Relating to God in Calamity
Unlike medieval Jewish philosophical texts, the Bible contains no systematic depiction of the nature of God. The closest we get is Exodus 34:7-8:
שמות לד:ז ...יְ־הוָה יְ־הוָה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת. לד:ח נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְעַל בְּנֵי בָנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים.
Exod 34:7 ...YHWH! YHWH! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, 34:8 extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.
Biblical poetry, most specifically psalms, including the laments found in Lamentations, offer much more nuanced and complex pictures of God. These prayers are highly subjective, and just as nowadays no two individuals imagine the God to whom the pray in an identical fashion, the same was true in ancient Israel.
God as Judge – Lamentations 1
The first chapter of Lamentations reflects the most common biblical theology—God is punishing Israel for its sins. Verse 5 begins:
איכה א:ה הָיוּ צָרֶיהָ לְרֹאשׁ אֹיְבֶיהָ שָׁלוּ כִּי יְ־הוָה הוֹגָהּ עַל רֹב פְּשָׁעֶיהָ...
Lam 1:5 Her enemies are now the masters, her foes are at ease, because YHWH has afflicted her for her many transgressions...
Verse 8 states clearly:
א:ח חֵטְא חָטְאָה יְרוּשָׁלִַם עַל כֵּן לְנִידָה הָיָתָה...
1:8 Jerusalem has greatly sinned, therefore she is become a mockery...
The following verse notes Israel’s “uncleanness,” v. 14 begins “The yoke of my offenses is bound fast,” and the chapter’s final verse speaks of “all my transgressions.” Verse 18 expresses the chapter’s theology most clearly:
א:יח צַדִּיק הוּא יְהוָה כִּי פִיהוּ מָרִיתִי...
1:8 YHWH is in the right, for I have disobeyed Him...
The theology is clear: Israel has sinned and deserves its punishment. The many, various synonyms used for sins form a type of confession, and explain why God, whom the lamenter imagines as a fair, but compassionate judge, must improve Israel’s lot. This God is angry—in v. 12, the chapter speaks (once) of God’s “day of wrath”—but this anger is deserved; God is like the parent who gets legitimately irritated after the children have not listened, and then punishes a child appropriately.
God’s Burning Anger – Lamentations 2
Chapter two contains a different picture of God. It mentions sin only once, incidentally, in v. 14:
איכה ב:יד נְבִיאַיִךְ חָזוּ לָךְ שָׁוְא וְתָפֵל וְלֹא גִלּוּ עַל עֲוֹנֵךְ...
Lam 2:14 Your seers prophesied to you delusion and folly. They did not expose your iniquity...
But even there, the focus is not on the sin, but on the false prophets’ folly. Several verses look as if they will mention sin, e.g. v. 13, “for as vast is the sea…” and v. 19, “Lit up your hands [in prayer]…” which we might expect to filled out with “is your sin” and “confess,” respectively, but this is not the case—these verses read “for as vast is the sea in your ruin” and v. 19, “Lift up your hands to Him for the life of your infants….” There are plenty of opportunities to mention what Israel did that merited the destruction, but this is not highlighted.
Instead, the theme of ch. 2 is God’s great, uncontrolled anger. It opens the chapter:
ב:א אֵיכָה יָעִיב בְּאַפּוֹ אֲדֹנָי... ב:ב בִּלַּע אֲדֹנָי לא [וְלֹא] חָמַל אֵת כָּל נְאוֹת יַעֲקֹב הָרַס בְּעֶבְרָתוֹ מִבְצְרֵי בַת יְהוּדָה... ב:ג...כְּאֵשׁ לֶהָבָה אָכְלָה סָבִיב.
2:1 Alas! The Lord in His wrath... 2:2 The Lord has laid waste without pity all the habitations of Jacob; He has razed in His anger fair Judah’s strongholds... 2:3 ...like a flaming fire, consuming on all sides.
It closes the chapter:
ב:ככ ...וְלֹא הָיָה בְּיוֹם אַף יְ־הוָה פָּלִיט וְשָׂרִיד...
2:22 ...On the day of the wrath of YHWH, none survived or escaped...
The term אַף (wrath) is used six times, and synonyms for wrath and anger fill the entire chapter, some even suggesting uncontrolled anger, a divine temper tantrum, as in v. 9, “He has smashed her bars to bits” or 17, “He has torn down without pity.” The end of the next to last verse summarizes this chapter’s outlook very well:
איכה ב:כא ...הָרַגְתָּ בְּיוֹם אַפֶּךָ טָבַחְתָּ לֹא חָמָלְתָּ.
Lam 2:21 ...You slew them on Your day of wrath, You slaughtered without pity.
This is not the depiction of a calm parent punishing a misbehaving child; this is like an emotional parent who has lost control in a bout of anger. This may sound like a surprising description of God, but this is what the text says. (And there are other biblical texts that depict God acting similarly—see e.g. Numbers 16:22, where Moses and Aaron protest, and prevent a divine tantrum by saying to God, “When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?”).
Unlike chapter one, it does not harp on the sins of Israel. And unlike chapter one, it focuses on divine anger, rather than fair, measured divine punishment for sin. (It is important to point our that such an emotional God can also bestow undeserved love on us.)
Two Perspectives on One Traumatic Event
I see various possibilities for dealing with these fundamental differences between these two depictions of God. Many modern biblical scholars suggest that Lamentations was not the work of Jeremiah, or a different single individual, but like many biblical books, a compilation of various laments, most of them focused on the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE. (Chapter 3 never mentions or hints at this event, and may have originally served a different purpose.)
The fact that chapter one has the alphabet in the order we now use (with peh following ʿayin), while chapters 2-4 have a different order (with ʿayin following peh), suggests to some that chapters one and chapters 2-4 are not by the same author; after all, is it likely that a single individual would use two different orders for the alphabet? This would mean that chapters one and two are separate compositions, by different authors, who had different theologies. One believed “we deserved it” (ch. 1) while the other felt “we do not deserve it, and are the victim of a divine temper tantrum” (ch. 2).
Alternatively, as we know from our experience, the same person may evaluate a situation differently at different moments, for example, sometimes feeling that life is fair, and sometimes that it is not, and thus the two chapters may reflect a single person’s musing at different times. In that case, the two chapter still represent different perspectives, but of the same author trying to sort out a highly traumatic event.
It may even be possible to see ch. 2 as a continuation of ch. 1—the first suggests why God is angry, and the second describes the anger and its results. But I prefer allow each of the chapters to speak for itself, enriching the conceptions of what the biblical God looks like, and increasing the depictions of God in Lamentations, and in the Bible. (And I think that a careful reading of the rest of Lamentations might uncover still other depictions of the divine.) Thus, when we use the Bible as a source to understand God, we do not have a flat image, but a rich number of choices. Some of us may prefer one over the other. And each of us may find that at different times of our lives, one of these approaches rather than another helpful in engaging with God.
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July 9, 2013
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Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author of many books and articles, including How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is a cofounder of TheTorah.com.
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