The Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries series offers compact, critical commentaries on all the books of the Old Testament. In addition to providing fundamental information on and insights into Old Testament writings, these commentaries exemplify the tasks and procedures of careful, critical exegesis so as to assist students of the Old Testament in coming to an informed engagement of the biblical texts themselves. These commentaries are written with special attention to the needs and interests of theology students, but they will also be useful for students in upper-level college or university settings, as well as for pastors and other church leaders.
Each volume consists of four parts:
an introduction that addresses the key issues raised by the writing; the literary genre, structure, and character of the writing; the occasional and situational context of the writing, including its wider social and historical context; and the theological and ethical significance of the writing within these several contexts
a commentary on the text, organized by literary units, covering literary analysis, exegetical analysis, and theological and ethical analysis
an annotated bibliography
a brief subject index
Bergant's commentary opens to students and pastors the visceral poetry of Lamentations, a book that plumbs the depth of biblical Israel's despair over the destruction of Jerusalem. The security of Jerusalem signaled divine protection of the whole nation, so Jerusalem's destruction was perceived as a sign that God had abandoned the entire people. The book of Lamentations is a cry to God for mercy. The horrors detailed within its five short chapters reveal the extent of human cruelty and the resiliency of the human spirit to endure such cruelty. Unlike many biblical books, Lamentations ends on an unresolved note. Will God eventually hear the cry of the people? Will God, as in days gone by, step in with mercy and salvation?
About the Author
Dianne Bergant, C.S.A., Professor Emerita Old Testament Studies is the former Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., Distinguished Professor of Old Testament Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She holds a B.S. in Elementary Education from Marian College, Fond du Lac, Wis.; an M.A. and Ph.D. in Biblical Languages and Literature from St. Louis University.
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Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Lamentations
By Dianne Bergant
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2003 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Desolation of Zion
The intricacies of the structure of this first poem reveal the extraordinary artistic acumen of the poet. The most obvious and overarching feature of the poem is its acrostic organization, each verse beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet. Also, the 3+2 qinah meter predominates throughout. Yet another feature of the poem is the length of its verses, three lines to a strophe, with the exception of 1:7, which contains four lines.
The very complexity of this first poem lends itself to various methods of division and analysis. While insights gleaned from various approaches will be incorporated in this investigation, the principle of division employed in this commentary will be that of voice. Two voices are heard in this poem. There is the narrator (1-11b), the voice that describes the scenes of destruction and misery, not to be confused with the poet who is responsible for the entire composition, and the city, personified as a woman, the victim of the misfortunes (11c-22). Each of these speeches is interrupted once: the city breaks into the speech of the narrator (v. 9c) and the narrator interrupts the city (v. 17). The following is the structure adopted here:
A Lament over the City: 1:1-11b
It is very difficult to determine the exact genre of this poetic unit. It possesses certain features of the dirge, such as the introductory exclamation "How" ('êkah), third person speaker, and descriptions of the reversal of fortunes. However, unlike the funeral elegy, it is not a response to death, for though many, if not most, of her inhabitants have been put to death, the city herself survives to mourn her loss. Nor is there an invitation to join in a mourning ritual. Rather, it is a description of a city that, though despoiled and depopulated, weeps over her tragic situation. In this, it resembles a plaintive lament, and it possesses various features of that genre: (1) an expression of grief resulting from a national disaster; (2) a description of how the suffering affects the way the city views herself and her status in the broader society; (3) her relationship with God; and (4) a direct plea to God to take notice of the city's affliction.
Despite all of these genre similarities, this passage fits best into the classification of the city-lament. The most obvious characteristic that it shares with this genre is its personification of the destroyed and agonizing city. Other features include the description of the tribulations endured by various groups of inhabitants, the collapse of civil order and the cessation of religious celebration described from the perspective of the conquered rather than the conqueror, and finally, the clear statement that the suffering has been divinely directed.
Each strophe in this unit consists of three lines, with the exception of verse 7, which has four lines. Scholars divide the unit in different ways, following various criteria. Although there is thematic overlapping, which will be noted throughout the commentary, the material seems to fall into two major sections:
1-6 description of the sorry plight of the city
7-11b explanation of the cause of such unspeakable distress
9c prayer to God by Jerusalem
The Sorry Plight of the City
The narrator begins this speech in the same way as both the second and the fourth speeches begin, with a mournful cry traditionally associated with the dirge: "Ah!" or "Ah how!" ('êkah; see Isa 1:21). This single word bespeaks astonishment, incredulity, horror. It introduces a description of reversal of fortunes, one of the foremost characteristics of the both the funeral dirge and the city-lament and perhaps the underlying theme of this poem. This startling word is followed in rapid succession by three sets of contrasting descriptive phrases: once filled with people, the city is now lonely; once great among the nations, she is now a widow; once a princess among the provinces, she is now a vassal. The first two lines (v. 1ab) contrast the city's present deplorable state with her former greatness. The order of the third line (v. 1c) is just the opposite; reference to her former royal nature precedes the declaration of her present servitude. With this shift, the strophe begins and ends on a note of desolation.
