Lamentations - Introduction
Lamentations is a sequence of five lyric poems that lament the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE (see 2 Kings 25.8–21 ). The dense and highly charged poetry constitutes some of the Bible's most violent and brutal pieces of writing. Though mostly lacking traditional statements of hope, the poems do manifest a stubborn and tenacious hold on life.
Several of the ancient versions (the Greek, Latin, and Aramaic translations) attribute the authorship of these poems to Jeremiah, which accounts for their placement after the book of Jeremiah in the Christian canon. Although Jeremiah was active during the last days of the kingdom of Judah and spoke in moving and emotional terms of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the nation (Jer 8.18–9.1; 9.17–22 ), it is unlikely that he is the author of the poems found in the book of Lamentations. The language, forms of expression, and religious perspectives do not seem to be quite like those expressed in Jeremiah's own prophetic poetry. Moreover, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts of Lamentations do not mention Jeremiah or associate him with the book. In the Jewish canon Lamentations is not placed with the prophets, but in the third division of the canon, the Writings. Thus it is more likely that the tradition connecting Jeremiah with Lamentations is a reflection of the common practice in antiquity of ascribing authorship of anonymous materials to well‐known figures, for example, David and the Psalms or Solomon and the books of Proverbs and Song of Songs. The poems of Lamentations may be dated to the sixth century, probably between 586 and 520 BCE, when the Temple was rebuilt. They were likely composed in Judah for the community that remained in the land after the catastrophe.
In later Jewish tradition Lamentations was counted as one of the five festival scrolls (Megillot), together with Song of Songs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. Lamentations is read as part of the liturgy of the “Ninth of Ab,” the day that commemorates the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. In Christian tradition readings from Lamentations are part of the liturgies of Holy Week.
Lamentations draws on a variety of literary genres, including communal and individual laments, the funeral dirge, and wisdom traditions, but gets its overarching shape and much of its imagery and subject matter from the city lament, a genre best known from ancient Mesopotamia (e.g., the “Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur,” the “Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur,” and the “Nippur Lament”). Lamentations, however, differs from most of the Mesopotamian city laments, which end happily in celebration of restoration and the return of the gods. It ends tragically: The LORD remains absent and silent throughout, and there is no suggestion of the restoration of Jerusalem or its Temple.
The imagery of Lamentations evokes a sense of fragmentation and discontinuity, reflecting the suffering of the past. There is no narrative structure to give shape to the raw emotions expressed, nor even a clear rhetorical movement from grief to hope, such as one often finds in laments in Psalms. Although the poetic meter varies throughout the book, much of the poetry is composed in “qinah” meter in which the lines are unbalanced, giving a sense of language broken off in grief. In counterpoint to such a sense of fragmentation, however, the formal structures of the poetic form itself produce a strong sense of coherence. The first four chapters of Lamentations are each composed as an alphabetic acrostic, a formal scheme in which the initial word of each stanza begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, twenty‐two in all (ch 5 , though not an acrostic, also contains twenty‐two verses). In ch 3 all three verses of each stanza begin with the same letter (vv. 1–3 with “’alep,” vv. 4–6 with “bet,” etc.). The alphabetic acrostic functions as the material, physical container of this poetry, literally holding each poem's component verses together and conveying a strong sense of closure through its clear structure and fixed length. Yet the acrostic conveys meaning symbolically as well. The poet's whole attempt to render the chaos of his world into language, to contain his fragmented lyrics within the frame of the alphabetic acrostic, thus becomes an attempt to control and contain, and ultimately transform, the suffering and hurt that engulfed Jerusalem and its inhabitants.