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Lamentations

Nancy C. Lee
Professor of Religious Studies, Elmhurst College

Course: Introduction to Biblical Studies; Biblical Poetry; The Bible as Literature
Intended Audience: Undergraduate; Master of Divinity/Theological Studies
Syllabus Section: The Writings; Megilloth; Biblical Poetry: Lamentations

Guide to the Lesson Plan

At the end of 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported in its Global Trends study that more than 60 million people had been displaced or made refugees in that year alone. This number is up nearly 3 million people from 2016 and is the largest increase of refugees ever recorded in a single year (Edwards). Such suffering resonates with the biblical book of Lamentations as the latter deals with war, destruction, death, forced migrations, and human expressions of anguished struggle in relation to faith. In order to navigate more easily through this biblical book, students should read the following in-depth entries: the first of which explains the book’s structure, and the second which examines its history and ethical issues.

Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. identify Lamentations within the Hebrew Bible, understand the historical context giving rise to Lamentations, as well as similar laments from neighboring cultures in the ancient Near East;
  2. identify key features of the book, ie, genres, multiple speakers, acrostic structures, and the artistry of poetic elements;
  3. recognize the grief context, and the socio-political, justice, and theological issues raised by the text, which also have continuing relevance in contexts of war, genocide, and trauma today; and
  4. find and recognize examples of lament expressions from contemporary cultural contexts.

Outline of Lesson Plan

  • I. Introduction to the Biblical Book of Lamentations
  • II. Mourning and the Voices of Lamentations

    • 1. Lecture and Suggested Readings
    • 2. In-class Student Assignments
    • 3. Additional Questions for Discussion
  • III. Post-Biblical, Cross-Cultural Expressions of Lament

    • 1. Lecture and Suggested Readings
    • 2. In-class Student Assignments
    • 3. Additional Questions for Discussion
  • IV. Research Projects and/or Final Papers

    • 1. The Book of Lamentations
    • 2. Contemporary Reflections
  • Further Reading

I. Introduction to the Biblical Book of Lamentations

In modern history and scholarship, there has been far less attention given to the book of Lamentations than to other biblical books. Yet, in the last twenty-five years, there has been a flurry of renewed interest in Lamentations, perhaps due to its relevance to a twentieth century filled with enormous human suffering worldwide, which continues unabated into this century. Recent studies have focused on many aspects of the book, ranging from the details of the poems; the multiple voices in the book, including one female voice; the relationship of Lamentations to classical laments over the destruction of cities in the ancient Near East; laments in other ancient and contemporary cultures; and theological and psychosocial issues of trauma in times of catastrophe and genocide.

II. Mourning and the Voices of Lamentations


1. Lecture and Suggested Readings

It is thought that victims and eyewitnesses of the Babylonian siege and destruction of Jerusalem (the capital of Judah) in 587 BCE were the ones who composed the lyrics of Lamentations. This end of the kingdom of Judah, until its later restoration, was the most significant national crisis for ancient Israel. The voices of Lamentations convey a context of traditional mourning, characteristic across cultures, and graphically describe suffering of members of their community. In Lamentations 1–2, two lead voices are in dialogue and intermix two lament genres: the communal dirge (parts of Lam 1, 2, and 4) and the lament prayer to God (parts of Lam 1, 2, 3, and all of 5). The communal dirge was typically uttered by Hebrew prophets. The prophetic dirge served as a warning to the community that both idolatry and social injustice may lead to its social collapse, the "death" of the nation. So the dirge signals the futility of death (and judgment), whereas the lament prayer signals hope, albeit dim in Lamentations, by the possibility of intervention by God to change the situation of suffering. A voice like a prophet in Lam 1 utters a communal dirge, blaming the city and nation, then comforts the other voice—a female mourner lamenting, who doubles as the personified city, Jerusalem/Daughter Zion. She admits her sin and punishment, yet also appeals to God directly with a lament to look upon her suffering and its severity. More vociferously, she describes with great distress the loss of the children she bore and nursed.

