Studying Lamentations 5

We are studying Lamentations 5 – the whole poem – for Sunday, April 25. This is the concluding poem of the cycle that forms the book of Lamentations, which is a lament for the suffering of the people of Jerusalem and Judah after the destruction by the Babylonians. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The Babylonians defeat the kingdom of Judah, capture king Zedekiah, break down the city walls, burn down the Temple, and take more captives back to Babylonia in 586 BCE. That’s the historical context for the book of Lamentations. In five poems, the author describes the scenes of horror, destruction, devastation, and death, and expresses the depth of anguish, grief, shock, and all the other emotions connected with the trauma of the destruction.

I know nothing by personal experience, either of war generally, or of ancient siege warfare specifically. From reading about it, though, I think we are safe to say “hellish” describes it.

The book itself names no author. Traditionally, readers attributed it to the prophet Jeremiah. Modern scholars think otherwise, partly because the poetic style differs from the poetry in Jeremiah’s prophetic work. How much this matters for our study seems unclear. Someone wrote it, and that someone seems undeniably close to the events they describe and lament.

The first four poems are acrostics – that is, they make use of lines that begin with each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, one after the other, in alphabetical order. Chapter five relaxes that formal constraint – no restrictions on the initial letter of the lines – but maintains some formal continuity by having 22 short lines.

People advance different comments on the meaning of the acrostic form. It must mean something, because it is so effortful. It is profoundly tied not merely to language, like all poetry, but specifically to literacy, to written language; without an alphabet there cannot even be the thought of an acrostic. Some commentators suggest the use of the whole alphabet implies a kind of completion: a catalog of all the horrors from A to Z (or more technically, from aleph to tav), or a complete expression of the emotions. Others suggest the notion of containment: the boundaries of the writing system set bounds on and control the expression of grief, which seems oceanic and beyond control. Alternatively, it could be practical, to make the poetry easier to memorize and recite.

If we try to put ourselves in the poet’s place, we might think of some other motives for the choice of the acrostic form. It seems to me the poet tries to make the poetry itself embody the difficulty of the experience it is trying to capture and communicate, in literature. And possibly is trying to work through and work out an adequate response to the situation – a situation that was too big for an adequate response. There is something obsessive about it, and obsessiveness in the face of trauma feels realistic.

There had been prophetic warnings about the coming destruction, and repeated invitations to turn back from the behaviors that occasioned it: the idolatry, and the injustice. That, too, is part of the background. A recurrent Biblical theme is “you reap what you sow.” The poet repeatedly implies ways “the tables have turned”: [now] we are the widows and the orphans, [now] we are the ones who have to pay for the necessities of life, [now] we are the ones suffering the cruelty and indifference of the high and mighty.

The brightest spot in the book of Lamentations, a portion of chapter 3 that in most translations is a sublime cry of continued faith in God’s goodness, is in the lectionary for Holy Saturday every year, and on one of the Sundays of ordinary time in year B. Lamentations 1:1-6 shows up on the 27th Sunday of ordinary time in year C. Lamentations 5, however, is a part of the Bible you’d never know if all you knew were the lectionary.

This makes an interesting contrast with the liturgical use of Lamentations in rabbinic Judaism. The book of Lamentations is one of the “festival scrolls,” along with Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, and Esther. It is read in its entirety every year on the 9th of Av. The 9th of Av commemorates the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE, and also the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. And all the other destruction.

We might want to spend time on the practice of lament. And maybe, on why Christians avoid it so assiduously.

[There is a little more on Lamentations on this site here and here.]

CLOSER READING: Translation is challenging. In v1, the word translated “disgrace” will remind us of Nehemiah’s complaint about the broken down walls from last week. It’s a shame word.

In v2, the categories of “strangers” and “aliens” or “foreigners” are significant. “Strangers” (zurim) is a dangerous category; the “strange woman” of Proverbs, who contrasts ominously with Woman Wisdom, is a zurah. “Foreigners,” (nokrim) on the other hand, are more ambiguous. The foreign wives we ran into in Ezra were nokrim, but Ruth was also a nokri.

“Widows” and “orphans” in v3 are also significant – as people the Israelites had been instructed to protect.

In v6, note that both Egypt and Assyria have at one time or another been enemies, or enslavers, of Israel.

