Lamentations

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

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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.