The text is also a vehicle for a deep psychosocial and theological struggle by these voices. In an intense interchange about suffering and its causes, with increasing anger they question God’s justice and responsibility for the deaths of innocent children. Thus, they implicitly begin to critique a strict theology of retributive justice as inadequate, which claims the wrongdoers or the unrighteous are punished in this life and God hears, rescues, and rewards only the good or righteous. This struggle was already expressed in some of Jeremiah’s laments, foreshadows and likely influences such debate in the book of Job, and raises important questions for people of faith about the presence/absence of God in the Shoah (Holocaust) and many other—even current—human catastrophes.

It has been documented by biblical scholars and anthropologists that women typically composed and performed mourning laments (dirges) across many cultures and throughout history. This practice is referred to also in the biblical culture, for example in Jeremiah 9. Yet the female voice in Lamentations had long been neglected as an important element in the book. That her voice goes beyond women’s traditional mourning to lead the dialogical debate about God’s (in)justice in the context is a striking development in the Hebrew Bible, its then-current theology, and usual gender roles. While some interpreters see in her voice only a persona of the city (albeit compelling), elsewhere in the Bible "Daughter Jerusalem" or "Daughter Zion" typically is not given such a lengthy speaking role. This raises a question as to whether the female performative voice is more than a constructed persona, perhaps a dissident singer or a female prophet (of which there were many in ancient Israel). Her tone of harsh questioning is in the tradition of the complaints to God of Moses and Jeremiah, and matched in its severity only by the later complaints in Job.

While there are multiple features of biblical poetry in Lamentations, one less-noted feature of the Hebrew is sound repetition. Across Lam 1–2, when the woman speaks there is embedded a triplet syllable sound repetition pattern (based on the triplet alliteration of consonants), and when the other (presumably male) voice speaks, he uses a doublet repetition pattern. These gendered oral/sound patterns of voices (found elsewhere in biblical poetry like the Song of Songs) match the shifts in speakers. Moreover, the pattern suggests that it is a female voice that opens the book (1:1‒2), empathetically describing Jerusalem like a widow.

How lonely sits the city

that once was full of people!

How like a widow she has become,

she that was great among the nations.

She that was a princess among the provinces

has become a vassal.

She weeps bitterly in the night,

with tears on her cheeks;

among all her lovers

she has no one to comfort her;

all her friends have dealt

treacherously with her;

they have become her enemies. (1:1‒2; NRSV)

The female voice opening Lamentations gives way to the other (male) prophetic voice in 1:3 using a doublet repetition pattern. He explains the devastation of the unfaithful, sinful city (implicitly like God’s wife) is divine punishment (v. 5; a poetic feature that feminists have rightly critiqued for its social implication of the abuse of women).

The outline below gives likely alternating speakers across Lam 1–2:

female 1:1‒2

male 1:3‒9b

female 1:9c

male 1:10‒11a

female 1:11b‒15b

male 1:15c

female 1:16

male 1:17

female 1:18‒22

male 2:1‒19

female 2:20‒22

Another feature of the book is its acrostics: chapters one, two, three, and four of Lamentations open their verses with each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, while chapter five simply has 22 lines without the alphabetic structure. There has been no consensus as to its purpose, perhaps signifying the fullness of sin, punishment, suffering or destruction. However, the other acrostics in the Bible (Pss 33, 34, 37, 94, 111, 112, 119, 145; except Prov 31:10–31), all lyrical, are each heavily invested in the idea of retributive justice and accordingly defend God as just and righteous; two are confessional psalms (25 and 38). These texts reveal a tradition of singers who composed psalms espousing retributive justice, a theological "order" hammered home by every letter (and line) of their acrostic form. Lamentations, however, bears an unusual feature within its acrostic: its voices invert two adjacent letters of the alphabet in Lam 2, 3, and 4 (as does Pss 9‒10, a lament). That is, where the specific letter in other acrostics often begin a line with a word referring to the "righteousness" of God, the Lamentations composers replace that word with another that refers to their "outcry" of lament. Thus, Lamentations seems to show lament singers, who in their rebelling against the traditional retributive explanation, employ the acrostic structure to challenge that order of justice, insufficient to explain their suffering context.

This rhetorical, theological battle is also evident in Lam 3. There a new voice enters the fray and describes his suffering with martial imagery, suggesting a defeated soldier who complains that God, instead of helping him, had turned against him, becoming like his enemy. Yet, he finds hope in recalling God’s mercies in the past. Another new voice answers him, calls for the ceasing of lament and, instead, confessing sin in silence (this voice sounds much like Job’s friends, who defend God’s "righteous" ways and accuse Job of presumed sin as explanation for his suffering).

