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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 during 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, young and old alike have been slaughtered by the Lord, who is likened to an enemy, and even walls lament. Blame also is allocated to prophets and oracles who did not perform their duties. God has laid waste the land and pitilessly rejected all whom he once embraced: The pain goes as deep as the sea. The central poem is traditionally accepted 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, which is an essential step to forgiveness. The fourth poem is similar to the second. It states 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 details 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 communal—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 utterly forsaken them? 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 the style of Jeremiah; 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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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 70

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

Lamentations (translated by Iain W. Provan) 1991

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

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

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

“Eichah”/“Lamentations”: A New Translation with a Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic, and Rabbinic Sources (translated by Meir Zlotowitz) 1999

Herbert Lockyer (essay date 1959)

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SOURCE: Lockyer, Herbert. “Lamentations.” In All the Prayers of the Bible: A Devotional and Expositional Classic, p. 146. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1959.

[In the following essay, Lockyer provides a brief overview of the Book of Lamentations.]

This dirge of desolation can be treated as a postscript to the Book of Jeremiah. The five Lamentations forming the book are actually five heart-cries, or, seeing that in their original form there were no chapter and verse divisions, one long prayer of pathos. Dr. C. I. Scofield says of Lamentations, “The touching significance of this book lies in the fact that it is the disclosure of the love and sorrow of Jehovah for the very people whom He is chastening—a sorrow wrought by the Spirit in the heart of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 13:17; Matthew 23:36, 38; Romans 9:1-5).”

Dr. Alexander Whyte had a profound admiration for the book. “There is nothing like the Lamentations of Jeremiah in the whole world. There has been plenty of sorrow in every age, and in every land, but such another preacher and author, with such a heart for sorrow has never again been born. Dante comes next to Jeremiah and we know that Jeremiah was that great exile's favorite prophet.”

Attention must be drawn to the unique construction of this book filled with tears, the key verses of which (1:8, 10) remind us of Christ's heart-anguish over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:36; Isaiah 63:9). The literary form of the original presents an acrostic dirge. Each chapter is an elegy constructed as an acrostic in the order of the Hebrew alphabet. The lines were arranged in couplets or triplets, each of which began with a letter of the alphabet. The Third Lamentation is made up of sixty-six verses, and these are divided into groups each with three verses, with each group beginning with one of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Thus verses 1-3 of our version form but three lines of the original, each line beginning with A, etc. The last chapter is not arranged acrostically.

Harvey H. Guthrie, Jr. (essay date 1971)

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SOURCE: Guthrie, Harvey H., Jr. “Lamentations.” In The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible: Introduction and Commentary for Each Book of the Bible Including the Apocrypha, edited by Charles M. Laymon, pp. 405-10. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971.

[In the following essay, Guthrie provides a thematic and stylistic examination of the five poems that comprise the Book of Lamentations.]



In the Hebrew Bible the book of Lamentations takes its name from its opening word, How, the characteristic beginning of a funeral dirge. The Talmud and rabbinic tradition designate it “Lamentations,” and this title is employed in the LXX, Latin, and English. In the Hebrew canon Lam. is included in the Writings as one of the 5 Scrolls and is read in the synagogue on the 9th of Ab (Jul.-Aug.), the day on which the destruction of the temple in a.d. 70 is bewailed. The LXX is responsible for Lam.'s position after Jer. in the Christian canon. The rationale for this move was provided by the tradition of Jeremianic authorship (see below).


The book consists of 5 poems, each of which constitutes a ch[apter]. The first 4 are acrostics, whose 22 short stanzas begin successively with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in order—except that in ch. 3 each couplet within a stanza begins with that stanza's letter, and in chs. 2-4 for some unknown reason the order of the letters ayin and pe is reversed. Although ch. 5 is not an acrostic, it conforms to the pattern by consisting of 22 couplets. The purpose of the acrostic form may be to provide a memory aid as well as to achieve completeness by running the course of the entire alphabet.

The poems employ literary forms known elsewhere in the OT as well as in the ancient Near Eastern culture of which Israel was a part. Chs. 1; 2; 4 are basically funeral dirges. Ch. 3 is an individual lament, combined with expressions of thanksgiving and trust. Ch. 5 is a communal lament.


The poems all address themselves to what happened to Jerusalem and Judah in the Babylonian invasions of the early 6th cent. b.c. A misreading of II Chr. 35:25 and the LXX preface to Lam. are the basis of the very ancient tradition that the author of the poems was Jeremiah. There is no concrete evidence for the validity of this tradition, and the Hebrew canon (see above) does not associate the book with the prophet.

The consensus of scholarly opinion is that the poems originated in Palestine itself among those remaining after Jerusalem's fall in 586 b.c. Some have held chs. 3; 5 to be much later than the other poems, but the present tendency is to doubt this. Indeed, the order of the poems may reflect the order of their composition, ch. 1 possibly originating after the first Babylonian siege of 597 and ch. 5 at a time somewhat removed from the disaster of 586. The poems may very well come from one author, although there is no way of knowing. They certainly were written on different occasions. Some have opined that they had a cultic usage at an annual day of mourning over the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (cf. II Kings 25:8; Jer. 52:12; Zech. 7:3-5; 8:18).


Lam. is an eloquent statement of Israel's response to her downfall. Into this response has been taken up the prophetic insistence that the purpose of God is the ultimate source of meaning for that disaster just as it was for Israel's origins. Ch. 3 explicitly seeks to invest catastrophe with meaning, and prefigures the servant songs in Isa. 40-55. Thus the book has had significance for Christians as well as Jews, and is traditionally used in many churches during Holy Week. …

I. A LONELY CITY (1:1-22)

Hermann Gunkel, whose work on Hebrew poetry was epochal, characterized this poem, as well as those in chs. 2; 4, as a “political funeral dirge,” a form for mourning being utilized to bewail Jerusalem's fall. While the poet may not be strictly bound by forms (the latter part of this poem is individual lament), this points to something important. In Lam., as in other Hebrew poetry, modern questions of authorship and of the individual experience of the poet can miss the point. Israel's poetry is based on forms arising out of the life of a worshiping community. This is more important for an understanding of that poetry than modern conjecture about the poet's sentiments. So here ancient forms are used to express a people's reaction to the fall of their holy city, the place that had signified the empirical presence of their God.


Alliteratively expressive, How is a formal characteristic of the funeral dirge (cf. 2:1; 4:1, 2; Isa. 1:21; Jer. 48:17; a similar word is found in II Sam. 1:19, 25). Jerusalem is pictured as a widow (cf. Jer. 48:17) bereft of any companion to accompany her, as was the custom, in her lament over her loss. This uncomforted aloneness is a theme of ch. 1 (cf. vss. 9, 16, 17, 21). It is theologically important, for the real situation of Jerusalem is thoroughly faced, and this must come before anything else.

1:3. The reference could be to the deportation of 597 or of 586. Resting place denotes Yahweh's gift to Israel of the land that was the sign of his presence with her. Her distress can also be translated “her narrow defiles.”

1:4. The reference is to the cessation of the worship of Yahweh. Maidens in this context refers to cultic functionaries (cf. Ps. 68:25; Jer. 31:13).

1:5-7. The funeral dirge here gives way to an element common in laments over individual distress—concentration on enemies. Vs. 5 implies a question of whether the gods of the enemies may have prevailed, but then goes on to make the point of the classic prophets: it is precisely the sovereignty of Israel's righteous God that has brought her disaster. Vs. 6 refers to Jerusalem's rulers, Yahweh's surrogates. Thus the problem posed for a faith such as Israel's, based on concrete events and situations, by the catastrophe of 597-586 is expressed. Vs. 7 has too many lines; either the 2nd or 3rd couplet must be an addition.

1:8-9, in terms reminiscent of Hos., Jer., and Ezek., appropriates the prophetic interpretation of Jerusalem's fall. Vs. 9c is a lament cry, presupposing that God's reputation is bound up with the fortunes of his people.

1:10-11 carries out the theme of the last lines of vs. 9. Since the talk is not of the actual destruction of the sanctuary, some cite these verses as evidence that ch. 1 comes from the period between 597 and 586.


The viewpoint changes from a lament over Zion to a lament by Zion. This could indicate that the poem had a cultic usage with different voices taking different parts. “Is it nothing to you” is only a guess at what an obscure text means. One scholar translates, “Now then!” Vss. 12-16 explicitly state that Yahweh is responsible for Jerusalem's affliction, and vs. 12 calls the world outside Israel to look upon this as a manifestation of Yahweh's righteous sovereignty. Vs. 13a then uses language traditionally associated with a deity's visit to earth (cf. Ps. 18:1) to picture Yahweh's activity in Jerusalem's fall. The picture of the hunter (vs. 13b) is often used of enemies, and thus is a strong one to use of Israel's God.

1:14 indicates once again that lamenting Israel has appropriated the prophetic message.

1:15 contains 2 colorful pictures: Yahweh commanding the forces that ruin Jerusalem's finest men and Yahweh treading on Jerusalem as in a wine-press (cf. Isa. 63:1; Joel 3:13). “Assembly” has sacral overtones, and may imply more than earthly powers.

1:16 with its picture of weeping Zion reverts to the theme of there being no comforter for her.


Vs. 17 is a transition, taking up themes present in the earlier stanzas.

1:18-20 begins like Jer. 12:1. There the words may be sarcastic, but not here. Underlying them may be a custom mirrored in Josh. 7:19-21 according to which one in the wrong praised the righteousness of God. At any rate, the lament of Jerusalem, unlike other laments from the same culture, locates her problem in the facts of divine righteousness and human sin. The prophetic lesson has been learned. Vss. 19-20 recount, as laments always do, the items in the distress.

1:21-22 closes the poem on a note hard for modern men to understand, the imprecation of enemies. Two things lie behind this recurrent element in laments: the empirical, this-worldly theology of Israel and her conviction of the involvement of God's own reputation in the fortunes of his people.


Like the first poem, this is based on a funeral dirge, with the characteristic “How” at its beginning. Attention here, however, is focused on the terrible wrath of God manifested in the unprecedented catastrophe which has overtaken Jerusalem. The poem falls into 2 parts: the poet's own lament in vss. 1-19 and a lament by Jerusalem herself in vss. 20-22. So vivid is the description of what has happened that many have taken this poem to be an eyewitness account of the destruction wrought in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586. Some hold that transitions such as those at vss. 11 and 18-20 are due to liturgical use of the poem.


The theme of the poem is set down in vs. 1. The cloud imagery comes from the cult, and is connected with manifestations of deity (cf. Pss. 18:11-12; 68:4; 97:2; 104:3; I Kings 8:10-11). It turns a lament into a hymn celebrating God's sacral act, now an act of wrath in which the previous blessing of Zion is reversed. The holy city's divine election holds even in her sin. She remains a witness to the righteousness of God now, given Israel's condition, manifesting itself as wrath. Thus what might merit sheer wailing is here celebrated in hymnic language. Again the prophetic interpretation of Jerusalem's fall has been understood. Couplet 1b applies an astral image, used elsewhere of foreign rulers (Isa. 14:12; Ezek. 28:17), to the sacred city itself; and couplet 1c asserts that Yahweh has deserted his temple. So the “day” (cf. Amos 5:18) is a “day of his anger.” To see how radical this is, cf. what Pss. 46; 48; 132 claim for Jerusalem.

2:2-10 describes, just as a hymn to God's majesty recounts his mighty deeds, what has happened in “the day of his anger.” Vss. 2-5 recall the devastation of the land that led to the siege of Jerusalem herself, first by the Assyrians (ca. 730-680) and then by the Babylonians (600-586). In this Yahweh, taken by cheap piety to be an ally, is himself the real “enemy” (vss. 4-5). What vss. 6-7 assert about God's destruction of sacred things and places verges on blasphemy, or would to a faith that did not locate God's activity in empirical events—even tragic events. Vss. 8-9 insist that what has happened is the result not of meaningless fate but of the righteous purpose of a righteous God. He himself is the destroyer of all the institutions through which he was sought (vs. 9). So the conclusion to this section in vs. 10 describes the only reaction now appropriate to the reality of how God's righteous sovereignty has manifested itself.

2:11-12 is a transition in which the poet himself reacts to the situation by lamenting. These vss. give a graphic description of the effect of famine on children in the besieged and fallen city (cf. II Kings 25:3; Jer. 37:21).

2:13-17 takes up a central theme of this poem. The disaster by which Jerusalem has been overtaken is, as the day of Yahweh's wrath, incomparable, “vast as the sea.” There is no parallel to it; therefore no one is qualified to comfort Zion. In the light of this theme, vss. 14-17 look to possible comforters. In vs. 14 the poet explicitly sides with the minority prophets against those in the majority who maintained themselves by prophesying the peace and security Israel wanted to hear (cf. Jer. 14:13 ff.; 23:13 ff.; 26:7 ff.; Ezek. 13:1 ff.). Such prophets have been disqualified by events. Reality has voided their credentials, and they can say nothing to comfort Jerusalem now. The poet makes explicit what has been implicit all along: his acceptance of the interpretation given to Jerusalem's downfall by prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

2:15-17. Given what vs. 14 has said, is there any possibility of help from outside Israel? Not at all. Both neutral passers-by (vs. 15) and Israel's enemies (vs. 16) rejoice in Jerusalem's catastrophe, see it as what she deserved. So, can God be Jerusalem's comforter (vs. 17)? No, for the point of the whole poem is that the disaster is precisely God's doing, that, given what Israel had become, his day for her had to be a day of wrath.

2:18-19 moves from the lament of the poet to introduce that of Jerusalem herself. With no comforter (vss. 14-17), Zion can only pour out her grief constantly to God. In hymns praising God's activity the characteristic beginning is an imperative “call to worship” (cf. Pss. 29:1; 47:1; 103:1). Here, in the manner of the poet himself (see above on vs. 1) Jerusalem is called on to recite the deeds of Yahweh in the only way she now can, to be a witness to him even in her present condition.


The poet has the city speak as a grief-stricken mother, and the horrors catalogued speak for themselves. The pervading theme is stated at the beginning, “Look, O Lord, and see! With whom hast thou dealt thus?” This is a central thesis of the poem: no precedent exists anywhere for what has happened to Jerusalem. Thus the siege and fall of city and temple are not just tragic disaster. They plunge Israel into a crisis of faith. God seems to have acted in this day of his wrath in a way contrary to his character and purpose. Though the poems of Lam. probably originated separately, even if from a common author, the crisis of faith enunciated at the end of this poem leads naturally into the one in the following chapter.


This poem, unlike chs. 1; 2, is not modeled on a funeral dirge, and its problems have resulted in much debate. Puzzling changes in pronouns occur: an “I” speaks in vss. 1-20, 48-66, while in vss. 40-47 “we” is the subject. Also baffling are the various elements present. Vss. 1-20 are an individual lament, while vss. 21-24 combine elements of the individual thanksgiving and song of trust. Vss. 43-47, where the subject is “we,” are a communal lament. … Vss. 25-42 combine didactic and hortatory moods, reminiscent of the wisdom literature.

To the problem of finding an interpretation accounting for all this must be added the question of the poem's relation to the rest of Lam. Solutions have varied widely. Noting its differences from the rest of the book and its mixtures of pronouns and forms, many have held this poem to be a composite and the latest part of the book. More recently others have accounted for the various voices and elements with the theory that behind it lies cultic usage in which different persons and groups played their parts. It has also been held that the alternation between “I” and “we” is no problem, the “I” being collective.

Recent interpreters have tended to date the poem close to the disaster of 586 or in the exilic period. They have seen the author as a comforter of Israel on the basis of tragic experience, who brings meaning to Israel's suffering by a figure not unlike the suffering servant of Isa. 53. There are diverse elements in the poem, but its acrostic form indicates a unity of authorship. The following interpretation seeks to do justice to both.

Not itself a lament over Jerusalem's fall, the poem addresses itself to the tragic problem posed for Israel by the situation so eloquently described in the poem in ch. 2. This argues for common authorship. The poem bases the comfort it offers to Israel on the experience of tragedy and deliverance described in many psalms in which lament, confession of confidence, and thanksgiving are combined (e.g. Ps. 27). Thus vss. 1-24 are the poet's presentation of what will speak to Jerusalem in her disaster. Vss. 25-39 then point to the lesson the poet believes to come from what is presented in vss. 1-24. Vss. 40-51 exhort Israel to act on the basis of the lesson, giving voice to the lament of Israel and of the poet himself. Finally vss. 52-66 are the poet's song of confidence (firm enough that he can use the perfect tense) that Yahweh will act in redemption as he has acted in judgment.

To assign to the poem a definite time of composition or author is very difficult. It could come from almost any time after 586, and, if the other poems originated in Palestine itself, would come from there too.


The question of ch. 2 was, Who can comfort Jerusalem in her unprecedented disaster? The answer here is concrete: an appropriation of the tragic cry of true lament. Whatever the particular tragedy presented in a lament might be, the basic point was always that in it chaos was threatening order, death swallowing up life (cf. Ps. 88). This poem holds that in the suffering and disaster that call forth the lament there is a basis for speaking to the Jerusalem which has known the bitter wrath of God.

3:4-18. The heart of a lament is always a compelling and graphic recitation of the suffering being undergone. Three things occupy attention: the lamenter's own suffering, the enemies who plague him (vs. 14), and God, who is withholding his life-giving and saving presence. Here, while everything is permeated with the sufferer's plight, there is remarkable concentration on God's responsibility for the situation—“He has … He has … He has. …” Indeed, as in Job, the utter despair of the sufferer is bespoken as the figures usually used for evil and demonic enemies are applied to God himself (vss. 10-12). The point is that things have come to where it is possible to cry out to God only that order has been overwhelmed by chaos, life by death (cf. such classic laments as Pss. 22; 88; 143).

3:19-23. But all this is cried out to God. Implied in every lament, just by virtue of its being expressed, is what is called “the certainty of a hearing.” This certainty is itself the subject of OT poetry (cf. Pss. 27: 1-3; 23). So here, after vss. 19-21 have turned from description of distress to direct calling on God, vss. 22-24 express the confidence that God will hear. The basis of the certainty is the important OT concept of hesed, usually rendered in the RSV “steadfast love” (vs. 22). The basic connotations of the word have to do with committed, loving loyalty to a covenant obligation. The concrete character of Hebrew thinking is shown by the word's being used here in the plural; it refers to specific events and actions, not an abstract concept. Its meaning is indicated by its being parallel to “faithfulness” (vs. 23).

3:24. The phrase “says my soul” means “I say to myself.” The Israelite who takes the covenant seriously can remind himself that Yahweh is his “portion”—the possession measured out to him in life. And Yahweh's record is such that even in deepest distress hopeful waiting is justified. When a lament was recited in a time of distress in the sanctuary, it was answered after a time of vigil by an oracle pronouncing salvation. Thus “I will hope in him” has very concrete overtones.


Vss. 25-26 provide a transition to the next section of the poem by alluding to the cultic setting of a lament. To seek Yahweh originally meant to go to the sanctuary. The word for “wait” may originally have referred to the period of vigil preceding the oracle of salvation (cf. Ps. 27:14; Isa. 40:31). But the sanctuary is now gone; and, in the style of the wise men, the poet begins to insist that its procedures provide a lesson in the principles by which God works at any time. So vs. 27 is a typical wisdom maxim. It may indicate that the poet is chiefly concerned with the younger generation with whom Israel's future lies.

3:28-30. In line with what has been implied in the preceding laments, particularly ch. 2, the poet insists that the first step to salvation is an acceptance of the situation for what it is (note the reticent realism of vs. 29b). Vs. 30 is certainly support for the contention that Isa. 53 betrays a kinship with Lam.

3:31-33. Out of acceptance of judgment can come knowledge of the basically good purpose of God which undergirds his judgment. What to men look, according to the condition in which men are found, like 2 opposing things are to God one thing. His “steadfast love” (see above on vs. 22) is always the same and is the source of what to sinful man has to be described as wrath. But to accepting, repentant man (vss. 28-30) it is the basis of hope.

3:34-37 develops explicitly what underlies the confidence of vss. 31-33. Not meaningless injustice but righteousness is the will of Israel's God (vss. 34-36). And Israel's God is the sovereign Lord. Thus even the tragic disaster through which Israel has passed is something filled with meaning. This is the prophetic insight which redeemed catastrophe from meaninglessness for Israelites who, like this poet, were able to appropriate the prophetic message. This lesson, proclaimed by the prophets and typically enunciated in Israel's ancient faith, is that to which the poet now points Israel. The rhetorical questions of vss. 37-39 provide a transition to the 2 final parts of the poem.


Given the theology underlying vss. 34-39, the cause for lament inevitably shifted in Israel from what it was elsewhere. For Israel, God being what he had shown himself to be, the fundamental human problem was not that creaturely finitude was assailed by meaningless and amoral forces from which salvation was desperately sought. For Israel the fundamental problem was human unrighteousness, creaturely rebellion against the sovereign righteousness of God. Of this basic problem disaster such as that by which Jerusalem had been overtaken was a secondary and understandable by-product. Meaning was to be found for those who would, in ruthless honesty about themselves, seek it (vss. 40-41). And the search would lead to fruitful lament, lament over what was really askew in life (vs. 42).

3:43-51. Though the description in vss. 43-45 of Israel's present condition is as graphic as anything in chs. 1; 2, the communal lament to which the poet calls the survivors of Jerusalem moves in hopeful trust to its conclusion in vss. 49-51. If this whole ch. is understood as a unity, and this section as the poet's rhetorical summons to Israel (with which he identifies himself) to lament, then the switch from plural to singular pronouns in vss. 48-51 is no problem. It is only a sign of the extent to which the poet is himself involved in the situation to which he addresses himself.


In Israel's sacred poetry the counterpart of the lament was the song of thanksgiving, in which, after the deliverance cried for, a man recited how God had saved him. … This form underlies the conclusion to the present poem. Having described in traditional lament language a desperate situation (vss. 52-54), the poet uses prolepsis, the figure in which one anticipates coming events as if they have already occurred, to describe how God will answer the cry of Israel (vss. 55-66). The “Do not fear!” of vs. 57 may be a direct quotation of what was said in the oracle of reassurance that followed a lament in the sanctuary. Emphasis on “enemies” not only arises out of the derision to which Israel was subjected following her downfall (cf. Ps. 137) but is in line with the concrete character of Israel's faith, in which God's purposes and the forces opposing them were seen in terms of empirical events and persons in real life. If the sentiments of vss. 64-66 are neither understandable nor acceptable to modern man, they arise from the point of view just described, and are paralleled many times in the psalms. They come from a faith which could not conceive of God's salvation and blessing in other than visible, historical terms.


Here there is a return to the funeral lament form of chs. 1; 2. The typical “How” (see above on 1:1) is the beginning. In this poem, again an acrostic, the 3-couplet stanzas of chs. 1-3 give way to stanzas of 2 couplets.

In content this poem returns from the themes of ch. 3 to the kind of thing found in chs. 1; 2. It vividly describes the results of the Babylonian siege and destruction of Jerusalem, although at its conclusion it looks through tragedy to vindication. The realism of its reference to the trials of the city has caused some to assert that the poem is the product of an eye-witness of the siege, but the denunciation of Edom at the end may indicate a later time in the exilic period when Edom's encroachment on former Judean territory resulted in a good deal of animosity (cf. Obad. and probably late passages in Jer. and Ezek.).

4:1-2 refers to the destruction of the temple, the chief tragedy of Jerusalem's downfall for the pious Israelite. Vs. 2 leads into what is to occupy attention in most of this lament, the suffering of the people in Jerusalem at its destruction. “The precious sons of Zion” is evidence of the meaning to Israel of her election as God's people.

4:3-5 describes the famine that accompanied the siege, concentrating on the terrible results of it for the children of the city. On the ostrich and its treatment of its young cf. Job 39:13-18.

4:6 is one of a series of stanzas coming at regular intervals in this poem (vss. 6, 11, 16) by which the recitation of the disaster is punctuated with proclamations of it as God's wrath on a rebellious people. Here the proverbial wickedness of Sodom (cf. Gen. 19) serves as a model of the condition of Jerusalem. An insight into the Hebrew view of life is provided in the double meaning of “chastisement” and “punishment.” Each word can denote both evil and the consequences of it in a world ruled by a righteous God. This poem, unlike chs. 2; 3, simply alludes to Israel's sin in a vivid description of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. It does not dwell on the point, but takes the prophetic interpretation of the dreadful events for granted.

4:7-8 describes in vivid terms the transformation produced in even the most handsome and healthy of Jerusalem's youth (“princes” may not be correct) by the famine.

4:9-10 continues, asserting that death in the famine was worse than falling in battle, and that hunger drove even the most compassionate of mothers to kill and eat their children.

4:11 again explicitly connects what the poem laments with God's judgmental wrath (cf. vss. 6, 16). Unlike 2:20, in which vs. 10 is paralleled, vs. 11 does not question Yahweh's involvement in the disaster.

4:12 provides a transition to a new section by underlining vs. 11. What Yahweh has done in judgment was beyond the imagination even of those not themselves involved in feeling for Jerusalem. This verse brings to mind the advantageous location of Jerusalem (II Sam. 5:6), and also Israel's convictions about her invulnerability (cf. Pss. 46; 48; 87) against which Jeremiah had to inveigh (Jer. 7; 26).

4:13-15 locates the cause of the judgment of Jerusalem in the sin of prophets and priests. Though some have interpreted “The blood of the righteous” as an allusion to some specific wrong of the religious leaders, it more probably refers to their responsibility for what has happened to the innocent in the siege and destruction. Vss. 14-15 probably describe the prophets and priests (cf. vs. 16), though a number of interpreters have applied them to the “righteous” of vs. 13. In line with what all the classic prophets had insisted, this poem asserts that those whose responsibility it was to declare God's way and will to his people had not done so (cf. Amos 7:14-17; Hos. 6:9; 9:7-8; Isa. 28:7-22; Jer. 6:13-15; 23:11-22; Ezek. 22:23-31). So distorted had Israel's view of her God become, because of the perversions of prophet and priest, that God, without compromising his character, could act toward her only in judgment. So the blood of the righteous is on their hands.

4:16, a counterpart to vss. 6, 11, makes it explicit that the defiling of the sacral persons from their ritual cleanness and their exile into lands not Yahweh's is the work of Yahweh himself as he acts in his wrath.

4:17-20 concludes the lament's account of Jerusalem's terrible fall by describing how nothing could be relied on to avert the disaster. Vss. 17-18 indicate that the poet understood what the prophets had continually insisted—that no foreign alliance could thwart Yahweh's judgment on his people (cf. Isa. 30-31; Jer. 2:18, 36). Vs. 20, contrary to the claims so often made for the Davidic monarchy (II Sam. 7; Pss. 2; 110), recounts how Yahweh's own king could not stop the fall of Jerusalem, but experienced its consequences himself.

4:21-22. Unlike those in chs. 2; 3, this poem does not question the ultimately redemptive purpose of Yahweh even in his wrathful judgment. Thus it ends with words of comfort to Israel. Some have conjectured that cultic usage underlies the poem, and that these final vss. were an oracle of reassurance addressed to the community that had lamented. In line with Israel's concrete view of things (see above on 3:58-66), God's comforting of Israel is pictured as a very visible punishment of her enemy Edom, who had apparently taken advantage of Israel after the Babylonian invasion and therefore came in for much castigation during the exilic and postexilic periods (cf. Obad.; Isa. 34:5-7; Jer. 49:7-22; Ezek. 25:12-14).


This poem differs from the others in 2 ways. First, although the number of couplets is the same as the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, it is not an acrostic. On the one hand, this fact has been used to argue for its basic unity and for its having come from the same writer as the other poems. On the other hand, some have held this to be artificial and the result of secondary reaction. Current critical opinion tends toward the former view.

