Reading Lamentations with Inner-Biblical Exegesis
To understand most biblical texts—and this is certainly true of Eichah (Lamentations)—we must look beyond their vocabulary and syntax to consider the intertextual cues left by the author. This method, also known as inner-biblical exegesis, opens a pathway to an interpretation that is often quite different from those found in standard translations.
1. “Eichah” in Lamentations and Isaiah
The book of Eichah opens by lamenting the sorry state of Jerusalem after the Babylonian conquest. The NJPS translation divides the opening verse into three parts: The first laments how a city once full of people is now empty; the second how a once politically important city is now alone and unprotected, like a widow; the third how a once important city is now subjugated.
איכה א:א אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד הָעִיר רַבָּתִי עָם
Lam 1:1 Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people!
הָיְתָה כְּאַלְמָנָה רַבָּתִי בַגּוֹיִם
She that was great among nations is become like a widow;
שָׂרָתִי בַּמְּדִינוֹת הָיְתָה לָמַס.
The princess among states is become a thrall. (NJPS)
Looking at this verse’s intertext in Isaiah suggests an alternative parsing. The opening chapter of Isaiah describes the devastation of Judah, most likely as a result of King Sennacherib of Assyria’s campaign of 701 B.C.E. At one point, the text uses a lament similar in style to that of our verse in Lamentations:
ישעיה א:כא אֵיכָה הָיְתָה לְזוֹנָה קִרְיָה נֶאֱמָנָה
Isa 1:21 How did such a faithful city become perverse,
מְלֵאֲתִי מִשְׁפָּט צֶדֶק יָלִין בָּהּ וְעַתָּה מְרַצְּחִים
once full of justice where righteousness resided, and now full of murder?
The opening phrase here is a question: How did the once faithful city go astray? Working from Isaiah’s question, our verse presents a double question, in which the opening words apply to both parts, as is common in Hebrew poetry:
אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד הָעִיר
How sits the forlorn city
רַבָּתִי עָם הָיְתָה כְּאַלְמָנָה?
once streaming with people become as a widow?
רַבָּתִי בַגּוֹיִם שָׂרָתִי בַּמְּדִינוֹת הָיְתָה לָמַס?
once prominent among the nations, a princess of a capital, been reduced to forced labor?
Each part emphasizes the city’s forlornness in a different fashion. In the first, it is now a city without people, in the second it is a city without political importance.
2. Lamentations and the Exodus Story
The imagery of forced labor, הָיְתָה לָמַס, appears in many biblical texts: Solomon requires forced labor of his subjects (1Kgs 5:27, 9:21), the Israelites require it of foreign cities (Deut 20:11) and Canaanites they conquer (Josh 16:10, 17:13, Judg 1:28, 30, 33, 35), and Pharaoh requires it of the Israelites:
שמות א:יא וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם.
Exod 1:11 So they set masters of forced labor over them to afflict them in their suffering.
This latter verse, which also describes the affliction of the Israelites, further connects us to the third verse of Lamentations:
איכה א:ג גָּלְתָה יְהוּדָה מֵעֹנִי וּמֵרֹב עֲבֹדָה הִיא יָשְׁבָה בַגּוֹיִם לֹא מָצְאָה מָנוֹחַ כׇּל רֹדְפֶיהָ הִשִּׂיגוּהָ בֵּין הַמְּצָרִים
Lam 1:3 Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and heavy labor; when she settled among the nations, she found no rest; all her pursuers overtook her in the narrow places. (NJPS)
In addition to its connection to the oppression of the Israelites in Exodus 1:11, it further connects to Deuteronomy’s brief summary of the exodus story, which mentions both oppression and hard work:
דברים כו:ו וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים וַיְעַנּוּנוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה.
Deut 26:6 The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and afflicted us; they imposed heavy labor upon us.
The third part of the verse, which describes how כׇּל־רֹדְפֶיהָ הִשִּׂיגוּהָ “all of [Judah’s] pursuers overtook her,” has strong intertextual connection with Pharaoh’s pursuit of the Israelites in the story of the splitting of the sea:
שמות יד:ט וַיִּרְדְּפוּ מִצְרַיִם אַחֲרֵיהֶם וַיַּשִּׂיגוּ אוֹתָם חֹנִים עַל־הַיָּם.
