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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Lamentations - Introduction

LAMENTATIONS, CALLED ’ekhah (“alas”) in Hebrew, after its initial word, commemorates the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. The Talmud refers to the book as Kinot, “Elegies,” or “Lamentations.” The book is a collection of five laments, in moving poetry, reflecting on the suffering and dislocation that resulted from the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and the exile that followed. It is the Bible’s primary literature of destruction and became the paradigm for later Jewish literature of destruction. Lamentations is a form of mourning for a destruction that was to become a linchpin in Jewish history and Jewish religious thought. More than that, Lamentations eternalizes the destruction, thereby helping to make it a central event in the Jewish memory. In summarizing rabbinic interpretation of Lamentations in Lamentations Rabbah, Shaye J. D. Cohen wrote (in Prooftexts 2 [1982]:20) that Lamentations is “the eternal lament for all Jewish catastrophes, past, present, and future.”

The five chapters are five separate poems, each with a distinctive tone and theme. All of the poems accept the standard biblical theology that the disaster is God’s punishment for Israel’s sins. In fact, the Babylonians are never mentioned by name. It is God who is responsible for the destruction. Nowhere is there any doubt about the power of God, and it is this power, and also His mercy, that the poets call on for help in their present plight. But the end of Judah’s suffering seems far away for most of the book. The emphasis is on the grief and suffering of the present.

The book is among the most difficult in the canon. It is highly poetic, using rare words and unusual grammatical structures, and the thematic logic of the ordering of the verses is often tenuous. Abrupt changes in speaking voices mark shifts in perspectives, so that we hear various aspects of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem as well as diverse responses to the catastrophe. We see Jerusalem, the lonely and shamed city, grieving for her lost inhabitants. Feminine imagery is especially prominent, and especially effective, in reference to Jerusalem in ch 1 , pictured as a shameful and then shamed woman, abandoned by her lovers (her supposed allies), emptied of all she holds dear, mocked by passers‐by, and lacking comfort. In ch 2 we find ourselves looking at the siege of the city and all the horror of starvation and disease that accompanied it. We can imagine ourselves among the deportees being led into exile, or among the survivors who remained in Judah under Babylonianoccupation. Complex imagery abounds, and it is not easy to understand all of it, but it is clear that the imagery contributes to the vividness of the portrayal and the emotional impact it has on the reader.

While Lamentations is surely the Bible’s lament par excellence, there are other poems of lament in Psalms, both individual and communal laments, that may have served as generic forerunners to the book. Another forerunner may be the funeral dirge, a eulogy used to lament the death of individuals (like David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan in 2 Sam. 1 ). Looking beyond the Bible, we find in ancient Mesopotamia, centuries before 586 BCE, laments for destroyed cities (e.g., “Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur,” “Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur,” “Nippur Lament”). Exactly if and how these other types of laments influenced the authors of Lamentations is unclear. No literary genre arises in a vacuum; but Lamentations surpasses by far, both in its poetic sophistication and in its effect on its readers, any of its forerunners.

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