Second, this poem is a pure example of the communal lament. … It begins with a cry to God in the imperative, recites the causes of the lament in the first person plural, and concludes with a petition to God for relief. Various hints about the use of such poems (Josh. 7:6-9; Judg. 20-23, 26; I Kings 8:33-34; Jer. 14:2; Joel 1:13-14) make it seem possible that this one was written for some public occasion of lamentation after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 b.c.

5:1-18. THE LAMENT.

Vs. 1 begins in the manner of the lament, either communal or individual, with a direct call on God and an imperative request that God “remember” (better, “direct his attention to”) the condition of the lamenter or act on his behalf.

5:2 is descriptive of more than a political and economic disaster. The word for “inheritance” is central to Israel's theology. The concrete sign of her relation to God was his provision for Israel of a land of her own. The loss of that land to other peoples presented, therefore, a crisis for faith, and that crisis is the central subject of Lam.

5:3-5. Vs. 3 can be interpreted as a description of the situation when many men had been killed, or, more likely, in line with vs. 2, as a tragic assertion that Israel has been abandoned by her God. Vs. 4 carries on the same line of thought, the point being that the rights to the resources of the land now belong to others. Vs. 5 provides a climax with its declaration of the loss of personal freedom.

5:6-8 forms a unit and refers to pacts made in the 2 centuries before Jerusalem's fall as expansion of various imperial powers began to spell Israel's doom. As the prophets had consistently insisted, the compromise involved in such pacts was apostasy from Yahweh's claim to absolute sovereignty and so has to be characterized as sin and iniquity. Vs. 7 must precede the doctrine advanced in Ezek. 18. Vs. 8 asserts the bitter irony that a people whose relation to their God originated in emancipation from slavery are now subject to peoples whose gods are oppressors rather than redeemers (cf. the view of man in Gen. 1 with that in the Babylonian creation epic).

5:9-15, typical of the lament form, recounts the difficulties being undergone by those who have survived the fall of Jerusalem. Harvesting of crops is made dangerous by bedouin marauders from the desert (vs. 9), famine has produced illness (vs. 10), all elements of society suffer the results of chaotic lawlessness (vss. 11-14), and joy is entirely turned to sadness (vs. 15).

5:16. The hardest fact of all is the voiding of Israel's choice as God's blessed people. The lamenting community accepts the prophetic assessment of the reason for the catastrophe.

5:17-18 provides both the climax of the lament proper and the transition to the petition. The central tragedy of it all for the Israel of God is the cessation of her life as the community whose worship on Zion is the earthly, visible locus of the sovereignty of God. In the most profound sense chaos has replaced order—yet not entirely for the people whose prophets have made possible the confession of vs. 16b. If tragedy has meaning, God can still be turned to in prayer for the future.

5:19-22. THE PETITION.

What was implied in the above is made explicit in the hymnic introduction (vs. 19). It is not Yahweh's sovereignty but Israel's previous status that has collapsed. So the lamenting “Why” (vs. 20) and a petition for restoration (vs. 21) can be addressed to him. And, if the central fact of life is his sovereignty, then the tragic situation of Israel may even be faced as unalterable (vs. 22). The last verse of Lam. sums up the evidence of all its poetry that there were those in Israel who could accept the prophetic interpretation of her downfall.

James A. Fischer, C.M. (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5103

SOURCE: Fischer, James A., C.M. “Lamentations.” In The Collegeville Bible Commentary, 804-11. Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Fischer provides a close reading of the poems of the Book of Lamentations, asserting that the pieces are “incandescent with emotions of desolation, grief, incomprehension, and indignation.”]

Traditionally the Book of Lamentations has been pictured as the writing of Jeremiah the prophet as he saw the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 b.c.e. This certainly gives visual expression to much of the thought. The prophet was watching the smoke rise from the destroyed city. He heard the wailing of women as they found their dead ones or sought those long lost. Soldiers milled about, driving victims before them and setting fire to the ruins. It was the prophet's city and his people. Often had he preached in it, imploring his compatriots to turn back from folly. Now the terrible word of the Lord had come. It was too much. God had been right, but who could live with such a ruthless God? Prayer to God had been as useless as preaching to the people. God had made a mockery of former glorious promises and deeds.

Such is the literary setting of the five poems (chapters) that comprise the Book of Lamentations. They are incandescent with emotions of desolation, grief, incomprehension, and indignation. Sin has been revealed in its raw evilness. Nothing of nobility survived except a bleeding memory.


Yet the book is a rigidly controlled outpouring. As poetry it is spontaneous, heart-felt, torn from exacerbated feelings and yet elaborately planned and precisely executed. Three of the poems are acrostics, each verse beginning with a succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet; the other two are also built on the pattern of twenty-two. Such a numerical pattern gives a feeling of inescapable completion. In each poem a break occurs just slightly before the middle, setting the two parts against each other. The middle poem (chapter 3) is totally different in mood, as we shall see. All five poems must be read to grasp the overall feeling and meaning; that is the aim of the poet.

Some of the poems are written in the rhythm of a funeral dirge. Some verses have the form of taunt songs. The meter is still disputed; reconstructions and explanations based on it do not seem to get us very far.

Out of the controlled literary form comes a theological insight. God can be faced and prayed to in all the divine anger and stony silence. Grief and bitterness can be surmounted to arrive at repentance and acceptance. When history has become unendurable, faith still endures.


The picture given of Jeremiah at the beginning will not stand up to historical analysis. Although he could have composed the lamentations, it appears more probable that they were written over a period of years after him. Perhaps, indeed, many such laments were written for memorial services in the ruined city or elsewhere and our collection represents a selection by an editor. The first and second poems seem to be eyewitness compositions; the rest are clearly from a later time. All are heavily flavored by the expressions and thoughts of the prophet Jeremiah and so have been traditionally associated with him. Certainly the book as we know it was completed by 538 b.c.e. It is possible, but not provable, that the poems were sung in some liturgical setting. We know that much later they were used in synagogues for the celebration of the ninth day of Ab in late summer to remember the destruction of Jerusalem.



LAM. 1:1-22

The first poem (chapter 1) or dirge is an acrostic, that is, a poem whose lines begin with succeeding letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It is divided into two parts. Each begins with a cry:

How lonely she is now,
          the once crowded city!


Look, O Lord, and see
          how worthless I have become!


The first section describes the utter loneliness of the daughter of Jerusalem, now a widow. It is a funeral dirge over Jerusalem itself. The precise rhythm of the dirge song is used. The widow weeps. Her friends have betrayed her, and she has no peace. There are no more pilgrims coming to her; her priests groan, her foes triumph, her little ones have gone away, her glory is vanished, she has no home, her foes gloat over her. And added to all this, she is aware that it is her own sins that have brought it about. This first section winds down to a piteous plea:

Astounding is her downfall,
          with no one to console her.
Look, O Lord, upon her misery,
          for the enemy has triumphed!


The second section begins with a confession of guilt and yet a plea for others to understand her misery:

“Come, all you who pass by the way,
          look and see
Whether there is any suffering like
          my suffering,
which has been dealt me …”


Images are heaped up: blazing wrath, fire, sins plaited together and tied around her neck, brought to her knees, young men crushed, trodden into the winepress. There is no one to console her: Jerusalem has become a thing unclean. This section also finally emerges into a prayer, but a prayer for vengeance:

“Let all their evil come before you;
          deal with them
As you have dealt with me
          for all my sins;
My groans are many,
          and I am sick at heart”


It is a dark mood that has come upon the poet. Loneliness is the most dreaded evil; there is no one, not even God, to offer any consolation. There is no denying that God has been just in punishing; yet God seems to be playing favorites by not punishing the more sinful invader. Repentance comes down to a need for some immediate vindication against the foe: “deal with them as you have dealt with me for all my sins.”

1:1 The note of loneliness is struck from the beginning. Jerusalem never had a large population, but during the festival days it was overflowing with Jews from all over Palestine and foreign countries.

The city is “she.” Such was the ancient way of referring to cities. Wealth, education, and power flowed from cities. Capital cities were referred to as “queens.” In the Bible “daughter of Zion” or “mother Jerusalem” are the ordinary designations. The metaphor gets mixed up here, for although the dirge is for the female whose funeral song is sung, it is the widow who pronounces it over herself.

1:3 The text is not clear. It seems to refer to Judah in exile, but that has not yet happened and the Hebrew text supports the usual picture of pre-exilic Judah as living among the nations as their savior. If so, the pity is that Judah has failed to bring “rest” or peace to the nations.

1:5 As elsewhere in the Old Testament, there are no explanations about the sociological or political forces at work. The Lord is fingered from the first as the cause of disaster. So also in verse 12: “the Lord afflicted me.”

1:8 Although Jews were not at all squeamish about sex, they did abhor nakedness. There is some dispute about the actual meaning in Hebrew; perhaps the picture does rely on a known punishment for treaty violations, namely, the political leaders were stripped naked so that they should be shamed before their own people. The same punishment also seems to have been used sometimes for prostitutes.

1:10 The Babylonians carried off the sacred vessels of the temple. What hurt the most was not the loss of money but the desecration of such treasures. The Book of Daniel (Dan 5:2) knows of this tradition (see 2 Kgs 25:13-17).

Deut 23:4 has a most severe rule against any Moabite or Ammonite ever being accepted into the community. The tradition persisted with uneven application for centuries. Actually, there do not seem to have been any Moabite or Ammonite soldiers among the Babylonian conquerors. For the poet this is immaterial; the picture is of utter desecration of the sacred.

1:12 The second section begins with an appeal for help against the Lord. Presumably those who pass by the way are uninvolved people who could make an unbiased judgment. The suffering of widowed Jerusalem is not just another normal tragedy of war; it is unprecedented, since it comes directly from the Lord.

1:14 The poet knows that sin is not a bit of dirt to be brushed off. It is “plaited,” woven together into an entangling and heavy burden that cannot be shaken off.

1:17 Jacob is another name used generically for all Israel or for parts of it, such as Judah. Once more the lament is against the Lord directly. The physical terrors of war must be borne; the spiritual terrors of God as the enemy are less perceptible but are the cause of real grief.

1:19 The lovers seem to have been nations such as Egypt and Assyria, with which Judah had attempted to make alliances to stave off Babylonia. The verse also suggests a trifling with paganism. Unfaithful Jerusalem is often called a temple prostitute, a woman willing to abandon her husband to consort with the gods.

1:20 The poet knows that Jerusalem has been unfaithful and that she knows it. The pain lies not so much in the external suffering as in the loss of integrity. “My heart recoils within me from my monstrous rebellion.” So the problem is posed in its most excruciating form: Jerusalem knows that the Lord is just (see v. 18), but accepting this is just too painful.

1:21 The ungracious ending begins quite openly. The “Day of the Lord” was a familiar theme—a time when God would defeat the nations and usher in God's glorious reign. The prophets had warned that the Day of the Lord was a two-edged sword; it could be directed against the chosen people also. So it had happened. But the Day had not fallen on the oppressors. If there is vengeance here, it is at least based on the belief that the Lord alone could do it. At this point acceptance is very slight; it is inescapable but narrow-minded.


LAM. 2:1-22

The second poem is a wild outpouring of grief over destroyed Zion, but the wildness is controlled both by the literary artist and by the believer, as is signified by the same use of the alphabetical arrangement. This poem, too, divides into two parts. The problem is first raised:

How the Lord in his wrath
          has detested daughter Zion!


The Lord has been ruthless in punishing, even self-distrustful, as the poet implies: “unmindful of his footstool.” The Lord has dishonored everything in the land: dwellings, fortress Zion, king, princes. Then follows a poetic reverie: “his hand has brought ruin, yet he did not relent” (v. 8). The images heap up into an overwhelming picture of awesome destruction.

Then the poet turns to his own reverie:

Worn out from weeping are my eyes,
          within me all is in ferment


Like King Jehoiakim, who saw his children slaughtered and then had his own eyes put out, the poet can see and feel the final scenes:

As child and infant faint away
          in the open spaces of the town.
They ask their mothers,
          “Where is the cereal?”—in vain,
As they faint away like the wounded
          in the streets of the city,
And breathe their last
          in their mothers' arms


There is no recourse but a cry to God, a cry bound to fall on deaf ears. It is unmerciful and unparalleled in history:

Look, O Lord, and consider:
          whom have you ever treated thus?
Must women eat their offspring,
          their well-formed children?
Are priest and prophet slain
          in the sanctuary of the Lord?


No hope pervades these dreary thoughts. The day of wrath continues to the end.

The problem is the total disregard of God for mercy. Rather than deny it or cover it over with pious words of promise, the poet flings it in God's face. It is God's own self-interest that is badly served. What will the enemies think of such a God?

2:1 Each of the first eight verses describes the Lord as an enemy; the Lord detests, consumes in anger, blazes up, shoots, scorns, and so on. What is left unspoken is the implicit paradox: it is the Lord's chosen that is detested.

Zion is sacred soil because it is there that the Lord's feet have touched the earth and consecrated it. It is this sacred touch that the Lord now seems to forget.

2:3 The horn as a symbol of strength is a common Old Testament figure; see Ps 75:11 for an example.

2:6 The exact meaning is unclear. Perhaps the reference is to the shelters that were erected in the vineyards during the growing season so that the owner could mount a guard. They could be easily demolished. Israel is God's vineyard; God should have protected it.

2:8 The image is of an architect measuring a building. He knows precisely the size and shape that he wants. So the Lord has decreed destruction of Zion's wall not haphazardly but with precise planning.

2:9 The reference is to the bars that were put up to lock the gates of the city after they were closed.

Among all the calamities, the worst were the losses of spiritual things, such as the instruction in the law given by the priests. Religious education had come to a halt.

2:10 The esteemed elders are sitting on the ground either humiliated or as a sign of mourning. At any rate, the education by the wise has ceased. Usually the daughters of Jerusalem are pictured as dancing; now they are mourning.

2:11 The first part of the poem has concentrated on what God the enemy has done. Now the thought turns back to the personal dismay of daughter Jerusalem (see 1:20 for the same phrasing).

2:12 Nothing more vivid could be added to this picture of starving children. It is just a few words, but it is the detail that says immense amounts. In verse 20 the poet will allude to women eating their offspring. It was one of the terrors of sieges amply attested by the Old Testament and by other ancient Near Eastern texts.

2:14 The Hebrew text is more vivid: “Your prophets saw visions that were mere white-wash.” The reality was horrendous and the prophets knew it; they whitewashed it by crying “Peace!” when they knew that there was no peace of the Lord in the land.

2:15 Obviously the passersby are not clapping in approval as we do. Clapping of the hands is a fairly frequent sign of derision in the Old Testament.

2:20 The paradox here is brought near the surface. The enemies of Israel were obviously the sinners and deservedly suffered defeat, famine, pillage, and siege. But nothing like this had ever happened to the chosen ones. It is a reproach to the justice of God that God has punished the chosen people without mercy.

2:22 The poem ends on a note of total disgust and reproach; God doesn't even have manners, and God's feast day is a grisly banquet of death. There is nothing more to be said than “if that is the kind of God you are, we don't want you.” It is notable that it is not said. The twenty-two-verse pattern ends precisely before it, and nothing more can be added.


LAM. 3:1-66

The third poem is completely different. It is not the agonized outpouring of an eyewitness over Jerusalem in its death throes. It is a personal meditation or reverie:

I am a man who knows affliction
          from the rod of his anger


How can such a man live with his God? The problem of affliction is described in rather traditional images having only a vague reference to the destruction of Jerusalem. But in any affliction, mysterious as it may be, the sages can still assert that God is good.

The favors of the Lord are not exhausted,
          his mercies are not spent;
They are renewed each morning,
          so great is his faithfulness.
My portion is the Lord, says my soul;
          therefore I will hope in him


Affliction is seen to have a medicinal effect:

Why should any living man complain,
          any mortal, in the face of his sins?
Let us search and examine our ways
          that we may return to the Lord!


At this point the meditation turns from the personal “I” to the collective “we.” The rest of the poem is a somewhat conventional lament that confesses sin, complains that the enemy is still triumphant, expresses confidence that God will hear, and ends with a prayer for vindication against enemies.

It is a soothing prayer. The imagery is much less violent than in the preceding two poems. The alphabetic form has been used, but now the poem has stretched out from twenty-two to sixty-six verses to heighten the understanding that not only has all been said, but it has been fully said. The poet often reaches back for hallowed phrases traditionally sung in the temple; some ten verses are very close to psalm quotations. Often the vocabulary and style parallel the wisdom writers' techniques, and so give a calming effect. God is viewed as the Creator, the Most High, the Lord from heaven. Despite the harsh note of vindictiveness at the end, the poem carries the gentler spirit of the sages of Israel. God is hidden in these harsh facts of life, but God is still there, and still there as a good God.

Seen against the background of the first two poems, this lengthy meditation begins to investigate a livable solution. It is a mysterious solution, since, as the sages realized, no one can understand God. But if the question is raised of how Israelites can live with their God, as it was in the preceding poems and in the beginning of this one, then the ancient faith in a good God who eventually uses power both to chastise and to vindicate must be added. It does not solve the problem. This poet has managed to quiet the raw emotions of loneliness and incomprehensibility into something more peaceful where the thought that things may not be what they seem to be can begin to emerge.

3:2 The sharp contrasts between light and darkness, life and death, good and evil in this poem are characteristic of the sages' techniques.

3:6 The Jews of this period did not speculate about what happened in the afterlife, although they believed that life continued for them. The experience of death was that a body was placed in a grave and stayed there. As far as anyone could see, such a life was useless. So death was darkness and a non-entity.

3:8 We are so accustomed to saying that God always hears prayer that we ignore our own experience. The Hebrews felt more comfortable admitting that God did not need to hear anything and that their efforts to reach God often seemed to be ignored. Thus verse 44 says: “You wrapped yourself in a cloud which prayer could not pierce.”

3:10 For the next six verses the poet pursues the picture that God is the enemy. The Jews had no theories to explain evil in the world. It simply existed, and in some way it was due to God (see vv. 37-38). The experience of life often seemed to make God the enemy.

3:20 Here again the experience of life dominates. We keep mulling over our problems and the broken-record process gets in the way of our ever seeing more in our situation.

3:22 Note the sudden inbreaking of light here. This is a standard feature of the lament psalms and is called a “certainty of a hearing.” No lament is complete without it. Here it introduces a new section.

3:24 “My portion is the Lord”: Ps 16:5 and 73:26 use the same metaphor. It was the conviction of all that God has given each person a place in life and a work to do. This might become specific, as in the allotting of portions of the land to the various tribes. There was a portion for all, and it was given not haphazardly but because the Lord decreed it.

3:25 “Good is the Lord to one who waits for him”: This is part of the faith statement. It is also put in the form of a wisdom admonition. It will be noted that verses 25, 26, and 27 all have the same form: “It is good …”

3:29 The metaphor expresses surrender and is probably taken from a scene of political subjugation.

3:31 We are getting into an insight of how evil actually operates in the world. Experience taught that the Lord always came to rescue Israel, although this might take time. The worst thought was that God simply did not care about what went on here on earth. Verses 34 to 36 are a repudiation of that idea. The same occurs in the Book of Job (see Job 35).

3:37 Here we have, not a philosophical explanation of the problem of evil, but a simple statement of observed fact and faith. Good and evil do come; unless one is prepared to say that there is another god of evil, one can only say that both good and evil come from God in some way. What that way may be is subject to endless philosophizing, but the assertion here bears on the fact that there is only one God who controls everything.

3:39 Whatever turns the notion of disaster and sin took, it seemed reasonable to the Jews to concede that all human beings were sinful, and if they were not punished for one thing, they deserved it for another.

3:40 This is another wisdom admonition, and, typically, it makes practical use of the reflections that have preceded it. Suffering has a medicinal value if only we will search for it.

3:48 This is the first reference to the destruction of Jerusalem, and apart from verses 48-51 there is no other allusion to it in this poem.

3:54 Water as a symbol of trouble is common in the Old Testament.

3:65 There is no doubt about the vindictiveness of this prayer. But it should at least be conceded that the poet was thinking in spiritual terms. The worst evil he could wish was a spiritual one—hardness of heart. From that there was no escape, as he himself knew from his own experience.


LAM. 4:1-22

After the reflective mood of the third poem, the fourth chapter can take a more reasonable approach to lament. Past and present jostle for sorrowful consideration at the beginning.

How tarnished is the gold,
          how changed the noble metal!


The glory of Zion past is compared with the present ignominy, the prosperity of yester-years with the starvation of today. The poet will not flinch from even the worst:

The hands of the compassionate women
          boiled their own children,
To serve them as mourners' food
          in the downfall of the daughter of
          my people


Then the mood changes to one of honest admission that all this punishment has come upon them because of their sins. Prophets, priests, elders, even the anointed (king) have proven false and have been dispersed. The last hope is gone with the king in prison:

He in whose shadow we thought
          we could live on among the nations


And the simple fact is admitted: the Lord himself has dispersed us (v. 16). There is one last outburst of resentment—this time against Edom, the traditional enemy. However, it is clear that the poet has made progress in elevating his thought. God is the punisher, and yet punishment is justifiable.

4:3 The starving mothers of Jerusalem know that even wild animals can feed their young; they cannot. “The daughter of my people has become as cruel as the ostrich in the desert.” There was a widespread belief that ostriches abandoned their eggs after laying them and allowed them to be trampled on.

4:12 The belief was that of the Israelites; we have no evidence that any others held it. Still and all, Jerusalem remained unconquered from the time of David to the Exile, some four hundred years.

4:13 No specific sin is mentioned, and the Hebrew text is somewhat uncertain. However, Jeremiah himself was unjustly imprisoned and accused of treason by the priests and the prophet Hananiah (see Jer 26). So also Christ refers to a tradition of bloodshed in Jerusalem caused by the officials (see Matt 23:35). It should also be noted that the Old Testament does not distinguish, in using the title “prophet,” between false prophets and true ones, as present-day scholars are accustomed to do. Among those called prophets there were many political sycophants and downright liars.

4:20 The reference is to King Zedekiah, who was captured trying to escape from Jerusalem during the last siege (see 2 Kgs 25:3-6). The king is called “our breath of life,” a very ancient Canaanite title for a king. There is no reason to suspect irony.

4:21 “Daughter Edom” is, of course, the country across the Jordan. A somewhat vagrant tradition says that Esau, the brother of Jacob, was their progenitor. Actually, they seem to have been a mixed people among whom the Jews mingled and did business. For some reason that is not entirely clear from the Bible, they are usually singled out by the prophets for the fiercest of denunciations.

4:22 This is about the happiest thing said in the Book of Lamentations. In contrast to Edom, whose punishment is in the future, Zion is on the upswing.


LAM. 5:1-22

The last poem must be seen against the backdrop of the preceding chapters. The poems began with an untrammeled lament over the destroyed city and a questioning of how God could do this. The third poem introduced a reflective mood: God is still the good God, and suffering has its curative value. The fourth poem spoke much about a true confession of faith. Now the poet is ready to put this horrendous experience in the light of Israel's historical traditions.

Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us,
          look, and see our disgrace:
Our inherited lands have been turned
                    over to strangers,
          our homes to foreigners


The exiles are the foreigners now, worked to death and begging for water. The facts cannot be belied. Sin has worked its havoc according to the ancient law that children are to be punished for the crimes of their parents. So be it.

But there is more to remembering than that. The destruction of Jerusalem is in the past for these exiles. And it was not simply the sins of the parents that had brought it about.

Woe to us, for we have sinned!


Yet Israel's God has always been a king, unchanging in both goodness and power. Such a king cannot forget his own.

You, O Lord, are enthroned forever;
          your throne stands from age to age.
Why, then, should you forget us,
          abandon us so long a time?
Lead us back to you, O Lord, that we
                    may be restored:
          give us anew such days as we had
                    of old


On this humbly supplicant note the Lamentations end. The poet has come to the peace of confession and of waiting for God to remember without any bitterness against God who inflicted the punishment and without resentment against the enemy who did it. There is an opening into a new understanding of the tragedy of the destruction of Jerusalem. As if to indicate this by the literary form used, the poet has dropped the acrostic formula and has not employed the funereal meter of lament. The future is open. It is a simple theological statement of hope.

Title: Some Greek manuscripts have a title prefixed to this chapter: “A prayer.” So it is. The tone of this chapter is prayerful and calming. Although it has twenty-two verses, this poem is not alphabetical (an acrostic) like the others. It is in the form of a national lament with all the expression of confidence that such a song demands.

5:6 Although the Exodus from Egypt and the events leading up to it were hundreds of years in the past, it continued to be the central experience and measuring stick for most later reflections on the ways of God. The Hebrew text is not as harsh as the translation: “We shook hands with Egypt …”

5:7 The idea that the sins of parents are visited on their children is common in the Old Testament. It is also common sense from a historical perspective. The poet accepts such guilt, or at least such punishment, as just. He also allows space for the guilt of the present generation.

5:8 The Hebrew word is used as a slur on government officials, especially the lower ones, who were often corrupt.

5:11-14 These verses picture a society in which all the norms of accepted social behavior are overturned. Wives and maidens are no longer respected and protected; princes are executed; elders are not honored; young men have no job opportunities; the elders who govern prudently do not even bother to gather at the city gates, and the young do not have fun.

5:18 The more terrible prophetic threats predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and pictured wild animals as the only inhabitants. That Jerusalem as the center of worship, and so of all religion, should be abandoned was unthinkable. The rallying cry for the preservation of Judaism in exile centered on the unquenchable desire to return to the Holy City.

5:19 The enthronement of Yahweh as King was both a theological conviction and a liturgical celebration of great importance in pre-exilic Judaism. Essentially, the statement expressed the faith that God alone ruled all things and would eventually win. It is noteworthy that the Exile brought out some of the strongest expressions of this faith in Old Testament history. It was a time when the Old Testament was largely edited, and the events of the past reinterpreted in dynamic fashion.

5:21 The New American Bible translation catches the right meaning of the words: “help us to repent!” That repentance was still possible is taken for granted. In synagogue reading the Jews repeat this verse after the end of the chapter, so that the whole of Lamentations ends on a hopeful note that God will grant repentance. Thus was the book conceived. It is not a pious book of idealistic sayings that tell us how we ought to be. It is a human as well as a divine document that witnesses to the power of God to save even when we are in the depths of despair and resentment. It is salvation achieved, but at a great price.

Claus Westermann (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8624

SOURCE: Westermann, Claus. “Lamentations.” In The Books of the Bible: Vol. I, edited by Bernhard W. Anderson, pp. 303-18. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989.

[In the following essay, Westermann explores the function, significance, literary form, and origins of the Book of Lamentations.]

Lament belongs to human existence, for suffering is intrinsic to human life, and lament expresses this suffering. When a child is born, its first utterance is a cry. The cry of pain remains throughout one's life the immediate, inarticulate expression of pain. Jesus' cry on the cross (“and he cried aloud …”) is understandable to every person in all times. More than that, the yet unspoken cry of pain is common to all creatures who can give tongue to their suffering; it is part of the essence of all creatures.


When pain finds expression in words, it becomes lament, which may be a mere cry or may be expanded into a sentence. The cry of lament also is part of being human; it is found among all human beings on earth. It appears in the narratives of the Bible: the lament of Cain, of Samson, of Rebecca, and many others. This cry of lament is wholly connected with the situation in which it is evoked and can be transmitted only as part of the particular situation that is being related.

The lament, however, may also be expanded to a larger literary structure, to a song of lament or a psalm of lament, and thereby it receives an independent existence, removed from a life situation. A distinction must be made between lament as a reaction to the death of a human being (dirge) and lament as a reaction to personal suffering (complaint). These concepts are fundamentally different, even in their original usage. The Hebrew word qinah can only mean a dirge, never a complaint about suffering. Although both forms give expression to human suffering, a complaint is raised by those who are immediately affected by suffering, while a dirge is raised by the survivors who are affected by the loss of the deceased. Further differences are implicit in this distinction. In the lament, what is at stake is the change of the situation that is lamented; therefore, in it an appeal is made to Yahweh; this is not the case in the dirge. The dirge is a secular, the lament a cultic, affair. Petition belongs to the lament, but not to the dirge.


