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Nili Samet





The Sumerian City Laments and the Book of Lamentations





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Nili Samet





The Sumerian City Laments and the Book of Lamentations








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The Sumerian City Laments and the Book of Lamentations

A comparative theological view


The Sumerian City Laments and the Book of Lamentations

Ruins in the Town of Ur, Southern Iraq. Wikimedia

Sumerian City Laments

Ur Lament, Louvre Museum

City Laments are one of the most engaging genres in ancient Sumerian literature. These bewail the destruction of central Sumerian cities during the fall of the glorious kingdom known as “the third dynasty of Ur” in 2004 BCE. To date, five laments of this type have been identified and deciphered, each devoted to the destruction of a different city: the Ur Lament; the Sumer and Ur Lament; the Uruk Lament;[1] the Eridu Lament; and the Nippur Lament.[2]

The City Laments are characterized by vivid, rich descriptions of the destruction of the city, the mass killing of its inhabitants, and the loss of its central temple. In addition, the laments devote special attention to the divine sphere, where the great gods order the destruction of the city, and the city patron gods beseech them to alter their decision, but to no avail. The patron gods are then forced to abandon their city prior to, or simultaneously with, the destruction. They live as deportees in foreign cites, lamenting their devastated shrine. Eventually, after the destruction, they are invited to return to their holy abode and to renew their days as of old.

Eichah (Lamentations) as Part of the City-Lament Genre

Shortly after the first Sumerian City Laments were deciphered in the early twentieth century, scholars began to notice their thematic and phraseological parallels to the biblical book of Lamentations.

For instance, the deportee goddess in the Ur Lament l. 360 cries: “I am one who can find no rest”, and an identical phrase describes the exiled daughter of Zion in Lamentations 1:3 (לֹא מָצְאָה מָנוֹחַ; she found no rest).

Another example is the reference to the lack of musicians in the destroyed city, which appears in both traditions:

Lamentations 5:14

זְקֵנִים מִשַּׁעַר שָׁבָתוּ בַּחוּרִים מִנְּגִינָתָם
The old men are gone from the gate, The young men from their music.

Ur Lament 356

They are no longer playing for you the šem and ala drums that gladden the heart, nor the tigi.

Both traditions also use the image of pitchers, or potsherds, as a metaphor for dying people:

Lamentations 4:2

בְּנֵי צִיּוֹן הַיְקָרִים הַמְסֻלָּאִים בַּפָּז אֵיכָה נֶחְשְׁבוּ לְנִבְלֵי חֶרֶשׂ מַעֲשֵׂה יְדֵי יוֹצֵר
The precious children of Zion; Once valued as gold—Alas, they are accounted as earthen pots,

Ur Lament 211

Work of a potter’s hands!Its people littered its sides like potsherds.

Another famous example is the ‘fox in the ruins’ image, which is shared by the biblical and Sumerian lament traditions:

Lamentations 5:17

עַל הַר צִיּוֹן שֶׁשָּׁמֵם שׁוּעָלִים הִלְּכוּ בוֹ
Because of Mount Zion, which lies desolate; Foxes walk over it.

Ur Lament 269

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

Did the Authors of Lamentations Know the Sumerian Laments?

On the basis of these and other parallels, some scholars suggested that the authors of Lamentations were familiar with the Sumerian city laments, and were deeply influenced by them. However, our current knowledge of the history of transmission of Sumerian Literature does not support this theory.

It is now known that Sumerian City Laments, like most of the Sumerian classical literature, ceased to be transmitted during the sixteenth century BCE at the latest. The Book of Lamentations was composed a millennium later, after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586. In that period, the Sumerian City Laments would have long been forgotten, in Mesopotamia as well as in other parts of the ancient Near East.

However, the lack of direct historical connection between the two City Lament traditions does not necessarily mean that any comparative discussion of them would be futile. Comparisons that focus on direct literary dependence are only one type of comparative discussion. We may replace historical questions by theological, typological or cultural ones, which are by no means less fruitful.

Theological Comparison

Lamentation literature involves crucial theological issues, such as:

  • How to explain the chaotic phenomenon of destruction?
  • How to deal with the pure evil involved in it?
  • In what terms should the divine involvement in this horrifying event be treated?
  • Is it possible to restore the relationship with a god who has abandoned his people and city, or alternatively demolished them by his own hands, and if so, how?

