Lamentations 3: The Man Who Has Seen Affliction

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The third ode breaks our format a little, giving three verses (though only two lines each) per letter. It’s also unusual in that, this time, the whole is given in the first person, with the speaker apparently a personification of the Israelite people.

It continues the “God as enemy” theme that we had in the second ode, with the whole of the first 20 verses devoted to it. The ode leaps right out of the gate with:

I am the man who has seen affliction
under the rod of his wrath (Lam. 3:1)

And so we see the dual themes of suffering and of God as the active agent in that suffering.

We find, again, the idea that Israel has become an object of ridicule: “I have become the laughingstock of all peoples” (Lam. 3:14). That this complaint comes up again and again, right alongside the idea that women are forced to eat their own babies in starvation, illustrates just how deeply the Israelite pride was wounded – or, at least, the pride of the literate class.

Strangely, this portion of the ode also tells us that, though the narrator has cried out for help, God “shuts out my prayer” (Lam. 3:8). This is in sharp contrast to the “it’s never too late” messages of Chronicles, and even to latter on in the very same odd (such as Lam. 3:25). The verse stands out in its strangeness. I suspect that the point is just that God hasn’t listened yet, that the suffering is still ongoing, but it still seems odd.

I won’t bother going into the rest of this portion because it stands well enough on its own. There’s a lot of very poetic imagery, as well as a fair amount of melodrama. The only other verse I want to comment on is Lam. 3:6: “He has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago.” I was intrigued first by what it says about how the author seems to imagine some kind of afterlife, but also by the idea that the situation has changed. Does this tell us that Israelite burial practices were changed during the exile? Or is it a historicizing of an evolving conception of the afterlife?

Hope Endures

Despite the bleak beginning, the narrator still holds on to hope. When things are at their darkest, “this I call to mind […] The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (Lam. 3:21-22).

Siege and destruction of Jerusalem, La Passion de Nostre Seigneur, c.1504

Siege and destruction of Jerusalem, La Passion de Nostre Seigneur, c.1504

It is in this section, covered in Lam. 3:21-36, that we hear of God’s mercies and the value of steadfast loyalty: “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him” (Lam. 3:25).

Despite the focus elsewhere on God’s agency, this section tell us that God “does not willingly afflict or grieve the sons of men” (Lam. 3:33). I can see two readings of this, which may depend on English connotations. Rather than saying that human sin forces God to act in a certain way (which would remove God’s agency and be contrary to so much of what we’ve been reading), this line could mean that God doesn’t inflict suffering happily or capriciously. That would make the phrase an equivalent of something like “with a heavy heart.”

In fact, we must take the verse in that second way if we are to see any consistency with Lam.37-39, where the narrator makes clear that God is directly responsible for the current suffering:

Who has commanded and it came to pass,
unless the Lord has ordained it? (Lam. 3:37)

The next line reminded me of Exodus, where everything, even the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, was attributed to God:

Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and evil come? (Lam. 3:38)

This is followed by a call for repentance in Lam. 3:40-42.

Can You See?

From this point on, the narrator turns to address directly. In Lam. 3:43-54, he asks – again and again – if God can see the horror of the punishment he has rained down on the Israelites.

It is here, finally, that we see the evoking of the female figure, and we get it twice in relatively quick succession. First, the narrator’s eyes flow with tears “because of the destruction of the daughter of my people” (Lam. 3:48), and then his eyes cause him grief “at the fat of all the maidens of my city” (Lam. 3:51).

After asking God if he can see the suffering, the narrator affirms in Lam. 3:55-63 that, yes, God can see. And, again, we see God’s comforting presence even while the situation is so bleak:

Thou didst come near when I called on thee;
thou didst say, ‘Do not fear!’ (Lam. 3:57)

Brant Clements points to the positioning of this Ode in the centre of the book as possibly significant. He draws on the Chiasmus form to propose that Lam. 3 is placed in the centre precisely for this message of hope:

If you are looking for hope in the book of Lamentations, it is only to be found in the central verses of chapter 3, the central chapter. Whether this is intended to emphasize the message of hope, I’m not in a position to say. The rest of the book may frame this expression of hope or, alternatively, they may bury it.

And if the ode ended here, it would be fantastic. The form is clearly intentional, as it moves back and forth between despair and hope. But, of course, it doesn’t end there. No, we still have Lam. 3:64-66, where the narrator ends the ode by hoping that God will destroy Israel’s enemies:

Thou wilt pursue them in anger and destroy them from under thy heavens, O Lord” (Lam. 3:66).

