Book of Lamentations
In Judaism it is traditionally recited on the fast day of Tisha B'Av ("Ninth of Av") the saddest day on the Jewish calendar mourning the destruction of both the First and the Second Temples in Jerusalem.
It is called in the Hebrew canon 'Eikhah, meaning "How," being the formula for the commencement of a song of wailing. It is the first word of the book (see 2 Sam. 1:19-27). The Septuagint adopted the name rendered "Lamentations" (or "Threnoi Hieremiou", abbreviated "Thren." in some Latin commentaries, from the Greek threnoi = Hebrew qinoth) now in common use, to denote the character of the book, in which the prophet mourns over the desolations brought on Jerusalem and the Holy Land by the Chaldeans. In the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) it is placed among the Ketuvim, the Writings.
According to Jewish and Christian traditions, authorship is assigned to the Prophet Jeremiah, who was ministering the Word of God during the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, during which the First Temple was destroyed and King Zedekiah was taken prisoner (cf. 2 Kings 24-25, Jer. 39:1-10 and Jer. 52). In the Septuagint and the Vulgate the Lamentations are placed directly after the Prophet.
It is said that Jeremiah retired to a cavern outside the Damascus gate, where he wrote this book. That cavern is still pointed out by tour guides. "In the face of a rocky hill, on the western side of the city, the local belief has placed 'the grotto of Jeremiah.' There, in that fixed attitude of grief which Michelangelo has immortalized, the prophet may well be supposed to have mourned the fall of his country" (Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, History of the Jewish Church).
However, the strict acrostic style of four of the five poems is not found at all in the Book of Jeremiah itself and Jeremiah's name is not found anywhere in the book itself (nor any other name, for that matter), so authorship of Lamentations is disputed. The Book of Chronicles says that Jeremiah did write a lament on the death of King Josiah. The work is probably based on the older Mesopotamian genre of the "city lament", of which the Lament for Ur is among the oldest and best-known.
According to F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, "the widely observed unity of form and point of view... and general resemblance in linguistic detail throughout the sequence are broadly suggestive of the work of a single author," though other scholars see Lamentations as the work of multiple authors.
Most commentators see Lamentations as reflecting the period immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, though Provan argues for an interpretation that is ahistorical. Many elements of the lament are borne out in the historical narrative in 2 Kings concerning the fall of Jerusalem: Jerusalem lying in ruins (Lamentations 2:2 and 2 Kings 25:9), enemies entering the city (Lamentations 4:12 and 2 Kings 24:11), people going into exile (Lamentations 1:3 and 2 Kings 24:14) and the sanctuary being plundered (Lamentations 1:10 and 2 Kings 24:13). On the other hand, Babylon is never mentioned in Lamentations, though this could simply be to make the point that the judgment comes from God, and is a consequence of Judah disobeying Him.
Lamentations was probably composed soon after 586 BC. Kraus argues that "the whole song stands so near the events that one feels everywhere as if the terrible pictures of the destruction stand still immediately before the eyes of the one lamenting."
The book consists of five separate poems. In chapter 1 the prophet dwells on the manifold miseries oppressed by which the city sits as a solitary widow weeping sorely. In chapter 2 these miseries are described in connection with national sins and acts of God. Chapter 3 speaks of hope for the people of God. The chastisement would only be for their good; a better day would dawn for them. Chapter 4 laments the ruin and desolation that had come upon the city and temple, but traces it only to the people's sins. Chapter 5 is a prayer that Zion's reproach may be taken away in the repentance and recovery of the people.
The first four poems (chapters) are acrostics, like some of the Psalms (25, 34, 37, 119), i.e., each verse begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet taken in order. The first, second, and fourth have each twenty-two verses, the number of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The third has sixty-six verses, in which each three successive verses begin with the same letter. The fifth is not acrostic, but also has twenty-two verses. In the second, third and fourth chapters, the order of the 16th letter (ע) and the 17th (פ) is reversed.
Readings, chantings, and choral settings, of the book of Lamentations, are used in the Christian religious service known as the Tenebrae (Latin for darkness). In the Church of England, readings from Lamentations are used at Morning and Evening Prayer on the Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week, and at Evening Prayer on Good Friday.
