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SBL e-journal

Uri Gabbay

(

2017

)

.

The Genre of Lamentations

.

TheTorah.com

.

https://thetorah.com/article/the-genre-of-lamentations

APA e-journal

Uri Gabbay

,

,

,

"

The Genre of Lamentations

"

TheTorah.com

(

2017

)

.

https://thetorah.com/article/the-genre-of-lamentations

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Series

Symposium

The Genre of Lamentations

In the ancient Near East, laments were written to mourn past destructions or to prevent future destructions. With which type of lament were the authors of Lamentations familiar?

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The Genre of Lamentations

The opening of Lamentations. Wikimedia

That city which has been pillaged! Oh, its children! … Its children! Its adults! Its children which had been tenderly cared for! Its adults who had traversed the roads! That destroyed city which had been carried off from me! That destroyed house which has been carried off from me! That city whose destruction has been ordered! That city, the killing of whose people has been ordered!

This passage could be mistakenly attributed to the biblical book of Lamentations. But it is not from there. It is the opening of a much older lament, known from cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia, written in the Sumerian language and dating to approximately the eighteenth century BCE.[1]

There were two main groups of Sumerian laments in ancient Mesopotamia: city laments and cultic laments.

1. City Laments

That which modern scholars typically call “city laments” or “literary laments” are comprised of five compositions lamenting the cities of Ur, Uruk, Nippur, Eridu, and the entire land of Sumer and its capital Ur. They refer to the historical destruction of the third dynasty of the city of Ur that ruled the entire southern Mesopotamia and beyond in the twenty-first century BCE.

Most of these laments were composed between a few years to over a century after this catastrophic destruction which occurred a few years before 2000 BCE. They are known from dozens of copies, many of them made by students studying Sumerian literature in the scribal schools of southern Mesopotamia, dating approximately to the eighteenth century BCE.

2. Cultic Laments

But there is another group of Sumerian laments which is contemporaneous with the book of Lamentations. This group is often referred to in modern scholarship as “cultic laments.” Unlike the five literary “city laments,” known only from ca. eighteenth century BCE, and almost exclusively from copies belonging to scribal schools, over one hundred cultic laments are known from various cities of Mesopotamia in over 1500 copies from approximately 2000 BCE until the first century BCE, just before the end of cuneiform writing (approximately first century CE).

Only a very small percentage of these laments are scribal exercises—the vast majority were written for cultic performance at temples. These “cultic laments” were not part of memorial rituals, but were recited in the regular temple cult during daily, monthly, and annual rituals, as well as in non-calendrical occasions, such as rituals for the restoration of the temple or a cult image within it.

For example, the cultic lament “That city that has been pillaged,” whose opening lines opened this essay, was performed at an annual celebration at the city of Mari in the eighteenth century BCE; another text, probably dating to the third century BCE, prescribes the performance of this cultic lament in the temple of Uruk on the second day of each month.

Similarities between City and Cultic Laments and Lamentations

There are remarkable similarities between the Sumerian literary city laments, the Sumerian cultic laments, and the biblical book of Lamentations, showing that all three types of text participate in the same genre.[2] For example:

Personified Female Figure – The city is personified as a mourning female figure.

Ur lament,
(ln 80-81)

The faithful woman, the lady, grieving for her city, the goddess Ningal, not resting on account of her land

Cultic lament:
She of the destroyed city

She of the destroyed city cries out “Oh, my city!,” … the goddess Inana, she of the destroyed city, cries out “Oh, my city!”

Lamentations
1:1-2

She that was great among nations is become like a widow… Bitterly she weeps in the night, her cheek wet with tears.[3]

How? – The rhetorical question “how” about the results of the destruction:

Ur Lament
(ln. 331)

O lady, how did your heart change?

Cultic lament:
Sighs in the night

How can I say to my city “you are not my city”?

Lamentations
1:1

How can the city sit solitary?[4]

Wrathful God(s) Sending Enemies – The theological perception of the destruction is portrayed as the wrathful god(s) abandoning his temple and city, conceiving and commanding their destruction, which is executed by the enemy who acts according to the divine plan.

Ur Lament
(ln. 4, 162-4)

The god Enlil has abandoned the shrine in the city of Nippur… The utter destruction of my city they [= the gods An and Enlil] ordered, the utter destruction of Ur they ordered, that its people be killed they decreed its destiny.