Exod 14:9 The Egyptians pursued them and caught up with them stuck by the sea.
The word metzaryim is consonantly the same as the Hebrew name for Egypt, Mitzrayim; only the vowels are different. Once we note the connection to the splitting of the sea account, we can see the literary playfulness of the phrase בֵּין הַמְּצָרִים, which evokes the imagery of Israel caught between the Egyptian army and the Sea, mentioned in this same verse (Exod 14:9), as well as Israel’s escape by crossing between the walls of water formed by the split sea (Exod 14:22).
Other allusions to Egypt are interspersed in the first, the middle, and the last chapter of Eichah.
Affliction and Agony
איכה א:ט רְאֵה י־הוה אֶת עָנְיִי כִּי הִגְדִּיל אוֹיֵב... א:יב וּרְאוּ אִם יֵשׁ מַכְאוֹב כְּמַכְאֹבִי
שמות ג:ז וַיֹּאמֶר י־הוה רָאֹה רָאִיתִי אֶת־עֳנִי עַמִּי אֲשֶׁר בְּמִצְרָיִם וְאֶת צַעֲקָתָם שָׁמַעְתִּי מִפְּנֵי נֹגְשָׂיו כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת־מַכְאֹבָיו
Lam 1:9 See, YHWH, my affliction; How the enemy jeers! 12 … Look about and see: Is there any agony like mine.
Exod 3:7 YHWH said: “I have surely seen the affliction of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their agonies.
In the exodus story, God sees Israel’s affliction and agony, and this begins the process of redemption. In Lamentations, the speaker is asking God to look at his pain, apparently unsuccessfully.
Cries and Pleas
איכה ג:ח גַּם כִּי אֶזְעַק וַאֲשַׁוֵּעַ שָׂתַם תְּפִלָּתִי
שמות ג:כג וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן הָעֲבֹדָה וַיִּזְעָקוּ וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים
Lam 3:8 And when I cry and plead, He shuts out my prayer
Exod 3:23 The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their plea for help from the bondage rose up to God.
Here again we have an inversion: In the exodus story, the cries and pleas of the Israelites make it up to God, whereas in Lamentations, God ignores these cries and pleas.
Bitterness and Marror
איכה ג:טו הִשְׂבִּיעַנִי בַמְּרוֹרִים הִרְוַנִי לַעֲנָה
במדבר ט:יא עַל־מַצּוֹת וּמְרֹרִים יֹאכְלֻהוּ
Lam 3:15 He has filled me with bitter herbs, sated me with wormwood.
Num 9:11 Upon unleavened bread and bitter herbs shall you eat it.
In Numbers, the people are commanded to eat the paschal offering with bitter herbs to remind them of their freedom from slavery. In Lamentations, God is feeding them bitter herbs (and wormwood) to emphasize their utter destitution.
YHWH Reigns Forever
איכה ה:יט אַתָּה יְ־הוָה לְעוֹלָם תֵּשֵׁב כִּסְאֲךָ לְדֹר וָדוֹר
שמות טו:יח יְ־הוָה יִמְלֹךְ לְעֹלָם וָעֶד
Lam 5:19 But You, O YHWH, will reign forever; Your throne endures through the ages.
Exod 15:18 YHWH will reign for ever and ever.
The verse in Lamentations, which comes very near the end of the book, resonates with the end of the Song of the Sea, and is likely meant to contrast with the Song. The Song of the Sea is celebratory, coming after the Israelites’ triumphant escape from the Egyptians, and it culminates with the building of the Temple. Lamentations, in contrast, comes after the Judahites disastrous defeat at the hands of the Babylonians, and assumes a destroyed Temple.
In sum, the persistent referencing of exodus-related texts makes the point that the destruction of Jerusalem undoes the exodus from Egypt. The latter advances from slavery to liberty, the former retreats from liberty to slavery.