Actual dirges are rarely found in the Old Testament; usually, it is only stated that they were performed, as in the case of Abraham's dirge over Sarah (Gen 23:2). David's dirge over Saul and Jonathan is substantially preserved in 2 Samuel 1:17-27, and over Abner in 3:33-34. In a larger sense the dirge can also announce to the people the coming of the day of judgment, as in Amos 5:2 (“Fallen, no more to rise, is the virgin Israel”; RSV) and Jeremiah 9:16-21.

Laments constitute a considerable part of the Old Testament, especially of the psalms of lament, both communal and individual. Moreover, they form a major element of the Book of Job (individual lament) and the Fourth Book of Ezra (communal lament). The proclamation of Deutero-Isaiah and other salvation oracles that reflect the lament of the people after the fall of the nation contain many lament motifs. The same holds for other prophetic books—sometimes even whole psalms of lament such as Isaiah 63 and 64.


Only in the Book of Lamentations are dirges and laments combined. This is a result of the unique situation that prevailed after the catastrophe of 587 b.c.e., when the survivors experienced the conquest of Jerusalem as the death of the city. The experience of the demise of a city has a parallel in the Sumerian dirge over Ur, as well as in prophetic proclamations of judgment in the Old Testament that are clothed in the literary form of a dirge, such as Amos 5:2 and Jeremiah 9:16-21.


In its original form the dirge is always brief. It is connected closely with funeral rites and is transmitted orally. The death wail, consisting of a word or short sentence, recurs again and again, and, in contrast to the lament, is self-contained. The lament may take a variety of forms and has no fixed structure. The most frequent motif is the announcement of death (as in Amos 5:2). This can be connected with the summons to lament, or it can stand alone. The proclamation of death may contain information about how death came upon the one who is being lamented (2 Sam 3:33-34). The anguish of death finds concrete expression in the motif of contrasting what was with what is now. The description of pain is the subjective unfolding of the cry of desolation (“Woe”). In particular instances further motifs can be added (Jahnow 1923).

The lament received its form in the worship of ancient Israel, in which it was transmitted orally; then it was fixed in small collections as communal and individual psalms of lament, out of which—together with other genres of psalms—the Psalter developed. In contrast to the dirges, these psalms are prayers. Here the lament constitutes an element of prayer, to which belong, besides the complaint, the address to God, the expression of trust, the confession of guilt, the petition to God, and the vow of praise (Gunkel-Begrich 1933; Westermann 1977).

Unlike dirges, the Psalms are not mere portrayals of misery but, rather, are divided into “God-laments” (or accusations against God: “You have done …”), “I-” or “we-laments” (subject in the first person), and “enemy laments” or complaints against enemies (“The enemies have …”). The dirge is directed toward death, the lament toward life. Because the lament belongs to human existence, it has a correspondingly existential structure. Just as, in Genesis 2, being a self, being with others (community), and being in the presence of God, the Creator, all belong to human existence, so human existence is affected by suffering in these three aspects, as is evident already in the very first lament, that of Cain in Genesis 4. That the laments in the Psalms are articulated according to these three aspects is shown, for example, by Psalms 13 and 22 (see the tables in Westermann 1977, 132 and 139). The peculiarity of Lamentations 1, 2, and 4 lies in the fact that here dirges and laments form a union in which the community lament constitutes the basic framework mixed with elements of the dirge.


The Book of Lamentations is designated in the Hebrew Bible as Qinoth (pl. of qinah, “lament”) or, following the initial cry of lament, as 'ekah (“Oh, how!”). In the Septuagint it is designated as Threnai, in the Vulgate Lamentations; some manuscripts add “of Jeremiah” or place “Laments of Jeremiah” at the conclusion. In modern translations the title has been adopted from the Septuagint or the Vulgate. According to an early Jewish tradition (2 Chron 35:25), Lamentations was affixed to the Book of Jeremiah in the canon of the Old Testament. In the Hebrew canon, the book is found among the five festal scrolls (megilloth). In our time scholars no longer believe that Jeremiah was the author.


The text consists of five songs of lament. Three of these songs, which constitute the kernel of the book, 1, 2, and 4, show great similarities inasmuch as the lament of the people is connected with motifs of the dirge. Song 5 is a community psalm of lament that is structured like the community laments of the Psalter. Song 3 comprises several parts: verses 42-51 form an abbreviated community lament, whereas the other parts deal not with the suffering of the people but with the suffering and deliverance of an individual (with some expansions). Each song is a self-contained entity, as shown also by the alphabetical formulation; for each in itself extends from aleph to taw, from A to Z. Each one, therefore, is to be understood and interpreted individually.


Lamentations is among the few parts of the Old Testament whose time of origin we can know with a high degree of certainty. The origin of the laments can be traced back to the conquest of Jerusalem and the subsequent deportation of its people in the year 587 b.c.e. In the language of these songs, the suffering of the city and its inhabitants is portrayed with poignant immediacy. Indeed, no other event in the history of Israel has been transmitted to us as vividly and concretely as the fall of Jerusalem and its consequences for the survivors.


There is a particular reason why the fall of Jerusalem evoked such an immediate chorus of response from those affected by the tragedy. In ancient Israel there was a tradition, reaching back into an early period, that in cases of misfortune experienced by the whole people a rite of lamentation (Som, lit. “fast”) was held in which the misfortune was lamented before God, and God was implored for help. Such a rite of lamentation was again observed after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple; it is mentioned in 1:7a: “Jerusalem remembers in the day of her affliction …” Now, however, the rite is changed in that those who have experienced the city's fall seemed to regard that event as having finality, and therefore it was a lamentation for the death of Jerusalem. In the period immediately after the catastrophe these rites were probably the only possible form of worship; sacrificial worship had ceased. Rites of fasting and mourning are also mentioned in Zechariah 7:5-7 and 8:19. Later, then, these lamentations, together with other liturgical texts, became the festal scroll for the worship service of the ninth of Av, when the Jewish community commemorates to this day the destruction of the Temple. Here we have the rare case where the occasion for the lamentations and the inception of a traditional practice can be clearly identified.


The five songs contain twenty-two strophes each. In number 5, each strophe consists of one line; in 4, each has two lines, giving a total of forty-four lines; in 1, 2, and 3, each strophe contains three lines, or sixty-six lines altogether. Only in number 5 does the number of strophes correspond to the number of letters in the alphabet. In 4, each strophe begins with a letter of the alphabet; the same is true for 1 and 2, where each strophe has three lines. In 3, all three lines of each strophe begin this way. Lamentations 1, 2, 3, and 4 are considered “alphabetic,” Lamentation 5 “alphabetizing.” Alphabetic psalms are also found in the Psalter, especially in Psalm 119. The purpose of this form may be to express a totality (from A to Z) or to provide a mnemonic device; both are possible. In any case, this “artificial” form is of late origin and presupposes that the psalms are more to be read than heard. The lateness of the form is evident from the fact that in Hebrew poetry, form is always determined by content. In the case of the alphabetic psalms or songs, however, the alphabetic beginning and sequence have nothing to do with the content of the songs of lament. Therefore, it is improbable that these laments originated in this alphabetic form; rather, they must have assumed their form only in the course of transmission. Such a transformation according to the alphabet was quite possible in a time when ancient songs were collected and preserved.

As far as the rhythm is concerned, here too form and content cannot be separated. The ancient Hebrews did not yet have a poetic “meter” that was independent from content. Rather, their poetry displays a rhythm, corresponding to the particular poetic content, which can change within a song or psalm. An especially marked rhythm is that of the qinah, or funereal lament, a descending 3/2 rhythm (the numbers in this case designate not syllables but accents). It occurs especially often in Lamentations 1, 2, 4, and 5, but here too other rhythms are added.

In addition, there is also the sentence rhythm, the so-called parallelismus membrorum, a movement of two sentences in a relationship of correspondence, which constitutes the real uniqueness and beauty of Hebrew poetry. In these songs the significance of the form of speech is found in their nature and purpose, namely lament. Several passages give an invitation to share in lamentation (1:12-18, 2:18-19), and in these cases the form of the lament as a whole has the basic task of summoning the people to participate in the suffering that is here lamented.


Songs 1, 2, and 4 display more or less clearly the structure of a community psalm of lament, with which motifs of the dirge have been combined. Song 5 is a lament of the community, differentiated from those of the Psalter only by the length of the “we-lament” in verses 2-18, which makes this similar to portrayals of affliction and the apprehensive question at the end. On the other hand, 3 deviates markedly from the other songs. It is not a lamentation over the fall of Jerusalem but a composition of several parts, of which only verses 42-51 constitute part of a communal lament. All else belongs to the lament of an individual, to which expansions and an abbreviated psalm of praise of an individual have been added (vv. 52-58). Song 3 must therefore be treated separately from the others.

Lamentation 1 begins (as do 2 and 4) with the cry of lament, “Oh, how …” This is followed by a “we-lament” that is modulated into a portrayal of affliction (vv. 1-6), a confession of guilt in verses 8a and 9a, a petition for God's favor in verses 9c and 11, an “enemy lament” in verses 7c and 10, a “God-lament” in verses 12-15 (concluding with the sentence in verse 18a: “Yahweh is in the right”), a summons to be involved (v. 18b), a petition for God's favor in verses 20a and 21a, and a petition against enemies in verses 21c-22.

In Lamentation 2, the “God-lament” follows the cry of lament (vv. 1-8b); then comes the “we-lament” with its portrayal of misery (vv. 11ab, 13), the guilt of the prophets (v. 14), enemies and neighbors (vv. 15-17), a summons to lament (vv. 18-19), and a “we-lament” (vv. 21ab, 22bc).

In Lamentation 4 the “we-lament” follows the cry of lament (vv. 1-10), which includes the guilt of the people (v. 6) and the guilt of the prophets and priests; then comes the “God-lament” in verses 11-13, a “we-lament” in verses 14-16, the imprisonment of the king (vv. 17-20), the punishment of Edom, and the blotting out of Israel's sin (vv. 21-22).

Lamentation 5 begins (and also ends; v. 21) with a petition for Yahweh's favor; there follows in verses 2-18 a long “we-lament,” similar to the portrayal of misery, though recounted in the second person. In it are found the sins of the ancestors (v. 9), a general confession of sin (v. 16), restrained praise of God (instead of confession of trust), a God-lament (v. 20), a petition for God's intervention (v. 21), and at the end the apprehensive question “Or have you utterly rejected us?”

Lamentation 3:42-51 (a fragment) consists of a “God-lament” (vv. 42-45) in which is found a confession of guilt (v. 42), an “enemy lament” (v. 46), a “we-lament” (v. 47), a description of pain (vv. 48, 49, 51). The plea for God's favor is only suggested, in verse 50.

By and large the five texts have the same structure, even though their sequence, because of the alphabetical arrangement, is not symmetrical. All five feature the following elements:

  1. The cry of lament (only in 1, 2, 4)
  2. The lament in three parts, in which the “we-lament” (objective) is sometimes connected with descriptions of pain (subjective)
  3. Confession of guilt or attribution of guilt
  4. Petition for God's favor with address to God (petition for God's intervention only in No. 5)
  5. Petition against enemies

Several additional themes appear only once or twice. Apart from the cry of lament at the beginning, these are the themes of the community lament in the following order, but with some important differences:

  1. The cry of lament at the beginning has the effect of making it appear that a song with this kind of introduction is a dirge, hence the designation qinoth.
  2. The “we-lament” and the “God-lament” are transformed to a description of pain by changing the first person of the “we-lament” and the second person of the “God-lament” to the third person. In both structures there are exceptions, however, that permit the basic form to be preserved.
  3. The dirge introduced with the cry of “woe” is a secular (profane) form that has no address to God. In Lamentations 1 and 2, however, the address to God, together with the petition for God's favor, have been added secondarily, with the result that the song of lament becomes a prayer: “O Yahweh, behold my affliction!” (1:9c, 11c, 20a; 2:18, 19, 20a). In Lamentation 4 an address to God is lacking. In Lamentation 5 the petition for God's favor is especially emphasized (vv. 1, 21), whereas in 3:42-51 it is only suggested, in verse 50.
  4. In Lamentations 1 and 2 a change can be seen. At the beginning the style of the dirge prevails; in the later course of the song we find the style of the lament of suffering. This gradual transition brings about a movement within the text. The songs do not linger over the death of Jerusalem, but they boldly beseech God again to show favor toward the remnant of his people. It is a movement faintly similar to the movement discernible in the psalms of lament, from lament to confidence.
  5. Befitting the peculiar character of the songs of lament, two themes of the community lament are entirely or almost entirely lacking. One of these is a remembrance of God's previous saving action (e.g., Ps 80) or a confession of trust. Lacking also is the petition for God's intervention on behalf of his people, or even a plea for restoration. The latter appears only in Lamentation 5, a community lament. Those who speak in the songs of lament are so overcome by the severe blow they have suffered that they are able neither to look back to God's saving deeds in the past nor to hope for a change that brings restoration. The absence of these two themes accords completely with the situation in which these songs arose.
  6. Except for the cry of lament at the beginning, the clearest characteristic of the dirge is the contrast between “then” and “now.” This theme, however, is not equally distributed in Lamentations 1-5. Rather it is concentrated only in two passages: in the “we-lament” of 1:1-6 and in the “we-lament” of 4:10, 14-16. From this it is evident that the “we-laments,” being the laments of the survivors, agree at this point with the laments of those left behind, that is, with the dirge. This makes the combination of dirge and lament in these lamentations more understandable.



Like the laments of the people found in the Book of Psalms, the Lamentations include several characteristic features, especially complaint in distress, confession of trust in God, and petition for help. In these poems the people's lament expresses various aspects of suffering. (On the threefold organization of laments see Claus Westermann, Ausgewählte Psalmen [Göttingen, 1984], Excursus on Psalm 13.)

The fall of the nation. Throughout, the Lamentations are defined by the collapse of the kingdom of Judah, which occurred with the fall of Jerusalem, an event on which they look back:

Jerusalem remembers the days of her
          affliction and bitterness
how her people fell into the hand of the foe
and no one helped her.


She has fallen terribly,
and no one comforted her.


This event evokes lament, mourning:

My eyes are dissolved in tears
for the fall of the daughter of my people.


Horror and pitfall have come upon us;
          devastation and destruction,
my eyes flow with rivers of tears
because of the destruction of the daughter of
          my people.


Above all, the conquest of the city of Jerusalem is in view:

The kings of the earth will not have believed it,
          nor any of the inhabitants of the earth,
that besiegers would come in,
          enemies into the gate of Jerusalem.


He caused wall and rampart to lament,
          together they crumbled,
Her gates have sunk into the dust,
          he has ruined and broken her bars.

(2:8c, 9a)

Survivors are deeply afflicted by the imprisonment of the king, which signifies the fall of the house of David (4:17-20):

Our eyes failed,
          looking—in vain—for help!
.....Our end drew near, our days were numbered. …
The breath of our life, the anointed of Yahweh,
          was captured in their pits,
in whose shadow we supposed that we would
          live among the nations.

The human toll. Terrible and incalculable in extent is the loss of human lives, those who died during and after the battle for the city, and those taken away into exile in a foreign land:

How lonely sits the City
that once was so populous!
Like a widow she became,
          she that was great among the nations!


We mourn the roads to Zion …
all its gates are desolate.


Death has spared no one; it has taken a terrible harvest:

On the day of Yahweh's wrath
          none escaped and survived.


Those whom I nurtured and reared
          my enemy has destroyed.


Even greater in dislocating impact is the loss through deportation into exile:

Judah has gone into exile because of affliction
          and hard servitude;
she dwells now among the nations
          but finds no resting place.


My maidens and young men
          have gone into captivity.


Her kings and her princes are among the nations,
          instruction (torah) is no more.


Misery after the catastrophe. In addition to bereavement a state of misery prevailed that afflicted the entire people—great and small, high- and low-born, young and old. Above all, it was the children, the women, and the aged upon whom affliction and misery came. They are mentioned recurrently and with particular anguish. However, along with them mention is made of the entire nation, every member of the body politic: children (1:16; 2:11, 12; 1:5; 2:21; 4:4) and their mothers (2:12, 20; 4:3, 5, 10; 5:11); maidens and young men (1:15, 18, 46; 2:10, 21, 22; 5:11, 13, 14); old people (2:21; 5:12, 14); nobles and heroes (1:6, 15; 4:1, 2, 7, 8); princes (2:2, 9; 5:12); the king (2:6, 9; 4:17-20); priests, prophets, and elders (1:19; 2:6, 9, 10, 20; 4:14-16).

Especially the loss of leadership is emphasized:

Her king and princes are among the nations,
          instruction is no more;
and her prophets receive no more
          revelation from Yahweh.


Furthermore, the upper social level was affected by suffering and disgrace:

Her princes have become like harts that
          find no pasture;
They went away powerless before their hunters


Hunger. Elemental afflictions like hunger, thirst, and bodily pain impress themselves on the people's memory with lasting force. The laments of the hungry and the thirsty and those who saw their neighbors die of hunger speak with the language of real experience:

All her people groan;
          they seek after bread.
They trade their treasures for food
          to quiet their hunger.


Happier were the victims of the sword
          than the victims of hunger
          who pined away
          stricken by lack of food.

(4:9; cf. 2:19; 4:5; 5:10)

It was possible to procure food only with great effort and danger:

We acquire our bread at the peril of our lives,
threatened by the sword from the wilderness.

(5:9; cf. 5:6)

We must pay for the water we drink,
and the wood we get must be bought.


The hunger was so terrible that mothers nourished themselves on their own children:

Should women eat their offspring,
          the children of their tender care?

(2:20; cf. 4:10)

Slavery and disgrace of the vanquished. In those days foreign rule was nothing new for Israel; but here something else is meant, namely, that a people is ruled in its own land by an occupying force whose presence is felt everywhere in daily life, which treats the surviving population arbitrarily and can dispose over all areas of life.

She that was a princess among the nations
          has become a vassal.


Slaves rule over us;
          there is none to deliver us from their hand.


Young men are compelled to grind at the mill,
          and boys stagger under loads of wood.


Suffering and the disgrace of suffering always belong together in the Old Testament. Thus Lamentation 5 is introduced:

Remember, Yahweh, what has befallen us;
          behold, and see our disgrace!

Again and again the lamentations express how unbearable is the burden of disgrace for its victims, the triumphant attitude of the adversary, the taunts of neighbors and former friends (1:8, 11, 17; 2:15).

Loss of inheritance, houses, and buildings. For a people whose identity was closely tied to a land, the loss of family inheritance and property was painful.

Our inheritance has been turned over to enemies,
          our homes to aliens.


For this our heart has become sick,
          for these things our eyes have grown dim,
for Mount Zion which lies desolate;
          jackals prowl over it.


The roads to Zion mourn. …
          all her gates are desolate.


Loss of treasures, joy, and festivals. Moreover, the catastrophe had robbed the people of the joys of life, especially those associated with the pilgrimage festivals held in Zion, when they had passed through the streets singing and dancing. All this was now no more.

From the daughter of Zion has departed
          all her splendor.


The roads to Zion mourn
          because none come to the appointed feasts.


The old men have quit the city gate,
          the young men their music.


The joy of our hearts has ceased;
          our dancing has been changed to mourning.


Is this the city of which people said:
          “The perfection of beauty, the joy of all the earth”?


The loss of treasures is indicated in the contrast between then and now:

How the gold has grown dim. …
The precious stones lie scattered at the
          head of every street;
The precious sons of Zion,
          worth their weight in gold,
how they are reckoned as earthen pots. …

(4:1-2; cf. 4:5, 7-8).

In all these instances the lament gives expression to the fact that, for those who speak thus, beauty, elegance, and graciousness belong to a wholesome life. The catastrophe has deprived them of the gift of divine blessing.

Loneliness, desolation, disconsolation. Streets and open squares, once filled with a joyous multitude, are now desolate. The city itself seems in mourning:

How lonely sits the city once full of people!
.....None of her friends is there to comfort her.

(1:1-2; cf. 1:7, 9, 16, 17, 21; 2:13)

Portrayal of Suffering. The people experienced not just physical adversity but also inward suffering and heartache:

She weeps bitterly in the night,
          tears stream over her cheeks.


Her maidens have been oppressed,
          she herself suffers bitterly.


Hear how I groan!

(1:21) (cf. 1:22c; 2:11)

In all the above passages the pain and the weeping of a particular individual is portrayed: Zion is personified as a woman who is afflicted with severe pain. Long before this, Israel or Judah or Jerusalem had thus been personified, as in Amos 5:2. The intention of this device is to intensify the portrayal of suffering. A collective entity cannot weep, so it is a woman who weeps here. However, this personification can be laid aside now and then, as in 1:4: “Her maidens are oppressed, she herself suffers bitterly.” In another passage it is said of this suffering:

What can I say for you,
To whom can I compare you, daughter of Jerusalem?
What can I liken you to that I may comfort you,
O virgin daughter of Zion?
For deep as the sea is your ruin,
          Who can restore you?


Or she may be exhorted to lament:

Let your tears stream down like a brook,
Day and night give yourself no rest. …


The same sentiment is expressed in Lamentation 5 (and in 3:42ff.) without personification:

The joy of our hearts is at an end,
          our dancing is turned to mourning!


Therefore our heart has become sick.


Or the sorrow and suffering of the inhabitants of Jerusalem are described:

The elders of the daughter of Zion sit
          silently on the ground,
They have strewn dust on their heads
          and put on sackcloth.
The maidens of Jerusalem have deeply
          bowed their heads.


The many sentences dealing with the motif “portrayal of suffering” present the subjective side of the “we-laments,” whose objective expression consists in lamenting the miserable conditions prevailing after the catastrophe, all they had to endure and what they lost. Lamenting means both weeping and putting into words what one is weeping about. Together they enable us to perceive the hidden cause of the lament, its releasing function, which eases the heaviness of suffering.


A great number of sentences in Lamentations have Yahweh as the subject, with the structure “Yahweh has done …” This is the complaint directed to God, the accusation against God, which is also an aspect of the psalms of lament and the Book of Job. When one considers the great number of “God-laments” in Lamentations 1, 2, 4, 5, and 3:42-51, the designation of Lamentations as variants of the dirge (Jahnow 1923) must be ruled out. For the dirge is a secular genre; it does not speak of God. Rather, the “God-lament” is an aspect of the lament that is at the same time prayer. To be sure, the many “God-laments” in Lamentations are not, for the most part, direct address (such is the case only in the community lament in 5, in 3:42-51, and in a few other passages). The direct address has been converted into a description of affliction in the third person. But that does not alter the fact that God is reproached; God is reproved for what he has done to his people and his city.

Yahweh has brought suffering upon Israel. In these songs the anguish of lamentation is intensified by the realization that God—not accident or fate—has brought suffering upon Israel:

          … is there any sorrow like my sorrow
          which was brought upon me,
which Yahweh afflicted
          on the day of his fierce anger?


Yahweh has trodden as in a winepress
          the virgin daughter of Zion.


… that you have done it,
that you have brought the day which
          you have announced.


Yahweh has cast down from heaven to earth
          the splendor of Israel;
Yahweh has not remembered his footstool
          in the day of his anger.


and Yahweh has multiplied in the daughter of Zion
          mourning and lamentation.


Sometimes this suffering is portrayed as bodily affliction or sickness suffered by the personified Zion:

Yahweh has left me stunned,
          faint all the day long.


And in some passages suffering is regarded as punishment for sin:

Heavy is the yoke of my sins,
          fastened by Yahweh's hand.

(1:14; cf. 4:16a; 3:42)

Yahweh has destroyed Zion in anger. Zion was regarded as the dwelling place of God and the seat of the Davidic monarchy. Therefore its destruction has the dimension of tragedy:

Yahweh has destroyed without mercy
          all the habitations of Jacob.

(2:2; also v. 3)

Yahweh gave full vent to his wrath,
          he poured out his hot anger;
And Yaweh kindled a fire in Zion,
          which consumed its foundations.


In the day of your anger you have slain them,
          slaughtering without mercy.


God has destroyed the city and its buildings:

In the tent of the daughter of Zion
          he has poured out his fury like fire.


Yahweh has destroyed all its palaces,
          laid to ruin its strongholds …
Yahweh has broken down his booth like that of a garden,
Laid in ruins the place of his appointed feasts.
Yahweh has brought to an end in Zion
          appointed feast and Sabbath.


Yahweh has scorned his altar,
          disowned his sanctuary,
Yahweh has delivered into the hand of the enemy
          the walls of her palaces.

(2:7; also vv. 8-9, 17)

God has rejected kingship and priesthood:

In his fierce indignation Yahweh has spurned
          king and priest.


Yahweh has brought down to the ground in dishonor
          the kingdom and its rulers.


Yahweh has become an enemy. God has treated Zion like an enemy. A terrible thought for the vanquished: God is not on their side but on the side of their opponents.

Yahweh has become like an enemy,
          has devastated Israel.


Yahweh gave me into the hands
          of those whom I cannot withstand.

(1:14c; also vv. 15, 17; 2:3)

Yahweh is compared to a hunter and a warrior:

Yahweh spread a net for my feet;
          he turned me back.


Yahweh has bent his bow like an enemy,
          with the arrow in his right hand.


In both of the community laments the “God-lament” has the form of direct address:

Why will you forget us forever,
why forsake us for all time?


You have wrapped yourself with anger and pursued us,
          slaying without pity;
You have wrapped yourself like a cloud
          so that no prayer can get through.


In a few places in the actual songs of lament, however, direct address appears together with the third person:

In the day of your anger you have slain them,
          slaughtering without mercy.



It is striking that the “enemy-laments” (structure: “The enemies have …”) are not much developed and, in relation to the other two aspects of lament, occupy only a small place. This restraint in the “enemy-laments” is displayed particularly in two ways: (1) the lament is raised only in individual sentences, never in longer pericopes, and (2) expressions of passionate hatred for enemies or of embitterment for what they have done are hardly present. Anger against enemies arises only because they have desecrated the Temple and robbed its treasures:

The enemy has stretched out his hands
          over all her precious things;
yea, she has seen the nations
          invade her sanctuary.


Should priest and prophet be slain
          in the temple of Yahweh?


Of the conquest of Jerusalem by enemies it is only reported objectively that an overwhelming power prevailed:

My children are desolate,
          for the enemy has prevailed.


They were set upon my neck;
          he caused my strength to fail.


However, bitterness does arise over the triumphal attitude, the scorn and derision of the enemy:

Her oppressors are uppermost,
          her enemies prosper,
          because Yahweh has …


The foe gloated over her,
          mocking at her downfall.


All my enemies have heard of my trouble,
          they are glad that you have done it.


Closely related to “enemy-laments” are laments raised over former friends who have not given help and have become enemies, and who after the fall of Jerusalem have boasted and mocked:

All her neighbors have been unfaithful to her,
          they have become enemies. …
          none comforted her.

(1:2, 7, 9)

Yahweh has commanded against Jacob
          that his neighbors should be his foes.

(1:17b; also 1:19, 2:15)

Thus shame was added to suffering:

Remember, O Yahweh, what has befallen us,
          behold, and see our disgrace!


You have made us offscouring and refuse
          among the peoples.

(3:45; also 1:8, 17)

The reason why “enemy-laments” are not nearly as prominent as “we-laments” and “God-laments” is shown in sentences like “Yahweh has made the enemy rejoice over you” (2:17c).

It was the judgment of God upon Israel that led her enemies to execute divine punishment. The insult of enemies is necessarily subdued when they are the instruments of God, as the prophets of judgment had been saying for a long time. However, when the catastrophe is perceived as God's judgment upon his people, lament cannot be raised without an accompanying confession of guilt.


Confession is the only element, except for the lament, that occurs in all five songs, albeit in different forms. Like the description of distress, the confession is formulated in the third person:

          … because Yahweh has made her suffer
          for the multitude of her transgressions.
Jerusalem sinned grievously. …

(1:5, 8)

Her uncleanness was in her skirts,
          she took no thought of her future.