Cultic lament:
Sighs in the Night

That enemy has laid his hands on it [= the sanctuary] … Oh, lady [= the city goddess], how could you have destroyed your dwellings … how could you yourself have defiled it [= the sanctuary]? How could you have handed it over to the enemy yourself? “I myself did not defile it! My father defiled it! The lord, the great god An defiled it!”[5]

Lamentations
2:7, 17

2:7 YHWH has rejected His altar, disdained His Sanctuary…[6]2:17 YHWH has done what He purposed, Has carried out the decree That He ordained long ago; He has torn down without pity. He has let the foe rejoice over you, Has exalted the might of your enemies.[7]

A Day of Destruction – The divine wrathful destruction is described in a temporal way as a “day”:

Ur lament,
lines 91-94

The day that came to be – its sorrow hangs heavy on me [= the mourning goddess]; In the day, the bitter day that came to be for me – even if I moaned at that day, the violence of the day I could not escape.

Cultic lament:
For the bull on his dais

The day, the command of the god An, the day, the angry heart of great An, the day, the malevolent heart of the god Enlil.

Lamentations
2:1

The majesty of Israel. He did not remember His Footstool On His day of wrath.[8]

Fox – Similar imagery is found in both the book of Lamentations, the Sumerian city laments, and the Sumerian cultic laments. For example, the image of the fox is used for the abandonment and desecration of the city

Ur lament,
line
269

In the rivers of my city, dust has gathered, foxholes are made therein.

Cultic lament:
Come out like the sun

The fox drags his temple there (= in the area of the destroyed temple).

Lamentations
5:18

For the mountain of Zion, which is desolate, the foxes walk upon it.[9]

Which Laments Did the Authors of Lamentations Know?

The parallels between the biblical book of Lamentations, the Sumerian city laments, and the Sumerian cultic laments are remarkable, and must reflect some kind of cultural or literary contact. But often, modern scholarship focusses on the Sumerian city laments in comparisons with the book of Lamentations, and the cultic laments are usually left out or only marginally mentioned in such discussions.

In the past, scholars regarded the “city laments” as authentic literary reflections of a historical destruction, while the “cultic laments” were seen as a secondary genre used mechanically in cult. Thus, Lamentations, which reflects a real historical destruction, was seen as a type of city lament, and related to that first genre.

But how can one explain the very long gap in time—over one thousand years!—between the eighteenth century BCE when the Sumerian city laments were last copied and the biblical book of Lamentations which could not have been composed before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE, if not later?

Thus, it is better to suggest a connection between Lamentations and the “cultic laments,” which were transmitted and performed for two thousand years, including at a time contemporaneous with the period in which the book of Lamentations was written.

The Theology of Cultic Laments: Calming the God

What was the role of lamenting over destroyed cities as part of the regular, even daily, temple cult? Why were temples lamented every day as part of the regular service that took place in those same temples?

It is certain that actual destructions inspired the genre of cultic laments, but we should not take the descriptions in the genre too literally. Instead, these laments played a significant theological role; they were not, by and large, concerned with specific historical destructions, but with potential destruction.

The ancient Mesopotamians believed that divine anger could be ignited at any time, and that people cannot comprehend why this might occur. When such anger bursts, the god may even destroy his own temple, city, and people. Therefore, during the temple cult, people recalled the potential destructive consequences of such anger—undoubtedly inspired by real experiences—to convince the god that it is better to stay calm. Indeed, almost all “cultic laments” conclude with a literary unit that asks for divine appeasement, such as the following unit at the end of the lament Honored one, wild bull:

We are going to the temple in prayer, we are going to the god Enlil! We are going to calm the heart of the lord, we are going to Enlil!
We are going to calm the heart, to pacify the mind, we are going to Enlil!

A City Lament Based on a Cultic Lament

Contemporary views of the relationship between the city laments and the cultic laments see the former not as literary reflections of a horrible reality of destruction (even if such a destruction did occur), but rather as part of a wider genre of laments, all of which use similar imagery, motifs, and ideas. In fact, some evidence suggests that cultic laments may have preceded the composition of city laments and that cultic laments were primary, and the city laments elaborations on this performative genre. This fits well with what happened with Lamentations.

Thus, even though Lamentations is quite similar to the Sumerian city laments in that it mourns the loss of an actual city, the agent of the connection between the Sumerian laments and the biblical book of Lamentations must have been the cultic laments.

Published

July 26, 2017

|

Last Updated

September 23, 2019

Footnotes

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Dr. Uri Gabbay is a senior lecturer in Assyriology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Assyriology from the Hebrew University in 2008. He edited (with Shai Secunda) the book Encounters by the Rivers of Babylon: Scholarly Conversations between Jews, Iranians and Babylonians in Antiquity.