|Books of the|
The Book of Lamentations (Hebrew מגילת איכה) is a book of the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Old Testament. As suggested by its title, the book recounts the tragedies and horrors experienced by the Judean people as they were exiled by the Babylonians and the first Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed. While the text is often credited to the Prophet Jeremiah, modern biblical scholarship has disproved this attribution, instead suggesting that the received version is an amalgamation of various poems by different authors. This contention is supported by the fact that the book as received consists of five separate poems, each of which exists as a discrete unit.
The text is traditionally read by Jewish people on Tisha B'Av, a feast day that bewails the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is also used as part of Christian Tenebrae services, which are celebrated during Lent.
Given that the book itself has no formal title in the original scrolls, it is customarily referred to by its first word, Ekhah, which is "an exclamatory particle meaning 'How!'" The Septuagint, following the later Rabbinic usage, adopted the name rendered "Lamentations" (Greek threnoi / Hebrew qinoth, "dirges"), to denote the character of the book, in which the prophet mourns the desolations brought on Jerusalem and the Holy Land by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. This name has been retained throughout the various subsequent translations of the text, though some versions mistakenly append the prophet Jeremiah's name to it (a misattribution that is discussed below).
According to tradition, authorship is assigned to the Prophet Jeremiah, who was a court official during the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, and, resultantly was a first-hand witness of the destruction of the First Temple and the capture of King Jehoiachin. Indeed, folk wisdom suggests that Jeremiah retired to a cavern outside the Damascus gate, where he wrote this book. While some scholars agree with this traditional attribution, it has not been borne out by modern scholarship. Likewise, even the suggestion that book is the product of a single author, as argued by Renkema, are in the minority.
The rejection of the traditional attribution is executed on numerous fronts: first (and most commonsensical) is the simple fact that this tradition, despite its evidently venerable history, cannot be dated back to the canonization of the Prophets section of the Hebrew Bible—if it could, this text would have been canonized alongside the Book of Jeremiah. Further, and in spite of certain similarities of tone and style, the two books emerge from considerably variant perspectives:
This is not to mention the acrostic style adopted by the poetic author of Lamentations (discussed below), which is a literary flourish that is entirely absent from Jeremiah's output. In fact, sufficient stylistic differences exist within the text to suggest that it is, itself, a redacted volume. When these structural and stylistic facts are coupled with two notable cultural issues (namely, that writing eponymous texts credited to famous authors was a common practice and that a well-established tradition of Mesopotamian "city laments" was already in existence), it seems likely that the problem of authorship will remain insoluble.
While some commentators argue for an ahistorical interpretation of the text, the vast majority see Lamentations as a description of events immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. Indeed, many particular episodes described in the lament are borne out by the historical narrative in 2 Kings concerning the fall of Jerusalem: Jerusalem lying in ruins (Lamentations 2:2 / 2 Kings 25:9), enemies entering the city (Lamentations 4:12 / 2 Kings 24:11), the exile of the Judean people (Lamentations 1:3 / 2 Kings 24:14) and the plundering of the holy sanctuary (Lamentations 1:10 / 2 Kings 24:13). Further, even though Babylon is never mentioned by name in Lamentations, this could simply be making the point that the judgment comes from God, which transforms the invaders into a simple instrument of His will.
Given the near universal acceptance of the multiple-author hypothesis, it is not possible to provide a definitive date for the collected writings preserved in Lamentations. However, it (or at least part of it) was probably composed soon after 586 B.C.E. To this end, Kraus argues that "the whole song stands so near the events that one feels everywhere as if the terrible pictures of the destruction stand still immediately before the eyes of the one lamenting." Others suggest that the different chapters (each of which can be seen as a discrete unit) can be tentatively traced to different era. One such timeline places Chapter 2 and 4, which are the "rawest" in their emotional pain, closest to the events described therein, with Chapter 1 following fairly shortly thereafter, Chapter 5 emerging some time before the temple had been rebuilt (perhaps around 530 B.C.E.), and Chapter 3 (with its personal but highly general content) being written "almost any time in the postexilic period." From a completely different perspective, Houk argues, using a statistical analysis of word choices in the text, that the book was composed over an extended period of time by "temple-singers-in-training," who were building upon oral tales of the exile in a gradual manner: "Perhaps Lamentations is a collection of practice laments composed by temple singers, or other poets, each with a different assignment, adding on lines to the growing acrostics." If this is the case, the possibility of definitively dating the text becomes rather bleak indeed.