Each civilization has its own set of philosophical and theological assumptions, and each wrestles differently with the challenges involved in the extraordinary phenomenon of destruction. A theological comparison between the two traditions sheds light on the unique features of each culture and on its specific theology.

Below is a short review of several central points of similarity and difference between the theology and philosophy of Sumerian City Laments and the Biblical Book of Lamentations.[3]

Cosmological Imagery vs. Realistic Depiction

In the Sumerian City Laments, the destruction of the city and temple involves an overall cosmological chaos. The physical destruction is conceptualized as an expression of the destruction of the mythological infrastructure of the city’s existence. Thus, what are actually being destroyed are the city’s “plans” (Sumerian: ĝišhur), “rituals” (Sumerian: ĝarza), and “rational judgment” (Sumerian: umuš, ĝalga, or dim).

The divine powers of the city-of-holiest-divine-powers were overturned. The divine powers of the rites of the greatest divine powers were altered. In Eridu everything was reduced to ruin, was wrought with confusion (Eridu Lament 15–17).

The devastation of these infrastructures is expressed in reality by means of an abrupt loss of the city’s wealth, honor, and fertility, and by the collapse of all social institutions. Priests abandon their offices; shepherds burn their pens; men neglect their wives and sons.

The mother looked away from her daughter—the people moan. The father turned away from his son—the people moan. In the city, the wife was abandoned, the child was abandoned, possessions were scattered about (Ur Lament 232–234).

Abnormal climatic phenomena, such as dimmed daylight and blazing fire, are also associated with the destruction:

In front of the storm, a fire blazes—the people moan. With the raging storm, a fiery glow burns. At noon, when the fog usually dissipates, the fire blazes. At midday, when a bright sun usually rises, the somber “storm-day” scorched. In the land, the bright sun did not rise; like a twilight star it dawned (Ur Lament 187–192).

The book of Lamentations, on the other hand, is interested mainly in the real, terrestrial rather than heavenly or cosmic realm of the destruction, and its descriptions are mostly realistic, and do not include miraculous disruptions of the laws of nature. The desolation is the consequence of destruction and exile (Lamentations 1:5), not of an overall cosmic collapse:

איכא א:ה הָיוּ צָרֶיהָ לְרֹאשׁ
אֹיְבֶיהָ שָׁלוּ…
עוֹלָלֶיהָ הָלְכוּ שְׁבִי
Lam 1:5 Her enemies are now the masters,
Her foes are at ease…
Her infants have gone into captivity
Before the enemy.

The death of the inhabitants is the consequence of natural events such as famine or killing (Lamentations 4:4–10), and, unlike in the Sumerian City Laments, the consuming fire is a natural rather than a supernatural phenomenon (Lamentations 1:13; 2:3).

This difference between the two traditions is related to a broader issue of biblical theology. Scholars have noticed that the Bible generally prefers to describe the divine activities in the realm of history, while other religious groups from the Ancient Near East preferred to focus on the actions of the gods in the sphere of nature.[4]

Great Gods against Patron Gods vs. Decision of the One God

According to the Sumerian City Laments, The generators of the destruction are the “great gods,” especially the chief god, Enlil. The great gods decide to destroy the city (Sumer and Ur Lament 1–55), and carry out this decision either by themselves, or with the help of minor deities and demons.[5]

On the other side of the theological barricade we find the patron-gods of the city, who, following the formal decision of the divine assembly, are forced to abandon their city and temple. In some cases, the patron gods – and especially the patron goddesses – attempt to rescue their city from destruction by pleading, screaming and shedding tears before the divine council, but their plea is rejected:

When they (=the great gods) had commanded the utter destruction of my city, When they had commanded the utter destruction of Ur, When they had ordered that its people be killed – On that day, I (=the patron goddess) did not forsake my city, I did not neglect my land. I shed my tears before An, I myself made supplication before Enlil: “Let not my city be destroyed!” I said to them. “Let not Ur be destroyed!” I said to them. “Let not its people perish!” I said to them. But An would not change that word, Enlil would not soothe my heart with that: “It is good; so be it.” (Ur Lament 140-151).

