The Bible in and as History: Lamentations


Lamentation for the Destruction of Jerusalem

So we continue our look at the Bible with an examination of Lamentations, the book of tears.  That may seem a bit pretentious, but as we shall see, Lamentations is composed for mourning and reflection by groups of people.

Lamentations is a set of five poems, a literal ‘lament’ for the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple, and Judea ‘going into captivity’.  I have read that in their original Hebrew form, they are acrostics; that is that each line begins with a different corresponding letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Obviously I am reading them in King James’ English, but that is an important point for later.  These are poems, and meant to be sung and repeated.  Meant to be committed to oral memory.  Rather than ‘A is for apple’, ‘L is for Lament’.

The first poem is a lament for Jerusalem’s destruction.  The city is desolate and empty.  It is described as a woman whose children and lovers have abandon her.  A woman desolate and alone.  The iconography is pretty clear, meant to invoke the image at once of a grieving mother.  Later the poem takes the point of view of this woman, who grieves her rebelliousness against god as the cause of her misfortune.  It’s a theme we’ve seen as central to the biblical text in a number of places.  “Woe is to me, Jerusalem, for my people didn’t obey God, and this is why all has been inflicted upon me.  We deserve this because we rebelled against God.”

The second of the poems is perhaps a tad more forceful.  It decries the ‘fallen daughter of Jerusalem’.  Like the previous poem it has some female imagery, the city, the people as represented by a female abstract.  Given the patriarchal context of both the original authorship and the translating society of 17th Century England, I suspect this is done both to draw sympathy and establish a hierarchical structure in the mind of the reader.  God is the father and Judea falls as the disobedient daughter does.  Like the previous poem there is repetitious use of talk of what God has done.  This has an interesting political dimension and theocratic dimension we have touched on before.  It takes a common pre-modern idea; that success is a result of the strength of ones gods and turns it on it’s head.  Here, the fall of the city is not because of the weakness of Hebrew Armies, or the strength of the Babylonians or Egyptians or what have you.  It is not the enemy who defeats, it is God who does, in punishment for transgression.

The following three poems repeat the themes already outlined, though they take a different path.  They repeat the horrible things done to the people of Israel in the name of the lord, and the structure of accusing rebellion of the people as being the principal cause.  Indeed one makes it clear that ‘the whole world’ would think it impossible for ‘the adversary’ to triumph, but that God has made it so.  The context for these poems is obvious after the fall of Jerusalem, and the efforts of the clergy to sustain their power both during and after the exile.  Though interestingly enough, we also have retorts against the prophets and priesthood.  They too must share in the blame for the catastrophe.

As I mentioned before, these are poems, meant to be sung.  In Judaism they are sung on Tisha B’av, which honours the destruction of the first and second temple.  Their patterns are thus those of memory.  Like many religious songs they repeat their theme and draw the participant into a collective experience with others.  A center-point of community; it is not that I mourn, it is that WE lament, we experience anew the destruction of the temple, the destruction of the city, the despoiling of it’s youth and enslavement of it’s children.  We learn the lesson and repent as they must.

In Christianity they serve a similar purpose historically; being sung on the earliest part of the Holy Week celebrating Easter.  This of course makes sense in the context of that holiday; We unite in mourning, as we are united in mourning by the death of Christ, to be brought high as we are absolved, as Christ arises.  In both traditions the act of mourning, of lamenting, becomes a union of the community.

While Lamentations has a short and sweat interpretation, and indeed historical context.  Being around an obvious event and used by the people of the following religious traditions in particular ways, next we have a work not so clear cut; Follows the Mysticism of Ezekiel.




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