Lesson 4 of5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Lamentations

Gender, 1-The voices

Current interpretation shows increasing interest in the gender of the voices in Lamentations. The third-person narration in 1:1-11b is assumed to be a male voice. The first-person voice that enters briefly in 1:9d and fully in 1:11c is the female voice of personified (daughter) Zion. The poet who authors both of these voices is assumed to be male. The third-person voice is no more or less that of a poet than the first-person female voice. The third-person (male) voice is not simply the voice that rationalizes the suffering over against the female voice that will not settle for a rationalization. When the first-person voice switches in chapter 3 to a male voice, the pain is equally acute.

Gender, 2-The theological argument

Although sin and punishment is offered as the reason for the destruction, this argument is not sufficient to silence the bitter pleas articulated by the poet in the personified voice of Zion. In an opposite direction, the reasons for silent suffering in hope given in the middle of chapter 3 are not sufficient to silence the cries of the male voice of the narrator that God should see and alter the present reality (3:63-66, if not already starting in v. 56). The depiction of suffering is, admittedly, not the same. The suffering of the female voice is depicted in terms of bereavement and loss of children while that of the male is more a matter of encirclement. Both voices, however, come together in the first-person plural of chapter 5, crying to be remembered and restored. Neither a male nor a female voice is able to articulate a normative explanation for the suffering or a theology of hope that will silence the lament.

Gender, 3-The adulterous wife metaphor

The most acute problem for many contemporary readers is the use of the adulterous wife metaphor for describing the disobedience which is seen as the cause of the current suffering in the opening section of the book. Not only does the third-person voice describe prior “lovers” (1:2), but the poet depicts personified Zion as speaking of herself as an adulterous wife. The metaphor is seen by many as perpetuating and justifying male abuse of women; the male is seen as both the hurt one and the avenger of hurt-both prosecutor and judge/executioner. If God is seen as rightfully punishing wife Israel, men are de facto underwritten in their dominance over women. There is no easy way to “redeem” the metaphor. Some have suggested that the metaphor must be abandoned because the potential for misreading is too costly; others argue that the metaphor must be actively resisted.

Gender, 4-Lament

In the continued discussion of gender in the lament tradition, it should be noted that there is little warrant in a patriarchal society for the strength of the protesting voices in the lament tradition. It is hard to imagine a social sanction for a female voice (Israel as wife or, as in Lamentations, personified Zion) to hurl the forceful imperatives directed at God in Lamentations in particular and the lament tradition in general. The metaphor of the adulterous wife is likely unusable today, but the metaphor itself may have been broken in the lament tradition which voices Israel’s demands to God in a tone that never would have been permitted an adulterous wife in a patriarchal society.

Relation to Jeremiah

In the book of Jeremiah the prophet insists against other authoritative voices that the incursion of the Babylonians was the just judgment of God. For example, while joining Hananiah in the desire for a hopeful message, Jeremiah insists in chapter 28 that servitude to the Babylonians was the judgment of God. There was no way to evade it. The early wave of exiles in Babylon was to settle in for a long period. The full destruction of Jerusalem, not an imminent return to it, was the decreed future. Lamentations is commonly read as a petitioning cry from the midst of that destruction and the punishment that it was understood to be. The third-person voice at the beginning of Lamentations can be read as agreeing with Jeremiah’s assertion that the Babylonian action was at the same time God’s action against Judah. Yet in the latter part of Lamentations 1, personified Zion cries for pity, hearing, visibility, and comfort. The plea moves beyond a sin/punishment rationalization of suffering. As such, Lamentations pushes beyond preexilic prophetic preaching of judgment. Justified or not, the problem for Lamentations is the continued suffering.

Relation to other biblical books

Lamentations does not (or only slimly) hold out hope. It is itself lamentation, not an answer to the suffering that is lamented. This has raised the issue of whether or not other biblical books respond to Lamentations. Isaiah 40-55, commonly called Second Isaiah, has figured prominently in such discussions. Isaiah 54:7-8, for example, can be read as conceding the wrath and abandonment expressed in Lamentations, but then moving quickly to assert a restored and everlasting relationship that will transcend anything that had been experienced before the destruction and exile. Many interpreters recognize the echoes of Lamentations in Isaiah 40-55, but they vary in their assessment of how overt or deliberate the echoes are. The oracles of hope in Jeremiah and Ezekiel can also be claimed as responses, but again the connections may not be direct. During the exile and after, there was an ongoing effort to discover and assert an ongoing relationship with God beyond the severance experienced in the destruction of Jerusalem. Undoubtedly the suffering experienced in this severance was expressed in more forms than in the five poems in Lamentations.
Lamentations exists at a midpoint between the actual experience of judgment announced by preexilic prophets and the prophetic promises of a restored and transformed relationship that emerged as the exile worn on.

Structure of Lamentations

Chapters 1, 2, and 4 are acrostic; the first word of each verse in these chapters begins with the subsequent letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapter 3 extends the acrostic by having succeeding sets of three for each letter of the alphabet (hence, twenty-two sets of three for a total of sixty-six verses). Chapter 5 is not acrostic but does consist of twenty-two verses.

Translation of Lamentations 3:56-63

Modern Bible translations translate the verbs in these verses in the past tense. As such, the verses extend the statements about God’s steadfast love and mercy which are new each day and are thus a basis for future hope (3:22-24). The speaker’s own past life would then ratify the received orthodoxy. But the imperatives at the end of the chapter, starting with “look” or “see” in the middle of v. 63, are jarring and nearly inexplicable. Several recent commentaries have understood the perfect Hebrew verb forms in vv. 56-62 not as past tense but as precative perfects, which gives them volitional force consistent with the imperatives in vv. 63-66. The narrative flow would then be the voice of the speaker stating that he had called on the name of the Lord from the depths of the pit in which his enemies had thrown him (3:52-55). The next move was God’s. The speaker pleads with God to hear, see, and come-and even to punish the punishers (3:64-66). Present experience is sharply in contrast with God’s past faithfulness, which intensifies the petition rather than answers it. Both translations are grammatically defensible. How one understands the overall flow of the book and theological tensions it articulates shapes the interpreter’s decision on this point.