The book consists of five separate poems, each of which possess its own particular style, focus and content. Despite this breadth, they do share a common core, which is their united attempt to cast the dreadful events of the invasion of Jerusalem and the exile of the Judean people into a meaningful framework.
Chapter 1 approaches the material using an extended personification and speaking from the perspective of Jerusalem, here portrayed as a princess who has been brought low by the invading armies:
Despite these pained dirges, the text does not attempt to deny the Deuteronomistic Theology, acknowledging that these evils were ultimately the fault of Judean society and their failure to keep the covenant:
Chapter 2, which takes a more visceral approach to the conquest, makes a direct comment about divine justice by avoiding any sort of evaluative language. Instead, it uses parataxis (a poetic technique that lists related elements without subordination or explicit ordering) to highlight the brutality of divine justice:
Responding to these travesties, the chapter ends with a grim indictment of God's wrath:
Chapter 3 breaks the mold of the previous chapters by presenting a unitary narrative, a personal reflection on pain, suffering and loss. However, in addition to the stylistic difference, this section is also notable for offering a message of hope (however slight):
However, as Landy notes, this personal appeal (based on such works as Jeremiah, Job, and various Psalms) could be doomed to failure: "It is thus a search through old formulas for a context through which to comprehend this new catastrophe, a search that does not work because it has never worked.... The poet talks like Job one minute, and like one of Job's friends the next. He seems unaware of the contradiction—that a God who refuses to listen to prayer may be persuaded by it." Conversely, the approach taken in this chapter, including the tentative statements of faith and hope, could be indicative of a renewed commitment to God (perhaps written decades after the dreadful events that the other chapters in the book describe):
Chapter 4 returns to the form of the first two chapters, but does so in a slightly different manner. Specifically, it uses various stylized comparisons to explore the themes addressed above, "which here [operate] as a powerful distancing device, in contrast to the metaphors of the first two chapters." However, "alongside these rhetorical devices that idealize and divert is a simple account of the fall of the city."
Finally, the book ends with a summary of the current plight of the exiles, and a prayer that Zion's suffering may be alleviated:
The first four poems (chapters) utilize the poetic technique of acrostics, beginning each verse with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet (a technique that is also attested to in Psalms 25, 34, 37, and 119). As such, the first, second, and fourth chapters each have twenty-two verses, corresponding to the number of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The third has sixty-six verses, allowing each three successive verses begin with the same letter. Further, these initial four chapters all follow a rigid metrical structure, which is consistent enough that it has come to be known as the "Lament" (qinah) metre (regardless of where it is found). The fifth chapter does not follow either the metre or structure of the previous four, though its twenty-two verses imply that it could have been an unfinished acrostic.
The function of these acrostics is a topic that has not been definitively resolved. Some argue that it was "originally used because of a belief in the magic power of the acrostic, but in course of time the form had become traditional, and it also functioned as an aid to memory." Others suggest that the text took that particular form because it was gradually composed by temple-singers who were learning the poetic arts. Still others attribute this restrictive literary structure to the human impulse to create meaning: "Out of the dark night, in which Jerusalem's tear is on her cheek, the voice rises, turning the weeping into differentiated poems and words, human desolation into grandeur." Finally, Renkma suggests that the acrostics indicate a topical unity between the various chapters:
Once again, the impassable gulf of history makes it impossible to truly gauge which of these approaches (if any) are correct.
On the ninth day (Tisha) of the Jewish month of Av, Jewish people "celebrate" a festival of remembrance, which has been called the "saddest day in Jewish history". It is dedicated to the memories of the various pains and losses that the Jewish community has experienced through history (both ancient (the destruction of the Temple) and modern (the Holocaust)).
As part of the Tisha B'av service, the scroll of Eichah (Lamentations) is read in synagogue during the evening services. In addition, most of the morning is spent reading kinoth ("dirges"), most bewailing the loss of the Temples and the subsequent persecutions, but many others referring to post-exile disasters.
Likewise, the High Church Tenebrae mass celebrated during Lent also uses readings from the Book of Lamentations to highlight the pain of the Passion.
All links retrieved June 20, 2018.
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