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Notes from Limmud 2007

Utterly Rejected: Theology in Crisis in the Book of Lamentations

Deborah Kahn-Harris

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transription is not guaranteed.]

Lamentations 5:21 איכה ה כא
Return us to you, O LORD, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old. השיבנו ה׳ אליך ונשוב חדש ימינו כקדם׃

We all sing this enthusiastically in shul. But it's worth considering what the context of it is in the liturgy, as opposed to its context in Lamentations.

Key background information about Lamentations: The book (Hebrew, English translation with Rashi) is a response to destruction of Jerusalem, and the Temple in particular, by the Babylonians. This was important because it was the main centre of religious practice—but also because the Shechinah dwelt in the Temple. For a sixth-century Judaite, the Temple was the centre of their universe, religiously and culturally. The destruction of the First Temple was devastating, in the way that that of the Second perhaps wasn't: it destroyed people's world, utterly and completely.

It's called איכה, "Alas!" in the Bible; but in rabbinic literature is called קינות (cf. threnoi in the Septuagint)—"Dirges", whence the English term. What difference does the title make? Calling it איכה is more getting into the text. Calling it קינות already alerts us to the content of the text, and hence to its form.

The book is short. Chapters 1-4 are all acrostics, with multiple lines for each letter of the alphabet, with some chapters have multiple acrostics (e.g. Ch. 3 which has a triple acrostic).

Ch. 55 is 22 verses (i.e. the length of the Hebrew alphabet) but not an acrostic and only one line per verse. What's the point of an acrostic? Making it easier to learn? Also, a sense of completion, going from beginning to end of the alphabet. An acrostic also constrains you; it's self-limiting. Some scholars belief that because the trauma of the Destruction was so great, putting the book into acrostics helped to constrain the emotional output.

The authorship of the book is traditionally ascribed, from the Septuagint onwards, to Jeremiah. There's no way to prove whether he did or didn't write it. Academic Bible scholars get tied up about this. Is there a single author; or multiple authors for all five chapters? The latest trendy theory is that there was a circle of authors, and that these were the temple singers.

The book was written some time in the period 587–538 BCE: definitely not later than the Return; perhaps not later than 550 BCE. Not many Biblical books can be dated this well. This is significant, because the author was almost certainly an eyewitness. (There is some controversy over the dating of Chapter 5, in particular, to the Maccabean period; this theory dates to the nineteenth century, and is periodically revived and debunked, on linguistic and grammatical analysis, as well as content analysis.)

What is the genre? Is it a lament, an individual with multiple speaking voices? Could it be a national/political version of a funeral dirge? The only chapter that everyone is in sound agreement about is Chapter 5, which is a communal lament: Everything is in first person plural.

Who is speaking in Chapter 5? In the previous chapters, the speaking voices are Zion (Chs. 1–2), personified, interestingly, as female. In Chapter 3 the voice is "the man who has known affliction". There's also a narrative voice. Traditionally, the book has been read in a chiastic fashion: it builds up from Chapter 1 to the pinnacle in Chapter 3, then heads back downward to Chapter 5.

Interesting, chapter 3 is the only part of the book that deals with repentance, though this is not a major theme, even in chapter 3.

Chs. 1–4 have a קינה metre, where the first half of the verse is shorter than the second half of the verse. Chapter 5 has a completely different metre; the verses are more evenly balanced.

Given that repentance is not a major theme, what are the major themes? There is a huge crying out to G-d; "See, O Eternal, to whom you have done this." I.e. You, G-d, bear witness to what you have done. We may have screwed up, but you went completely over the top; your reaction was incommensurate. A second theme is what we would today call witnessing: Look, there are mothers eating their children for want of food; there's rape; people are completely distraught. There's not very much about repentance without a bit of a leap of faith.

Who was in Jerusalem to see the destruction? The King, the army, the priests, all the elite classes, are already gone: carried off into exile or killed. Who is left is the hoi polloi. So these people are not only starving, destituted and traumatised; they are also leaderless. A great deal of Lamentations is a crying out against this.

(OTOH, who was it that wrote this, who can write so well? There are various theories, such as that it was ghostwritten, or that someone in a low profession was well-enough educate to be able to write. Jeremiah himself didn't go into exile in Babylon; he went to Egypt.)

Consider Chapter 5: It's a communal lament, non-acrostic, 22 verses. Traditionally the Jews read the penultimate line again at the end, because it's not good to end on a downer.

The themes are first, shame:

Lamentations 5:11–12 איכה ה יא־יב
They ravished the women in Zion, and the maidens in the cities of Judah. Princes are hanged up by their hand; the faces of elders are not honoured. נשים בציון ענו בתלת בערי יהודה׃ שרים בידם נתלו פני זקנים לא נהדרו׃

When the prophets want to talk about shaming a community, they talk about rape.

The second theme is complaint, or accusation against G-d:

Lamentations 5:20 איכה ה כ
Why do you forget us for ever, and forsake us so long a time? למה לנצח תשכחנו תעזבנו לארך ימים׃

But despite everything which has happened, there's still an engagement with G-d. It sometimes smacks, disturbingly, of the abused clinging to the abuser. (There may also be a sense that now the residence of G-d on Earth has been destroyed, the onus is on us now to call out up to G-d.)