That’s nice, dear.

A Vibrant Economy

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Lamentations 2: The Daughter of Zion

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The second ode continues the use of feminine imagery when talking about Jerusalem. While we have encountered the phrase “daughter of Zion” before (Lam. 1:6), the designation really takes over here. I don’t recall the phrase appearing before Lamentations in our readings, and a BibleGateway search confirms that. It seems to appear quite a bit in Isaiah and Micah, as well as Zechariah,  Psalms, and the Son of Solomon.

In fact, the term “Zion” itself doesn’t come up very much in our earlier readings at all. It’s used a handful of times in Kings and Chronicles, and once in 2 Sam. 5:7 (which Wikipedia gives as the earliest use of the word). There seems to have been an inflation in the geographical area that the term refers to – from a single mountain on which a fortress had been build, to the district of Jerusalem where the fortress had stood, to the whole city.

But that phrase, “daughter of Zion”, is an interesting one, and the fact that it doesn’t come up until later writings seems important. The New Bible Commentary agrees, pointing to extant cuneiform inscriptions that refer to “the daughter of …” who is bidden to lament her lot. “The technique may thus have been learnt by the Jews in exile” (p.659). So this phrase, which would go on to be so popular (particularly with Isaiah) seems to have been a borrowing of a Babylonian poetic construction.

God Is The Enemy

In this ode, the focus on God as active agent in bringing punishment down on the Israelites is front and center. The very verse begins: “How the Lord in his anger has set the daughter of Zion under a cloud!” (Lam. 2:1).

Compare this to the first ode, which begins, “How lonely sits the city that was full of people!” (Lam. 1:1). Even though the first ode makes it clear that the punishment was God’s doing, the focus was on the experience of the punishment. Here, however, God as active agent is much more emphasized, as in Lam. 2:5 (“The Lord has become like an enemy”).

The first also mentions Israel’s foes, as in Lam. 1:5 (“Her foes have become the head, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions”). Here, however, we get verses like Lam. 2:8:

The Lord determined to lay in ruins
the wall of daughter Zion;
he stretched the line;
He did not withhold his hand from destroying;
he caused rampart and wall to lament;
they languished together.

Even as pawns, the Babylonians are erased from the narrative.

This is a complete tangent and absolute conjecture, but it made me think of the way Pontius Pilate will be treated in the New Testament. While the agent of Jesus’s death, his role is minimized, and his agency almost taken from him (as in Matt 27:24). A plausible reason for this action is that the Christians (or proto-Christians, or however we want to see the early community of Jesus followers) were in the power of the Romans (or, perhaps, were Romans, at least in some number). They may have had very real pressure not to get too finger-pointy.

And so we may be witnessing the same effect here. The exile community, being very much under the power of the Babylonians and likely wishing to stay in their good graces to some extent, would have had an understandable reason to de-emphasize, or even erase, the Babylonian agency in the destruction of Jerusalem.

There may also be a sense of reclamation. Elsewhere in our reading, when the Israelite army defeats an enemy, it is a show of theistic superiority: Israel won because Israel’s God was stronger. Emphasizing the defeat of Israel as God’s work allows the authors to preserve God’s honour.

The Destruction of the Temple

The loss of the Temple was mentioned only briefly in Lam. 1:4, where the roads leading to Zion mourn as no one uses them to attend the feasts (a vague reference, to be sure).

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, by David Roberts, 1850

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, by David Roberts, 1850

In the second ode, the destruction of the Temple is a dominant theme. It begins in Lam. 2:1, where God is said to have forgotten his footstool (a reference to the mercy-seat, as in 1 Chron. 28:2).

This comes back again in Lam. 2:6, where God “has broken down his booth like that of a garden, laid in ruins the place of his appointed feasts”, and in Lam. 2:7, where God “has scorned his altar, disowned his sanctuary.”

There is also one direct reference to the exile itself, where the narrator tells us that the daughter of Zion’s “king and princes are among the nations” (Lam. 2:9). But the focus of the ode is clearly on Jerusalem itself, and was done to it, rather than on the status of its people.

The Lamentation

As in the first ode, the second half switches to a first person lament. It begins with a description of the narrator’s own grief – “My eyes are spent with weeping” (Lam. 2:11). It then moves into a description of the how the people have been affected, describing them as starving, dying in the streets, and calling out for their mothers.

In Lam. 2:13-19, the narrator addresses the daughter of Jerusalem directly. He blames her prophets for having given her “false and deceptive visions,” for neglecting to “expos[e] your iniquity” (Lam. 2:14).