Lam 4 suggests the resumption of the prophetic male voice of chapter 2, further describing the devastation. The book closes in Lam 5 with a communal lament prayer to God with "we" language by those left behind in the land of Judah after others were killed or exiled to Babylon. This lament suggests a time after the frenzied catastrophe, when survivors attempt to carry on in the midst of post‒war deprivations and hardships. At the end, they raise a most difficult plea and questions to God:

But you, O LORD, reign forever;

your throne endures to all generations.

Why have you forgotten us completely?

Why have you forsaken us these many days?

Restore us to yourself, O LORD,

that we may be restored;

renew our days as of old—

unless you have utterly rejected us,

and are angry with us beyond measure. (5:19‒22; NRSV)

There is no divine answer to their lament here, nor is God’s voice included anywhere in the book.

2. In-class Student Assignments

(a) Assign five small groups and have each take a chapter of Lamentations; let them together search for and discuss the elements they find, such as what genre is being used, identify speaking voice(s), personification, parallelism, metaphor, repetition of words or features; have each group report out to the whole class what they find; ask the class how the artistry of these elements poignantly shapes the messages and meanings of the text.

(b) Ask students to imagine they are actually living in the midst of war—witnessing it, suffering, and surviving; have the members of small groups in class each take on one of the five voices within Lamentations, discuss it, and perform that voice (the two lead voices in Lam 1–2; the soldier opening Lam 3; the respondent to him in Lam 3; the lead voice returning in Lam 4; the communal voice of Lam 5); encourage students to use dramatic inflection as they take on each voice and perform it for the whole class; afterward, ask them what difference it made to their grasp of the meanings and messages of the text, that they articulated the voices out loud in this way.

3. Additional Questions for Discussion

  1. What is the effect or impact of having multiple voices lamenting from the ancient context of Lamentations?
  2. Lamentations offers one of the few biblical texts with extended speech by a female figure. Why is she important? How does the female speaker’s message differ from the other voices in Lamentations?

III. Post-Biblical, Cross-Cultural Expressions of Lament


1. Lecture and Suggested Readings

It should be apparent that the book of Lamentations, while expressing some time-bound, limited understandings rooted in the ancient culture, also contains poignant grappling with issues of suffering and war that remain relevant for human beings of all times. In biblical times and beyond, Lamentations was read annually at the commemoration of the destruction (on the Jewish calendar on the Ninth of Ab—the day and month in 586 BCE). The ceremony also commemorates the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), as well as later historic catastrophes, including the Shoah (Holocaust). The biblical lament tradition and Lamentations also inspired later works in Jewish history, such as Isaac bar Shalom’s twelfth-century zulat poem included in standard prayers of Ashkenazic synagogues to express Jews’ suffering from the Crusade attacks in the Rhineland. Texts of Lamentations, along with other Christian laments including those attributed to Mary, mother of Jesus, have been sung for many centuries by Christian church traditions in the Tenebrae service during Holy Week to commemorate the death of Jesus.

Lamentations and lament Psalms, as Biblical Hebrew Poetry, have directly inspired later compositions in the religious traditions. Yet these types of poetry and song also show great affinity to laments by people across cultures worldwide, due to their shared concerns and similar elements. A wide array of examples of such laments worldwide may be found in Lyrics of Lament: From Tragedy to Transformation where links to audio and video performances may be found (under "Samples," click on "Web Links for Lyrics of Lament").

2. In-class Student Assignments

(a) Have students bring in their own favored lament songs or poetry to share, recite, and/or listen to together and watch performed on YouTube in class.

(b) Have students identify whether the poem or song heard may be a dirge or a lament prayer (or contain both), as well as any poetic elements they hear within the example; this reveals universally shared aspects of the lament genres across cultures and through history.

(c) Ask students how identifying the genre and its elements has an impact on their understanding and appreciation of the poem or song from a particular individual/cultural group.