The patron deities are then forced to leave their city, and the goddess laments her city and shrine:

Mother Ningal (=Ur’s patron goddess) kept away from her city… the woman bitterly utters the wailing for her devastated house, The princess bitterly cries over her devastated shrine, Ur: “…My daughters and sons have been carried off in ships; ‘Alas, my men!’ I shall cry… My young men, in a desert they know not, wear filthy garments… Woe is me! My city that ceased to exist, I am no longer its lady!” (Ur Lament 252–286)

This division between two divine groups is typical of a polytheistic world. In the current case, it seems to have a very useful theological function. While the destruction itself is assigned to the great, fearsome gods, the compassion, the attempts to defend the city and the final return are ascribed to the accessible and benevolent patron gods of the city.[6]

The monotheistic world of Lamentations does not enable such a separation. The furious, destroying god is also the compassionate savior. The second chapter in Lamentations, for instance, depicts a cruel picture of God as the exclusive destroyer of Jerusalem, who demolishes the city and kills his people by his own hands (Lamentations 2:1–5):

איכה ב:א אֵיכָה יָעִיב בְּאַפּוֹ אֲדֹנָי אֶת בַּת־צִיּוֹן הִשְׁלִיךְ מִשָּׁמַיִם אֶרֶץ תִּפְאֶרֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא־זָכַר הֲדֹם רַגְלָיו בְּיוֹם אַפּוֹ.‏ ב:ב בִּלַּע אֲדֹנָי וְלֹא חָמַל אֵת כָּל־נְאוֹת יַעֲקֹב הָרַס בְּעֶבְרָתוֹ מִבְצְרֵי בַת יְהוּדָה הִגִּיעַ לָאָרֶץ חִלֵּל מַמְלָכָה וְשָׂרֶיהָ.‏ ב:ג גָּדַע בָּחֳרִי אַף כֹּל קֶרֶן יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵשִׁיב אָחוֹר יְמִינוֹ מִפְּנֵי אוֹיֵב וַיִּבְעַר בְּיַעֲקֹב כְּאֵשׁ לֶהָבָה אָכְלָה סָבִיב.‏
Lam 2:1 How has the Lord covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud in his anger! He cast down from heaven to earth the majesty of Israel, and did not remember his footstool in the day of his wrath. 2:2 The Lord has laid waste without pity all the habitations of Jacob, he has destroyed in his wrath the strongholds of the daughter of Judah; He has brought low in dishonor the kingdom and its leaders. 2:3 He has cut down in fierce anger all the might of Israel; he has drawn back their (=Israel’s) right hand from before the enemy, and he burned against Jacob like a flaming fire, consuming on all sides.
ב:ד דָּרַךְ קַשְׁתּוֹ כְּאוֹיֵב נִצָּב יְמִינוֹ כְּצָר וַיַּהֲרֹג כֹּל מַחֲמַדֵּי־עָיִן בְּאֹהֶל בַּת־צִיּוֹן שָׁפַךְ כָּאֵשׁ חֲמָתוֹ.‏ ב:ה הָיָה אֲדֹנָי כְּאוֹיֵב בִּלַּע יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּלַּע כָּל אַרְמְנוֹתֶיהָ שִׁחֵת מִבְצָרָיו וַיֶּרֶב בְּבַת־יְהוּדָה תַּאֲנִיָּה וַאֲנִיָּה.
2:4 He has bent his bow like an enemy, (held) the sword’s haft in his right hand like an adversary,[7] and slew all who were delighted to the eye. In the tabernacle of the daughter of Zion he poured out his wrath like fire. 2:5 The Lord was as an enemy, he has laid waste Israel, he has laid waste all her citadels, destroyed his strongholds, and has increased in the daughter of Judah mourning and moaning.

The divine action in Lamentations 2 is so dominant that it overshadows any potential human involvement; God is the one and only generator of the disaster.

However, a monotheistic point of view does not mean a monolithic theology. In addition to the harsh model of responsibility suggested by Lamentations 2, the book suggests also a softer mechanism, which assigns a fair part of the responsibility to the human foes. The latter model is characteristic especially to Lamentations 1, which pays a great deal of attention to the human enemies who destroyed the city (Lam 1:3–6), as well as to those who betrayed and despised her (Lam 1:1–2; 7–9).