The narrator tells Jerusalem that she has been disgraced, and that others jeer at her (Lam. 2:15). And in the final portion of the narrator’s address to Jerusalem, he urges her to “cry aloud,” to cry without cease, and to do so for the sake of her children (Lam. 2:18-19).

Closing off the ode, the narrator addresses God, bemoaning the suffering God has brought to the people. He begins by asking if women should eat their offspring, “the children of their tender care”, and if priests and prophets should be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord (Lam. 2:20). We saw the reality of people eating their children in times of extreme starvation in 2 Kgs 6:28-29, in the context of a siege.

God’s anger, the narrator charges, is causing both young and old to lie in dusty streets and be killed by swords (Lam. 2:21). In Lam. 2:22, the narrator says that God invited terrors, as if to a feast – which is beautiful imagery even as the subject is rather horrific.

The ode closes with a particularly evocative line, highlighting the horror of the Israelites seeing their children killed: “Those whom I dandled and reared my enemy destroyed” (Lam. 2:22).

Israel So Named

The ode brings up an alternative way of referencing Israel, as opposed to Jerusalem itself, that I found worth mentioning.Twice, the narrator talks about ‘Jacob’ (Lam. 2:2, Lam. 2:3) – Israel’s original name before he was given a new one in Genesis 32.

I also found it interesting that Israel is mentioned at all, while the focus of both the first and second odes has been on Jerusalem, with the first only talking about Judah when looking beyond the city.

The narrator also talks about “the daughter of my people” (Lam. 2:11) in a way that suggests this refers to the nation. So where elsewhere the daughter is of the place, we see a shift to her being the daughter of the people themselves, though I’m not sure what that means.

Lamentations 1: The Lonely Widow

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I noticed that there seems to be two distinct parts to this chapter. In the first half, the narrator speaks in the third person, and the main character is Jerusalem personified as a woman. In the second half, beginning with Lam. 1:12, a first person voice takes over. Here, the main character appears to be all of Jerusalem/Judah’s people, personified by a singular “I”.

The New Bible Commentary sees a different division, this time into three parts. The first is Lam. 1:1-7, which it titles “The desolation of Jerusalem.” The second, Lam. 1:8-11, is titled “Sin brings suffering.” The third, “A cry for compassion”, is found in Lam. 12:22. Of course, this division doesn’t contradict mine; it merely focuses on theme rather than narration.

In the opening line of the first ode, we get to see an example of the Myth of an Empty Land, which I discussed in my post on 2 Chronicles 36. Here, Jerusalem is described as having once been full of people, but being now lonely. We know, of course, that this not the case, but the imagery of an empty Jerusalem (or, more broadly, an empty Israel) lying fallow in wait for the exile’s to be returned and replanted does seem to have – if you’ll pardon extending the metaphor a little further – taken root among the exile community.

Jerusalem Herself

The description of Jerusalem-as-a-woman seems to go back and forth between pity and disgust. She is a friendless widow whose children have been taken from her in Lam. 1:1, but by Lam. 1:2, she is abandoned by her lovers. Read with modern eyes, she still struck me as the object of pity, but I can see the implicit accusation of infidelity, in no small part thanks to the Chronicler’s clear feelings against political alliances.

"Judaea Capta" coin depicting a captive Jewish man and a Jewish woman in mourning, struck 71 CE

“Judaea Capta” coin depicting a captive Jewish man and a Jewish woman in mourning, struck 71 CE

In that sense, Jerusalem is seen as a promiscuous woman who had had “improper dealings” with other nations, and now finds herself abandoned by these alliances. The argument is therefore made both against Jerusalem herself for her actions, and against the worthiness of the lovers – in other words, the author of Lamentations seems to agree with the Chronicler’s dim view of political alliances.

These lovers have, in fact, become her enemies, and they prosper by her downfall (Lam. 1:5, Lam 1:10), and they mock her (Lam. 1:7).

The sexual/vaginal imagery continues, and I found that aspect of it rather interesting. On the one hand, Jerusalem’s uncleanness “was in her skirts” (Lam. 1:9) and came about when she allowed her nakedness to be seen (Lam. 1:8). Therefore, we can see that her punishment is seen as a result of her promiscuity with other nations. And so there’s a sort of contagion from without, which we see again when forbidden foreigners are said to have entered her sanctuary (Lam. 1:10 – imagery that I knew must have a sexual double meaning when my inner twelve year old started giggling).

