Lamentations

Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, asks important questions that address the theological crisis following the Jewish exile.

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Lamentations is one of the Five "Scrolls" (megillot)  in the Hebrew Bible. (The others are Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth, and Kohelet, also known as Ecclesiastes.) Each of these scrolls is read in synagogue on a different Jewish holiday. The Five Scrolls form part of the third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Ketuvim, (also known as Writings or Hagiographia.) In the Roman Catholic version of the Bible, Lamentations is appended to the book of Jeremiah, which is in the Prophets section of the Bible. sad woman

Lamentations begins with the Hebrew word Eicha (how?), and the book is known in Hebrew as Megillat Eicha (the scroll of Eicha.) The book is a theological and prophetic response to the destruction of the First Temple (Beit Hamikdash), in Jerusalem, in 586 B.C.E. The Talmud (The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra 15a) states that it was written by the prophet Jeremiah, who lived at the time of the destruction. Chapters 1, 2, and 4 of Lamentations are an alphabetical acrostic, with each line starting with another letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapter 3 is a three-fold acrostic, with three lines for each letter of the alphabet.

Asking Why

In 586 B.C.E., the army of the neo-Babylonian empire destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple because the kingdom of Judah, of which Jerusalem was the capital, refused to remain a loyal vassal of Babylonia. The king of Babylonia at the time, Nebuchadnezzar, sought to counter Egyptian military power and political influence in Syria-Palestine, and so control of Judah was particularly important to him. Jerusalem was destroyed, and large parts of the population were exiled to Babylon.

But Lamentations is not concerned with the technical historical details of the destruction, but rather with larger and meta-historical issues: Why did God, who had once been Israel's redeemer, acquiesce to the destruction of His holy city and temple? Why is God's love no longer evident? How can it be that "the city that was full of people" now "dwells alone" (Lamentations 1:1)?  Lamentations offers more questions than answers, but asking these questions is an important step in dealing with the theological crisis posed by the destruction of the Temple.

Lamentations does not question God's justice in destroying Jerusalem. "Jerusalem has sinned," the book proclaims in 1:8, and has therefore been punished. Lamentations describes God as participating in the destruction of Jerusalem: "The yoke of my (i.e. Jerusalem's) sins in his hand is ready. They twine together, come upon my neck, cause my strength to fail. God has given me into the hands of one against whom I cannot stand up" (1:14). Because of Jerusalem's sins, God has given Jerusalem over to the Babylonians.

The book sees the Babylonians as God's instrument, and sees God as the true author of Jerusalem's destruction. Chapter 2 of Lamentations expresses this succinctly: "God has destroyed, and has not had mercy, all the dwelling-places of Jacob," (2:2);  "God has become like an enemy, destroying Israel, destroying all her palaces, wrecking its fortresses." (2:5).

Jerusalem's Suffering

The book moves between seeing God's role in the destruction as passive and as active. On the one hand, God "has turned His hand back from before the enemy," (2:3) refusing to fire arrows to defend Israel; and one verse later, we read, "He has readied his bow like an enemy."  The description of God as enemy is part of the book's attempt to justify the destruction: "God is just; I have disobeyed Him" (1:18).  Judah is not being punished for its disloyalty to Babylonia; it is being punished for its disloyalty to God.

A recurring motif is the suffering of Jerusalem and its people. The first chapter speaks about the shock of seeing Jerusalem, which was once a royal city to which pilgrims thronged, become an isolated pariah. The second speaks of the reactions of those who survived the destruction: "My eyes are worn out with tears, my bowels churn...because of the destruction of my people, as babies and sucklings become weak in the squares of the city. To their mothers they say, "where is grain or wine?" as they become faint as the dead in the squares of the city, as their souls pour out into their mothers' laps." (2:11-12).

The author of Lamentations recognizes that the innocent, such as the babies, suffered along with those who deserve punishment, and speaks of the complexity of Jerusalem's society: "The sin of my people was greater than that of Sodom…" yet "Her (Jerusalem's) nazirites were purer than snow, whiter than milk." The vivid descriptions of suffering, together with the mention of innocents, serve as a plea for mercy from God "See, O God, and look, to whom You have done this: Shall women eat their produce, the babies whom they tended? Shall priest and prophet be killed in the Temple of God? " (2:20).  Lamentations does not remonstrate with God, or accuse Him of injustice, so much as it asks for His mercy.

Ancient Parallels

Many of the descriptions of suffering in the book have close parallels in ancient Near Eastern laments on city destructions. For example, the image of the personified Jerusalem weeping in Lamentations is parallel to an image we find in ancient Sumerian city-laments, the goddess weeping over her destroyed sanctuary. Other imagery in Lamentations, such as the description of the starving mother eating her baby, appears in several ancient Near Eastern siege narratives. But these parallel points are used in Lamentations' larger and distinct argument: Jerusalem rebelled against God and was punished by God for its rebellion, and despite the justice of God's actions in destroying the city, we ask Him for mercy.  There is no mention of God having been "weakened" by the destruction or of Israel turning away from God as a result of the destruction.

On the contrary, the book introduces the idea of renewing the God-Israel relationship as a response to the destruction. We see this in chapter 3 of Lamentations, which strikes a more personal note. (It begins "I am the man who has seen suffering…") Among the author's personal thoughts on the destruction, we find: "We will search our ways, and investigate, and we will return to God" (3:40). The book ends with the same theme of return, but on God's part: "Return us to You, O God, and we will return, renew our days as of old. Although you have rejected us, and been exceedingly angry at us"(5:21-22).

Lamentations has for millennia served as the archetype of the Jewish response to national calamity (of which we have had several). It is read in synagogue on the fast-day of Tisha B'Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month Av, which commemorates the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple. It is followed in the synagogue service by the reading of other lamentations, or kinot, composed throughout the centuries by rabbis and poets in response to other major Jewish tragedies, such as the Hadrianic persecutions (2nd c. C.E.), the Crusades (11th-12th centuries); and the burning of the Talmud in Paris (1242 C.E.). These kinot follow the literary model of Lamentations in many ways, and many of them begin with the word that opens Lamentations, "Eicha…"

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Shawn Zelig Aster is Assistant Professor of Bible at Yeshiva University.