In v10, NRSV translates “Our skin is black as an oven” but Alter translates “Our skin burned hot as a kiln” and JPS “Our skin glows like an oven.” The image is feverish heat.

V14, the old men in the gates is an image of normal life, the elders gathering to hear and resolve disputes.

V15, the “dancing” is a specific kind of dance, the kind women customarily did to celebrate military victory. (See, for instance, 1 Samuel 18:6-7; the same verb shows up in Proverbs 8:30-31.)

V22 translations vary, and the translators’ choices have a big effect on the sense of the verse for us. NRSV (and NIV) imply a question or some grounds for hope with “unless you have utterly rejected us.” JPS has more of a statement, “For truly, You have rejected us.” So does KJV, “But thou hast utterly rejected us.”

To me it looks like the Hebrew says something like what we would mean if we said “Because unless you have utterly rejected us …” – which would suggest that there ought to be another stanza to really complete the thought.

But there can’t be, because this poet only has 22 lines to work with. This is as much as it’s humanly possible to write. At this point, anyhow.

Image: Daughter Zion laments, a detail of Michelangelo’s depiction of the Prophet Jeremiah on the Sistine Chapel, public domain

7 responses to “Studying Lamentations 5”

  1. I asked a question without first looking at this post where you take it up. I am intrigued by the acrostics and have often wondered why this chapter was not one. I will look at it more closely.

    There are 13 acrostics in the TNK, these 4, one in Proverbs, and 8 in the Psalms, Psalms 9-10,25,34,37, // 111,112,119, and 145. They are clear structural markers in the Psalter, each one celebrating the immediately preceding psalm, and those 7 psalms, 8, 24, 33, 36, 110, 118, 144 clearly define a word based circular structure. fingers(8,144 and some other ‘obvious’ connections) and oracle (36,110).

    I have heard it suggested that the final acrostic in Proverbs is closing the circle for that book by reflecting the opening chapters on wisdom, constantly at play (chapter 8). The acrostics in the Psalms are celebratory, the last one leading directly to the final doxology. The ones in book 1 are incomplete, the ones in book 5 complete. Lamentations consistently reverses the order of Peh and Ayin. I have a recent performance of part of Psalms 145 here.

    So these 4 of Lamentations, as laments, do they teach us how to pray, not leaving anything out.


  2. I realized that in my haste I did not post my usual translation and syllable counts. These lines are short for prose but not for poetry. Typical poetic lines are 8 to 10 syllables each. These lines are from 13 -21 syllables each and only one is less than 16. So in a poetic framework they could readily be divided by the stronger pausal accent. Thanks for the dialogue.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this!

    I had never been able to “get” Lamentations. Then in 2020 (start of Covid-19 lockdown) I came across a comment about the acrostic nature of the first four chapters. Yet there are no common translations which use this. Almost all of them throw it away. But at least the knowledge of that feature, even though “lost in translation”, helped me, just a little. Then I came across an even lesser-known feature: the driving ‘qinah’ rhythm of the first four chapters.

    So, as a hobbyist hymnwriter, I wondered about creating a new version whose starting points were those specific literary features, bringing them front and centre for us ‘lay’ readers.

    I started with the acrostics, and with chapter 3 because that would require four “Z” words. My scheme omits four arbitrary letters for the Hebrew-English 22-26 mapping, but specifically includes “Z”, as the “A to Z”, all-embracing totality of the acrostic seemed vital in this Lamentations case.

    Quite quickly I began to realise that this ‘qinah’ rhythm was also important. Really, very important indeed. Here, Robert Alter’s “Hebrew Bible” was a help, as he showed how English is relatively expansive, and needs compression to represent Hebrew.

    After two-and-a-half months I thought it was reasonably complete (although at that point I hadn’t fully grasped the importance of that ‘qinah’ rhythm). Two-and-a-half years later, it’s still “a work in progress”!

    Anyway, for what it’s worth, here it is:

    Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, Wow, David, Thank YOU for this phenomenal work of scholarship and love, AND for sharing it here!! It’s beautiful (well, in its out-crying Lament-ing way, right?) and also really interesting, and I think your commentary on the forms and content also really help with the understanding. I have to admit, I myself have always had a hard time “getting” acrostics, but the one you include by Harvey Minkoff has helped me! And agreed, Robert Alter is a gift. But – so are you! Thank you, again. Also, I’m passing the link along to my Hebrew teacher …


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