But on the other hand, Jerusalem is also seen as a menstruating woman (Lam. 1:17 – the KJV’s translation appears to be literal, while other translations, such as my RSV, give us “filthy thing” instead). Seen this way, Jerusalem’s uncleanness comes from within, but is also temporary. Every period ends, and so I saw almost a hope toward the end of the ode that there would be a time of cleanness to follow.

Despite this, it is abundantly clear that Jerusalem’s suffering are her own fault. God’s judgement is judged just, and the punishment appropriately deserved by the crime (Lam. 1:5).

And Her People

The second portion of the ode focuses on the suffering of Jerusalem/Judah’s people, as expressed with a singular “I.” Here, we see that when God sent down the metaphorical fires of his punishment, they descended “into my bones” (Lam. 1:13). The punishment was direct and personal, striking the narrator (who stands in for the whole community) to their very core.

In a mirroring of the first part of the poem, we hear that the yoke worn by the speaker was formed by the speaker’s own crimes (Lam. 1:15) and justified by the speaker’s rebellion (Lam. 1:18). We also see the poo-poohing of earthly protections, as the same verse tells us that God flouted the mighty men that the speaker had hoped would protect them.

The speaker, too, called out to lovers for aid, but had been abandoned (Lam. 1:19), and both portions of the poem contain references to starvation (Lam 1:11, Lam. 1:19).

There is some interesting imagery in Lam. 1:15, where we read that the “virgin daughter of Judah” was crushed by God as if she had been in a wine press. Elsewhere, vineyards, wine, and wine presses are used as symbols of success and fertility, and yet here we see that very success and fertility used to crush the symbolic representation of Judah. This reflects the idea in the first part of the poem where we are told that Jerusalem’s riches now belong to her enemies (Lam. 1:10).

I had assumed that the ode would end on a note of hope, perhaps an appeal to God to hear the pain of the speaker and show mercy, something like that. But I see no hint of that. The narrator simply seems to accept their suffering. The only hope shown in the final verses is not that the suffering of the Israelites might end, but rather that it be also inflicted on their enemies. “Let them be as I am” (Lam. 1:21).

Animal Pranks on the Ark

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(h/t: Episcopal Church Memes facebook page)

Introduction to Lamentations

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After so many long books, it’s nice to get another short one! Unfortunately, it’s poetry, which I tend to find difficult to talk about.

The Hebrew Bible is divided into three parts: The Teaching (or “Torah”), Prophets (or “Nevi’im”), and Writings (or “Ketuvim”). Lamentations belongs to this third group, which is a sort of miscellaneous other.

It is also grouped as one of the Megillot, along with Ruth, the Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. These five books are each traditionally read during certain festivals. In Lamentations’ case, it is read on the Ninth of Ab, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple.

In the rabbinic tradition, the book is called ‘ekhah, or “How!” – the first word of the first verse of the book.

Authorship

The book is traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, author of the conveniently named book of Jeremiah. In fact, Lamentations is sometimes called “The Lamentations of Jeremiah.”

The attribution is due to the reference to Jeremiah’s lamentations we saw in 2 Chron. 35:25, which seems like a rather flimsy reason. I mean, it requires a belief that there can only be one set of laments – a belief that is contradicted in the very same verse.

Also, it seems that there are some stylistic issues that make Jeremiah an unlikely author.

It also seems that Lamentations may not have all been written by the same author at all. Some commentaries propose that chapters 2 and 4 may have been written by a separate author.

Date

The New Bible Commentary claims that some have placed the authorship as late as the 160s BCE, seeing a reference to the siege of Jerusalem by Antiochus Epiphanes (p.659). This doesn’t seem to have a lot of traction, though, with the dominant assumption being that Lamentations was written sometime during the exile.

The New Bible Commentary goes on argue the case or this earlier date, and makes connections to Babylonian poetic forms. In particular, the “the daughter of…” who is told to lament her lot, which can apparently be found in some cuneiform writings from the time.

Form

It seems that Lamentations is, primarily, a really depressing acrostic poem. Chapters 1, 2, and 4 begin each verse with a letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, while Lamentations 3 gives each letter three verses instead of only one. The fifth chapter drops the acrostics, though there seems to be a theory that it once did.

The rhythm is a 3:2 beat, which it shares with the book of Jeremiah.

Me, every night before a post is due…

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Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

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I’ve certainly found myself in a similar situation a few times, though not quite as snazzily dressed.

(h/t: Classical Art Memes)

The Danger of Typos

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Ba-ba-bird bird bird

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