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).