By means of personification, a trait of the city-lament, the city is characterized as a mother, a widow, and a princess. Maternal personification of cities was a common ancient practice that has survived in many places even down to the present day. Probably the major reason for such characterization stemmed from the fact that ancient cities were generally walled. The image of residents within its confines corresponds to that of children within the womb of their mother or, upon their birth, within the circle of her maternal care. An examination of the myths of origin of many cities of the ancient world reveals the belief that the inhabitants of the city were born from the union of a patron god and his consort, who may be either human or divine. Identification with the mother may have been easier than with the father, because there may not have been certainty about paternity while people generally knew the mother from whom they had been born. In societies where survival of the people was a major concern, female fertility was considered one of its most valued possessions. These considerations may explain why large cities were regarded as fertile mothers.
The metaphor of mother implicit here functions in the following way. Mother is the vehicle of the metaphor, the carrier of the meaning that is to be transferred. The city is the referent of the metaphor, the receiver of the meaning. The tenor of the metaphor or the point of comparison, is maternal fertility. In this first poem, the city mourns over her reversal of fortune. The female characteristic of maternal fertility, so highly valued in the ancient world, was originally enjoyed by her. She was "once full of people." Now, however, the opposite is true. She is alone. The metaphor tells us that the city is childless, that is, devoid of inhabitants.
Widow has a slightly different meaning than the previous characterization. In patriarchal societies, women are under the legal jurisdiction and protection first of their fathers and then of their brothers. When they marry, their husbands assume this responsibility. Upon the death of their husbands, their sons do. When the Bible speaks of widows, it generally refers to those who have no legal protector and, therefore, are vulnerable and defenseless. They have no male relative to act on their behalf. In this instance, the intended tenor of the metaphor is probably the vulnerable status of the woman rather than the absence through death of her husband. In former days the city may have enjoyed being "great among the nations" (v. 1b) because of her numerous children, but now she is alone and unprotected like a childless widow.
The final contrast contains two metaphors: princess and vassal. The meaning of the first metaphor is obvious. Just as a princess is of royal descent and enjoys the power and privilege that accompany such lineage, so the city once occupied a position of dominance among neighboring cities and it commanded their respect. Now the reverse is true. She has become the vassal of another. This metaphor suggests that now she is captive, a prisoner of war, one who owes homage and fealty to an over-lord, one subjected to forced labor.
Metaphors function in two ways, a representational manner which highlights physical similarity and a presentational manner intended to elicit an emotional response. While both functions are operative here, the presentational manner seems to be dominant. This is confirmed by the introductory mournful exclamation "How" ('êkah) and the vivid depiction of reversal of fortune, as well as by the use of hyperbole in the descriptions themselves: "full of people ... great among the nations." The narrator is not content merely to report the plight of the city. This report is meant to startle the onlooker and cause dismay.
The personification of the city continues (v. 2). She is desolate and grieving. Although the last line of this strophe contains a distinct dirgelike statement of reversal, the general description more closely resembles that of the city-lament. It is a description of misery, not of death as would be the case in a true dirge. Overwhelmed by sorrow, the city weeps and sheds tears. Though frequently used interchangeably, these two emotional responses (sorrow and weeping) are not exactly the same. The word for weeping denotes convulsive gasping for air and crying aloud for relief. It is frequently accompanied by tears, as is the case here. Mention of night suggests desolation, and it implies that the city has been robbed of sleep and the strengthening refreshment that it affords. In the midst of the reversal of fortune and the devastation that it has brought, the city finds no comfort. This theme appears throughout the poem like a refrain (see vv. 9b, 16b, 17a, 21a), accentuating the hopelessness that attends the actual catastrophe. The city must endure unimaginable tribulation, "with no one to comfort her" (v. 2b).
The suffering city is not simply alone, she is desolate because her lovers have deserted her. Lover is a very provocative metaphor. It suggests an opening of oneself to another and the acceptance of the other in return. It can also imply passionate commitment. There has been significant discussion about the identity of these lovers. Some argue that this is a figurative reference to questionable political liaisons, dallying with foreign nations, or idolatrous cultic allegiance to other gods. Others maintain that it is merely a reference to those to whom the city was somehow appropriately committed. This statement of reversal might be even more tragic than the ones reported earlier: here her intimate friends are now her enemies. The poetic balance between "all her lovers" and "all her friends," with the latter's statement of reversal, helps us to realize that the actual identity of the lovers is not the issue. Rather, though not strictly expressed, an implicit statement of reversal appears in the second line of this verse as well. The beleaguered city may have enjoyed the attention and support of lovers in the past, but, whoever they might have been, they now offer her no comfort. The city is not only the subject of vanquishment and despoliation, but she is also the victim of abandonment and betrayal by those whom she should have been able to trust and turn to in times of danger and need.