“A Fire Is Kindled Within Me”—A Tisha B’Av Lament
The contrast between the exodus and the destruction of Judah is enshrined in one of the morning kinnot (lamentation poems) of the ninth of Av, אֵשׁ תּוּקַד בְּקִרְבִּי, “A Fire Is Kindled with Me.” It contrasts the exodus from Egypt with the exodus from Jerusalem, making the point that the lamentations memorializing the exodus from Jerusalem are comparable to the Song at the Sea memorializing the exodus from Egypt.
The poem, which is an aleph-bet acrostic, works with alternating lines: something positive about the exodus is followed by something negative about the destruction of Jerusalem. Each ends with either “when I left Egypt” or “when I left Jerusalem.” Here are the first two lines:
אֵשׁ תּוּקַד בְּקִרְבִּי בְּהַעֲלוֹתִי עַל לְבָבִי—בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם
A fire (of joy) is kindled with me as I think of—When I departed from Egypt.
קִינִים אָעִירָה לְמַעַן אַזְכִּירָה—בְּצֵאתִי מִירוּשָׁלָיִם
But I will raise lamentation as I recall—When I departed from Jerusalem.
אָז יָשִׁיר משֶׁה שִׁיר לֹא יִנָּשֶׁה—בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם
The Moses sang a song unforgettable—When I departed from Egypt.
וַיְקוֹנֵן יִרְמְיָה וְנָהָה נְהִי נִהְיָה—בְּצֵאתִי מִירוּשָׁלָיִם
But Jeremiah mourned and wailed with bitter lamentation—When I departed from Jerusalem.
The medieval poet here follows the model of Lamentations by contrasting the exodus story with the exile from Jerusalem.
3. Willfully or Arbitrarily?
Reading Lamentations inner-biblically is helpful not only for identifying conscious intertextual connections but for proper understanding of obscure terms that are used elsewhere in clear contexts. A good example of this usage appears in the middle of Lamentations (note the word in bold):
איכה ג:לב כִּי אִם הוֹגָה וְרִחַם כְּרֹב (חסדו) [חֲסָדָיו]. ג:לג כִּי לֹא עִנָּה מִלִּבּוֹ וַיַּגֶּה בְּנֵי אִישׁ.
Lam 3:32 But first afflicts, then pardons in His abundant kindness. 3:33 For He does not willfully bring grief or affliction to man. (NJPS)
The term מִלִּבּוֹ, literally “from his heart,” is difficult to explain in this context. How is it possible to claim that God afflicts and then claim that God does not willfully afflict? The poet’s meaning becomes clear when we look at the uses of this term in Numbers.
In one verse, Moses tells the rebels Datan and Abiram that he will prove to them that he is acting on God’s orders and not inventing matters on his own:
במדבר טז:כח וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה בְּזֹאת תֵּדְעוּן כִּי יְ־הוָה שְׁלָחַנִי לַעֲשׂוֹת אֵת כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים הָאֵלֶּה כִּי לֹא מִלִּבִּי.
Num 16:28 And Moses said, “By this you shall know that it was YHWH who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising…”
This term is used again when Balaam tells Balak that his blessing of Israel was not something he simply decided to do, but he had no choice:
במדבר כד:יג אִם יִתֶּן לִי בָלָק מְלֹא בֵיתוֹ כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב לֹא אוּכַל לַעֲבֹר אֶת פִּי יְ־הוָה לַעֲשׂוֹת טוֹבָה אוֹ רָעָה מִלִּבִּי אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֹתוֹ אֲדַבֵּר.
Num 24:13 Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not of my own accord do anything good or bad contrary to YHWH’s command. What the YHWH says, that I must say.”
The point of Lam. 3:32, 33 is that whether God pardons or afflicts, he does not arbitrarily bring grief. The afflictions of Israel were divinely wrought on account of Israel’s behavior, not out of the blue. This fits with what we see later in this same poem:
איכה ג:לז מִי זֶה אָמַר וַתֶּהִי אֲדֹנָי לֹא צִוָּה. ג:לח מִפִּי עֶלְיוֹן לֹא תֵצֵא הָרָעוֹת וְהַטּוֹב. ג:לט מַה יִּתְאוֹנֵן אָדָם חָי גֶּבֶר עַל (חטאו) [חֲטָאָיו].