3. Additional Questions for Discussion

  1. Forms of lament (in embodied social protest, music, poetry, and art) are found in cultures worldwide and through history. What would you say are some important purposes of lament?
  2. Alternatively, what do we miss if we do not have human lament in society?

IV. Research Projects and/or Final Papers


1. The Book of Lamentations

(a) Students may choose to analyze and exegete Lam 1, 2, and 4 fully in order to track the two lead voices through the elements of the lament poetry and the justice concerns.

(b) Students may choose to examine the theological issues most paramount through the book of Lamentations.

(c) Students may choose to examine how Lamentations addresses the process of the human need to grieve, mourn, respond to trauma, and raise questions in the midst of suffering.

(d) Students may choose to compare the communal laments in the Psalms to Lam 5.

2. Contemporary Reflections

Given the importance of expressing lament in both religious and social arenas today, review the following resources regarding displacement and refugees, and then consider their relation to Lamentations. Encourage students to research other modern day examples of the relationship between Lamentations, displacement, destruction, and loss.

Examine the "Figures at a Glance" data recorded by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which reports that about 68.5 million people have been forcefully displaced worldwide. Of this number, 25.4 million are refugees, and more than half of them are children and youth under the age of 18 (UNHCR, 2018).

A Norwegian Refugee Council report (May 2017) noted that Uganda is now also among the world’s leading nations to host refugees, and the leading African country to do so, receiving more than one million refugees, including many from South Sudan.

Low and middle-income nations are accepting more refugees than wealthier nations. However, according to the UN refugee agency, the flow of refugees from North Africa across the Mediterranean into Italy continues unabated.

This 2015 photo essay documents a multi-year art project by artists with children and youth in the Zaa’tari refugee camp in Jordan, where more than 100,000 people live.

Another example of outreach to displaced people is the help given to Syrian refugees in Europe by Bosnians, who deeply understand from their recent history what it means to suffer through the horrors of war, genocide, destruction of homes and towns, and displacement into refugee camps. People from the Tuzla Baptist Church make regular trips to the refugee corridors, spend the night there, and bring needed supplies and moral support to thousands of people passing through the region.

Another refugee story shares the lament of an teenage Afghan girl who fled her country.

Students might incorporate a “Contemporary Reflection” section at the end of an above final paper focus, in order to highlight the ongoing relevance of lament for a particular context in our world. Encourage students to locate firsthand accounts/laments from a crisis today.

For a final project/paper, ask students to research one of the large global crises today. Apart from citing statistics, or news accounts only, ask students to search for and listen to firsthand, eyewitness accounts that are voices of lament, or firsthand stories from that context of crisis that serve as lament. What information and impact are gained by listening to voices of people suffering, compared to simple statistics or (outsider) third-person accounts?

Further Reading

Allen, Leslie. A Liturgy of Grief : A Pastoral Commentary on Lamentations. Baker Academic, 2011.

Bailey, Wilma, and Christina Bucher. Lamentations & Song of Songs. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Herald Press, 2015.

Berlin, Adele. Lamentations: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002.

Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W. Lamentations: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Interpreters Bible Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002.

Edwards, Adrian. “Forced displacement at record 68.5 million.” UNHCR. The UN Refugee Agency. 19 Jun 2018.

Gerstenberger, Erhard. Psalms, Part 2, and Lamentations. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.

Lee, Nancy C. Lyrics of Lament: From Tragedy to Transformation. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010.

Lee, Nancy C. The Singers of Lamentations: Cities Under Siege, From Ur to Jerusalem to Sarajevo. Leiden: Brill, 2002.

Linafelt, Tod. Surviving Lamentations: Catastrophe, Lament and Protest in the Afterlife of a Biblical Book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Morrow, William S. Protest Against God: Eclipse of a Biblical Tradition. Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007.

O’Connor, Kathleen M. Lamentations and the Tears of the World. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2002.

Parry, Robin A. and Heath A. Thomas, eds. Great is Thy Faithfulness?: Reading Lamentations as Sacred Scripture. Wipf & Stock, 2011.

Salters, R.B. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Lamentations. London: T&T Clark, 2010.

Suter, Ann, editor. Lament: Studies in the Ancient Mediterranean and Beyond. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Weems, Ann. Psalms of Lament. Westminster John Knox, 1999.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Lament for a Son. Eerdmans, 1987.

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