It is not until the third strophe (v. 3) that the identity of the city becomes clear; for it is there that Judah is mentioned. If Judah is the nation, then surely Jerusalem is the city that was once great but is now desolate. Judah, which like the city is a collectivity, is here also the subject of personification. However, this personification is slightly different. It seems that the city sits where she always sat, but now she sits alone, while the nation Judah has gone into exile. It is important to remember that poetry by its nature is impressionistic and not meant to be analyzed in the same way as is prose. Overlapping of images and apparent inconsistency of thought are often present. An example of this inconsistency can be seen in the characterization of the city as a childless widow. If the inhabitants are dead, one is hard-pressed to say that the city is really still alive. Yet this city is alive, mourning the death of her children.
Judah was the name of the southern kingdom during the period of national division (922–722 B.C.E.), which the northern kingdom alone retained the name Israel. With the fall of the north, the south regained governing prominence and the name Judah incorporated the entire nation. It is in this inclusive sense that the name is meant here. Furthermore, while the name certainly identifies the political entity, the description here suggests that the reference is to the nation of people. However, the statement of reversal with which the strophe opens allows for both meanings. Judah the political entity has lost its former independence and is now in exile in the land of and under the jurisdiction of another nation; Judah the nation of formerly free individuals has been uprooted from its home and now lives in servitude to another.
The Hebrew construction of the first line of this strophe (v. 3a) yields two very different versions. If the preposition is translated as causal, it means "because of suffering and hard servitude"; if it implies a condition, it means "with suffering and hard servitude." The distinction is quite significant. The first version seems to say that the hardship was itself the reason for the exile. This suggests that Judah chose to be a fugitive in order to escape adversity. The second and more favored version indicates that the nation experienced hardship even before being taken into exile. This meaning is more in keeping with the sense of Judah's vulnerability before her oppressors and with the description that follows.
One of the divine promises made to the ancestors of the people of God was possession of a land of their own. The people cherished this land as a resting place, a place where they could be free from the tyranny of other nations (see Deut 12:9; Ps 95:11). Now, having been wrenched from her own land, Judah lives in exile among other nations with no resting place of her own. The third line of this strophe (v. 3c) appears to be out of chronological order. Surely the city's adversity ("her pursuers have all overtaken her") preceded her deportation (v. 3ab). However, poetry follows different rules than does prose narrative, and adherence to the poem's acrostic structure takes precedence in this ordering. Judah's pursuers were probably those who besieged her before she was taken into exile. This confirms the idea expressed in the first line of the strophe. The meaning of the Hebrew of this last line (v. 3c) is uncertain. The word frequently translated "distressed" comes from the word for "narrow" or "cramped." It suggests that her pursuers overtook Judah because she was caught in a place which provided no opportunity for escape. Since each strophe adds a dimension to the description of the plight of the city, one can say that she was vanquished and despoiled, abandoned and betrayed; the nation was ripped from the security of her resting place and taken into exile.
The city once again demands our attention (v. 4). Strictly speaking Zion is the name of the mount upon which the city of Jerusalem was built. However, eventually the name of the city and that of the mount came to be used interchangeably. It is clear that this poem is talking about the city. The first line and part of the second treat features of the city itself; the rest of the strophe begins a consideration of the suffering of various groups of the city's inhabitants. Since the temple, the center of Israelite worship, was situated in Jerusalem, the city itself certainly participated in the celebrations of all the major religious festivals. Religious pilgrims would have crowded the streets; visitors would have filled the inns; and shops would have realized an abundance of business. The entire city would have been charged with the excitement of the feast. But Zion has suffered a reversal. Its roads are deserted, for the city has been ravaged and festivities have come to an end. The roads themselves now mourn this loss of festive excitement.
The narrator next speaks of the gates of the city (v. 4b), an indication that it was indeed walled. City gates were very important for several reasons. First, they offered protection from invasion or stealth. Second, it was through them that the city was able to carry on commerce and the exchange of the fruits of civilization. Third, because of all of this activity, influential men conducted the major business of governance in the open square in front of these gates, giving the gates themselves added importance. Now they are said to be desolate. This word can mean "deserted," making the phrase a simple description of the empty square. It can also mean "disconsolate," adding to the emotional impact of the metaphor of personified gates. Both the roads and the gates grieve over the absence of religious pilgrims and the excitement that they brought to the city.
As is characteristic of a city-lament, the narrator calls attention to two groups within the populace, namely, the priests and the young maidens (v. 4bc). The cessation of ritual celebrations would have been particularly bitter for the priests, for the religious practices to which they had committed themselves and which were the source of their very livelihood have come to an abrupt end (cf. Joel 1:9). It is understandable that they would groan. There is evidence that young girls also played a significant role in ritual festivities, participating through song and dance (see Ps 68:25; Jer 31:13). The Hebrew here is uncertain. The same verb yields the meanings "grieve" or "thrust away." While some commentators argue that the line states that maidens are dragged away into exile, the context argues for the first meaning; just as the priests groan, so the young girls grieve. The narrator succeeds in recounting the overall bitterness experienced by the city.
Excerpted from Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Lamentations by Dianne Bergant. Copyright © 2003 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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