vol. 1, fasc. 2; Malibu: Undena, 1974) and The eršemma in the Second and First Millennia B.C. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, n.d.). [See Addendum.]

  18. Raphael Kutscher, Oh Angry Sea (a-ab-ba hu-luh-ha): The History of a Sumerian Congregational Lament (Yale Near Eastern Researches 6; New Haven: Yale University, 1975).

  19. Joachim Krecher, Sumerische Kultlyrik (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1966).

  20. Margaret W. Green, Eridu in Sumerian Literature (Unpublished doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago, 1975), chap. 9: “Sumerian Lamentations” and chap. 10: “The Eridu Lament.” See also M. W. Green, “The Eridu Lament,” JCS 30 (1978) 127-67.

  21. Kramer, Eretz Israel 9 (1969) 89.

  22. See Kramer's treatments cited in n. 4.

  23. See Kramer, “Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur,” ANET3 611-19.

  24. Green, Eridu, 279. See also D. O. Edzard, Die “Zweite Zwischenzeit” Babyloniens (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrasowitz, 1957) 86-90.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Green, Eridu, chap. 10, 326-74 and Green, “Eridu Lament,” 127-67.

  27. See Kramer, ANET3 612 and n. 9 as well as C. J. Gadd and S. N. Kramer, Literary and Religious Texts, Ur Excavation Texts, 6, Part 2 (London: British Museum, 1966) 1 for the joins of tablets to show the unity of these fragments.

  28. See Kramer's comments in “The Curse of Agade: The Ekur Avenged,” ANET3 646f. See also M. W. Green's remarks in Green, Eridu, 279f. and Kutscher's in Oh Angry Sea, 1.

  29. Cohen, balag, 9. M. W. Green (“Eridu Lament,” 129f.) raises the possibility of finding the origin of the Eridu lament in the reign of Nur-Adad of Larsa (1865-50 b.c.e.) but prefers an earlier date in the reign of Išme-Dagan of Isin (1953-35).

  30. Cohen, balag, 11.

  31. Kutscher (Oh Angry Sea, 3) claims that city-laments were written in the standard Emegir dialect, while Cohen (balag, 11 and 32) claims they were Emesal compositions.

  32. See Cohen, balag, 11.

  33. Kutscher, Oh Angry Sea, 3.

  34. Cohen, eršemma, 24.

  35. Cohen, eršemma, 9.

  36. Ibid.

  37. Kramer, “Two British Museum iršemma ‘Catalogues,’” StudOr 46 (1975) 141-66.

  38. Cohen, eršemma, 9f., 12.

  39. Cohen, eršemma, 22-24.

  40. Cohen, eršemma, 24.

  41. Ibid.

  42. Cohen, eršemma, 27f.

  43. Cohen, balag, 11.

  44. Cohen, balag, 9f.

  45. Cohen, balag, 10f.

  46. Cohen, balag, 11.

  47. Ibid.

  48. Ibid.

  49. Cohen, balag, 6.

  50. Cohen, balag, 12.

  51. Kutscher, Oh Angry Sea, 3.

  52. Cohen, balag, 31 (Excursus on the balag-instrument).

  53. Cohen, balag, 6.

  54. Kutscher, Oh Angry Sea, 25-27 (history of YBC 4659), 52-54 (transliteration of YBC 4659), 143-53 (translation of the composite text), plates 6 and 7 (copies of YBC 4659 [sic! Captions inadvertently interchanged with those of Plates 1 and 2. Ed.]).

  55. See Kutscher, Oh Angry Sea, 6f., for this interpretation.

  56. Kutscher, Oh Angry Sea, 7.

  57. Cohen, balag, 11.

  58. Cohen, balag, 13, 15.

  59. See E. Sollberger's remarks in his review of J. Krecher, Kultlyrik, which was published in BO 25 (1968) 47a.

    This hiatus in documentation is probably caused by the fact that following the fall of Babylon about 1600 b.c.e. the scribal schools of Nippur and Babylon closed, and their scholars, taking their texts with them, fled southward to the Sealand. Under the Kassites, however, new scribal schools were established to perpetuate the classical literary tradition. In this corpus, which Hallo calls “Post-Sumerian” and “Bilingual,” cultic texts and especially laments dominated. In fact, this bilingual collection survived as the canon for the remainder of the history of classical Mesopotamian literature through the Seleucid era into the Arsacid period. See W. W. Hallo, “Problems in Sumerian Hermeneutics,” Perspectives in Jewish Learning 5 (1973) 6f. and “Toward a History of Sumerian Literature,” 189-91, 198, 201, on bilinguals in the history of the canons.