The Book of Lamentations is recited annually on the Tisha b'Av, the anniversary of the destruction of both of the Jewish Temples as well as numerous other unfavorable days in Jewish history.
At the "Wailing Wall" in the Old City of Jerusalem, "the Jews assemble every Friday afternoon to bewail the downfall of the holy city, kissing the stone wall and watering it with their tears. They repeat from their well-worn Hebrew Bibles and prayer-books the Lamentations of Jeremiah and suitable Psalms."
Additional historical and cultural context
Most modern day biblical scholars assert that the Book of Lamentations was written by one or more authors in Judah, shortly after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BC; and was penned as a response to Babylonian Exile, the intense suffering of the people of Judah, and the complete and utter destruction of Jerusalem. Werner E. Lemke and Kathleen O’Connor point out “Lamentations is probably the work of a survivor (or survivors) of the nation’s destruction who poured out sorrow, anger and dismay after the city’s traumatic defeat and occupation by the Babylonians."
The theological views that led to its author(s) writing the Book of Lamentations emanated from the cultural and religious attitudes of the people of Judah in the 6th and 7th centuries BC and was probably also influenced by non-biblical sources which originated from the cultural and religious attitudes of Judah's neighbors of differing religions.
The Book of Lamentations reflects the theological and biblical view that what happened to Jerusalem was a deserved punishment; and its destruction was instigated by their god for the communal sins of the people. This theological viewpoint was also widespread among Judah’s neighbors of differing religions who believed the destruction of a particular city could be attributed to the city’s deity who was punishing the city for some communal sin or wrongdoing.
The destruction of cities by foreign invaders, and its resulting catastrophic suffering, unfortunately, was very common in the ancient Near East and, therefore, we can observe examples of the lament form/genre concerning destroyed cities and temples from extra-biblical sources, particularly from early Sumerian Literature dating to the late third and early second millennia BC. For example, from Sumerian Literature we can see the same Genre that we see in the Book of Lamentations of the Funeral Dirge and Lament reflected in the Sumerian Lament: Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur which depicts the destruction of the cities of Sumer and Ur. Yet, as Lemke and O’Connor point out, The Book of Lamentations, while adapting several traditional literary, historical, and cultural Near Eastern elements, is a unique literary composition, scripted to a specific historical situation, in response to a historical catastrophe, addressing the survivors of this catastrophe in a distinctive religious context.
|Books of the
Ketuvim (Hebrew Bible)
|Three poetic books|
|Song of Songs
Ezra – Nehemiah
- Easton, Matthew George (1897). The Bible Dictionary: Your Biblical Reference Book (Forgotten Books ed.). Thomas Nelson. ISBN 978-1-60506-096-5.
- 2 Chronicles 35:25
- Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W. Lamentations (Louisville: John Knox, 2002), 5.
- Childs, Brevard S. Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (London: SCM, 1979), 593.
- Provan, Iain W. "Reading Texts Against an Historical Background: The Case of Lamentations," SJOT 1/1990, 138.
- Cited in Provan, 133.
- Schaff, Philip quoted in Easton, Matthew George (1897). The Bible Dictionary: Your Biblical Reference Book (Forgotten Books ed.). Thomas Nelson. p. 387. ISBN 978-1-60506-096-5.
- Coogan, Michael D.: A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 312, 313. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Lemke, Werner E. & O’Connor, Kathleen "Introduction to Lamentations", in: Meeks, Wayne A., et al. (eds.) The HarperCollins Study Bible San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006; p. 1086.
- Lemke 2006, p. 1086
- Coogan, 2009. 312
- Coogan, 2009. 313
- Lemke; O’Connor, 2006. 1086
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Jewish translations:
- Eichah - Lamentations (Judaica Press) translation [with Rashi's commentary] at Chabad.org
- Book of Lamentations with Hebrew/English and mp3 chanting of the entire book in Hebrew. (Website also contains other books of the bible.)
- Laments (R. David Seidenberg): a fresh translation with linear Hebrew and English, on neohasid.org
- A synopsis of Eichah's chapters
- Christian translations:
Book of Lamentations
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