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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Genre of the Book

Two traditional genres (or types) of prayer influenced the book of Lamentations. One was the communal lament found in the Psalter, and the other was the city lament, common in Mesopotamian religious literature and found here and there in the Bible. It is instructive to compare Lamentations to the community laments that also mourn a national loss. For example, Psalm 89 laments the defeat of the Davidic king, Psalms 44, 77, and 80 the loss of sacred territory, and Psalm 74 the destruction of the Temple. A major difference between the Psalms and Lamentations is that the lament psalms remember, that is, narrate in words (and perhaps in ritual actions) the divine act that installed the king, gave the land, or built the Temple in order that the Lord will renew the original act. With confidence in God's great acts of the past, they pray for God to renew those powerful acts now. Lamentations, on the other hand, does not remember in that sense; the poems do not work from the same confidence in the national traditions. Lamentations rather chooses the lyrical option; the poems explore the human emotions evoked by the catastrophe—the sorrow, guilt, anger, and hope—and bring them before the Lord. Just as the Psalms made it possible for every Israelite, even those far from Jerusalem, to participate in the worship carried out in the Temple, so Lamentations made it possible for all Israelites during the exile to explore and express their grief, anger, and hope concerning the Temple and the God who once dwelt there. Today, the book makes it possible for all Christians and Jews to explore and express their own sorrows and forms of exile.

It is important to underline that Lamentations are prayers asking God to do something for Israel. They are not merely expressions of personal and communal misery. Even though their tone is disappointed and often bitter, they believe that the Lord is behind the present distress of the community and has the power to turn and bring healing and prosperity. The strategy of the prayers is to remind God of his failure to carry out his promises to protect the people and make them prosperous. The people's wretched state advertises the ineffectiveness and callousness of their deity. Thus, they proclaim that they are miserable and abandoned in the hope (however dim) that God will finally “get it” and come to their rescue. The prayers equivalently ask the Lord to turn from his callous ways.

Though it shares features with the communal lament found in the Psalter, Lamentations has the strongest affinity with the city lament, a literary genre found in ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Temples were composed of mudbrick and other nondurable materials and had frequently to be restored and rebuilt. In order to placate the gods of the city temples for the destruction that preceded the rebuilding, city laments were recited. They described the destruction of the city and its chief shrines, acknowledged the god's “abandonment” of his or her sanctuary, and prayed for the eventual return of the god to the temple. They described the enemies' attack and the laments of the city's chief goddess. Obviously, these city laments did not envision an unhappy future. The temple would be rebuilt and the god would return. Lamentations seems to draw on this genre. The biblical book is not, however, slavishly dependent on Mesopotamian models. It appears that the city lament was at home in Israel long before Lamentations. Isaiah 1, 21–28 is an example: “How has she turned adulteress, the faithful city, so upright! Justice used to lodge within her, but now, murderers. Your silver is turned to dross, your wine is mixed with water” (Is 1, 21–22 ). The major difference between the Mesopotamian and biblical city laments is that the biblical laments cannot count on the return of the deity to the temple. They are not “playacting.” Lamentations ends bitterly, without any assurances that the Lord will return to the Temple.

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