  60. Cohen, balag, 9.

  61. See Kutscher, Oh Angry Sea, 9f., for a chart of the texts he was able to combine to reconstruct this balag.

  62. Kutscher, Oh Angry Sea, 11. Kutscher's Ca (=VAT 8243, 11. 32-37) and Db (=VAT 8243, 11. 142 and 143).

  63. Kutscher, Oh Angry Sea, 17 (TMHnF 53:21).

  64. Cohen, eršemma, 25f.

  65. See, for example, Kutscher, Oh Angry Sea, 5; Cohen, balag, 13-15.

  66. Cohen, balag, 13-15.

  67. Cohen, balag, 13.

  68. Caplice, “Namburbi Texts in the British Museum, IV,” Or 39 (1970) 118f.

  69. Cohen, balag, 14f.

  70. Ibid.

  71. On kirugu see A. Falkenstein, “Sumerische religiöse Texte,” ZA 49 (1950) 104f. where he interpreted the term as meaning “to bow to the ground.” Šēru is probably related to Sumerian šîr, a generic title for poetry and/or song; see AHW 1219a. See also Green, Eridu, 283-85.

  72. On gišgigal see A. Falkenstein, “Sumerische religiöse Texte,” 92, 93, 97f., 101. Falkenstein interpreted the term simply as “antiphon.” See also Green, Eridu, 285f. See AHW 641a, sub me/ihru, 3) where giš-gál = mi-hir za-ma-ri = antiphonal song and giš-gi4-gál = me-eh-ru/rù.

  73. See Cohen, balag, 8 and Green, Eridu, 283-86 on structural matters.

  74. See n. 20 above.

  75. See Green, Eridu, 286-89. For a fuller analysis of Sumerian poetic form, see C. Wilcke, “Formale Gesichtspunkte in der sumerischen Literatur,” Assyriological Studies 20 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1975) 205-316.

  76. See n. 31 above.

  77. Green, Eridu, 288f.

  78. Kutscher (Oh Angry Sea, 5) takes the position that gala-priests “specialized in Emesal” and that when they composed or recited compositions in worship settings, they employed the Emesal dialect. Krecher (Kultlyrik, 27f.), however, maintains that other cult personnel, namely the nārū-singer, also sang the Emesal compositions. Krecher, however, admits that the Emesal songs were almost exclusively sung by the kalû-(=gala)priests. Cohen (balag, 11) attributes the composition of the city-laments, as well as balags and eršemmas, to the kalû-priests. See also Cohen, balag, 13, 15, and 32 as well as Cohen, eršemma, 9, 11, 17, and 24. Hallo (“Individual Prayer in Sumerian: The Continuity of a Tradition,” JAOS 88 [1968] 81b) shows that “the later penitent commissioned the gala-singer to recite his prayer orally.” Such erša hunga-prayers were also composed in Emesal (see Krecher, Kultlyrik, 25 and Hallo, “Individual Prayer,” 80-82) and were recited, at least on occasions, to the accompaniment of the halhallatu-drum (Cohen, eršemma, 27). For a discussion of the gala-priests as Old Babylonian cult personnel, see J. Renger, “Untersuchungen zum Priestertum der altbabylonischen Zeit,” ZA 59 (1969) 189-95.

  79. In outlining these six common themes I am following Green, Eridu, 295-310.

  80. Jacobsen, AJSL 58 (1941) 219-24.

  81. Hallo, “Cultic Setting,” 119.

  82. Cohen, balag, 11.

  83. Green, Eridu, 309f.

  84. Green, Eridu, 311f.

  85. Kutscher, Oh Angry Sea, 21.

  86. Translation in Kutscher, Oh Angry Sea, 143-53.

  87. Cohen, balag, 8, 11f.

  88. Cohen, balag, 8.

  89. Cohen, eršemma, 17.

  90. Cohen, eršemma, 28.

  91. Cohen, eršemma, 12.

  92. Kutscher, Oh Angry Sea, 4.

  93. Cohen, eršemma, 9f., 27f.; Cohen, balag, 11, 13-15; Kutscher, Oh Angry Sea, 6f.; Krecher, Kultlyrik, 18-25, 34.

  94. Green, Eridu, 342, 1. 1:20.

  95. See Gottwald's discussion of the interplay of doom and hope in Lamentations in his chap. 3 (“The Key to the Theology of Lamentations”), chap. 4 (“The Theology of Doom”) and chap. 5 (“The Theology of Hope”) in Studies in the Book of Lamentations.

  96. McDaniel, “Sumerian Influence,” 207f.

  97. McDaniel, “Sumerian Influence,” 207.

  98. Gadd, “Second Lamentation,” 61, cited in McDaniel, “Sumerian Influence,” 209.

  99. McDaniel, “Sumerian Influence,” 209.


AASOR: Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research

AB: Anchor Bible

AfO Archiv für Orientforschung:

AHR American Historical Review:

AHW: W. von Soden, Akkadisches Handwörterbuch

AJSL: American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures

ANEH: W. W. Hallo and W. K. Simpson, The Ancient Near East: A History

ANEP: James B. Pritchard (ed.), The Ancient Near East in Pictures

ANET: J. B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts

AOAT: Alter Orient und Altes Testament

AOS: American Oriental Series

ARW: Archiv für Religionswissenschaft

AS: Assyriological Studies

ASOR: American Schools of Oriental Research

ASTI: Annual of the Swedish Theological Institute

ATD: Das Alte Testament Deutsch

ATR: Anglican Theological Review

BAR: Biblical Archaeologist Reader

BARev: Biblical Archaeology Review

BASOR: Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research

BHT: Beiträge zur historischen Theologie

Bib: Biblica

BiOr: Bibliotheca Orientalis

BJRL: Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester

BKAT: Biblischer Kommentar: Altes Testament

BO: Bibliotheca Orientalis

BR: Biblical Research

BTB: Biblical Theology Bulletin

BZAW: Beihefte zur ZAW

CAD: The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

CAH: Cambridge Ancient History

CBQ: Catholic Biblical Quarterly

CQR: Church Quarterly Review

Enc Jud: Encyclopaedia Judaica

Exp Tim: Expository Times

HSS: Harvard Semitic Series

HTR: Harvard Theological Review

HUCA: Hebrew Union College Annual

ICC: International Critical Commentary

IEJ: Israel Exploration Journal

JANESCU: Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of Columbia University

JAOS: Journal of the American Oriental Society

JBL: Journal of Biblical Literature

JCS: Journal of Cuneiform Studies

JEA: Journal of Egyptian Archaeology

JNES: Journal of Near Eastern Studies

JQR: Jewish Quarterly Review

JSOT: Sup Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplements

JSS: Journal of Semitic Studies

JTS: Journal of Theological Studies

KAT: E. Sellin (ed.), Kommentar zum A.T.

MSL: Materialien zum Sumerischen Lexikon

MVAG: Mitteilungen der vorderasiatisch-ägyptischen Gesellschaft

NICOT: New International Commentary on the Old Testament

OIP: Oriental Institute Publications

Or: Orientalia (Rome)

OrAnt: Oriens antiquus

OTL: Old Testament Library

OTS: Oudtestamentische Studiën

RA: Revue d'assyriologie et d'archéologie orientale

RB: Revue Biblique

REg: Revue d'égyptologie

RLA: Reallexikon der Assyriologie

RSR: Recherches de science religieuse

SACT: S. T. Kang, Sumerian and Akkadian Cuneiform Texts

SANE: Sources from the Ancient Near East

SBLMS: Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series

SBS: Stuttgarter Bibelstudien

SBT: Studies in Biblical Theology

Sem: Semitica

StudOr: Studia Orientalia

TDOT: Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament

TLZ: Theologische Literaturzeitung

TynBul: Tyndale Bulletin

UF: Ugarit-Forschungen

VT: Vetus Testamentum

VTSup: Vetus Testamentum, Supplements

WMANT: Wissenschaftliche Monographien zum Alten und Neuen Testament

WO Die Welt des Orients

YNER Yale Near Eastern Researches

ZA Zeitschrift für Assyriologie

ZÄS Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde

ZAW Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft

ZDPV Zeitschrift des deutschen Palästina-Vereins

Further Reading

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Albrektson, Bertil. Studies in the Text and Theology of the “Book of Lamentations.” Lund, Sweden: CWK Gleerup, 1963, 258p.

Critical edition of the Peshitta text that includes divergences from the Hebrew text and the Septuagint.

Alexander, Philip S. “The Textual Traditions of Targum Lamentations.” Abr-Nahrain XXIV (1986): 1-26.

Study of Targum Lamentationsoffered as a general approach that can be pursued in editing any biblical text.

Cannon, William Walter. “The Authorship of Lamentations.” Bibliotheca Sacra 81 (1924): 42-58.

Critique of arguments that Jeremiah was not the sole author of Lamentations.

Cross, Frank Moore. “Studies in the Structure of Hebrew Verse: The Prosody of Lamentations 1:1-22.” The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth, pp. 129–55. .Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1983.

Study of the Qinah meter in Lamentations.

Dahood, Mitchell. “New Readings in Lamentations.” Biblica 59, No. 2 (1978): 174-97.

Examination of specific verses of Lamentations that may be improved by correcting probable defective spellings in source texts.

Gadd, C. J. “The Second Lamentation for Ur.” Hebrew and Semitic Studies, edited by D. Winton Thomas and W. D. McHardy, pp. 59–71. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.

Translation of and notes for an early lamentation that may have influenced Lamentations.

Gordis, Robert. “Commentary on the Text of Lamentations (Part Two).” The Jewish Quarterly Review LVIII, No. 1 (July 1967): 14-33.

Explanation for difficulties in understanding the third chapter of Lamentations. Gordis discusses “fluid personality” and adopting a psychological rather than a logical reading.

Gray, George Buchanan. “Parallelism and Rhythm in the Book of Lamentations.” In The Forms of Hebrew Poetry, pp. 87–120. 1915. Reprint. New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1972.

Analysis of the differences in the use of parallelism in the first four chapters of Lamentations.

Johnson, Bo. “Form and Message in Lamentations.Zietschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 97, No. 1 (1985): 58–73.

Examines the structure of Lamentations and contends that its careful design and alphabetic composition points to and emphasizes its intended message.

Shea, William H. “The qinah Structure of the Book of Lamentations.” Biblica 60, No. 1 (1979): 103-07.

Analysis of pattern and structure of Lamentations that emphasizes linking together its five books.

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Lamentations (Poetry Criticism)