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

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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.

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