(1:9; also vv. 4, 6)

Strikingly, however, in some passages the confession of guilt has retained its proper form:

Heavy is the yoke of my sins,
          by his hand they were fastened together.


Righteous is Yahweh,
          for I have rebelled against his word.

(1:18; cf. vv. 20, 22)

Woe to us, for we have sinned!

(5:16; cf. 3:42)

One can hardly judge this cluster of passages in any other way than to say that here an actual confession of guilt is preserved, based on the recognition that Israel has sinned against its God. The accusations raised in vain by the prophets of judgment against their people before the fall of the nation are now perceived to be justified by those who make this confession of guilt. The prophets were thus rehabilitated in retrospect. Accordingly, to the prophets of salvation of the preexilic time is now attributed guilt for the divine punishment in a special degree:

This happened on account of the sins
          of her prophets. …


[Your prophets] have not exposed your iniquity. …


In one passage the confession of guilt seems to be rejected or refused:

Our ancestors sinned, and are no more,
          and we bear their punishment.


The fact that this sentence occurs in the same lament as the spontaneous confession of guilt, “Woe to us, for we have sinned!” (5:16), shows how the admission of sin was not self-evident in the period after the destruction of Jerusalem. There were also those who rejected the view that children should suffer for the sins of their parents (Ezek 18:1ff), and these testimonies were likewise given a place.


The confession of trust has its place in the individual psalms of lament; in the community laments, however, the expression of trust is found only rarely. Instead, there is a remembrance of God's previous saving deeds. It is a peculiarity of Lamentations that both the above elements are lacking. But the distress and misery of the people do embolden them to beseech God's favor again. It is this motif that marks the lamentations as prayers and distinguishes them from the dirge.

Remember, O Yahweh, what has befallen us,
          behold, and see our disgrace!


Look, O Yahweh, and see!
          With whom hast thou dealt thus?


O Yahweh, behold my affliction,
          for the enemy has triumphed!

(1:9; cf. vv. 11, 20)

In all these passages the petition for God's favor seeks to motivate God to look favorably upon the supplicant. Viewed separately, they all contain themes of lament: “we-lament” in 5:1, “enemy-lament” in 1:9, description of pain in 1:20. Therein is shown the inextricable connection between lament and petition: the lament is made not only for its own sake but also as an appeal for a way out of distress.

This aim is also the focal point of the expansive invitation to lament in 2:18-19:

Cry aloud to the Lord, O daughter of Zion!
.....Pour out your heart like water
before the presence of the Lord!
Lift up your hands to him
for the lives of your children!

The urgency in this series of imperatives is intended as encouragement to turn to the helper who can change the distress. But this passage too stops short with a plea for divine favor. The second element of the petition, namely, for Yahweh's intervention on behalf of his people and for restoration, is lacking in Lamentations 1, 2, and 4, as is the confession of trust. The reason for this lack is the same in both cases. Those who speak here are still so overwhelmed by the blow that has struck them that a plea for Yahweh's intervention does not pass their lips. Of course, one could argue that such a plea is implied in the petition for Yahweh's favor, but this only underscores the fact that in no case is the petition fully enunciated—not even in Lamentation 5, a community lament that is placed within the framework of both elements of the petition. It begins with a plea for Yahweh's favor (5:1) and ends with a plea for intervention (5:21):

Restore us to thyself, O Yahweh, that
          we may be restored.
          Renew our days as of old!

But precisely this community lament ends with the anxious, doubting question, which accords with the songs of lament:

Or hast thou utterly rejected us?
          Art thou exceedingly angry with us?


Here also should be mentioned two other statements that—instead of a confession of trust—stand between lament and petition. The first is 1:18: “Righteous is Yahweh, / for I have rebelled against him.” In the structure of Lamentation 1 this sentence stands in the place belonging to the confession of trust. Here, however, the sentence does not serve as a confession; rather, it must be explained in connection with the particular emphasis of the confession of guilt in Lamentation 1 (vv. 14, 18, 20, 22). The verse is a reflection that furthers the thought: we ourselves are at fault, not God! God is righteous, and we have rebelled against him (cf. Ps 51:6).

Also standing in the place of a confession of trust is 5:19: “But thou, O Yahweh, dost reign for ever / Thy throne endures to all generations.” Manifestly the sentence is a quotation from a psalm of praise. Those who pronounce this recall the words of praise to God, but not in a jubilant tone, for the meaning has become ambivalent. The God who is forever enthroned in the heights of the cosmos is incomprehensibly distant. Hence the note of restraint in the poet's praise of God.


In many individual and community psalms of lament the plea for Yahweh's favor and for his intervention appears as a third element of a petition directed against enemies. Such is also the case in Lamentations 1 and 4:

          … let them be as I am,
Let all their evildoing come before thee;
          and deal with them as thou hast dealt with me.


Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom
          to you also the cup shall pass
The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter of Zion,
          is accomplished.
He will keep you in exile no longer,
          but your iniquity, O daughter of Edom, he will

(4:21, 22)

What is striking is not so much the lack of a petition against the enemies in Lamentations 2 and 5 as its presence in 1 and 4. Some scholars interpret this to mean that what was said concerning the laments about the enemies is true here also: namely, that the discourse against the enemies is suppressed because Yahweh executed his judgment upon Israel through her enemies and thus they, to a certain degree, carried out his mandate. However, the situation here is different than in the laments over enemies. For the texts of both petitions against the enemies agree in saying that the enemies have covered themselves with guilt and Yahweh must therefore punish them as he punished Israel: “Do to them, as you have done to me!” Thus what is involved is God's righteous governance in history. The nations must undergo catastrophe just as it befell Israel. Verse 4:22a (“the punishment of your iniquity, O daughter of Zion, is accomplished”) must be interpreted along the same lines. To be sure, this statement is not meant as a proclamation of forgiveness extended to Israel (as in Isa 40:1); it merely affirms that the iniquity of the people has been blotted out through Israel's suffering (as in Isa 40:2).


The theological significance of the Lamentations has usually been seen in the answer given to a theological question. Thus Norman Gottwald (1954) sees the key to their theological significance in an answer to the tension between the Deuteronomic teaching of retribution and the experienced reality of the fall of the nation. For Bertil Albrektson (1963), the tension lies in the contrast between the doctrine of the inviolability of Zion and the shattering of this belief by the city's destruction. Such and similar questions may resound in the Lamentations, but these songs were not created to answer such questions. They arose as the reactions of those who experienced the catastrophe, as actual laments in which actual suffering finds expression.

In recent years some scholars have maintained that the key to the theological understanding of the Lamentations is found in the third song. This is the view of Otto Kaiser (1981), who ascribes to this song a paradigmatic meaning. Brevard Childs expresses the same view even more emphatically: “The function of chapter 3 is to translate Israel's historically conditioned plight into the language of faith, … to incorporate the history of the nation in its … despair within a liturgical context” (Childs 1979, 594). But apart from the question of how Lamentation 3 is related literarily to chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5, one can ask what is meant by a transfer into a liturgical context, if 1, 2, 4, and 5 as well as 3 are liturgical texts. They too contain the address to God and the plea for divine favor. Likewise, it is questionable whether one can describe Lamentation 3 as “language of faith” because it is the lament of an individual, while 1, 2, 4, 5 are not because they are laments of the people. In my view, the answer to the question of the theological significance of Lamentations must come from these poems themselves. Lamentations 1, 2, 4, and 5 are unambiguous laments over the fall of Jerusalem; chapter 3, on the other hand, contains no unambiguous sentence indicating that the fall of Jerusalem is involved.

The theological significance of the Lamentations arises from the uniqueness and distinctiveness of these canonical writings of the Old Testament: the combination of lament and dirge. Their significance in the discourse about God is shown in their peculiar movement from lament over death (dirge) to prayer. They express the question of the survivors: Is this the end? (5:22). At the same time, however, they show that those who come together to remember the fall of Jerusalem (1:7) despite this question, hold to the One who in his wrath had brought about the catastrophe and implore him to turn once again to the remnant. Their confession of sin makes it possible to give meaning to the catastrophe: the wrath of God had a basis, so God is still at work. Those who were decisively struck by misfortune (as stated in the lament over death) hold firmly to the lament over suffering. The lament was preserved and handed down as an element of the service of worship. The “passion” of the people of God will speak further to the remnant; it has received a positive, constructive significance.

Furthermore, the Lamentations have a historical-theological significance. The repeated mention of the prophets (1:21; 2:14, 17) is not properly a motif of the community lament; it belongs to the motifs in Lamentations 1-5 that can be explained only within the historical context of the Book of Lamentations. In the course of the remembrance of the “days of her distress and bitterness” (1:7) it was only natural to remember also the prophets and their work. Those who remembered the catastrophe asked about the causes and historical antecedents. The Lamentations are thereby endowed with historical-theological significance. The prophets of judgment were rehabilitated; the prophets of salvation were seen as those who led Israel astray and were condemned on that basis. Here it is perceived that the work of the prophets of judgment made possible a continuity beyond the abyss of the fall of the nation: “Yahweh has fulfilled his word, as he ordained long ago” (2:17; cf. 1:21). Deutero-Isaiah will elaborate this start toward bridging the abyss.

The account of the imprisonment of the king (4:17-20) unfolds the lament over the end of the monarchy (2:2, 6, 9), and is probably part of a poem dealing with the end of the kingdom. It belongs to the multifaceted theological reworking of this event that begins just after 587. The end of the monarchy, seen in the perspective of the historical account in 2 Kings 25:1-7, with which Lamentations 4:17-20 corresponds closely, was lamented and recounted in song in a very different manner. In Psalm 89 the end of the monarchy is contrasted with the promise given by the prophet Nathan; in Lamentations 4:17-20, however, a member of the royal court speaks (probably an eyewitness, as shown by the language of verse 20, which corresponds to the words customarily used in praise of a king; cf. the royal psalms). This language connects the lament over the end of the kingdom with the later expectation of a messianic king. Here too the fall of the nation is linked with the preceding history of Israel and seems to point toward the future.


Lamentation 3 does not belong to the genre of the laments, as do Lamentations 1, 2, and 4. It was inserted into the collection of Lamentations because, like them, it is an alphabetical acrostic song. Also, in verses 42-51 the fragment of a communal lament is present.

Lamentation 3 is composed of various parts, brought together by the alphabetical sequence and some loose associations; for example, the lament of an individual follows the song of praise of an individual (compare Ps 22). It is not an organic composition; in style and sentiment it is comparable to the parts of psalms interspersed in the Chronicler's Work or even with the alphabetical acrostic Psalm 119.

The composition (3:1-66) contains three (or four) elements: 1-25 and also 52-66 are parts of an individual psalm of lament; 26-41 consist of expansions in the form of reflection and paraenesis; 42-51 constitute part of a community psalm of lament; 52-58 are part of a hymn of praise. The composition is singularly introduced as a personal confession: “I am a man who has experienced affliction …”; in this respect the opening is similar to Job 30 (Lam 3:14 c Job 30:9). The long “God-lament” and “I-lament” in verses 1-16 are joined with a description of pain (vv. 17-19) and a confession of trust (vv. 20-25). Verses 26-41 expand this confession of trust into a paraenesis, and this is followed by a fragmentary community lament. Verses 52-61 are part of a hymn of praise, in which the specifically liturgical parts at the beginning and end are missing. The conclusion (vv. 59-66) could be the conclusion of a psalm of lament; it contains the lament about enemies and the petition against the enemies.

The understanding of Lamentation 3 depends on a prior decision: whether to regard Lamentations 1-5 as a book with five chapters or a collection of individual songs (as in the case of the small collections within the Psalter). A decisive point to consider is the fact that not a single sentence in Lamentation 3:1-60 refers unambiguously to the catastrophe of 587. If one wants to reinterpret the suffering of the individual portrayed in Lamentation 3 as the suffering of Jerusalem after the destruction of 587, then the entire book must be understood allegorically. How shall we, for instance, understand the sentence in 3:27 (“It is good for a man that he bear the yoke of his youth”) when it is applied to Israel? Moreover, the paraenesis in 3:26-41 is similar to a midrash, in contrast to the psalms of lament. In these verses, the sufferers are denied lamentation; instead of lamenting, they are exhorted to consider their sins and return to Yahweh. The author of this expansion intends to move away from lament toward a wisdom piety (vv. 39-40).

If Lamentation 3 is an independent composition combining various parts, then these parts are to be explained and interpreted within the context of their own literary form: the context of the individual lament and its variations, the hymn of praise of the individual, and the community lament. Only then is it possible to inquire about the meaning of the composition as a whole—a question that belongs to the history of redaction.

Works Cited


Hillers, Delbert R. Lamentations. The Anchor Bible, vol. 7A. Garden City, N.Y., 1972.

Kaiser, Otto. Commentary in Das Hohe Lied; Klagelieder; Das Buch Esther, translated and annotated by Helmer Ringgren and Otto Kaiser. Das Alte Testament Deutsch, vol. 16/2. Göttingen, 1981.

Kraus, H. J. Klagelieder. Altes Testament, vol. 20. Neukirchen (Moers), 1956.

Meek, Theophile J. Introduction and Exegesis in The Interpreter's Bible, edited by George Arthur Buttrick et al., vol. 6. Nashville, Tenn., 1956. Pp. 3-38.

General Studies

Albrektson, Bertil. Studies in the Text and Theology of the Book of Lamentations, with a Critical Edition of the Peshitta Text. Lund, Sweden, 1963.

Childs, Brevard S. Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. Philadelphia, 1979. Pp. 590-597.

Gottwald, Norman K. Studies in the Book of Lamentations. Chicago, 1954.

Gunkel, Hermann, and Joachim Begrich. Einleitung in die Psalmen. 1933; 2d ed. Göttingen, 1966.

Jahnow, Hedwig. Das hebräische Leichenlied im Rahmen der Völkerdichtung. Giessen, 1923.

Westermann, Claus. Praise and Lament in the Psalms. Translated by Keith R. Crim and Richard N. Soulen. Edinburgh, 1981.

Tod Linafelt (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8654

SOURCE: Linafelt, Tod. “Survival in Translation: The Targum to Lamentations.” In Surviving Lamentations: Catastrophe, Lament and Protest in the Afterlife of a Biblical Book, pp. 80-99. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Linafelt describes the origin, nature, and character of the Targum Lamentations and differentiates the Targum and Hebraic versions of the poems.]

The original requires translation even if no translator is there, fit to respond to this injunction, which is at the same time demand and desire in the very structure of the original. This structure is the relation of life to survival.

—Jacques Derrida

In its survival—which would not merit the name if it were not mutation and renewal of something living—the original is modified.

—Walter Benjamin

If the book of Lamentations ends with the absence of God and the absence of Zion's children, Second Isaiah ends with the full (one might even say overfull) restoration of both. The answer from God that Zion demanded crowds the chapters of Second Isaiah, and the children she lamented, the children of her bereavement, crowd the desolate places. The antiphonal response of Second Isaiah endeavors to match the intensity of complaint with an equal intensity of response. The poet imagines to have filled the lack that confronts the reader of Lamentations.

The irony of Second Isaiah's attempt to answer the language of death and absence in Lamentations, to counter it with the language of survival, is that it threatens the very life of Lamentations as literature. The “potentially eternal afterlife” of the work of art about which Walter Benjamin writes depends on a “demand and desire” that cannot be easily nullified.1 Writing about the “unfinishedness” of a text that “overruns all the limits assigned to it,” Jacques Derrida concedes that such a de-bordement (or “overflowing”) “will still have come as a shock, producing endless efforts to dam up, resist, rebuild the old partitions.”2 Second Isaiah's antiphonal response to Lamentations may be taken as just such an effort to dam up the torrent of rage (on the part of God), death (on the part of the children), and tears (on the part of Mother Zion) that “pour out” from the book.3

The effort of Second Isaiah to counter the overrun of Lamentations, to establish the outer edge of its reach, is at most partly successful. This effort … was in the service of a particular ideology for a particular social and historical context, and it consequently took a form appropriate to that context. However, the response of Second Isaiah was generated not only by its own sociohistorical context, but also by the “original” to which it responds, the book of Lamentations itself. Despite the forceful nature of its rhetoric of survival, Second Isaiah does not answer Lamentations once and for all, though the poet may have wished to do so for his own generation. The “demand and desire in the very structure of the original” of which Derrida writes in the epigraph to this … [essay], though generative of those attempts to meet them, are finally independent of such attempts. This is, Derrida claims, “the relation of life to survival.” Recall Benjamin's description of the “vital connection” between a text and its translation:

Just as the manifestations of life are intimately connected with life itself without signifying anything for it, a translation issues from the original—not so much from its life as from its “afterlife.”4

As a “survival” of Lamentations, the poetry of Second Isaiah participates in its afterlife, but does not affect the “life” of the original to which it responds. Regarding the book of Lamentations, to borrow Derrida's description of Blanchot's novella, “[w]hat must remain beyond its reach is precisely what revives it at every moment.”5 The survival that is lacking in the literature is what ensures the survival of Lamentations as literature. The demand of Zion for her children's survival and the reader's desire to meet that demand, which may potentially come together every time the biblical book is read, draw attention to the lack that remains in the original and thereby ensure that survival remains very much a live issue in the history of interpretation.

The book of Lamentations remains, and so remains its voicing of the plight of children and its utter lack of consolation. Thus, in other interpretive contexts than Second Isaiah's, one may expect the book of Lamentations to exert no less powerful an influence on those texts that survive it. And while the need for a response to Zion's appeal will stay prominent in this interpretive afterlife, it will be met in differing ways according to different sociohistorical horizons. The next scene in the drama of the afterlife of Lamentations may be found in Targum Lamentations (an Aramaic translation from late antiquity), wherein one can explore another attempt to address the concerns of Mother Zion.


Before looking at the specifics of the response to Zion in Targum Lamentations, it will be useful to explore the character of targum in general and, in particular, how it relates to Walter Benjamin's notion of translation as survival.


It is routine among scholars to describe the essential nature of targum as “translation.” Indeed, the word targum (plural targumim) itself derives from the quadrilateral Semitic root, which carries the basic sense of “to translate.” The root seems to be used in this sense in its only biblical occurrence (Ezra 4:7), and in rabbinic Hebrew the pi‘el form of the verb (tîrgēm) means to translate the Bible from Hebrew into a second language, usually Aramaic but at times Greek (y. Qiddushin 59a; y. Megillah 71c). In modern scholarship, however, the term “targum” is used in a restricted sense to refer to a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic. Targum may refer to either the practice of translation that took place in ancient synagogues, or the literary documents that preserve actual Aramaic versions of biblical books. In a standard survey of the history of Jewish literature, Meyer Waxman expresses well the common explanation for the origins of targum:

With the return of the Jews from Babylon, there began the spread of Aramaic in Palestine as a spoken language, or as a vernacular, … [and] under the circumstances there arose a need for the use of the Aramatic in the teaching and the interpretation of the Bible to the people.6

According to the Mishnah (m. Megillah 4:4), the translation into Aramaic was made in tandem with the reading from the Hebrew original, with no pause between the two. There were strict rabbinic rules on the practice of targum, including the stipulation that while the Hebrew must always be read, the targum was always to be recited orally. Targum belonged to the Oral Torah, and was always to be distinguished from the Written Torah.7

There are, however, problems with the accepted account of the origins and function of targum. First, the prohibition on reducing targumim to writing raises the question of how the targum as document began and what function it may have had. Second, explaining the origin of targum as institution in terms of a simple need to communicate the Hebrew Bible to speakers of Aramaic fails to explain why the practice of targum persisted even after Aramaic was replaced by Arabic as the vernacular. Third, even the basic sense of targum as a “translation” at all has come under challenge, given the seeming liberties that the targum takes in adding to and explaining the biblical material.

Alexander Samely has addressed these issues in an important way in his book The Interpretation of Speech in the Pentateuch Targums. Samely writes:

The assessment that the original rationale of oral targum was very likely a translation need and its Sitz im Leben the synagogal Bible lesson, together with the fact that written targums happen to be in Aramaic, has effectively channeled the literary form of targum in the direction of translation.8

Samely challenges the assumption that targum should be understood as belonging to the genre of translation on two counts. First, he holds that “there is no other translational text in Jewish antiquity (or, as far as I am aware, outside it) that shares the peculiar features of targum,” and that there is no ancient theory of translation to account for it.9 Second, he raises the very cogent point that to call translation a “genre” (as scholars are wont to do in regard to targum) is to obscure the fact that the text to be translated, rather than the existence of the targum as translation, determines the question of genre. Samely himself prefers to call targum “Aramaic paraphrase.” While I find much of Samely's argument convincing, I am less content than he to be rid of the word “translation” in reference to targum. As Samely admits, although the targum does indeed add much to the original text, it does this in addition to, not instead of, translating it.10 Additions are made between sentences, between phrases, and even between words, yet they virtually never replace the original words or their sequence. So while targum is in fact translation, it is not “merely” translation. As I will argue below, the targum is an extraordinary example of Walter Benjamin's notion of translation as survival.


It is also routine among scholars to agree that the targumim as we have them preserve much more than what is commonly thought of as translation. In fact, the verbal form tîrgēm in rabbinic Hebrew may also mean to “explain” or “interpret” a biblical verse or a mishnah in the same language as the original text. So while targum can be rightly described as translation, it can also be rightly described as interpretation. Having said that targum is or contains interpretation as well as translation, one must inquire how the two are related and, furthermore, what sort of interpretation the targumim represent. Such an inquiry is most commonly done in terms of “explanation.” That is, scholars have assumed that the primary task of the meturgeman (the reciter of targum) was to impart information to the hearer, and so was “prepared to introduce into the translation as much interpretation as seemed necessary to clarify the sense.”11 Sperber argues that targum was intended to make the Scriptures available to “the less educated classes,” and so it was primarily concerned with “clarity of expression” in order that “the listener or the reader does not have to exert his intelligence” to understand the Bible.12

While this line of reasoning may account for some aspects of targum, it cannot explain the material in targum that so obviously does not serve simply to explain or clarify, but in fact often makes the targum a much more complicated document than the original. Consequently, the theory of targumic interpretation as explanation must exclude such material from what is essential to targum. This is done by calling this material “aggadic [midrashic or interpretive] embellishment,”13 and thus equating it with midrash … rather than targum, or by simply dismissing those targumim with a preponderance of such material as not genuine targum at all. As Waxman writes: “The versions to the Five Scrolls [Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther] are really no translations but homiletic Midrashim.”14 Even those scholars who admit that the more expansive material is not alien to targum nevertheless tend to see no intrinsic connection between the interpretations offered by the targumim and the material that they translate. Consider Etan Levine's statement in his introduction to Targum Lamentations:

To make the biblical text more understandable, acceptable, relevant or polemical, midrash or midrashic allusion was woven into the translation, forming a continuous reading without distinction between translation, alteration and addition.15

Although Levine argues strongly that the expansive material in Targum Lamentations should be considered original to it, that is, not a later interpolation, he nevertheless does not view it as either related to the biblical text or intrinsic to the character of targum. The material is “midrashic” and, since it exists as clarification or polemic, is primary related to the horizon of the meturgeman rather than the biblical text.

I am once again in agreement with Alexander Samely, who argues against the consensus that targum is fundamentally “exegetical” in nature. After a thorough investigation of Pseudo-Jonathan, Samely concludes that “exegetical preoccupations set the topic both for apparently narrative additions and theological statements.”16 Although the targumim undoubtedly contain theological and polemical material that reflects rabbinic ideological concerns, the same material can also be considered and studied as exegesis of the original Hebrew text; the one does not preclude the other. Before considering below how the targumic expansions concerning Zion and her children exist in an exegetical relationship to the biblical text of Lamentations, I will first address briefly the appropriateness of understanding targum in terms of “survival.”


While the categories of translation and exegesis are able to comprehend certain aspects of targum and the targumim, neither alone is able to account for targum as a whole. I suggested above that targum is an extraordinary example of Walter Benjamin's description of translation in terms of survival. I intend in this section to make clear what I mean by that and to show that taking targum as “survival,” as a manifestation of the “afterlife” of a biblical text, accounts for the disparate aspects of targumic literature that have so vexed the attempts to categorize it.

In “The Task of the Translator” Benjamin writes the following concerning translation:

For in its survival—which would not merit the name if it were not the mutation and renewal of something living—the original is modified. Even for the firmly established word there is still a postmaturation.17

The two words that Benjamin uses here to describe what he means by survival, “mutation” and “renewal,” correspond well to the two aspects of targum identified above: renewal being the essence of translation, and mutation capturing well the exegetical bent of targum. The targumim as translations allow for the original texts to be “renewed” in a new context and for a new audience. In Benjamin's words, “their translation marks their stage of continued life.” In one sense, this is not so very different from the standard description of targum as translation. Except that Benjamin is adamant that translation, or at least what he deems to be “good” translation, does not concern itself with the imparting of information or even with the audience at all, which is the hallmark of the traditional scholarly view of targum. According to Benjamin, this would be to transmit only “something inessential” to the original. “If the original does not exist for the reader's sake, how could the translation be understood on the basis of this premise?”18 Since the work of art or literature is unconcerned either to impart information or to address its audience (“No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener”) but rather strives toward something it lacks, a good translation exists simply because the original “calls for it.”19 Translation is renewal, but a renewal driven not by the demand of an audience but rather by the demand of the original.

Benjamin's typically overreaching formulation of the problem likely needs to be nuanced; yet he provides the concepts and terminology by which to articulate a more complex understanding of targum. The targumim surely exist as a sort of “mutation” of the original. Not only does the original experience a renewed life, but a life that is significantly different from its previous form. For the modern reader with the biblical and targumic texts of Lamentations side by side, it may be that the “mutation” represented by the targum—its expansions of dialogue, direct address to the audience, and interpretive material—in rendering the “original” precludes it from even being called a translation. It must be kept in mind, however, that the targumim were never meant to replace an original text, but rather were produced “in tandem” with the Hebrew verses they translated and took place before an attentive and critical audience. As Avigdor Shinan notes, “the proximity of the Hebrew scriptural verse was crucial.”20 The issue becomes, then, not whether or not targum is a mutation of the original, but to what extent this mutation is a part of the original's striving toward what it lacks. As I will show below, the expansions in Targum Lamentations concerning Zion and her children are not unrelated to the biblical text and are not just polemic or explanation geared for the text's new audience. Rather, they exist in an exegetical relationship to the biblical text as part of an interpretive afterlife generated by the original text. Commenting on Benjamin's essay on translation, Derrida writes:

If the translator neither restitutes nor copies an original, it is because the original lives on and transforms itself. The translation will truly be a moment in the growth of the original, which will complete itself in enlarging itself. Now, it has indeed to be, and it is in this that the “seminal” logic must have imposed itself on Benjamin, that growth not give rise to just any form in just any direction. Growth must accomplish, fill, complete.21

If what Derrida writes is true for the targum, that its excesses come about because “the original calls for a complement,”22 and if my reading of the “original” Lamentations is correct, that it is driven by a concern for the suffering of children, then one may presume a confluence of the two claims. In other words, does the targum exhibit “growth” along the trajectory of “concern for children”? The answer is yes, as the following discussion of Targum Lamentations will show.


