What is the book of Lamentations?
Lamentations is a set of five heartbreaking poems, written after the brutal destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army in 586 BCE. After the Babylonians forced the surrender of Jerusalem, they deported the city’s wealthy and influential Jews to Babylonia. These deportees were expected to lend their skills to the growth of the empire. But poor and poorly educated Jews were left in Jerusalem’s rubble to look after their shattered lives. Local poets recorded the slow crawl from devastation to restoration, in the anguished voices of survivors.
Who wrote the book of Lamentations?
Scholars of late antiquity believed that Lamentations presents the poetry of the prophet Jeremiah. Contemporary scholars believe that Lamentations represents the work of five different poets. Each poet speaks in a different voice, some as individuals, some representing the collective. Each poem offers quite a different theory of what it means to survive, learn, and move on. Despite the fact that the poems are preserved in a collection of great works of religious literature — the Hebrew Bible — the poets do not all affirm the possibility of spiritual connections and solutions.
What do the five poems of Lamentations say?
As a teacher, I’ve invited readers to listen to the diverse poetic voices in Lamentations. I studied with three different groups: rabbinical students, undergraduate university students, and adult synagogue members. Our studies began with an analysis of the themes of the five poems. For each chapter we answered five questions:
1. Who is the speaker?
2. What aspect of the catastrophe do they emphasize?
3. Who do they blame for the catastrophe?
4. How do they think of God?
5. What action do they recommend?
We wove the answers to the questions into a summary of the five chapters. This particular comprehensive summary was crafted by the rabbinic students:
Chapter One: A Jerusalemite, sometimes speaking as the personified city of Jerusalem herself, cries out over the desolation of the city. The transgressions of the citizens made the city vulnerable, and ruthless external enemies demolished it. The speaker experiences God as just, powerful, and approachable. The speaker asks God to deal with the sinful enemies as harshly as God has dealt with the city herself.
Chapter Two: Here speaks an empathic person, possibly female, who is aware of widespread suffering, and particularly worried about children. She takes issue with God’s role in the destruction of the city. God has acted unjustly, out of anger. People should cry out to God and God should repent.
Chapter Three: This is the personal prayer of a highly educated man who is capable of holding complexity, and moving through suffering while retaining a sense of meaning. He acknowledges that the Israelite people behaved badly. God responded to their actions by withdrawing from their lives. God punishes appropriately, and is ultimately compassionate and forgiving. The victims need to sit with their suffering, and return to God through prayer and repentance. (And it wouldn’t hurt for God to wreak vengeance on the invading enemy!)
Chapter Four: Here are the words of someone with a class interest in judging the ruling elite. He or she may be a high-ranking member of a competing political group, or an ordinary citizen who had to suffer for the leaders’ mistakes. He or she speaks of the mistakes made by the elite, including the priests, and point out repeatedly how those who were once high have been brought low. God is angry about the actions of the elite. People must trust God, and wait for God to wreak vengeance upon their national enemies.
Chapter Five: This is the voice of an adult child of a survivor, born in the generation after the catastrophe. This person asks desperate questions about whether national renewal is possible at all. He or she blames both the previous generations and God for the crisis. They express great despair, with only a flicker of hope of finding God. They beseech God to make the first move.
What is the overall message of Lamentations?
Once we had identified key points, we tried to synthesize these five visions of national catastrophe. What message is conveyed, we asked, by the collection as whole? The three study groups offered six different answers between them.
The undergraduate university students looked for the unifying thread of the book, seeing it as a narrative moving from beginning to end. They read the five chapters as the story of a typical person’s journey towards healing: from personal devastation, to empathy for others, to meditation and spiritual restoration, to more objective analysis, to looking backwards through history.
The rabbinic students saw in the five poems a showcase of diversity. They recognized a range of possible approaches to God and a range of individual approaches to grief and loss. They also read the five poems as a mosaic of perspectives on a national catastrophe: political, personal, theological, sociological, and historical.
Which of the five poems best summarizes the main point of Lamentations?
The synagogue group offered yet a third interpretation. They did not see a linear narrative, but they also did not feel comfortable simply acknowledging multiplicity in the text. They felt that one particular chapter should be identified as the book’s final word on the catastrophe. Some argued for Chapter One, others for Chapter Three, and still others for Chapter Five.
Chapter One is the speech of the Jerusalemite acknowledging the city’s sins. Some saw this speech as a strong thesis statement that would be explored and developed throughout the book: we cannot turn around out of grief and devastation until we acknowledge our collective responsibility.
Chapter Three is the record of one man’s deep meditation. The location and length of Chapter Three call attention to its importance. Located in the middle of the book, it is three times as long as each of the other chapters. Chiastic (X-shaped) literary structures, where the main point of a story is located in the middle, are common in ancient literature. Advocates of Chapter Three agreed that in difficult times we need to sit with our pain, work towards real inner shifts, learn spiritual lessons from catastrophe, and in that way reconnect with God.
In Chapter Five, the second generation looks backwards and forwards. This is the last poem, so it presents the last word, after all the evidence of the previous poems has been weighed. Some readers felt that the poem resonated with their own experiences as the children of holocaust survivors. Although they feel there is no hope for a world free of antisemitism, they also feel they have no choice but to call out to God.
How does Lamentations speak to you this year?
Do you see a tale of grief, anger, oppression, sin, or warning? Do urgent personal and political questions guide your reading? Please feel free to share your experience as a reader in the comment section below.
This post is adapted from a page on the site.