Lam 3:37 Whose decree was ever fulfilled, unless the Lord willed it? 3:38 Is it not at the word of the Most High, that weal and woe befall? 3:39 Of what shall a living man complain? Each one of his own sins!
According to this, everything that happens is in accordance with God’s judgment of humanity.
The Message of Repentance
The realization that the destruction is a punishment from God for Israel’s sins leads the poet to emphasize that Judah must fix its behavior:
איכה ג:מ נַחְפְּשָׂה דְרָכֵינוּ וְנַחְקֹרָה וְנָשׁוּבָה עַד יְ־הוָה.
Lam 3:40 Let us search and examine our ways, and turn back to YHWH.
The verse can be read inner-biblically together with the opening of Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy 30, which offers the same theological perspective:
דברים ל:א וְהָיָה כִי יָבֹאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ אֶל לְבָבֶךָ בְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר הִדִּיחֲךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ שָׁמָּה. ל:ב וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ...
Deut 30:1 When all these things befall you—the blessing and the curse that I have set before you—and you take them to heart amidst the various nations to which YHWH your God has banished you 30:2 and you return to YHWH your God…
The point is that our behavior counts. This world is not just “sound and fury, signifying nothing” as Shakespeare’s Macbeth claimed. According to Lamentations 3, the people of Judah are the victims of God’s just anger, who is punishing them for their bad behavior. Such an interpretation attests to divine control and opens up a glimmer of hope for the poet, since with change of behavior comes the possibility of redemption.
4. “Bitterly” or “to the Upmost Limit”?
The meaning of the final verse can also be clarified by an inner-biblical reading that is consequential and theologically important for understanding the message of Lamentations (note the phrase is in bold):
איכה ה:כב כִּי אִם מָאֹס מְאַסְתָּנוּ קָצַפְתָּ עָלֵינוּ עַד מְאֹד.
Lam 5:22 For truly, You have rejected us, bitterly raged against us. (NJPS)
This translation suggests that God has simply rejected Israel because God is very angry. This simply does not jibe with the literary and theological center of Eichah, which, as noted above, claims that repentance will lead to the cessation of punishment.
A better translation would take into account a similar use of this same root (מ.א.ד) in Deuteronomy, which appears as part of the Shema:
דברים ו:ה אָהַבְתָּ אֵת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ.
Deut 6:5 You shall love YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your meʾod.
Abraham ibn Ezra on this verse in Deuteronomy understands this last phrase to mean “exceedingly”:
מאדך – מטעם: מאד מאד (בראשית ז:יט). והטעם: רב רב. אהוב אותו בכל מה שתוכל, ותהיה אהבה גמורה בכל לב.
“With all your meʾod”—this means the same as “very much” (Gen 7:19, describing the waters of the Flood). And the meaning is “exceedingly.” Love him as much as you can, and it will be a complete love with all your heart.
Following this suggestion, the point is the God has already vented as much as possible. Thus 5:22 is better rendered, “For You have already exceeded the limit in despising us and venting your anger.” The logic of Eichah is that once the anger is spent and we repent then we can venture to ask of God,
איכה ה:כא הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְ־הוָה אֵלֶיךָ (ונשוב) [וְנָשׁוּבָה] חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם.
Lam 5:21 Take us back, O YHWH, and we will come back, renew our days like old times.
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Prof. Rabbi Reuven Kimelman is Professor of Classical Judaica at Brandeis University and rabbi of Beth Abraham Sephardic Congregation of New England, Brookline, MA. He holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in religious studies. He is the author of The Mystical Meaning of ‘Lekhah Dodi’ and Kabbalat Shabbat’ and the forthcoming The Rhetoric of the Jewish Liturgy: A Historical and Literary Commentary on the Prayer Book. His audio course books are The Hidden Poetry of the Jewish Prayer Book and The Moral Meaning of the Bible.
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