Targum Lamentations exists in two recensions: the Western Text and the Yemenite Text. Western Text manuscripts were written in Europe and North Africa, but their origins are generally thought to be Palestinian.23 The relationship between the two recensions is not clear, though it appears that in many cases the Yemenite Text offers a truncated version of the Western Text.24 Any influence from one recension to another, however, should be considered late. Philip Alexander, after a detailed comparison of the two recensions of Targum Lamentations, concludes:

The two families of texts cannot be stemmatically related to each other, nor should the procedures of classical text criticism be applied to recover a common Urtext behind them. West. cannot be derived mechanically from Yem. as it stands, or vice versa. The variations are large, widespread and systematic, and, therefore, recensional.25

Owing to its superior linguistic coherence, the Yemenite Text has been given more attention by philologists and has been the basis of two modern critical editions, those of Sperber and van der Heide.26 The Western Text has been used for only one modern edition, that of Levine, which has been severely criticized by other scholars for its general sloppiness.27 But with regard to the substance (as opposed to linguistic coherence) of the recension, the Western Text is superior. “There can be no doubt that if we are concerned with the aggadic content of the Targum, then our starting-point must be the western recension.”28 Since the aggadic content is my main concern in this … [essay], I will utilize the Western Text in the discussion below, referring to the Yemenite tradition when appropriate.

As with the practice of targum in general, in Targum Lamentations the aggadic material is interwoven with the original text, thus producing what often seems like a completely new literature, while nevertheless maintaining a near lexical equivalent for every word in the original. The aggadic additions in Targum Lamentations occur almost exclusively in chapters 1 and 2.29 In chapters 3-5 of the targum one finds nearly a word-for-word rendering of the Hebrew into Aramaic, with only one genuine expansion (in 3:28; to which I will return below). Previous studies concerned with the theological implications of Targum Lamentations have tended to focus on the expansions to the opening verses of chapter 1, where the theme of Israel's sin is quite prevalent. In this section of the targum, one finds two major blocks of midrashic material that emphasize a history of sinfulness. The fourth petihta (proem, or introductory comments; plural petihtaot) of the midrash to Lamentations, which connects the opening word, “Alas” (pronounced ’êkah), of Lamentations 1:1 with God's question to Adam in Genesis 3, “Where are you?” (pronounced ’ayyekah), is utilized to compare the exile of Judah with the banishment from Eden. A comment on Numbers 14:1, recounting how God decided to allow the temple to be destroyed on the Ninth of Av because that was the day that Israel wept in response to the negative report brought back by the spies sent to Canaan, is inserted into verse 2.30 According to the targum, Israel was given the opportunity by Jeremiah to repent but did not do so and the destruction was carried out.

By focusing on these expansions to the opening verses, and by arguing that they set the tone for all that follows, scholars have construed Targum Lamentations as a monolithic document that can be read only as advocating an acceptance of suffering as “punishment [that] was deserved for acting against God's will.”31 As was the case with biblical Lamentations, however, this is simply too reductive of a reading of the targum text. In the following section, I will focus on the expansions explicitly connected to the figure of Zion and her children, which have tended to be excluded from discussions of the theological Tendenz of the targum. But in doing so, I will demonstrate that Targum Lamentations participates in the exegetical trajectory that I have identified in the history of interpretation. I will also argue that Targum Lamentations offers a more complex and conflicted attitude toward suffering than is usually acknowledged by those interpreters who characterize it as an unwavering voice of orthodoxy.


In my reading of Lamentations … I identified a number of key verses in the biblical text where Zion focused on the survival of her children. Three of these verses were 1:16, 2:20, and 2:22. It is significant that at these verses in particular Targum Lamentations evinces a desire to supplement the biblical text, and it is quite telling to notice how it goes about making these supplements. I will look closely at each of these verses in Targum Lamentations in comparison with the original in the Masoretic text of Lamentations, and then conclude this … [essay] with a consideration of the theological implications of these supplements.


Lamentations 1:16 was a crucial verse for my reading of the Masoretic text of Lamentations in chapter two [in Linafelt, Tod. Surviving Lamentations], since here Zion is first presented as overcome with emotion on behalf of her abused children. The biblical text of 1:16 reads:

For these things I weep … My eyes, my eyes!
          They stream with tears.
How far from me is one to comfort,
          one to restore my life.
My children are ravaged;
          the enemy has triumphed.

Zion's initial accusation against God (combined with elements of the description of pain) in 1:11c-16 culminates with this emphasis on children, an emphasis that becomes even clearer in Lamentations 2. But given the other motifs present in this first speech of Zion, one might understandably equivocate on my claim for the preeminence of the children here. In fact, Claus Westermann takes the phrase “for these things” to refer back to the previous material rather than to what follows in 1:16. He even argues that 16c “exhibits no meaningful connection” with its surrounding context.32 To read 1:16 as Westermann does obviously undercuts much of the emphasis on the survival of Zion's children that I identified as coming into focus here. The targum's version of 1:16, however, explicitly reinforces such an emphasis on children. It reads:

Because of the babes who were smashed and the pregnant women whose wombs were torn open, the Congregation of Israel says, “I weep, and my eyes pour out tears like a spring of waters. Look how far from me is any comforter to revive me and to give my life consolation. Oh, how my children are desolate, look how the enemy has triumphed over them.”33

While the targum makes some typical minor changes, such as rendering “my eye, my eye” as “my eyes”34 and identifying Zion as “the Congregation of Israel,” the most significant change is the addition of the two italicized phrases.35 While the biblical text reads only “because of these things I weep,” mentioning the children at the end of the verse, the targum supplements this with the first additional phrase “Because of the babes who were smashed and the pregnant women whose wombs were torn open.” The cause of Zion's breakdown, which I identified as the fate of the children, is picked up by the targum as a point of supplementarity. By presenting the children as “smashed” and “torn” from their mothers' wombs, the targum intensifies the emotional level. And by having the fate of the children at the beginning and end of the verse, thus forming an inclusio, it emphasizes their importance as the cause of Zion's (or Congregation of Israel's) weeping.

Perhaps too much should not be made of the presence of the second additional phrase, which I have rendered as “and to give my life consolation”. It is missing from all the manuscripts of the Yemenite recension, but its presence in the Western Text adds one key theme to the verse. A more literal translation of the Aramaic phrase would be “to speak consolation over my life.” Thus, the addition of this phrase connects comfort with speech. This was also a key theme in chapter 2 of Lamentations, where the poet calls attention to his task of trying to find words adequate to express Zion's pain, that he might comfort (2:13) her in some way. (And it perhaps reflects a recognized connection between Lamentations and Isaiah 40:1-2.) The targum intuits the need for a response to Zion's accusations already in 1:16. The theme becomes more central and unmistakable in the next major supplement to biblical Lamentations that I will consider, Targum Lamentations 2:20.


Another crucial passage for my reading of Lamentations was Zion's final speech of 2:20-22, in which she responds to the exhortation of the poet to affront God with the suffering of the children in order to elicit a response. The text of 2:20 reads:

Look, O Lord, and pay attention to whom it is
          you have so ruthlessly afflicted!
Alas! Women are eating their offspring,
          the children they have borne!
Behold how priest and prophet are slain
          in the sanctuary of the Lord.

In my reading of the passage in chapter two … [in Linafelt, Tod. Surviving Lamentations], I suggested that those whom Yhwh has “so ruthlessly afflicted” are the children of the line immediately following. Noting the recurrence of the image of children at the end of 2:22, I argued that the image of children served as a symbolic condensation for the figures of “priest and prophet, youth and maiden” that came between the two verses. The image of children bracketed the description of the inhabitants of the city.

The targum to Lamentations makes a number of significant changes in 2:20 compared with the Masoretic text:

Look O Lord and pay attention from heaven: Whom have you afflicted like these? Is it right that from starvation the daughters of Israel should eat the fruit of their wombs, delicate children wrapped in linen swaddling cloths? The Attribute of Justice replied and said, “Is it right to kill priest and prophet in the temple of the Lord, as you killed Zechariah son of Iddo the High Priest, a faithful prophet, in the Temple of the Lord on the Day of Atonement, because he reproached you, that you should not do wrong before the Lord?

The first thing to notice is that the targum—apparently taking the reference to cannibalism literally rather than as the literary trope that it most likely is—makes it clear that the daughters of Israel ate their children “from starvation,” thereby deflecting some of the blame (however slightly).36 But more importantly, the targum reads this verse as though it were a dialogue, with the second half of the verse placed in the mouth of the divine Attribute of Justice.37 The importance of this is twofold for my reading of Lamentations. First, it shows that the targum, like my reading, recognized that the focus of Zion's concern in the biblical text was the children—it is indeed these to whom Yhwh has been so ruthless. The last line of the verse, concerning priest and prophet, is effectively separated off by attributing it to another speaker, thereby leaving the focus of the first half of the verse solely on the children; though by this move the targum has lessened the effect of the children as summary figures for the inhabitants of the city. Second, the targum, more explicitly than in 1:16, senses the unfulfilled need for a response from God to the charges of Zion. According to my reading, the rhetoric of Lamentations was geared toward eliciting a response from God, with the fate of the children utilized here because this is what earlier achieved the desired result from the poet. Targum Lamentations supplements the biblical book with an answer from the divine at just this moment when the absence of God's voice is most prominent.

The answer given is, in my judgment, a non sequitur in light of the nature of Zion's appeal. The Attribute of Justice replies to the question of whether it is right for Yhwh to cause the cannibalizing of children by asking a question in return and by bringing into the conversation the stoning of the prophet Zechariah (2 Chron. 24:15-22) by the people of Israel.38 It is not even clear that the reference to Zechariah is meant to be a justification for the “punishment” now meted out on Israel. The Attribute of Justice does not say “Because of this …” It seems rather to be a case of competing accusations, in the form of rhetorical questions, i.e., “Who has done the worse deeds?” And if the implication of punishment is to be seen here, the Attribute of Justice's response is no response at all. Zion in Lamentations was little concerned with why the punishment was taking place, and made no claims for the sinlessness of the people. She was more concerned with the survival of the children, the barbarous treatment of whom precludes any justification or theodic settlement.


The next major supplement in the targum grows out of just this need in Lamentations for the issue of the children's survival to be addressed. The text of 2:22, the final verse of Zion's speech, reads:

You called, as on a festival day,
          attackers from all around.
On the day of the Lord's wrath,
          there were none who survived or escaped;
those whom I bore and reared,
          my enemies have consumed.

As noted above, this speech (like the book as a whole) ends on a somber and disturbing note. There are no survivors among Zion's children.

The targum to 2:22 has only one major supplement, but it is a supplement of great consequence. The targum reads:

You will proclaim freedom to your people the house of Israel, by the hand of the messiah king, as you did by the hand of Moses and Aaron on the day that you brought forth Israel from Egypt. And my youths will gather all around from every place where they were scattered on the day of your fierce anger, O Lord, when there was no escapee or survivor among them. Those whom I had wrapped in linen, and those whom I had nourished with regal delicacies, my enemies consumed.39

The transformation from the original text is striking. The festival day of biblical Lamentations, so bitterly ironic in its original context, is here transformed into the day of messianic redemption. And the enemies who had gathered from all around in the book of Lamentations become in the targumic version Zion's children gathering “around and around” her. Though the changes are extensive, they are not random or purposeless. Churgin holds that the midrashic element here is “obviously a sign of later addition” to the peshat (or literal meaning) of the original targumic text.40 Levine argues instead that the targumist “struggled to inject a positive note,” and that the reference to messianic redemption was generated by “the juxtaposition of ‘the day of your wrath’ and ‘slaughtered’ with ‘as to a festival.’”41

I agree with Levine that one cannot so easily separate the interpretive from the literal—the derash from the peshat—in the targum, and that this particular supplement is indeed generated by the text itself. But in my judgment, it is generated not merely from a juxtaposition of images, but from the inherent (but frustrated) drive, found in Lamentations, for the survival of the children. In reference to Benjamin's essay on translation, Derrida writes:

And if the original calls for a complement, it is because at the origin it was not there without fault, full, complete, total, identical to itself. From the origin of the original to be translated there is fall and exile.42

The targumist (consciously or not) apprehends this lack and supplies the midrashic complement for which “the original calls.”43 While focusing on the first half of this complement/supplement,44 which deals with the hoped-for messianic king, Levine misses the fact that this theme is introduced as a means to imagine the survival of the children. The addition begins with the messianic hope, but leads to the climax where “my youths will gather together from every place where they were scattered on the day of your fierce anger, O Lord.” The source for this phrase is likely Ezekiel 34:12, where God is portrayed as a shepherd seeking out a scattered flock: “I will rescue them from all the places to which they were scattered on a day of cloud and gloom”. If this is the case, and the nearly precise lexical equivalency suggests that it is, then the messianic reference in the targum may be tied to this citation of Ezekiel 34. For later in the chapter Yhwh promises to appoint “a single shepherd to tend them: my servant David” (34:23). The promised restoration of a Davidic king in Ezekiel 34 is carried over into the targum as the hope for a messianic king. The targum's move to imagine the children restored is all the more bold in its placement alongside the original statement that “there was no escapee or survivor among them.” How can children return when there was no survivor in the first place? The targum is not bothered by the logical inconsistency. (Indeed, there is a sense in which—since it is the very lack articulated by the original statement that generates the supplemental counterstatement—the former must be preserved to justify the existence of the latter.) Survival for the targum is imagined “as if we had a future”; survival is “to live again.”45

While the targum, on this reading, is concerned to complete the lack (what Derrida appropriately calls “the fall and exile”) of the original, it too is frustrated. This is most obvious, I think, in the clash between what is said by the Attribute of Justice in verse 20 and what is said by Zion in verse 22. Consider now the complete passage of 2:20-22 in Targum Lamentations:

Look O Lord and pay attention from heaven: Whom have you afflicted like these? Is it right that from starvation the daughters of Israel should eat the fruit of their wombs, delicate children wrapped in linen swaddling cloths? The Attribute of Justice replied and said, “Is it right to kill priest and prophet in the Temple of the Lord, as you killed Zechariah son of Iddo the High Priest, a faithful prophet, in the Temple of the Lord on the day of Atonement, because he reproached you, that you should not do wrong before the Lord?”

The young and the old, who used to lie on silken pillows and ivory couches, slept in the dirt of the streets. My girls and boys have fallen, slain by the sword. You have slain in the day of your wrath. You have slaughtered and did not pity.

You will proclaim freedom to your people the house of Israel, by the hand of the Messiah king, as you did by the hand of Moses and Aaron on the day that you brought forth Israel from Egypt. And my youths will gather all around from every place where they were scattered on the day of your fierce anger, O Lord, when there was no escapee or survivor among them. Those whom I had wrapped in linen, and those whom I had nourished with regal delicacies, my enemies consumed.

Both speaking voices address a lacuna in the original: the Attribute of Justice tries to provide the divine response that was missing in the original, and Zion imagines the return of her children that was unimaginable in the original. While attempting to fill the same lack in Lamentations that produced the response in Second Isaiah, the targum does so in a strikingly different way. In the targum the positive element, the messianic restoration of children, is spoken only by the voice of Zion. This is what Zion wants to hear from Yhwh, and it is basically what the Zion figure in Second Isaiah does hear.46 But unlike the rhetorical project of Second Isaiah, the concern of Targum Lamentations does not seem quite so focused on “comfort.” The voice of the divine in the targum is more harshly critical than the voice of the divine in Second Isaiah. But this contrast in the divine voice between the two “survivals” of Lamentations points also to an interesting contrast in the respective voices of the Zion figures. [In] Second Isaiah the voice of Zion is largely eliminated by God's extended responses to her. She has become, unlike the persona of Zion in biblical Lamentations, a passive figure. However, the divine refusal to comfort in Targum Lamentations seems to allow room for a revitalized Zion figure. Thus one finds here again a bolder, more impassioned Zion than in Second Isaiah, one who states right back to the divine that “you will proclaim freedom to your people …” Though not explicitly identified as a request, it is possible to read this statement in Targum Lamentations 2:22 in such a way. It is also possible, however, to read it as an imperative to God. In either case, Zion takes it upon herself to give voice to the restoration that God has avoided speaking of, and by doing so refuses the divine Attribute of Justice the last word.

Though both voices in the targum text of 2:20-22 are produced by a lacuna in the original, the gap between them produces another lacuna, or at least a conflict of interpretation. The voice corresponding to Zion in the Masoretic text continues her emphasis on survival and accusation of God and deemphasizes notions of sin and punishment; but the Attribute of Justice presents just the opposite perspective. Thus one finds a text in conflict with itself, a situation not unlike the book of Lamentations itself. If one follows Benjamin's notions of translation, this is to be expected: “both the original and the translation [are] recognizable as fragments of a greater language.”47 But this greater language, or “pure” language, “does not exist, except as a permanent disjunction which inhibits all languages as such.”48 Fragments engender their survival in other fragments, whose existence is just as incomplete and precarious. The survival of literature is not a clean, decisive process, but is rather a complex process of growth and mutation. The result is not a finished product, but a stage in the afterlife of literature.


It is clear that Targum Lamentations, like Second Isaiah, is significantly aware of the challenges voiced by Zion in Lamentations 1 and 2, and it attempts to address them in a manner similar to Second Isaiah. However, as I hinted in the introduction to this [essay], there are significant differences in these two “survivals” of Lamentations. While Second Isaiah is looking buoyantly forward to the restoration of Jerusalem and the return of the exiles, the targum comes in the aftermath of the destruction of the second temple. As the decades of the Babylonian exile (the context of Second Isaiah) turn into the centuries of the diaspora (the context of the targum), the rhetoric of survival must take on new forms to meet this new sociohistorical context. So it is no surprise that, while the supplement to 2:22 valiantly imagines the return of Zion's children, it can do so only in a postponed messianic era. The buoyancy of the expected restoration in Second Isaiah is replaced in the targum by the need for “constituting a nation-in-exile.”49

It is noteworthy that in articulating this project the targum has focused its interpretive energies most intensely on chapters 1 and 2. The reason for this, in my judgment, is that chapters 1 and 2 are the locus of the theological “action” in Lamentations. These chapters mount the most sustained challenge both to Yhwh and to the reader, and these chapters are more insistent than the rest in their demand for an answer. As is clear from the review of scholarship in the introduction, this judgment about the importance of chapter 1 and 2 flies in the face of much twentieth-century scholarly work on the book, which has tended to find its critical purchase in the male figure of Lamentations 3. Levine follows this line of thinking in his analysis of the theological bent of the targum, which he deems to be the locus classicus in targumic literature for any theology of exile. Levine focuses on one of the few interpretive expansions outside chapters 1 and 2 of the targum—the gloss on 3:27-28, which reads:

It is good for a man while young to train himself to bear the yoke of the commandments. Let him sit alone and keep silent, bearing the sufferings that come upon him for the sake of the unity of the name of God, these being sent to punish him for the minor infractions that he commits in this world, until He have mercy upon him and remove them from him. He may accept him purified in the world-to-come.50

Levine argues that here we find the “theological self-definition of Israel in exile.” Not surprisingly, given his decision to focus on this particular gloss, he deems this theological self-definition to be that of a “suffering servant accepting the yoke of God's commandments and the suffering borne for the sake of declaring God's unity.”51 Neither should it be surprising, in light of my focus on the figure of Zion in chapters 1 and 2 of Lamentations and Targum Lamentations, that I find Levine's statement reductionistic. Given the extent to which Targum Lamentations itself focuses on chapters 1 and 2, it is certainly necessary to include these chapters in any articulation of the theological self-definition of Israel in exile. And the figure that stands out in this case is, of course, personified Zion.

Having said this, one must ask what difference it would make to include Zion, along with the suffering man of chapter 3, as a model for response to exile. Most significant is the resultant challenge to the notion of quiet acquiescence to suffering. In place of a “suffering servant accepting the yoke” placed on him by God, this model valorizes the bold challenges of Mother Zion on behalf of her children. That is, this model articulates a resistance to both the fact of exile and the theological justification of exile. This is not to claim that the targum presents a radical subversion of the ubiquitous rabbinic concept of the deservedness of punishment;52 but it is to claim that Shinan's judgment—concerning the larger nature of the targum as institution—that “the doctrine of retribution is grasped and espoused in its most simplistic form, without the least reservation or questioning”53 is fundamentally inadequate as a characterization of Targum Lamentations. One may admit that the targum is in fact reluctant to pursue the more radical imprecatory rhetoric of Zion in the Masoretic text of Lamentations without having to say that it is “direct, simple, manifestly didactic, and free of doubts and qualifications.”54 The targum is instead quite subtle and discerning in its recognition—and exposition—of the drive for survival in the biblical book of Lamentations. Generalized characterizations of a monolithic rabbinic doctrine of suffering or exile are inadequate. Rabbinic texts, like nearly all texts I would argue, are sites of ideological conflict, wherein the attentive reader may legitimately tease out readings counter to the generalized characterizations. …


  1. Benjamin, “Task of the Translator,” 72.

  2. Derrida, “Living On: Borderlines,” 84.

  3. See my treatment in chapter two [in Linafelt, Tod. Surviving Lamentations] of the poet's use of the keyword “pouring out” in the book of Lamentations.

  4. Benjamin, “Aufgabe des Übersetzers,” 10.

  5. Derrida, “Living On: Borderlines,” 134.

  6. Meyer Waxman, A History of Jewish Literature, vol. 1 (New York: Bloch, 1930), 112.

  7. On the rabbinic rules governing targum, see Avigdor Shinan, “Live Translation: On the Nature of the Aramaic Targums to the Pentateuch,” Prooftexts 3 (1983): 41-49; and Philip S. Alexander, “The Targumim and the Rabbinic Rules for the Delivery of the Targum,” in Vetus Testamentum Supplement 36 (Salamanca Congress Volume), ed. J. A. Emerton (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1985).

  8. Alexander Samely, The Interpretation of Speech in the Pentateuch Targums (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1992), 158.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Samely (ibid., 160-62) makes this feature of targum very clear by comparing Pseudo-Jonathan's rendering of Genesis 12:10-13 with the Genesis Apocryphon XIX, 10-20. The targum builds around the Hebrew narrative, leaving it essentially intact, while the Genesis Apocryphon completely rewrites the narrative, retaining little of the original Hebrew wording or sequence and even changing the point of view from third to first person, something the targum would never do.

  11. John Bowker, “Haggadah in the Targum Onkelos,” Journal of Semitic Studies 12 (1967): 13.

  12. Alexander Sperber, The Bible in Aramaic, vol. 4B, The Targum and the Hebrew Bible (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973), 21.

  13. Waxman, History of Jewish Literature, 1:118.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Etan Levine, The Aramaic Version of Lamentations (New York: Sepher-Hermon Press, 1976), 14.

  16. Samely, Interpretation of Speech, 181.

  17. Benjamin, “Aufgabe des Übersetzers,” 12.

  18. Benjamin, “Task of the Translator,” 71.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Shinan, “Live Translation,” 44.

  21. Jacques Derrida, “Des Tours de Babel,” Semeia 54 (1991): 20.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Philip Alexander, “The Textual Tradition of Targum Lamentations,” Abr-Nahrain 24 (1986): 2, however, has urged caution in fixing too certainly the provenance of Targum Lamentations, noting that while it contains some Greek loan words and much Palestinian Aramaic, thereby indicating a Western origin, it also contains Onquelos-type Aramaic and certain words otherwise unattested in Palestinian Aramaic. And while Maimonides and other medieval scholars referred to Targum Lamentations as “Targum Yerushalmi,” there is also a medieval tradition that at least some of the targumim to the Writings originated with the Babylonian scholar Rav Joseph.

  24. Albert van der Heide, The Yemenite Tradition of the Targum of Lamentations (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981), 35; Alexander, “Textual Tradition,” 8-9.

  25. Alexander, “Textual Tradition,” 7.

  26. Of the two, van der Heide's is the superior. Though basing his edition on the Yemenite Text, Sperber (Bible in Aramaic, vol. 4A) imports expansions from the Western Text, thereby conflating the two distinct recensions. He also makes numerous mistakes in copying the British Library manuscript Or 2375, which are identified in appendix 2 of van der Heide, Yemenite Tradition, 53-55.

  27. Most egregious is his identification of an Esther Scroll, “Salonika, University I (1532),” as a Lamentations manuscript. As van der Heide (Yemenite Tradition, 58) first deduced, the siglum “S” in Levine's original papers must have stood for “Sperber,” since the variants he lists as deriving from the Salonika manuscript (under the siglum “S”) in fact reproduce Sperber's 1968 edition of the Yemenite Text. See also Alexander, “Textual Tradition,” 6.

  28. Alexander, “Textual Tradition,” 10.

  29. See the article by Christian M. M. Brady, “Targum Lamentations 1:1-4: A Theological Prologue,” forthcoming in Targumic Studies, vol. 3. I am grateful to the author for providing a prepublication version of this article.

  30. See Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, vol. 6 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1968), 96, for the midrashic reference.

  31. Levine, The Aramaic Version of Lamentations, 20.

  32. Westermann, Lamentations, 135.

  33. Translations from Targum Lamentations in this … [essay] are my own, based on Etan Levine's edition of the Western Text, though on occasion I will make reference to Albert van der Heide's edition of the Yemenite Text. All emphases are mine and serve to highlight the targumic expansions to the biblical text.

  34. Interestingly, while deleting the second repetition of “my eye,” the targum replaces it with the phrase “like a spring of water,” thereby maintaining the intensifying quality of the repetition.

  35. Actually, the Hebrew word for “my life”, present in the second italicized addition, is also present in biblical Lamentations as the object of the verb “to restore”. In the Western recension of Targum Lamentations it is separated from the lexical equivalent of the verb, and recontextualized as the object of a second verbal phrase missing from the biblical text.

  36. The Yemenite recension refers to “women” rather than “the daughters of Israel”, and it lacks the qualification “from starvation”.

  37. The Attribute of Justice is in rabbinic thought a quality of God, though it sometimes is personified as though it were distinct from God, as happens here in Targum Lamentations. Elsewhere it is even portrayed as addressing God (b. Shabbat 55a). The Attribute of Justice is often presented in relation to the Attribute of Mercy. According to a midrash in Bereshit Rabbah (12:15), both attributes were involved in the creation of the world; had either been missing, the world could not have endured. A very interesting variant occurs in a group of Yemenite manuscripts of Targum Lamentations, which substitute “the Attribute of Mercy” for the Attribute of Justice in this passage.

  38. The avenging of the death of Zechariah is a popular midrashic motif. Variations on it can be found in Eikhah Rabbah II, 23, and the Talmud (b. Yoma 38b). In the New Testament (Matt. 23:35; Luke 11:51) Jesus makes similar use of the figure of Zechariah.

  39. It should be noted that the final line of 2:22 in Targum Lamentations, though not a major supplement, expands the final line of the biblical text by adding a prepositional phrase to each verb. Thus, the phrase “those I clasped / dandled” becomes the targum's “those I clasped / wrapped in linen,” and “those I raised up” becomes “those I raised up on regal dainties.” The additions serve to emphasize the care with which the children were treated previously, and to contrast more starkly with their present fate.

  40. Cited in Levine, The Aramaic Version of Lamentations, 15.

  41. Ibid., 121.

  42. Derrida, “Des Tours de Babel,” 20.

  43. This is similar to the understanding of midrash offered by Daniel Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 15, in which “[t]he dialogue and dialectic of the midrashic rabbis [are] understood as readings of the dialogue and dialectic of the biblical text.”

  44. Derrida writes here about a “complement” in similar terms that he uses for his notion of “supplement” elsewhere. See esp. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. G. Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 313.

  45. Robert Detweiler, “Overliving,” Semeia 54 (1991): 240.

  46. Note too that the reference to restoration in Ezekiel 34 is spoken by Yhwh in the first person, but as it is brought into the targum it is transformed into the speech of Zion.

  47. Benjamin, “Task of the Translator,” 78.

  48. De Man, The Resistance to Theory, 92.

  49. Etan Levine, The Aramaic Version of the Bible: Contents and Contexts (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1988), 174.

  50. Ibid., 178.

  51. Ibid.

  52. The idea of punishment is well represented in the opening verses of Targum Lamentations, which offer explanations for the destruction based on the history of Israel's disobedience to Yhwh. But this in no way lessens the later passages that do not fit into this notion of retribution. The expansions in these opening verses do not have to be read as setting the tone for how the entire targum is to be read (so Brady, “Targum Lamentations 1:1-4”). Rather they reflect the tone of the opening verses of the Masoretic text of Lamentations, which does not hold sway for the entire book.