The third theme of the chapter is questioning and doubting.

Now, consider the last two verses.

הַשִיבֵנוּ ה׳ אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשוּבָ חַדֵּש יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם׃ כִּי אִם מָאֹס מְאַסְתָּנוּ קָצַפְתָּ עָלֵינוּ עַד־מְאֹד׃

There are problems in translating these verses; in translating them we fix what we feel the chapter is about.

  • To what unit of verses do these final two verses belong?
  • What is the effect/force of the קרי/כתיב discrepancy? (The כתיב is ונשוב, the קרי is ונשובה: the written text is "we shall return", the read text "we will return".)
  • What, if anything, is the relationship of the use of the verse שוב in this verse to the theological concept of תשובה? In the mediaeval period everyone read it in there, but what about at the time?
  • What does כִּי אִם mean in the final verse?
  • Is there a protasis ("if") and an apodosis ("then") in verse 22, and if so, how are they related to each other?
  • How does this final coda relate to the rest of the chapter?
  • In what was does this final coda serve as a conclusion to the entire book?
  • What is the structure of these verses and how, if at all, does it relate to their meaning?
  • How does the traditional Jewish practice of repeating verse 21 at the end affect the perceived meaning of the text.

כִּי אִם

The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew lists: "(but) rather", "apart from , other than, except; unless"; "if not, otherwise"; "I swear that it is certainly the case that", "If, surely not"; "for if, that if, but if , even if", etc. Much of this is contextual. How you choose the appropriate version affects the meaning you get. Normally you would rule out meanings that are not attested elsewhere, but because the Bible is not the largest corpus of text, unattested meanings are not really to be ruled out unequivocally.

מָאֹס מְאַסְתָּנוּ, an infinitive absolute followed by a perfect, is an emphatic form; normally translated "surely". But the כִּי אִם in front of it does the same thing here.

Some Christian translations:

KJV: Turn thou us unto thee, O LORD, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old.
But thou hast utterly rejected us; thou art very wroth against us.

NEB: O Lord, turn us back to thyself, and we will come back; renew our days as in times long past.
For if thou hast utterly rejected us, then great indeed has been thine anger against us.

Interestingly, the second is the modern update of the first, but it introduces the if...then construct.

RSV: Restore us to thyself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days of old!
Or hast thou utterly rejected us? Art thou exceedingly angry with us?

This translates the last sentence as a question; it also translates שוב in the first verse as "restore" rather than "turn back".

NRSV: Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; restore our days as of old.
Unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.

Now Jewish translations:

JPS 1917: Turn Thou us unto Thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old.
Thou canst not have utterly rejected us, and be exceeding wroth against us!

JPS 67: [...]For truly, you have rejected us, [...]bitterly raged against us.

Academic translations:

Robert Gordis (1974):

Turn us to yourself, O Lord, and we shall return; renew our days as of old,
even though you had despised us greatly and were very angry with us.

He introduced "even though" for כִּי אִם. This meaning is not commonly used; but he makes a case for it. For him, it can't say anything theologically problematic; it has to say something in keeping with the spirit of the book.

IPG Gous (1990) compares many translations and accepts Gordis as authoritative.

Todd Linafelt (2001):

Take us back, O Lord, to yourself and we will come back. Renew our days as of old.
For if truly you have rejected us, raging bitterly against us...

He interprets this as a protasis without an apodosis; it's meant to be left hanging. [Which reminds me of the similarly hanging construct in Psalm 27: לוּלֵא הֶאֱמַנְתִּי לִרְאוֹת בְּטוּב־ה׳ בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים "Had I not trusted that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of life...!" ]

Why "Bring us back" and "we will return"? Recall the different voices referred to above. The speaker plays with this midrashically:

The Daughter of Zion says: Return us unto You, O Lord.
And the Man says: we will return
Then the two of them say together: renew our days as of old.
אמרה בת־ציון השיבנו ה׳ אליך
ואמר האיש ונשונה
ושניהם ביחד חדש ימינו כקדם

Now, what is this verse doing at the end of the Torah service? Consider: the Torah service has taken the place, at a level, of the Temple service.* We're not just returning the Torah scrolls to the Ark; we're also recalling the destruction of the Temple in this verse, particularly if you recall the verse following this one, the last one in the book.

Indeed, putting the Torah away is recalling the Shechinah withdrawing from us when the Temple was destroyed.

* [Ismar Schorsh makes a neat connection between the two here. (That site appears to be down at present, but you can read Google's cache of it in the meantime.)]

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2008-08-13 10:48 am (UTC)
ext_15802: (Default)
From: [identity profile] megamole.livejournal.com
Also in the Christian tradition, there have been some exceptionally powerful musical settings of the Lamentations. The most famous is by Thomas Tallis; Byrd, Lassus, Palestrina and Victoria also did full settings, and later composers picked bits out. I'm not sure whether the Venetian Jewish early Baroque composer Salomone Rossi ever set the text, but if he did the music would have sounded very similar to his contemporaries Grandi and Monteverdi.


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