איכה א:ב בָּכוֹ תִבְכֶּה בַּלַּיְלָה
וְדִמְעָתָהּ עַל לֶחֱיָהּ
אֵין־לָהּ מְנַחֵם
כָּל־רֵעֶיהָ בָּגְדוּ בָהּ
הָיוּ לָהּ לְאֹיְבִים
Lam 1:2 She weeps sore in the night,
and her tears are on her cheek;
There is none to comfort her
of all her lovers;
all her friends have betrayed her,
they have all became her enemies.
א:ז בִּנְפֹל עַמָּהּ בְּיַד־צָר
וְאֵין עוֹזֵר לָהּ
רָאוּהָ צָרִים
שָׂחֲקוּ עַל מִשְׁבַּתֶּהָ
1:7 When her people fell into the hand of the enemy, and none did help her,
the adversaries saw her,
and mocked at her downfall.

Thus, the Sumerian drama relates to the triangle: Great Gods – Patron Gods – People; the biblical drama has to do with the triangle: God – Foreign Nations – Israel. These triangles reflect two different arenas, each dealing in its own way with the divine cruelty.

Determinism vs. Human Culpability

The Sumerian City Laments suggest several different explanations for the destruction. In one passage, it states that the destruction is unexplainable, since the heart of the chief god Enlil is “darkened,” that is, his considerations are inaccessible to human beings

“Father Enlil, the one who advises with just words, the wise words of the Land […] your inimical judgment […] look into your darkened heart, terrifying like waves.[8] O Father Enlil, the fate that you have decreed cannot be explained” (Sumer and Ur Lament 456–458).

Another passage presents the Sumerian belief that the end of a reign comes when its appointed duration expires. The existence of this appointed time of duration is a cosmic law that cannot be changed or resisted.

The judgment uttered by the assembly cannot be turned back, the word spoken by An and Enlil knows no overturning. Ur was indeed given kingship; but it was not given an eternal reign… who has ever seen a reign of kingship that would take precedence (for ever)? The reign of its kingship has been long indeed, but had to exhaust itself (LSUr 364–369).

Yet another explanation suggests that the gods decided to destroy the city and kill its inhabitants in order to balance the uncontrolled multiplying of mankind

Mortal man multiplied to become as numerous as the gods. When together […] had achieved a momentous decision, the […] of the gods […] Enki and Ninki determined the consensus… Enul and Ninul assigned the fate” (Uruk Lament 4–5).

All these explanations share the basic assumption that the destruction is unrelated to, and unaffected by, human deeds. From this respect, the theology of Sumerian City Laments could be classified as deterministic.

The book of Lamentations, on the other hand, assumes, at least in certain passages, a basic mechanism of divine retribution: The city and the temple were destroyed due to the nation’s sins (Lam 1:8).[9]

איכה א:ח חֵטְא חָטְאָה יְרוּשָׁלִַם
עַל־כֵּן לְנִידָה הָיָתָה
Lam 1:8 Jerusalem has grievously sinned;
therefore she became despised.

Similarly, any prospective restoration will be possible only when the nation recognizes its guilt (Lamentations 3:40–42).

ג:מ נַחְפְּשָׂה דְרָכֵינוּ וְנַחְקֹרָה
וְנָשׁוּבָה עַד י-הוה.
ג:מא נִשָּׂא לְבָבֵנוּ אֶל־כַּפָּיִם
אֶל־אֵל בַּשָּׁמָיִם.
ג:מב נַחְנוּ פָשַׁעְנוּ וּמָרִינוּ
אַתָּה לֹא סָלָחְתָּ.
3:40 Let us search and examine our ways,
and turn back to the Lord.
3:41 Let us lift up our heart with our hands
to God in heaven.
3:42 We have transgressed and rebelled,
and you have not forgiven.

This point of view is in accordance with the common biblical theology, which is fundamentally based on the assumption of free choice.


July 22, 2015


Last Updated

June 2, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Nili Samet teaches Bible and Assyriology at the department of Bible in Bar-Ilan University. She holds a Ph.D. in Bible from Bar-Ilan University and an M.A. in Assyriology from the Hebrew University. She is the author of The Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur: A Revised Edition and is currently working on her commentary on Ecclesiastes for the Mikra LeYisrael series.