  53. Shinan, “Live Translation,” 46.

  54. Ibid., 47.

Tod Linafelt (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11555

SOURCE: Linafelt, Tod. “‘None Survived or Escaped’: Reading for Survival in Lamentations 1 and 2.” In Surviving Lamentations: Catastrophe, Lament and Protest in the Afterlife of a Biblical Book, pp. 35-61. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Linafelt examines elements of the dirge and lament in the first two chapters of the Book of Lamentation, deeming these sections “literature of survival.”]

In my happier days I used to remark on the aptitude of the saying, “When in life we are in the midst of death.” I have since learnt that it's more apt to say, “When in death we are in the midst of life.”

—A survivor of the Belsen concentration camp

There are two kinds of discoveries in literary matters: the work that is complete in its very incompletion—an incompletion ineluctably carried to term—and the work that has come only halfway toward its always deferred completion.

—Edmond Jabès

To read for survival in Lamentations 1 and 2, … would mean attending to those elements of the poems that represent the paradox of death in the midst of life and life beyond the borders of death, the expression of pain for its own sake, and the way in which the rhetoric of the poetry is concerned to move beyond description to persuasion. In doing just this in what follows, I argue that survival is inscribed in the biblical text of Lamentations in the larger design of the chapters as well as in the details of their content.


Biblical critics have had a difficult time settling on the technical genre of these two poems. One finds them identified variously as communal laments (Klagelieder des Volkes), individual laments (Klagelieder des Einzelnen), and dirges (Leichenlieder or Totenklagen), all of which genres are related but distinct. The initial form-critical designation of these chapters (along with Lamentations 4) as dirges in a classic work by Hermann Gunkel and Joachim Begrich has dominated the critical discussion.1 According to this line of thinking they are funeral songs; but instead of referring to a dead individual they refer to the death of a nation.2 Hedwig Jahnow's 1923 study, Das hebräische Leichenlied (The Hebrew dirge), explores in more depth the genre of the dirge, or funeral song, within the context of world folk literature. She concludes that certain elements of the dirge are identifiable in Lamentations 1 and 2: the opening mournful cry (“Alas” or “How”; the summons to weep, and the description of the mourner's suffering. One very important element is missing however; the announcement that someone has died. Moreover, there are elements in these chapters that do not show up in dirges, including “the summoning of Yahweh, the lamenting over the distress, the plea for Yahweh to take notice, the confession of guilt.”3 Jahnow concludes that these elements are borrowed from the “popular psalms of lamentation” in the service of “the transformation of an originally entirely profane type into a religious poem.”4 For Jahnow, Lamentations 1 and 2 are understood primarily as dirges that have borrowed motifs from the psalms of lament in order to make a theological statement about the death they describe.

Since these programmatic studies, scholars have tried in differing ways to account for the slippage in genre one finds in these poems. Most often it is decided, either explicitly or implicitly, that they represent what Gunkel and Begrich called mixed types (or Mischungen).5 Otto Eissfeldt writes:

Poems 1, 2, and 4 are, as their opening word, Ah, how! shows, funeral dirges and in fact political funeral dirges in which it is a political entity, Jerusalem, which is lamented over as dead … But in none of them does the type appear in its pure form.6

Eissfeldt goes on to separate the genres in chapter 1 by verse, finding that while 1:1-11 and 17 belong primarily to the genre of dirge, verses 9c, 11c, and 12-16 are completely in the style of the individual song of lamentation. Chapter 2 he identifies as a dirge, though in this case he does not attempt to deal with any divergence from the genre that the chapter may contain. Claus Westermann has devoted much energy to the form-critical analysis of Lamentations, coming to an essentially converse conclusion to that of Jahnow. With regard to chapter 1, he writes:

So the judgment of Jahnow—viz., that with regard to its structure Lam 1 is a dirge into which several motifs of the communal lament have been incorporated—must be rejected. Rather, in Lam 1 the structure of the communal lament can quite clearly be discerned. It is into the latter's structure that isolated elements of the dirge have been inserted.7

Chapter 2, for Westermann, belongs nearly exclusively to the category of communal lament: “Only the mournful cry at the beginning really belongs to the dirge.”8 Other interpreters agree with Westermann on the mixture of dirge and lament, yet identify the lament as that of an individual rather than a community.9 Gottwald takes a synthetic approach, writing that “[b]oth the funeral song and the individual lament as formal types are employed here and there, but always in the communal sense.”10

It is clear that we have in chapters 1 and 2 of Lamentations a certain mixture or combination of genres: the more common lament (whether understood as individual or communal) and the dirge or funeral song. What is less clear, and what I will argue now, is that the combination of the genres is not haphazard or confused. Rather it evinces the fundamental dynamic of survival literature identified above: the paradox of life in death and death in life.

It is apparent that when scholars have attempted to separate the genres in chapter 1, they have tended to do so along the lines established by the change in speaker between Zion and the poet.11 The voice of the poet holds sway for nearly all of the first half of chapter 1 (vv. 1-11) and proceeds in dirgelike fashion to describe the ruination of Zion, personified as a woman.12 Particularly characteristic of the dirge are the following elements: the opening exclamatory “Alas” or “How” the contrast between former glory and present circumstance, a description of misery, and the gloating onlookers. One of the only breaks with the genre is to blame Zion for her present state, which would have no place in a pure dirge. The scene is dismal, and what biblical scholars call the qinah (dirge-like) meter of the poetry is entirely appropriate for the tone of desolation. Yet there is already a certain amount of ambiguity with regard to genre even in the opening verses. For as much as the funeral dirge can be discerned here, the primary element that grounds all dirges is missing: a death. The ostensible event that necessitates a dirge is the death of an individual or personified individual, or, as in the derivative oracles against the nations, the ironically anticipated death. But even before the chapter switches voices and genres into lament in verses 12-22, one is aware that Zion has in fact survived. Given the deathly scene surveyed by the poet, the formal and thematic characteristics of the dirge do not seem entirely out of place; nevertheless, the dirge, which should properly signal the death of Zion, takes place while she is yet alive.

While Zion survives in the dirge of the poet, the import of this really becomes apparent only in the second half of chapter 1. It is here that Zion emerges most forcefully as a speaking subject, and it is here that elements of the funeral song increasingly give way to the elements of lament. The scene of death implied by the dirge, already undercut by the presence of Zion, begins to open out toward life even more. Not only is the one who should be dead alive, but she is speaking, and speaking vigorously. The genre of lament, like the dirge, arises out of pain and knows much about death. Yet unlike the dirge, its primary aim is life. The lament addresses God and expects an answer. Westermann writes:

There is not a single Psalm of Lament that stops with lamentation. Lamentation has no meaning in and of itself. That it functions as an appeal is evident in its structure. What the lament is concerned with is not a description of one's own sufferings or with self-pity, but with the removal of the suffering itself.13

While Westermann likely overstates the case, particularly with regard to the book of Lamentations, the basic point that the lament as a genre looks beyond the situation of death is important. The dirge of the poet recedes as the primary mode of discourse in the face of Zion's survival.

Zion's direct address to the Lord, which form-critically belongs in the realm of the lament, has already infiltrated the dirge of the poet as early as verse 9. The verse begins with a two-line summary of how Zion has so far been presented: her state of uncleanness is reiterated; she is blamed for this uncleanness (“she did not think of her future”); the reversal of fortunes is restated (“she has come down astonishingly”); and she is once more said to have “none to comfort her.” But there is a radical shift in verse 9c when what is unmistakably the voice of Zion herself interrupts the poet. This interruption is short, only two cola, but nonetheless compelling:

See, O Lord, my suffering—
          how the enemy triumphs.

The poet's monopoly on the reader is momentarily broken; the one spoken about now becomes the one who speaks. Likewise, while the poet has spoken about Yhwh in the dirge, it [is] Zion who first speaks to Yhwh in the form of a lament.14

Though the intrusion of Zion in verse 1:9 is brief, it may be taken as setting in motion the transition from dirge to lament, from death to life, that Lamentations 1 and 2 will develop further. For example, while the poem seems to resume the dirge in verse 10, there is a slight indication that the persona of the poet, if not that of Yhwh, has also become concerned with the outward movement of the lament in contrast to the dirge. For in verse 10 the poet uncharacteristically speaks to Yhwh, using the second-person form of address for the first time.

She has seen nations come into
          her holy place—
about whom you commanded,
          they shall not come into your assembly.

Up to this point the persona of the poet has employed third-person verbs only, with Zion breaking the pattern by addressing Yhwh directly. On the heels of Zion's speech comes the poet's own direct speech to Yhwh, indicating a beginning of a conformity of language between the two personae that will become more pronounced in later verses.

The poet's growing concern for life as well as his awareness of the threat of death both are present in verse 11 as well. He describes the inhabitants of Zion as having kept themselves alive, but only at great cost. The climax of the poet's speech is in 11b:

They have given their precious things for food,
          in order to keep themselves alive.

The connotation of the Hebrew word used here for “precious things” is debatable. It may mean expensive or treasured possessions, as it does in 1 Kings 20:6 and Joel 4:5, or it may mean children, as it does in Hosea 9:16. One need not decide between these two connotations, as the poetry is able to carry both simultaneously. Indeed, the two meanings are clearly juxtaposed in Hosea 9, where verse 16 refers to offspring but verse 6 refers to objects of silver. Given the poetic strategy of personification, both connotations are likely on the horizon of the poetry in Lamentations 1 as well. The connotation of “treasures” is aligned with the destruction of an actual city, while the connotation of “children” is aligned with the city in its personification as a woman. The second connotation makes the line bitterly ironic: only by sacrificing a future survival can the semblance of a present survival be maintained. Moreover, the trace of children in the phrase “precious things” anticipates 2:20 and 4:10, where children themselves are said to be eaten by their mothers.15

The second intrusion by the figure of Zion, in 1:11c, manifests an even stronger move away from the dirge and into the lament, the form of which dominates the remainder of the chapter. Zion's initial address to Yhwh in verse 9c, with its single imperative to “see” her pain, is echoed and compounded in the address in verse 11c, with its double imperative for Yhwh to “see” and “pay attention to” how abject Zion has become. As with the second-person address of Yhwh, the accusation against God that follows in verses 12-16 is a characteristic element of the lament genre, containing the typical threefold concern for the agony of the one suffering, the relationship of God to the suffering, and the mention of enemies.16

The voice of Zion holds sway for most of the second half of Lamentations 1, effectively excluding the elements of the dirge, based as they are in the finality of death. The traditional “setting in life” (Sitz im Leben) of a dirge is the funeral, where it serves as a stage in the work of mourning, a stage that one passes through in order to “overcome” the loss of the individual. In psychoanalytic terms, the ego attempts to break off its overwhelming attachment to the one lost.17 But as we have seen, Zion is not yet lost, and her move to direct lament in verses 12-16 forestalls the premature mourning that might allow either the poet or the reader to overcome her death.18

Although the poet interjects in verse 17, mirroring Zion's intrusion (in verse 9c) into his speech in the first half of the chapter, with possible allusions to death,19 such allusions are passed over as Zion speaks once more in verse 18. Any question of a genuine dirge over the death of Zion is here put to rest, though in keeping with the poem's awareness of the infiltration of death into the realm of life, Zion laments:

Outside, the sword slays—
          indoors, death.(20)


Death has crossed the final border and entered even the safe haven of the house.

The final section of chapter 1 represents well the outward reach of the genre of lament. Zion employs the standard elements of a lament: a summons to participation (18b), a plea for Yhwh to take notice (20a), and a petition for reprisal against the enemy (22a).21 This final section of chapter 1 also represents well the manner in which the genre of lament intersects with the literature of survival. From the portrayal of a world hostile to life, to the attempt to sway its audience, to the undeniable dream of revenge, Zion's voice is that of the survivor. Holocaust survivor Jorge Semprun echoes Zion's appeal for revenge: “There's no point trying to understand the SS. It is enough just to exterminate them.”22 Jean Améry, though admitting that “resentment blocks the exit to the genuine human dimension, the future” and is therefore not something to be nurtured or desired by survivors, nonetheless goes on to speak of his “conviction that loudly proclaimed readiness for reconciliation by Nazi victims can only be either insanity and indifference to life or the masochistic conversion of a suppressed genuine demand for revenge.”23 I considered the commingling of life and death and the desire to persuade in the previous chapter on survival [in Linafelt, Tod. Surviving Lamentations], but it must be noted that Zion's call for revenge also has its place in the literature of survival.

In keeping with the movement away from the dirge (with its world of death) and toward the lament (with its drive for life), Lamentations 2 continues the mixture of forms, or genres, but does so with the emphasis on lament. Indeed, as Westermann has noted, “In broad outline, the structure of Lamentations 2 corresponds to that of the communal lament. Only the mournful cry at the beginning really belongs to the dirge.”24 The presence of “Alas” at the start of chapter 2 functions as a parallel to the start of chapter 1 as well as establishing the relationship with the dirge. Also preserved from the dirge, in verses 1-8 particularly, is the contrast between former and present status. God has thrown down the “splendor of Israel” from heaven to earth (2:1). God has torn down the strongholds of Judah. No longer an ally, “God has become an enemy” (2:5). The reversal is made most explicit and most far-reaching in verse 7:

The Lord has rejected his altar,
          spurned his sanctuary.
He has given the walls of her citadels
          into the hand of the enemy.
They shout in the house of the Lord,
          as though it were a feast day.

All that was formerly honored and held sacred is now rejected and profaned. The extent to which the city's fortunes have been reversed is epitomized by the portrayal of the temple, which should be the site of celebration, as the site of desecration.

In spite of these elements of the dirge in Lamentations 2, it is clear that the form of lament becomes more prominent. For example, the entire section of 2:1-10 represents an accusation against God, found in most laments, that has been transformed into a third-person description of misery. Though retaining elements from his dirgelike speech from Lamentations 1, the poet in chapter 2 begins to take into account the fact that the city still exists—that Zion remains alive—in spite of its dismal state. Language of elegy is progressively transformed into the language of lament, coming to a culmination in the second half of the chapter (which I will treat more thoroughly in the third section of this … [essay]).

Although it may well be that chapters 1 and 2 were written as separate compositions, as they stand now they manifest together a similar mixture of the forms of lament and dirge, with an emphasis on the movement from dirge to lament. Thus, when read together these two chapters draw the reader into the world of survival literature, a world characterized by death in the midst of life and life in the midst of death.25


As literature of survival, chapters 1 and 2 of Lamentations not only demonstrate a commingling of life and death, but they also demonstrate the strong desire, found throughout survival literature, to make present to the reader the pain and suffering of survivors. In order to understand Lamentations 1 and 2 properly, one must maintain the distinction between the “presentation” of pain and the “interpretation” of pain. Both the presentation of pain and the interpretation of pain exist in Lamentations 1 and 2, but the extent and significance of each have been given very uneven treatment in modern critical interpretation. Biblical scholars have tended to focus on the interpretation of pain, and not surprisingly they have done so primarily by explaining pain and suffering as resulting from the guilt of the sufferer. Taking a clue from the literature of survival, however, I will refocus interpretation of chapters 1 and 2 around the presentation of pain, thereby balancing the penchant of biblical scholars to seek explanation for suffering and instead offering a fuller and more nuanced reading of these chapters.

Terrence Des Pres's evaluation of the role played by pain in the literature of survival offers a sobering corrective to the view that suffering can, or even must, be absorbed into a system of meaning (whether theological or otherwise). Des Pres writes:

One of the strongest themes in the literature of survival is that pain is senseless; that a suffering so vast is completely without value as suffering. The survivor, then, is a disturber of the peace.26

Such an evaluation is very different from how pain and suffering are treated by biblical scholars, who seem overeager to make the move from the fact of pain to the recognition of guilt and subsequently to repentance. I contend that viewing Lamentations 1 and 2 from the perspective of the literature of survival enables one to perceive aspects of the presentation of suffering in Lamentations that have been obscured by the theological presuppositions of biblical scholars.

The survivor's desire to witness to pain rather than to find meaning in it can be seen clearly in the speeches of Zion in chapters 1 and 2. Especially striking in this regard are the two initial interruptive statements by which personified Zion enters the poetry as a speaking subject.

See, O Lord, my suffering—
          how the enemy triumphs.


See, O Lord, and pay attention—
          how abject I have become.


In the previous section of this [essay], I identified these imperatives to Yhwh as the beginning of a strong move away from the death represented by the genre of the funeral song and toward the drive for life represented by the genre of lament. The move, however, is not easy or automatic, but proceeds through the survivor's acute experience of suffering. Such suffering must be “seen,” in the words of Zion. The lament requires that the experience of the one lamenting be looked at and acknowledged.

The importance of this requirement that suffering and pain be acknowledged is demonstrated by the compounding of imperatives in the beginning of Zion's first speech in Lamentations 1. The single imperative in 1:9c for Yhwh to “see” becomes the double imperative in 1:11c for Yhwh to “see and pay attention”. This double imperative is then immediately repeated (in an inverted form) to the passersby in 1:12:

Pay attention and see!(27)
Is there any pain like my pain,
                    like my continual suffering?
Which the Lord inflicted on me,
          on the day of his wrath?


The five imperatives in a row, combined with the double repetition of “pain” and the use of the harsh words “suffering” and “inflicted,” lend a rhetorical significance to Zion's presentation of pain as pain, rather than as the raw material for ruminations on guilt. As long as the voice of the poet holds the reader's attention in the opening verses of chapter 1, the pain of Zion has been kept at arm's length. Not only is her suffering described in the third person, but the poet is wont to make sense of Zion's suffering with reference to her sins (1:8), rebelliousness (1:5), or impurity (1:9). The irruption of first-person misery into the poem via the voice of Zion, however, defers all such sense making. Zion is, to use Des Pres's phrase, a “disturber of the peace” in that she will not let the subject of her suffering be settled so easily. Unlike the poet in verses 1:1-11, Zion makes little correlation between her sins and her suffering. Zion's first speech in 1:12-16, outside of one textually very uncertain phrase in 1:14,28 contains no reference to sin whatsoever. In other words, there is no attempt here to interpret or explain suffering.

Instead of explanations for suffering, one finds in Zion's speech an accusation against God combined with a terrifying description of misery. The command to “see” gives way in 1:13-15 to the description of what may be seen, as the character of Zion gives concrete detail to fill out her general statement in verse 12 that Yhwh has afflicted her. While the poet tended to focus in verses 1-11 on the human agents of destruction—referring repeatedly to foes, enemies, betrayers, despisers, invaders in the temple, and exile among the nations, but only once naming Yhwh as the subject of affliction—Zion repeatedly names Yhwh as the one who afflicts and she repeatedly attributes active verbs of violence to Yhwh.

In this section one begins to feel more keenly the import of the author's use of the poetic technique of personification to convey the destruction of a city, as the language of actual physical pain that can be experienced only by living beings pervades the accusation against God. Thus, in 1:13 Zion portrays herself as being attacked by Yhwh-as-warrior, who catches her feet in a net and hurls her backward. Fire, no doubt a vivid image in reference to the destruction of cities, is said in this verse to penetrate to the very bones of Zion. At the same time as the personification allows for the presentation of the pain of the city itself, it also allows one to continue to speak of the suffering of the inhabitants of the city, who are portrayed as the children of personified Zion (1:15; 1:16). The first speech of Zion presents to the reader the sheer fact of pain, told from the perspective of a figure who has survived that pain. It leads to a climax in verse 16:

For these things I weep … My eyes, my eyes!
          They stream with tears.
How far from me is one to comfort,
          one to restore my life.
My children are ravaged,(29)
          the enemy has triumphed.

The twofold cry, “my eyes, my eyes”, is by no means simply a “clear case of dittography,”30 but is another way of intensifying the presentation of pain and grief.31 Zion's lament is that of a survivor—one who has lived through death and destruction—culminating with a mother's wailing over the loss of her children.

It is important to note that the character of Zion, for all her challenging of Yhwh, never claims complete innocence. Zion's lament in 1:18-22, following the brief interruption of the poet in 1:17 (to be treated more fully below), begins by acknowledging that “Yhwh is in the right” and that she has been “rebellious.” And at the end of her speech in 1:22 she admits that Yhwh afflicted her because of her rebelliousness; though it must be noted that the admission is in the context of a call for a similar affliction on her enemies. Zion is, of course, not a completely autonomous figure divorced from the culture of lament characteristic of the ancient Near East in which the book of Lamentations was written. Zion is rather a literary persona created by an author who participated in that common culture, which included the notion of divine punishment on the basis of human misbehavior or disloyalty. While participating in these cultural and theological presuppositions, the author nevertheless saw fit to shift the focus of these poems away from the issue of guilt and toward the experience of pain and suffering, regardless of guilt. Even, for example, in 1:18-22 where the figure of Zion refers to sin and rebelliousness, the rhetoric continues to shift to the experience and extent of pain. Immediately on the heels of the admission of Yhwh's “righteousness” (or perhaps “victory”) in 1:18a come echoes of her earlier imperatives to the passersby:

Listen, each and every one,
          look at my agony.
My young women and my young men alike
          have gone into captivity.

Also repeated from her earlier description of pain is the desertion of allies and the hunger of the city's inhabitants (1:19). The imperative for Yhwh to see her distress is repeated in verse 20, as is the leitmotif “there was no one to comfort me” in verse 21. Brief allusions to guilt in Zion's second speech thus give way to extended expressions of misery and desolation.

I do not mean to claim that the notion of guilt in the book of Lamentations or the ancient Near Eastern genre of lament is the same as that in twentieth-century literature of survival. I admit the very real differences between the two, even as I suggest that one might nevertheless learn something about Lamentations by reading it alongside twentieth-century survival literature. A brief comparison is thus in order. Des Pres writes:

With very few exceptions, the testimony of survivors does not concern itself with guilt of any sort. Their books neither admonish nor condemn nor beg forgiveness; not because survivors are drained of their humanity, but because their attention lies wholly elsewhere.32

Compare this with the judgment of Westermann concerning Zion's admission of sin in verse 18.

Just how important the acknowledgment of guilt is for Lam 1 has already been shown (with ref. to vv 5 and 9). Here, at the high point of the whole song, this motif is brought into conjunction with an acknowledgment of the justice of God's ways such that the whole preceding lament is set off: God must act in this way, because we have transgressed against his word.33

Des Pres is arguing against the prevalent concept of “survivor guilt,” the notion that those who have lived through atrocities such as mass murder are plagued by a sense of guilt over the fact that while so many others died, they somehow escaped alive. Des Pres does not claim that such guilt is nonexistent, but rather that it is not the primary drive of survivor testimony, which is chiefly devoted to conveying the experience of atrocity and survival. What Des Pres is arguing against in the reading of twentieth-century survival literature—the elevating of the single theme of guilt to the status of an interpretive key—is precisely what Westermann is demonstrating in his readings of the biblical laments. Westermann has taken the element of guilt, which is undeniably present, and made it the lens through which all else is read. This element becomes the “high point” of the chapter and sets off “the whole preceding lament.”

Both Des Pres and Westermann likely overstate their cases. In the current debate over the nature and extent of survivor guilt, Des Pres's statement would no doubt need to be nuanced. As a biblical scholar, however, I find that it offers a helpful corrective to the statement of Westermann. The persona of Zion does indeed admit her sins or disobedience. Such an admission is a genre convention of the lament, and Lamentations 1 and 2 does not excise it. Yet rather than making her sins the primary concern of her speeches, she admits them flatly and not altogether wholeheartedly. Westermann's celebration of guilt as the hermeneutical key to the entire chapter is unwarranted. Using Des Pres's analysis to nuance Westermann's, it is clear that Zion, as a survivor, does not “beg forgiveness.” And as I will argue below, it also becomes clear that Zion's attention, and that of the poet, ultimately lies wholly elsewhere.

The insistence on the sheer fact of suffering, with little reference to its deservedness or merits, becomes even more apparent in chapter 2 of Lamentations. On the heels of Zion's utterances, which are densely packed with the presentation of pain, the poet's language changes significantly, leaving behind the interpretation of suffering in terms of guilt and placing the focus on the presentation of divine wrath and Zion's pain. In a stance similar to that of Zion, who in chapter 1 emphatically identified Yhwh as the source of destruction, the poet now portrays God as an enemy warrior in line after line. Verses 1-4, for example, are a poetic whirlwind of fire and wrath. Verse 1: Yhwh “in his wrath” has shamed Zion, and has forgotten his footstool “on the day of his wrath”. Verse 2: “In his fury” Yhwh has razed Judah's defenses. Verse 3: Yhwh has cut down “in blazing wrath” the horn of Israel, and has “burned against Israel like a blazing fire, consuming on all sides.” Verse 4: Yhwh pours out against Zion “his wrath like fire.” The English language is exhausted in an attempt to describe the destructive inferno unleashed by the Lord's anger.

With its double use of “swallowed up”, verse 5 serves as an introduction to the systematic dismantling of the city that follows. First, Yhwh eradicates the public institutions in verses 6-7, eliminating all public modes of access to the divine: Yhwh's “booth” and “(tent of) meeting” are destroyed, festivals and Sabbaths are ended, the altar and sanctuary are rejected, and the temple desecrated. Second, Yhwh demolishes the actual physical structures of the city in verses 8-9a: walls and ramparts languish, gates are sunk into the ground with their bars smashed to bits. Third, the conquered state of the inhabitants of the city is described in their abandonment by Yhwh in verses 9b-10: the king and the princes are exiled, the teachers of Torah are no more, the prophets receive no vision, the elders sit about in mourning, and the young women lower their heads to the ground. So while the opening speeches by the poet in both chapters 1 and 2 are similar in their description of misery, destruction, and death, there is a noticeable change in the poet's voice. Not only does the poet attribute the destruction to Yhwh in chapter 2, but any reference to the sin of Zion drops away. This change in the persona of the poet, as he begins to conform more and more to the speech of Zion, leads into the next element of the literature of survival that is manifested in Lamentations: the desire to persuade.


The description of pain in literature of survival exists, in the first instance, for its own sake. That is, such description needs no other validation than the fact and experience of the pain that has given rise to it. But in many cases, as I described above in chapter 1 [in Linafelt, Tod. Surviving Lamentations], literature of survival functions not only to describe but to persuade; the literature moves from the basic need to give voice to pain to the project of giving testimony or bearing witness. In this second function, description may serve an end beyond itself: that of drawing the reader, to the extent that it is possible to do so, into the experience of survival and to make the concerns of the survivor the concerns of the reader as well. Des Pres, once again, states this well:

In the literature of survival we find an image of things so grim, so heart-breaking, so starkly unbearable, that inevitably the survivor's scream begins to be our own. When this happens the role of the spectator is no longer enough.34

This desire to persuade is one of the most striking correspondences between Lamentations 1 and 2 and modern literature of survival, though the differences also must be kept in mind.

One significant difference between the book of Lamentations and modern literature of survival, in their respective tasks of persuasion, is the issue of whom they are trying to persuade. Insofar as modern literature of survival has a persuasive function, it is addressed to those who did not share the experience of suffering that it describes and who are not, for the most part, to be considered survivors. By contrast Lamentations, though also likely written by survivors of the destruction it describes, is written (at least originally) for other survivors as well. The status of Lamentations as liturgical poetry gives it a different initial rhetorical situation from modern literature of survival. The one whom these poems, as liturgical laments, are desperately trying to persuade is God.35 It is my argument that the task of persuasion is compounded in Lamentations 1 and 2 to an exceptional degree, both in the internal workings of the poetry and in their afterlife. One finds not only an appeal to Yhwh to see and to intervene to alleviate the suffering described but, failing that, the task of persuasion implicates in a remarkably self-referential way the persona of the poet. And as the history of interpretation shows, Lamentations does indeed get bound up with the persuasion of readers who did not share the original experience, whether or not such persuasion was on the horizon of its initial rhetorical situation. I argue as well that the survival of Zion's children occupies a privileged and critical role in this rhetoric of persuasion, representing a key to the literary and emotional structure of Lamentations 1 and 2. As the drive for life becomes more apparent in the shift in genre from the dirge to the lament and in the increasing emphasis on the function of persuasion, the drive for life also becomes more apparent in the content of Zion's lament. The laments of both Zion and the poet culminate in a concern for the lives of the children who are dying in the streets.

The subject of Zion's children is first raised in the poet's opening speech in chapter 1, where the fact that “infants have gone into captivity” (1:5) is presented as part of the third-person description of the destruction. Here it seems to hold no special place in the description. Zion's first extended speech in 1:12-16, however, comes to a rhetorical, and one could say an emotional, climax in her emphasis on the fate of her children. I refer to verse 16 (cited and translated above) as the rhetorical climax of her speech because it occurs there as the culmination of her accusation against God and is marked for emphasis as the point at which the poet breaks into her speech. I allude to the emotional aspect of the verse because it is here that Zion describes a sort of upheaval of passion: “For these things I weep … My eyes, my eyes! They stream with tears.” Given the lament's function of persuasion, the interruption of the poet coming just at this climactic point of the chapter is no accident. Zion has appealed to Yhwh twice (1:9 and 1:11), but the reader is given no indication of a response or a shift toward praise or a vow of confidence that might indicate a salvation oracle, that is, a sign that Yhwh has heard or intends to answer Zion.

Instead of some indication of the desired response from Yhwh, the reader meets in 1:17 the persona of the poet once again, thereby beginning the inscription of the rhetoric of persuasion but with the poet standing in for Yhwh as the one who is persuaded. The poet's language in verse 17 has begun to reflect, albeit subtly, the presence of the Zion persona in the poem. For example, in addition to the leitmotif of “none to comfort,” the poet repeats in verse 17 language that had previously clustered around the initial intrusion of Zion into the poem in 1:9c. While the enemy spread his hands over Zion's precious things in verse 10, it is now Zion who desperately spreads out her hands, perhaps in a futile attempt to protect herself or to find something that might keep her from falling. And while in verse 10 the invading army is presented as those whom Yhwh has commanded to not come in, in verse 17 the poet speaks of Yhwh commanding the enemy to surround Jacob. The persona of the poet has, of course, already been recruited to the task of witnessing to the destruction via his role as the speaker of the dirge in 1:1-11. Though making reference to the sin and guilt of the city, he nevertheless expresses genuine grief at the reversal of fate that Zion has experienced. As the genre of the poetry moves from dirge toward lament, the poet moves also from one who elegizes Zion to one who laments in solidarity with her and even attempts, albeit futilely, to provide the response to the lament that Zion is seeking. Using Des Pres's language, while it is wrong to say that the poet has been up until this point a “spectator,” it is true that as Zion's situation becomes “starkly unbearable” her scream begins to be the poet's scream as well. Only a hint of such a persuasion exists at this point, but it is a hint that gets fully developed in the larger movement of chapters 1 and 2. For example, although the poet's voice is given the most space in chapter 2, his speech becomes progressively more like the speech of Zion in chapter 1. As Westermann notes, the poet's description of misery in the first half of Lamentations 2, especially in its repeated portrayal of what “Yhwh has done,” corresponds closely to an accusation of God. Thus, the form of the poet's speech here has begun to resemble the form of the speech of Zion in chapter 1.

The intensification of personal, emotional speech on the part of the poet—in other words, his alignment with the experience of Zion—comes to a head in verses 11-12. Like the first chapter, this halfway point in the poem marks a climax and transition. In the face of the plight of Zion, the voice of the poet here expresses precisely the sort of emotional upheaval that we saw with the persona of Zion herself in 1:16.

My eyes are spent with tears,
          my stomach churns,
my bile is poured out on the ground,
          because of the brokenness of the daughter
          of my people,
broken over the children and the infants
          collapsing in the streets of the city.
They kept saying to their mothers,
          “Where is bread and wine?”
as they collapsed like the wounded
                    in the squares of the city,
as their lives ran out
                    in the bosoms of their mothers.


That the poet has been forcefully recruited to the plight of Zion is indicated by the way that his words, at this important juncture, echo closely the earlier words of Zion. Even as Zion's eyes flowed with tears (1:16), so the poet's eyes are spent with tears. The poet also employs the same phrase used by Zion in 1:20, “my stomach churns”, to describe his physical or emotional distress. The scream of Zion has, almost literally, become the scream of the poet. But most significantly, what magnifies the emotional register both for Zion in 1:16 and the poet in 2:11-12 is the image of children under threat. It may be that the passage under consideration not only portrays the poet's emotional state as similar to Zion's, but explicitly calls attention to the function of persuasion. Notice that the Hebrew particle (“because of”) in verse 11 introduces the causative clause that follows: it is because of the brokenness of Zion, here called the “daughter of my people,” that the persona of the poet is in such distress. What follows this line may well be another causative clause, introduced by the infinitive construct of the Hebrew term with a bet prefix (“collapsing”), which may be taken as a reference back to the cause of Zion's distress. On this reading, reflected in my translation above, a causal chain exists in the verse, in which the cause of the poet's distress is identified as the brokenness of Zion, and the cause of the brokenness of Zion is identified as the children collapsing like the wounded in the squares of the city. Thus it is Zion's presentation of the plight of her children that has recruited the poet so forcefully. Since the lament as a genre is concerned to get a response from God to the suffering it describes, the poet is modeling the response to Zion's lament that should come from God.

In a now-classic article on the theological implications of the Holocaust, Irving Greenberg has suggested the following as a working principle: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.”36 The force of Greenberg's criterion, of course, is to point up that no speech is adequate as an explanation of such suffering. Immediately following the emotional climax of 2:11-12, the poet of Lamentations comes to a similar conclusion in verse 13.

What can I say for you, to what can
          I compare you, daughter Jerusalem?
To what can I liken you,
          that I may comfort you, Daughter Zion?
For your breach is as vast as the sea—
          who could heal you?


For the first time in the book the poet acknowledges his own subjectivity. He speaks in the first person and refers in fact to his task as poet: to attempt to translate into language the suffering he sees. Also for the first time the poet makes explicit his dialogical relationship to the figure of Zion by addressing her in the second person. So the task of the poet is not only to search for language adequate to the destruction, but to do so in order to console Zion. Against his earlier statements that there was none to comfort her, the poet here explicitly attempts to fill the role of “comforter” (2:13b). With acute poignancy, however, the poet admits at the same time the futility of his attempts at consolation. The questions of verse 13 are rhetorical: only the inadequate can be said; only the inadequate comparison can be made; there is no healing for a breach as vast as the sea. The poet is caught in the survivor's dilemma. “But how is one to say, how is one to communicate that which by its very nature defies language? How is one to tell without betraying the dead, without betraying oneself?”37 To speak is to betray the memory of the dead, for all metaphors are wanting. To remain silent, however, is a worse betrayal: “[h]ence the vital necessity to bear witness.”38

One can hardly consider the poet's predicament in relation to twentieth-century survival literature without thinking of Theodor Adorno's famous remark from 1949 that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.39 After much literal-minded criticism of the remark, Adorno wrote the following in 1966:

Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living.40

So the poet continues, as even Adorno conceded must be done. His continued speech in 2:14-17 surveys the cast of characters and further elaborates Zion's destitute condition: the prophets are found wanting, as they prophesied only “emptiness and whitewash” (2:14); the passerby only clap and mock Jerusalem, reveling in her downfall (2:15); and the enemies, of course, jeer and gloat over their triumph (2:16). The poet comes finally in verse 17 to Yhwh, but the only one who might be able to comfort Zion is also the author of the wreckage and the drive behind the enemies' victory: “The Lord has done what he planned … he has torn down without pity … he has made your enemies gloat over you” (2:17).

Having taken up the cause of Zion, but able neither to find a comforter nor to comfort Zion adequately himself, the poet urges Zion, with a final intensification of rhetoric at the end of his speech, to cry out herself once more to Yhwh (2:18-19).

Cry out to the Lord from the heart,(41)
          wall of Daughter Zion.
Shed tears like a torrent,
          day and night!
Give yourself no rest,
          no relief for your eyes.
Rise up! Wail in the night,
          at the start of every watch.
Pour out your heart like water
          before the Lord.
Life your hands to him
                    for the lives of your infants,
who collapse from hunger
          at the corner of every street.

The poet has just exhausted the Hebrew language in an attempt to find enough metaphors to depict Yhwh the arch-warrior; yet it is this same Yhwh to whom Zion is to appeal.

This sort of appeal to the destroyer to become the one to heal is a conventional element in ancient Near Eastern laments. But can one see here what Westermann repeatedly calls a plea for “God's gracious intervention”?42 That is surely too benign a characterization. The notion of an abused and violated woman turning for help to her abuser, and the one who abused her children, should inspire in the modern reader something less than the notion of gracious intervention. Westermann is, even more than most biblical scholars, heavily invested in the form-critical judgment that lament is a stage through which the prayer moves on the way back to a restored relationship with God.43 Essential to Westermann's analysis of the structure of laments is the transition to a vow of praise (in the communal laments) or to praise itself (in the individual laments).44 In fact, Westermann identifies 2:18-19 explicitly with the move to praise found in psalmic laments: “Form-critically speaking, these lines correspond to the imperatively-worded summons to praise known from the Psalms.”45 Even Westermann, however, must admit that what we find in these verses, and in Zion's response in 2:20-22, is far from praise. So he judges that, “in terms of their content, these imperatives more closely resemble the call to wait patiently upon Yahweh.”46 But certainly this final section of chapter 2 no more advocates a patient waiting than it does a stance of praise toward Yhwh.

At this point, the project of reading for survival in Lamentations can be instructive once again. It is significant that there is no mention here of “comfort.” It is not inconceivable, as I note above, that in the context of ancient Near Eastern laments the destroyer could also be imagined as the potential comforter (see also for example Isa. 54:7-8). In Lamentations 3 one can identify a similar dynamic. In Lamentations 1 and 2, however, that is not what happens. Indeed, 2:13 tells the reader nothing if not that the very category of comfort has been called into question. Neither is there any indication in the poet's urging (or in Zion's response in 2:20-22) that a move to praise is on the horizon. No, the rhetorical move imagined by the poet is for Zion to affront Yhwh with the intolerable suffering of children, precisely on behalf of the children. As the chapter moves toward its close, what has become clearly at stake is neither a reconciled relationship with Yhwh nor the possibility of praise, but the very survival of the children who are dying in the street.

What makes the image of suffering children so important for the literary and emotional structure of Lamentations 1 and 2 is the way it works on both a literal and a figurative level. Children are, of course, among the literal victims of the destruction of a city and represent perhaps the most poignant image of such victims even in our time. The force of the image is compounded, however, by the poetic mode of personifying the city as a grieving mother. The children, while retaining the concrete and disturbing images associated with the destruction, also become “summary” figures for the totality of the city's losses. The privileged image of a mother's loss of children serves to express how devastating it is for a city to lose not only altar and sanctuary, but prophet, priest, and king, in addition to the citizens, young and old, of the city.

The subtle artistry of the poetry's emphasis on the image of children nicely sets off its more forceful rhetoric of 2:18-19. Thus for example the occurrence of the Leitwort “pour out” (Hebrew root:) at this critical point in the poem represents a nexus of interrelations between the characters. Indeed, it is possible to see each character defined by what he or she is said to pour out. Mother Zion is told to “pour out your heart like water … for the lives of your children.” In 2:12 it is precisely the “lives of the children” that are being “poured out in the bosoms of their mothers.” Moreover, in that same passage it is the pouring out of the children's lives that moves the poet to “pour out” his grief (2:11). In sharp contrast, when the word is used with Yhwh as the subject, it describes the pouring out of Yhwh's raging fire (2:4). This is a far cry from Westermann's “call to wait patiently upon Yahweh.” There is no pretension of reconciliation or praise here, but a central concern for the lives of the children. It is the threat to the children that led to Zion's breaking down into tears in 1:16, as well as the poet's brief interruption into Zion's speech in 1:17 where he first names Yhwh as the purveyor of destruction. It is also the perishing children that lead to the poet's own breakdown in 2:11. Perhaps, then, the lives of the children will be enough to move even Yhwh.

Chapter 2 closes with Zion responding to the poet's urging, culminating in the most accusatory passage in the book.

Look, O Lord, and pay attention to whom it is
that you have so ruthlessly afflicted!
Alas! Women are eating their offspring,
the children they have borne.


Zion employs the same imperative that she did in 1:11c in an attempt to command the attention of Yhwh and to gain the survival of her children. Translators have typically watered down the accusatory nature of the first line by rendering the second colon as “to whom you have done this” (JPSV; NRSV). But the Hebrew verb that is used here carries the much stronger force of “to afflict” or “to abuse” and may even imply capriciousness.47 In Judges 19:25, for example, the same verb is used to describe the fate of the Levite's concubine, where it is a parallel to the verb “rape.” In 1 Samuel 31:4 it is used by Saul to describe what he imagines the Philistines will do to him if he is caught, and it is here used in parallel to “run through” with a sword. In Job 16:15 it is used in the midst of a passage that describes God's rushing Job like a warrior, piercing his kidneys and showing no mercy, despite Job's protestations of innocence. The verb (pronounced ‘ôlaltā) is sardonically placed in Lamentations 2:20a in a parallel position with the similarly written and sounding noun (pronounced ‘ōlalê, “children,” 2:20b), thereby contrasting the ruthlessness of Yhwh with the suffering of children, and making clear that these are the ones whom Yhwh is afflicting.

Zion continues in the final section to elaborate on the suffering of the population: priest and prophet are slain in the sanctuary, old and young alike die in the streets, young women and young men are fallen by the sword. The function of children as summary figures, or symbolic condensations, of the entire population of the city is indicated by the bracketing of “priest and prophet” (2:20c) and “young and old” (2:21a) by the images of perishing children in 2:20a and 2:22c. This privileged image of loss surrounds the others, not in order to exceed them but rather to gather up and express the multiform dimensions of grief and loss to which the destruction of the city has given rise.

In the final lines of her speech, the persona of Zion employs ironically the language of the cult: after slaughtering her inhabitants, Yhwh invited people from all around, “as if on a feast-day” (2:22a). A feast does indeed take place, but it is a gruesome perversion of the cult that affronts the reader in the last line of verse 22: “those whom I bore and reared, the enemy has consumed!” Zion's final speech of 2:20-22, bounded at beginning and end by the cannibalizing of children, is the last we hear from her in the book of Lamentations. Her penultimate line (2:22b) rings fitting as a summary of Lamentations 1 and 2: “none survived or escaped.”


From the opening as a dirge, to the final, gripping lament of Zion, the first two chapters of Lamentations demonstrate in progressively stronger terms their status as literature of survival. As the elements of the dirge fall away in chapter 2, the drive for survival moves from the abstract to the concrete, culminating in the faces of the children of Zion. In this movement the poems also model the way in which the survivor attempts to recruit the detached observer, for there can be no doubt that Zion's scream, to use Des Pres's language, becomes the scream of the poet. Yet despite this increasingly stronger movement toward life, and despite the alignment of the poet with the experience of Zion and her lament for the lives of her children, the drive for survival is frustrated and the final verdict is one of death. Both Zion and the poet seem to have failed to affect the one who counts most, the one who is thought able to remove the suffering and save the children: God.

The book of Lamentations goes on of course, employing a number of rhetorical strategies to express the grief and anger—and, yes, the guilt and repentance—of the community and to elicit a response from God. Chapter 3 shifts to the persona of the “suffering man,” who presents a more submissive posture toward God. This male voice makes reference in 3:55-57 to a past in which the divine response was forthcoming:

I called on your name, O Lord,
                    from the depths of the pit.
You heard my plea; do not now cover your ear
          to my cry for help and relief.
You were near when I called you. You said, “Fear

There is never an indication, however, that such a “fear not” is on the present horizon. Even in chapter 3 the dominant tone is one of overwhelming pain and grief. Chapter 4 is closer in imagery and theme to chapters 1 and 2. It too begins with the exclamatory “Alas”, mixes elements of the dirge with the lament, describes the pitiful state of the ruined city, and mentions the threatened children of Zion (4:2-5). Yet the differences are striking. To begin with, while retaining the acrostic form only two lines are assigned to each letter of the alphabet, rather than the three assigned to each letter in chapters 1 and 2. More significantly, in chapter 4 there are no petitionary elements, no direct address to God, whatsoever. Nor does Zion ever emerge as a speaking subject in Lamentations 4, which consequently allows for no alternating of persona between Zion and the poet. In chapter 5, the final chapter, the acrostic form is missing altogether, though it seems to be reflected in the fact that there are twenty-two lines to the chapter. The chapter represents the purest instance of a communal lament in Lamentations, though the description of misery is unusually long (5:2-18). One finds in chapter 5, for just the briefest of moments, the theme of praise.

You, O Lord, will reign forever,
          enthroned from generation to generation.


But the flicker of praise is extinguished in the final three verses of the chapter. Here the community speaks in a first-person plural voice, addressing God directly. Lamentations ends with their plaintive appeal:

Why have you forgotten us utterly,
          forsaken us for so long?
Take us back, O Lord, to yourself, and we will come
          Renew our days as of old.
For if truly you have rejected us,
          bitterly raged against us …


The final phrase of verse 22 is a poignantly appropriate way to end the book, inscribing in its near undecidability the very lack of closure represented by God's nonresponse and the poetry's refusal to move beyond lament. As virtually all commentators note, it is difficult to know how to render the opening Hebrew phrase of 5:22, (kî’im), which may be literally translated as “for if.” Rudolph argues that it is possible to take the phrase as meaning “unless …,” implying that the possibility of what follows has been excluded.48 But such a use of kî’im occurs elsewhere only when preceded by a clause containing a negative statement. It has also been suggested that the line be read as a question: “Or have you totally rejected us? Are you indeed so angry with us?”49 But there is no evidence in the Bible of kî’im being used to introduce a question, nor is there any support for taking it to mean “or.” Another option, and apparently that chosen by the Septuagint and the Peshitta (ancient translations into Greek and Syriac, respectively), is to simply ignore or delete the particle ’im, thus rendering line as “for you have truly rejected us, bitterly raged against us.”

I want to propose here an alternative solution to the problem represented by this verse. It has often been noted that one might expect the phrase kî’im to introduce a conditional statement, but that the second colon of 5:22 does not seem to state the consequence of the first as would be expected in a true conditional statement.50 While this is true, it does not rule out the conditional nature of kî’im. Thus, I have chosen to translate the line as a conditional statement that is left trailing off, leaving a protasis without an apodasis, or an “if” without a “then.” The book is left opening out into the emptiness of God's nonresponse. By leaving a conditional statement dangling, the final verse leaves open the future of the ones lamenting. It is hardly a hopeful ending, for the missing but implied apodasis is surely negative, yet it does nevertheless defer that apodasis. And by arresting the movement from an “if” to a “then” the incomplete clause allows the reader, for a moment, to imagine the possibility of a different “then,” and therefore a different future.

The appeal in 2:20-22, like the appeals made by Zion and the poet in chapters 1 and 2, remains unanswered. The voice of Yhwh never sounds in the book of Lamentations; and as Westermann assures, before the move from lament to praise could be made, “first the most important thing had to occur: God's answer.”51 Without such an answer, or perhaps some indication of a salvation oracle, the book of Lamentations remains incomplete. It evidences what Derrida has called a “structural unfinishedness.” Nor is this incompletion easily imagined as one that is “carried to term,” to return to the epigraph by Edmond Jabès with which I began this [essay]. That is, it is not an incompletion that sits well with readers. It is not an incompletion that evokes assent and allows one to move on, as the history of interpretation shows, but is rather “a work that has come only halfway toward its always deferred completion.” Though the completion is deferred, its demand is not lessened; Zion's rhetoric of survival remains strong, even if unmet. So reader after reader has attempted to complete the incompletion by filling the void that exists in the place of Yhwh's response and by addressing Zion's anguished concern over the fate of her children. Within the borders of Lamentations Zion's children do not survive, but in moving beyond those borders, to the afterlife of this biblical text in other texts, survival becomes possible. And in moving beyond the borders of the book, one moves also from literature of survival to the survival of literature.


  1. Hermann Gunkel and Joachim Begrich, Einleitung in die Psalmen: Die Gattungen der religiösen Lyrik Israels (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1933), 136.

  2. The two examples of dirges over the death of individuals most often cited are David's elegies for Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:19-27) and for Abner (2 Sam. 3:33-34). Examples of the dirge form being used as an anticipatory oracle of the fate of a nation are found in the prophets (e.g., Amos 5:2; Ezek. 27:2-11; Isa. 14:4-21). On the “genre” (Gattung) of the dirge, see esp. Hedwig Jahnow, Das hebräische Leichenlied, 124-62; Otto Eissfeldt, The Old Testament: An Introduction, trans. Peter Ackroyd (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 94-98; and Westermann, Lamentations, 1-9.

  3. Jahnow, Das hebräische Leichenlied, 170-71.

  4. Ibid., 170.

  5. Gunkel and Begrich, Einleitung in die Psalmen, 397-403.

  6. Eissfeldt, The Old Testament, 501-2.

  7. Westermann, Lamentations, 118.

  8. Ibid., 148.

  9. See Provan, Lamentations, 34; Robin B. Salters, Jonah and Lamentations (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994), 102-3.

  10. Gottwald, Studies, 37.

  11. See Eissfeldt, The Old Testament, 501-2; Westermann, Lamentations, 117; Salters, Jonah and Lamentations, 102-3.

  12. While I speak of the interchange between the voice of Zion and the voice of the “poet,” I am aware that these are alternating literary personae within the poetry, both of which are obviously attributable to the poet-as-author. See W. Lanahan, “The Speaking Voice in the Book of Lamentations,” Journal of Biblical Literature 93 (1974): 41-49, for an insistence on maintaining this distinction. It is conventional for scholars to refer to the narrative voice as that of the poet, however, a convention that I find useful to retain, especially given the fact that this persona calls attention in 2:13 to the poetic task in which it is involved.

  13. Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1981), 266.

  14. The scribes who preserved the Hebrew texts of the Bible, in order to discourage the pronouncing of the holy proper name of Israel's God, preserved only the consonants y-h-w-h (known as the tetragrammaton), without the vowels necessary to pronounce the name. Following the convention of English translations, I will often render this proper name as “the Lord,” though sometimes I will also simply transliterate the four letters as “Yhwh.”

  15. Hillers (Lamentations, 88), citing a number of parallels in other ancient Near Eastern literature, writes that “this sale of members of the family is a stage preceding the final horror, cannibalism.” This judgment is correct, but I think it misses the deeper layer of foreshadowing in 1:11, that there is already a hint of cannibalism in the giving of the children for/as food.

  16. On the form-critical designation “accusation against God” (Anklage Gottes), see Westermann, Praise and Lament, 176-77; Westermann, Lamentations, 91-93.

  17. See Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, vol. 14, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1954); Jacques Derrida, “By Force of Mourning,” Critical Inquiry 22 (1996): 171-92. …

  18. I will consider more closely the content of 1:12-16 below. In the present section I am primarily concerned with the generic slippage it represents.

  19. For example, the statement that Jerusalem has become “unclean” may indicate the impurity associated with a corpse (cf. Numbers 19:11-20 for such a usage).

  20. I am taking the Hebrew term as an example of the asseverative kaph, which as Gordis (The Song of Songs and Lamentations, 159) points out was recognized by medieval Jewish commentators but largely ignored by moderns. On this reading the sense of is not “like death,” but “there is death.”

  21. For a discussion of these form-critical elements in laments, see esp. Westermann, Lamentations, 136-37; Ferris, Genre of Communal Lament, 136-47.

  22. Jorge Semprun, The Long Voyage, trans. R. Seaver (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1963), 71.

  23. Jean Améry, At the Mind's Limit, 68, 71 (emphasis in original).

  24. Westermann; Lamentations, 148.

  25. This mixture of life and death, of dirge and lament, is also present in the Mesopotamian city laments, in which the city is presented as destroyed and is the subject of a dirge, but in which the goddess of the city is presented as alive and the speaking subject of a lament in the hope of getting a response from the divine assembly. In the biblical Book of Lamentations, however, the destroyed city and the lamenting goddess have been combined into one figure, thus more pointedly introducing the paradox of survival. On the Mesopotamian city laments and their relationship to Lamentations, see esp. Dobbs-Allsopp, Weep, O Daughter of Zion.

  26. Des Pres, The Survivor, 42.

  27. I leave out the initial Hebrew phrase of the verse, though I admit this is not a completely satisfactory solution to the perennial problem it has presented translators. Nevertheless, the words do represent an anacrusis, falling outside the 3:2 meter of the rest of the verse. Obviously they are an interjection, though whether originally directed by Zion to the passersby (and thus original to the text) or by an editor to the reader (and thus a gloss that has made its way into the text) seems finally undecidable.

  28. The Masoretic text's (niśqad ‘ōl pešā‘ay) has proven very perplexing for commentators throughout the centuries. Hillers, Lamentations, 73, proposes emending the phrase slightly to read (nišqad ‘al peśā‘ay), resulting in the statement that “watch is kept over my steps.” The emendation makes good sense in the context of 1:14, though the evidence he marshals for it is by no means definitive. It nevertheless points to the difficulty of reading the Masoretic text as it stands.

  29. The figure of Zion refers to her children as, the sense of which is difficult to capture when applied to people (cf. 2 Sam. 13:20 and Isa. 54:1) rather than to land or cities (cf. Jer. 18:16 and Isa. 54:3). When applied to cities the term implies “desertion,” and perhaps the connotation here is something like “my children are as if deserted” (i.e., because taken into exile away from their mother). That is probably narrowing the sense too much, however, and I have settled on “ravage,” which carries a broader meaning and retains the terror of violence demanded by the context.

  30. Hillers, Lamentations, 75.

  31. Compare, e.g., 2 Kings 4:19, “my head, my head!”, and Jer. 4:19, “my anguish, my anguish!”. On the basis of these examples, it seems that Westermann (Lamentations, 113) is mistaken in his assertion that such doubling indicates emphasis “only in the case of verbal forms.”

  32. Des Pres, The Survivor, 44.

  33. Westermann, Lamentations, 135-36 (emphasis in original).

  34. Des Pres, The Survivor, 49.

  35. On this aspect of the lament, see esp. Westermann, The Psalms: Structure, Content, and Message (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1980), 35-43; Westermann, Praise and Lament, 265-80; Patrick D. Miller, They Cried to the Lord: The Form and Theology of Biblical Prayer (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 135-77.

  36. Irving Greenberg, “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity after the Holocaust,” in Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era? ed. E. Fleischner (New York: Ktav, 1977), 23.

  37. Elie Wiesel, A Jew Today (New York: Random House, 1978), 235.

  38. Ibid.

  39. Theodor Adorno, Prisms, trans. S. Weber (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981), 30.

  40. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 362-63.

  41. I take the mem of … as functioning adverbially, yielding the sense of “from the heart.” So also Thomas F. McDaniel, “Philological Studies in Lamentations, II,” Biblica 49 (1968): 203-4; Dobbs-Allsopp, Weep, O Daughter of Zion, 34.

  42. The phrase is Westermann's, used repeatedly in his Lamentations, 127, 130, 140.

  43. For summaries of this position, see Samuel Balentine, Prayer in the Hebrew Bible: The Drama of Divine-Human Dialogue (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 148-50; Miller, They Cried to the Lord, 55-57.

  44. Westermann, The Psalms, 29-51; Westermann, Praise and Lament, 52-64.

  45. Westermann, Lamentations, 156.

  46. Ibid., 157.

  47. So, for example, in the standard Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew lexicon.

  48. Wilhelm Rudolph, Die Klagelieder (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1962), 258.

  49. So Westermann, Lamentations, 210; following Max Löhr, Der Klagelieder des Jeremias (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1906), 31-32; and others.

  50. So Hillers, Lamentations, 160; Provan, Lamentations, 133; and others.

  51. Westermann, The Psalms, 42.

Kathleen M. O'Connor (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5094

SOURCE: O'Connor, Kathleen M. “The Book of Lamentations.” In The New Interpreter's Bible: Volume VI, pp. 1013-24. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, O'Connor examines the historical setting, authorship, liturgical uses, and literary features of the Book of Lamentations, calling the work “a literary jewel and a rich resource for theological reflection and worship.”]


Lamentations is a searing book of taut, charged poetry on the subject of unspeakable suffering. The poems emerge from a deep wound, a whirlpool of pain, toward which the images, metaphors, and voices of the poetry can only point. It is, in part, the rawness of the hurt expressed in the book that has gained Lamentations a secure, if marginal, place in the liturgies of Judaism and Christianity. Its stinging cries for help, its voices begging God to see, its protests to God who hides behind a cloud—all create a space where communal and personal pain can be reexperienced, seen, and perhaps healed. Although the book of Lamentations is short, containing only five poems, it is a literary jewel and a rich resource for theological reflection and worship. Indeed, its recovery in our communal lives could lead to a greater flourishing of life amid our own wounds and the woundedness of the world.


A short collection of five poems, Lamentations is a poetic response to a national tragedy. Its poems reflect conditions following the invasion and collapse of the nation, particularly of its capital city, and of the destruction of economic and social life among the citizenry. A long-standing and firm tradition of interpretation places the book in the period following Babylonian military assaults on Judah in 597, 587, and 582 bce.

Iain Provan, however, has disputed the traditional dating and location of the book.1 He claims that there is insufficient evidence to tie the book firmly to this or to any other precise historical period. Not only are the poems metaphoric and the language elusive, but also the author as a poet writes with great power in ways that do not represent particular events but simply evoke them. In Provan's view, other invasions and destructions of Jerusalem could equally have produced the conditions that gave birth to this literature.

The helpful conclusion to be drawn from Provan's refreshing academic heresy is that the biblical text need not be tied to a particular historical setting to be moving and effective literature. By severing the book from precise historical connections, the interpreter quickly enables the book to serve as a metaphor that may illuminate many different situations of intense pain and suffering. Provan does not succeed, however, in dislodging Lamentations completely from the Babylonian era. Though he is correct about the paucity of evidence explicitly connecting the book to this time, he does not credit the traditional interpretations that locate the book in Palestine after the Babylonian invasion. If the invasion of Judah and Jerusalem is not the precise tragedy underlying Lamentations, then it is at least a central catastrophe in Israel's history that provides an illuminating backdrop for understanding the fury, grief, and disorientation that this book expresses.

In the aftermath of the Babylonian invasions of Jerusalem, survivors would have wondered whether they could continue to survive as a people. Leading families had been deported to Babylon; the king's palace, the Temple, and the city walls had been razed. A long siege of the city had left many dead, ill, and suffering from famine. Along with overwhelming physical and social devastation came the collapse of the community's entire theological and symbolic world. The words of the prophets and the promises to Abraham and to David had turned empty. Where was the God who promised to dwell with them in Zion, to be with the house of David forever? Where was the God who brought them to the land of promise? How had God contributed to the devastation of their world?

Whether the Babylonian invasion actually occasioned the writing and composition of this book or whether later tradition emerged from reflection on the book in the light of the nation's fall and assigned it to that time and place cannot be known for certain. But the traditional connections of Lamentations with the fall of Jerusalem and Judah to Babylon indicate the way the book served the community. The book came to be seen as an expression of grief and outrage at heart-stopping tragedy—and the tragedy that provoked its composition was massive.


One of the reasons for the traditional dating of Lamentations to the Babylonian period is because tradition has also held that the prophet Jeremiah was its author. The Hebrew or Masoretic Text (MT) does not name any author, but the later Septuagint (LXX) translation adds an interpretive opening line. After the captivity of Israel and the desolation of Jerusalem, “Jeremiah sat weeping and lamented this lamentation over Jerusalem.”

Other features of the book associate it with Jeremiah. The speaker in Lam 3:52-54 portrays his captivity in terms that vaguely resemble Jeremiah's captivities in the court of the guard in Jer 37:11-21 and 38:1-13. Jeremiah's own reputation is that of the weeping prophet, and hence, the spirit of Lamentations accords with some of his gloomy prophecy.

Jeremiah is the author of Lamentations in a symbolic sense but probably not in a literal sense. Authorship in the ancient world did not follow modern customs. In order to bring books under the aura of heroes and their moral authority, writings were often ascribed to them. Despite loose thematic and metaphorical connections between Lamentations and the book of Jeremiah, numerous features of Lamentations argue against his authorship, not the least of which is the fact that many positions in Lamentations appear to contradict Jeremiah's prophecies.2

Just as there is inadequate data to determine Jeremiah's possible role in the production of the book, so also no clear consensus has emerged regarding how many authors were involved in composing the poems. The work of one poet or several may be gathered here. This commentary does not attempt to decide these questions but assumes a unity of material in the book's present form.

The Masoretic Text separates Lamentations from Jeremiah and places Lamentations among the Writings, though that position has varied.3 Hebrew practice places Lamentations among the Megillot, or five liturgical scrolls. By contrast, the LXX, which asserts Jeremianic authorship, also places Lamentations after the prophetic books, sometimes directly following Jeremiah and sometimes with the book of Baruch intervening between them. In addition to the MT and the LXX, there is a later Aramaic version, or targum, that translates the text in a midrashic manner to highlight and expand religious aspects of the Hebrew text.4


Lamentations holds a special place in liturgical services of Judaism and Christianity. The Jewish community reads the Lamentation scroll on the ninth of Ab. That date commemorates five calamities, including the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. The liturgical atmosphere for the reading is like a public funeral, and the text may be chanted.5

Christians use selections of Lamentations during Holy Week services in the recitation of Tenebrae and Good Friday liturgies. Christians lament the death of Jesus, their own sins, and, symbolically, their own eventual deaths. Beyond these special liturgical occasions, however, Lamentations is largely ignored in public worship, in preaching, and for meditative use. Many factors may contribute to this neglect of Lamentations, including its troubling content of relentless grief and anger and the predominance of denial in the dominant culture of North America.


Poetic beauty, dramatic power, and puzzling ambiguities converge in Lamentations. The book's artfulness gives it the capacity to draw readers into the overwhelming human struggles portrayed in the poems and to embroil readers in unanswerable questions. Alphabetical and formal structures, mixtures of voices, and the relationship of the five poems to each other contribute to the book's intense and terrible potency and raise key issues in its interpretation. These features overlap in interpretation, and decisions about form and voice contribute to the understanding of the relationships of the poems to each other.6

First, each of the five poems draws on the lament form and is built in some way upon the Hebrew alphabet, but within that framework are wide variations in form and structure. Second, a number of different voices or poetic speakers appear within and across the poems. Third, the relationships among the five poems are complex and strongly debated by modern interpreters, but readers must account for them in determining the book's purposes. What hangs in the balance in this decision are the purposes of the book and the status of hope in the book. Is the third, and only hopeful, poem the book's “monumental center,”7 or is hope swallowed up by the doubt and despair of the surrounding poems?

By their very presence, these literary dilemmas prevent swift resolution and easy dismissal of the enormous sense of abandonment and injustice expressed in these poems. The book's literary puzzles, its mixtures of forms, voices, and unevenly shaped poems may give evidence of deliberate crafting, a chiseling and polishing of words, images, and poetic forms that draw readers into a maelstrom and force them to find their own way out.


The Hebrew alphabet contributes to the structuring of the book's individual poems in two ways. First, the book's first four poems are acrostics. They are written in alphabetical order so that each verse or line begins with a sequential letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The poem in chapter 3 intensifies the acrostic form by including three lines in each verse that begin with the same alphabetical letter.8

The second way the alphabet structures the poems concerns their length. In accordance with the twenty-two lines of the Hebrew alphabet, all five poems contain twenty-two lines or multiples thereof. The first three poems are each sixty-six lines long. The fourth poem contains only forty-four lines, and the fifth, and only non-acrostic, poem contains only twenty-two lines. While the poems gain from alphabetical structuring, the diversity of their relationships to the alphabet indicates tensions among them. Each poem stands freely on its own, but how do they relate to each other?

The acrostic form itself has been the subject of much scrutiny. What are the purposes of poetic alphabetizing? Acrostics may have been used for aesthetic purposes,9 to show off the poet's skill, or as an aid to memory.10 Mnemonic purposes alone, however, do not explain acrostic use, since there are many poems in the Hebrew Bible but few acrostics.11 More evocative and symbolic purposes may better explain the use of the alphabet in Lamentations. Acrostics impose order and organization on shapeless chaos and unmanageable pain, and they imply that the suffering depicted in the poems is total. Nothing can be added to it, for suffering extends from “to” (aleph to taw).

Whatever the motivation for their use, however, Daniel Grossberg observes that acrostics impose unity upon various voices, images, and perspectives within the individual poems.12 Heater observes that the acrostics divide the content of the poems with the middle letters of the Hebrew alphabet.13

Besides their alphabetical structures, the poems in Lamentations also draw on lament forms and funeral dirges and, in particular, on the lament over the fallen city.14 Laments abound in the Bible and in the literature of the ancient Near East. The book of Psalms contains communal laments that speak in the plural voice of the community, and individual laments in the voice of a single person.15 Laments are prayers of protest, complaint, and grief over a disaster, and with great passion they appeal to God for deliverance. They arise from faith in the power and willingness of God to save. They insist that the world is an open system in which divine intervention is always possible.

The lament over the city was a common literary form in the ancient Near East. Mesopotamian city laments, for example, exhibit some common features with Lamentations, including their somber mood at the destruction, themes of divine abandonment and involvement in the destruction, descriptions of calamity, massive weeping, as well as the use of poetic devices of many voices or personas, personification of the city, and marked reversals in the city's fate.16

Lamentations, however, significantly adapts the Mesopotamian form. It transfers the Mesopotamian treatment of the city's patron goddess to the figure of personified Jerusalem. Goddesses were heavenly patrons of their city, but they were powerless to prevent destruction caused by other gods and often wept over the city's destruction.17 In Lamentations, Jerusalem is personified as a female, but she is merely a city, not a goddess. The many similarities between the city laments and Lamentations indicate that the biblical book emerged from a world that possessed common artistic forms for the expression of grief, rage, and protest.

Interlaced with lament forms in the book are themes typical of the funeral dirge. These include a mournful cry for the one who has died, a proclamation of death, contrast with previous circumstances of the dead person, and the reaction of bystanders.18 When the poet or poets of Lamentations sought to give expression to the unspeakable pain their community endured, they drew on the repertoire of form, imagery, and metaphor available in the ancient world. From this familiar and traditional raw material, they created a complex artistic expression in the interplay of acrostic, lament, and dirge.


One of Lamentations' most effective literary devices is its use of different speakers.19 Multiple poetic voices interweave, overlap, and contradict each other. The speakers are literary creations who offer testimony in the thick of catastrophe. Voices of a narrator, Daughter Zion, an unidentified man, and the community lament, protest, and attempt to cope with the tragedy they have survived. The book is dramatized speech.

A narrator, an omniscient third-person reporter, appears in chapters 1, 2, and 4. In the first two chapters he introduces and comments upon the circumstances and words of Daughter Zion, who appears only in the first two chapters. She is the city of Jerusalem, personified as a woman, a princess, a lover, a widow, a daughter, and above all, a mother. The principal speaker in chapter 3 is a man, a shamed and humiliated captive, entrapped and reaching for hope. The voice of the community appears briefly in chapters 3 and 4 but takes over in speech directed to God in chapter 5.

The interplay of these voices allows the book to approach the massive suffering of the destroyed city from many viewpoints. The city itself becomes a person, weeping over its pain, screaming for aid, and protesting its deplorable conditions. The defeated man in chapter 3 grasps for hope, but in chapters 4 and 5 his words are quickly replaced by dour accounts of suffering from the narrator and the community. Westermann observes that the speakers are not individuals but “are at the same time both lamenters and the lamented.”20 They signify the destroyed city and its citizens. Each voice articulates the pain of the community.

The personification of Jerusalem as Daughter Zion, or “Daughter of Zion,”21 has an ancient tradition that receives further development in Lamentations. The ancient world commonly understood cities as female and personified them as divine wives of the resident god. Biblical representations of Daughter Zion draw on these depictions but do not understand the city as a deity. In Lamentations, the personified city is the punished wife of Yahweh, who fulfills all the prophecies against her in the books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea.22

Female personification of Jerusalem and Judah in Lamentations comes with strong associations that lend themselves to poetry of woundedness and grief and shame. Daughter Zion is a woman with a past, a disastrous present, and no future. Mintz observes, “The serviceableness of Jerusalem as an abandoned fallen woman lies in the precise register of pain it articulates.”23 In contrast to the dead, whose sufferings are finished, the defiled woman who survives is a living witness to pain that knows no end.

Missing from the poetic voices in Lamentations is the voice of God. The missing voice looms over the book. The speakers refer to God, call for help, ask God to look, accuse God of hiding from them, of attacking and forgetting them—but God never responds. The speakers interpret, provide motives for, and attack the absent one, but God never steps into the sound studio. Thick, soundproof walls bar the suffering voices from the one who caused their suffering and the only one they believe can comfort them, save them, and stop the suffering. Unlike Job, who receives a divine response to his protestations, the suffering characters in this book never gain an audience. Why is God silent? No simple answer to this question emerges.


How the five poems with their diverse voices and viewpoints and their varied alphabetic structures fit together and interact is the major issue in the book's interpretation. Until recently, many interpreters, both Christian and Jewish, claimed that chapter 3 is the book's literary and theological center.24 There are good reasons for such an interpretive decision. Located in the middle of the book, chapter 3 intensifies the acrostic form and expresses hope in an extended way to suggest that the triumph of hope over suffering is the book's main point.

Despite its midpoint location, however, chapter 3 is not bordered by symmetrically composed poems to clinch such an interpretive decision. The poems that precede chapter 3 do not match the poems that follow it in length or form. Instead, chapters 4 and 5 grow shorter, and the acrostic form disappears altogether in chapter 5. These formal variations create a lopsided structure of the whole, leading some interpreters to think that hope is drowned by the reality of suffering and by a silent God.

William Shea suggested that the book's asymmetrical shape imitates the rhythmic pattern found in funeral dirges in ancient Israel, called the “limping,” or qînâ, meter.25 This rhythmic pattern contains three long beats and two short ones. In Shea's analogy, the shortening of the poems and the disappearance of the acrostic form in the latter part of Lamentations construct an ending that drifts off, like the funeral dirge, in grief without resolution. The rhythmical pattern dies away “because it was written in remembrance of Jerusalem, the city that died away.”26

Although the presence of this meter as a structuring device in the book is far from certain, since Shea transfers a meter found in single lines to five poems, his suggestion is provocative. His treatment of the book that decenters the importance of chapter 3 and its expressions of hope has found strong development in recent interpretation. Linafelt, Dobbs-Alsopp, and Provan deemphasize chapter 3 for a variety of reasons and point to the book's movement toward protest and doubt rather than faith and reconciliation.27

Linafelt identifies a number of interpretive biases that have led interpreters to find chapter 3 to be the book's hermeneutical key. These biases include preference for the male voice of the “strong man,” Christian identification of the figure in chapter 3 with Christ, and preference for interpretation that favors human reconciliation with God through repentance.28 But hope does not triumph in the book; it is merely one point of view, more tenuously arrived at even in chapter 3 than commentators have admitted. What the book offers instead of resolute hope, confidence, and reconciliation with God are “intersecting perspectival discourses,”29 speeches that move across trauma, rage, hope, doubt, and tired dismay. No single speaker, no particular viewpoint silences the others. Instead, multiple speakers try to find expression for grief, “to articulate the inexpressible, and turn death into beauty.”30

The poems try to house grief in familiar and ordered language commonly found in other biblical laments. But these poems in Lamentations use traditional lament language in ways that are gripping and concrete. Within the poems the same Hebrew roots and sounds appear, get repeated, disappear, and reappear.31 Provan observes that the language is metaphorical, imagistic, and conventional, rather than representational.32 The book is not trying to mimic reality but to evoke and re-create the suffering of the community. The poems are masterpieces of artistic intricacy in which the speakers hammer out their pain in rhythms and circles of sorrow. Ultimately the poems cannot build a shelter for grief and rage. Landy proposes that the poetry conveys its own inadequacy to the task by fading out in a whimper and in an effectual cry for revenge.33


A brief sampling of the artistic appropriations of Lamentations shows the potency of Lamentations in new contexts. Musicians have employed its lyrics for liturgical music and for more general compositions. In the sixteenth century, Thomas Tallis set “The Lamentations of Jeremiah” to music, and in the twentieth century Pablo Casals did likewise in “O Vos Omnes,” known in English as “O Ye People.” For Lent of 1956, Hungarian composer Lajos Bardos wrote a musical setting for eight verses of chapter 5 to lament national shame, entrapment, and guilt during the Soviet occupation of Hungary. Leonard Bernstein wrote a “Jeremiah” symphony that uses Lamentations, and Igor Stravinsky composed “Threni” in 1958.

Although Polish composer Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3 has no direct connection with the book of Lamentations, the symphony is a haunting lament that employs lyrics of great sadness in the form of testimony from a prison wall and of a mother's lament for her disappeared child. In the exquisite sorrow of its music, this work expresses communal heartbreak at the unspeakable horrors of the twentieth century. The work's surprising popularity among classical music lovers in the United States may witness to the stored-up sorrow and unspoken anger in the general culture.

Among literary reincarnations of Lamentations two works demand attention. One is a short memoir by Naomi Seidman, “Burning the Book of Lamentations,” in which Seidman yearns for the end of lamenting and for the day all Jews can burn laments forever. The other is a work of fiction by Cynthia Ozick entitled The Shawl: A Story and Novella, in which Daughter Zion's loss of her children is reenacted in a mother's exceedingly tragic loss of her small daughter in a concentration camp.34

A painting by Rembrandt, entitled The Prophet Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. For the Union Church of Pocantico Hills, New York, Marc Chagall created a small jewel of a stained-glass window of Jeremiah, whom he identified by referring to Lam 3:1-3. Fritz Eichenberg's etching of The Lamentations of Jeremiah pictures a man in chains, a woman clutching a baby, and a small child clinging to the captured man.35


Because the Hebrew Bible names its books by their first word or words, the Hebrew title of Lamentations is (Seper ’Êkâ), literally “the book of How.”36 (’Êkâ) is an exclamation of shock that means “how” or “alas,” and should, perhaps, be pronounced with a catch in the voice or with a gasp: “How lonely lies the city upon the hill!” (Lam 1:1). Seidman suggests that behind the declarative how of the title lurks an interrogative “how” that questions the means and even the possibility of telling about this unspeakable catastrophe.37 The opening exclamation of pity and astonishment hangs over the entire book and reappears as the first word of chapters 2 and 4. In the literal rendering of the title, “How,” as opposed to “Lamentations,” which derives from the Greek translation (Thrēnoi), Jean-Marc Droin finds a close approximation to the book's meaning. In his view, Lamentations is a quest for understanding in disaster more than simply a sorrowful lament.38 But a lamentation, by its very nature, is also a complaint, a protest, as well as a search for meaning.

Linafelt calls Lamentations a brutal book,39 a book that assaults us, and it surely does, even in the violence-laden climate of media, entertainment, and the streets. But the book's unmitigated violence, its expression of loneliness, abandonment, and suffering, its descriptions of death, of helplessness, of the suffering of women, children, the elderly, all have a contemporaneity to them. The poems evoke an outer world and portray an inner landscape known to many contemporary people. The book's very brutality makes it a comfort, a recognition in its metaphorical construction of the way things are for many people. The book functions as a witness to pain, a testimony of survival, and an artistic transformation of dehumanizing suffering into exquisite literature. In the process, it raises profound questions about the justice of God.


  1. Iain Provan, Lamentations, NCB (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 7-19.

  2. Delbert Hillers, Lamentations, AB 7A (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972) xxi-xxii.

  3. Ibid., xvii.

  4. Etan Levine, The Aramaic Version of Lamentations (New York: Hermon, 1976); Shaye J. D. Cohen, “The Destruction from Scripture to Midrash,” Prooftexts 2 (1982) 1-17.

  5. Levine, The Aramaic Version of Lamentations, 13.

  6. Alan Mintz, “The Rhetoric of Lamentations and the Representation of Catastrophe,” in Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature, ed. G. A. Buttrick et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984) 19-48; reprinted from Prooftexts 2 (1982) 1-17.

  7. Ibid., 33.

  8. In chaps. 2-4 the alphabet is disturbed, reversing the usual ‘ayin-pê order, but this may indicate that the alphabet itself was not yet stable. See Frank Moore Cross, “Studies in the Structure of Hebrew Verse: The Prosody of Lamentations 1:1-22,” in The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth, ed. Carol L. Meyers and M. O'Connor (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1984) 148.

  9. Claus Westermann, Lamentations: Issues and Interpretation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994) 99.

  10. N. Gottwald, Studies in the Book of Lamentations, SBT (Chicago: Alec R. Allenson, 1954) 26-28.

  11. Other acrostics in the Hebrew Bible include Psalms 9-10; 25; 34; 37; 111-12; 119; 145; Prov 31:10-31; and Nah 1:2-8.

  12. Daniel Grossberg, Centripetal and Centrifugal Structures in Biblical Poetry, SBLMS 39 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989) 84-85.

  13. Homer Heater, Jr., “Structure and Meaning in Lamentations,” BSac 149 (1992) 304-15.

  14. Claus Westermann, Lamentations: Issues and Interpretation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994) 1-23; F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, Weep, O Daughter of Zion: A Study of the City-Lament Genre in the Hebrew Bible, BibOr 44 (Rome: Editrice Pontifico Istituto Biblico, 1993); Paul Wayne Ferris, The Genre of Communal Lament in the Bible, SBLDS 127 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992); Norman K. Gottwald, “The Book of Lamentations Reconsidered,” in The Hebrew Bible and Its Social World and in Ours, ed. Norman K. Gottwald, SBLSS (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993) 165-73.

  15. See Patrick Miller, They Cried to the Lord: The Form and Theology of Biblical Prayer (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994) 68-134.

  16. Dobbs-Allsopp, Weep, O Daughter of Zion, 29-96.

  17. J. J. M. Roberts, “The Motif of the Weeping God in Jeremiah and Its Background in the Lament Tradition of the Ancient Near East,” Old Testament Essays 5 (1992) 361-74.

  18. Westermann, Lamentations, 1-23.

  19. William F. Lanahan, “The Speaking Voice in the Book of Lamentations,” JBL 93 (1974) 41-49.

  20. Westermann, Lamentations, 140.

  21. F. W. Dobbs-Alsopp, “The Syntagma of bat Followed by a Geographical Name in the Hebrew Bible: A Reconsideration of Its Meaning and Grammar,” CBQ (1995) 451-70.

  22. Julie Galambush, Jerusalem in the Book of Ezekiel: The City as Yahweh's Wife, SBLDS 130 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992) 25-59; Dobbs-Alsopp, Weep, O Daughter of Zion, 75-91; A. R. Pete Diamond and Kathleen M. O'Connor, “Unfaithful Passions: Coding Women, Coding Men in Jeremiah 2-3 (4:2), Biblical Interpretation (1996) 288-310; Elaine Follis, “The Holy City as Daughter,” in Directions in Biblical Hebrew Poetry, ed. Elaine Follis, JSOTSup 40 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1987) 173-84; Renita J. Weems, Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets, OBT (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995).

  23. Alan Mintz, “The Rhetoric of Lamentations and the Representation of Catastrophe,” in Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature, ed. G. A. Buttrick et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984) 24.

  24. Norman K. Gottwald, “The Book of Lamentations Reconsidered,” in The Hebrew Bible in Its Social World and in Ours, SBLSS (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993) 165-73; Delbert Hillers, Lamentations, AB 7A (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972) XVI; Mintz, “The Rhetoric of Lamentations and the Representation of Catastrophe,” 33.

  25. William H. Shea, “The qînāh Structure of the Book of Lamentations,” Bib 60 (1979) 103-7.

  26. Ibid., 107.

  27. Tod Linafelt, “Surviving Lamentations: A Literary-Theological Study of the Afterlife of a Biblical Text” (Ph.D. diss., Emory University, 1997); F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, Weep, O Daughter of Zion: A Study of the City Lament Genre in the Hebrew Bible, BibOr 44 (Rome: Editrice Pontifico Istituto Biblico, 1993) 22-24; Iain Provan, Lamentations, NCB (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991).

  28. Linafelt, “Surviving Lamentations,” 6-25.

  29. Burke O'Connor Long, Planting and Reaping Albright: Politics, Ideology and Interpreting the Bible (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).

  30. Francis Landy, “Lamentations,” in The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1987) 329.

  31. Frank Moore Cross, “Studies in the Structure of Hebrew Verse: The Prosody of Lamentations 1:1-22,” in The Word of the Lord Shall God Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman, ed. Carol L. Meyers and M. O'Connor, ASOR (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1983) 129-55.

  32. Provan, Lamentations, 13.

  33. Landy, “Lamentations,” 329.

  34. Cynthia Ozick, The Shawl: A Story and a Novella (New York: Knopf, 1981). Linafelt, “Surviving Lamentations,” studies the story as a “survival” of the biblical book.

  35. Fritz Eichenberg: Works of Mercy, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1992).

  36. See Naomi Seidman, “Burning the Book of Lamentations,” in Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible, ed. Christian Buchmann and Celina Spiegel (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994) 282.

  37. Ibid., 282.

  38. Jean-Marc Droin, Le Livre des Lamentations: “Comment?” Une Traduction et un commentaire, La Bible, porte-Parole (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1995).

  39. Linafelt, Surviving Lamentations, 2.

Works Cited


Hillers, Delbert. Lamentations. AB 7A. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972. A nontechnical commentary intended for the general audience. Includes a lengthy introduction on text-critical and translation issues, and brief discussions of interpretation and contemporary application.

Provan, Iain. Lamentations. NCB. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991. A brief commentary based on the RSV that emphasizes translation and text-critical issues; limited attention is given to issues of theology and interpretation.

Westermann, Claus. Lamentations: Issues and Interpretation. Translated by Charles Muenchow. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994. An excellent, concise introduction to Lamentations by one of the twentieth century's leading interpreters of both the lament form and the book of Lamentations. Analyzes the ancient Near Eastern origins of laments, reviews the history of twentieth-century Lamentations research, discusses interpretive methodology, provides commentary, and explores the theological significance of Lamentations.

Specialized Studies:

Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W. Weep, O Daughter of Zion: A Study of the City Lament Genre in the Hebrew Bible. BibOr 44. Rome: Editrice Pontifico Istituto Biblico, 1993. An interpretation of Lamentations in the light of ancient Mesopotamian laments for the destruction of a great city.

Gottwald, Norman K. “The Book of Lamentations Reconsidered.” In The Hebrew Bible in Its Social World and Ours. SBLSS. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993. Takes the measure of literary, tradition-historical, redactional, and sociological contributions to the study of Lamentations written since Gottwald's earlier work.

———. Studies in the Book of Lamentations. Chicago: Alec R. Allenson, 1954. A technical discussion of Lamentations' acrostic form, genre, theology, and significance as a unified response to a specific historical event.

Further Reading

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Hillers, Delbert R. Introduction to Lamentations: A New Translation, pp. xv-xli. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972.

Offers a comprehensive overview of the Book of Lamentations, including a discussion of its origins and structure.

O'Connor, Kathleen M. “Lamentations” in The Women's Bible Commentary, edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, pp.178-82. Lousiville: Ky., John Knox Press, 1992.

Examines the role of women in the Book of Lamentations.

Salters, R. B. “The Poetry of Lamentations,” in “Jonah” and “Lamentations” pp. 84-91. Sheffield: England, JSOT Press, 1994

Considers Lamentations as poetry.

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Lamentations (Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)