Voices in Lamentations: Dialogues in Trauma
Like many other biblical texts, the Scroll of Lamentations (Megillat Eikhah) does not identify who is speaking. A voice is heard, and the reader/hearer must reckon or imagine who the speaker is likely to be. Although tradition has attributed the voice to the prophet Jeremiah, who witnessed the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians, it is evident to any reader/hearer that there are several different voices to be discerned in the Scroll. These voices interact, producing a drama, or rather a series of dramas, from within the dialogues of which the text is composed.
Five Independent Poems
Each chapter of Lamentations is a separate poem, different in time and/or tone from the others. Here is an overview of some of the main differences:
Chapters 2 and 4 both describe the depredations of the lengthy siege that preceded the destruction of Jerusalem. And yet, in chapter 2 the personified city itself, Daughter Zion, makes her voice heard, while in chapter 4 she does not.
Chapter 1 is set somewhat later than the scenes of chapters 2 and 4, after the dust of devastation has settled and “the roads to Zion are in mourning, for lack of festival pilgrims,” because the temple is no more (Lam. 1:4). It features a dialogue divided equally between a female personification of Zion and an observer of the scene.
Chapter 3 is made of sometimes-passionate ruminations on what has occurred, shifting from voice to voice (see further below).
Chapter 5 is a communal prayer, containing within it differences in point of view.
The chapters are each unified by an alphabetic acrostic (chapter 5 is not an acrostic but has 22 verses, one for each letter of the alphabet). Rather than mask the diversity of voices, the structural cohesion serves to draw them into dialogue.
Here, I would like to look at the dialogue in chapter 1, and then take an even closer look at the dialogue in chapter 3. In these two chapters the differences in voice are most prominent.
The Dialogue in Chapter 1
First Speaker – An Observer of the Desolation
In the first half of chapter 1 (verses 1-11) the speaker is an observer of Jerusalem’s desolation, who empathizes with the once populous and secure city, “a princess among nations,” who has been subjugated by an unnamed enemy (verse 1) and exiled (verse 3). “She has no one to comfort her” (verses 2, 9), “no one to help her” (verse 7). The voice of the observer is unidentified. Owing to tradition (the elegist is Jeremiah) and convention (an anonymous speaker must be male), this voice is generally assumed to be male, but there is no evidence to support that assumption.
Second Speaker – Female Jerusalem Personified
In the second half of chapter 1 (verses 12-22), the female persona of Jerusalem (Zion) speaks, lamenting how the Lord in his unrestrained anger has caused her pain and sorrow (verse 12). She too complains, “My comforter stays far off” (verse 16), “I have no one to comfort me” (verse 21).
Interrupting Each Other’s Speeches
Unlike the dialogues in Job, in which one speaker holds forth without interruption and the second speaker responds, the emotions in Lamentations spur each speaker to break into the other’s discourse, creating a heated interchange.
When the observer remarks for the third time that Jerusalem has none to comfort her (verse 9ab), Lady Zion cannot bear it any longer and cries out to God: “See, O Lord, my affliction—for the enemy has acted mightily” (verse 9c).
לֹ֤א זָֽכְרָה֙ אַחֲרִיתָ֔הּ
אֵ֥ין מְנַחֵ֖ם לָ֑הּ
Her uncleanness clings to her skirts.
She gave no thought to her future;
She has sunk appallingly,
With none to comfort her.—
רְאֵ֤ה יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֶת־עָנְיִ֔י
כִּ֥י הִגְדִּ֖יל אוֹיֵֽב:
See, O Lord, my affliction—
for the enemy has acted mightily.
Shockingly, the unnamed “enemy” is none other than the deity, alluded to ironically in the third person.
The same kind of interruption occurs at the end of verse 11, when Lady Zion interrupts to beseech God:
נָתְנ֧וּ מַחֲמַדֵּיהֶ֛ם בְּאֹ֖כֶל
All her inhabitants sigh
As they search for bread;
They have bartered their precious things for food,
To keep themselves alive.—
רְאֵ֤ה יְ-הֹוָה֙ וְֽהַבִּ֔יטָה
כִּ֥י הָיִ֖יתִי זוֹלֵלָֽה:
See, O Lord, and look well—
how I have become cheapened!
The somewhat more dispassionate observer acknowledges Jerusalem’s supplication of the deity but interrupts it as well. After Zion blames the desolation of her children on the “enemy” (v. 16), the observer responds with a justification (v. 17):
עַל־אֵ֣לֶּה׀ אֲנִ֣י בוֹכִיָּ֗ה
עֵינִ֤י׀ עֵינִי֙ יֹ֣רְדָה מַּ֔יִם
כִּֽי־רָחַ֥ק מִמֶּ֛נִּי מְנַחֵ֖ם
הָי֤וּ בָנַי֙ שֽׁוֹמֵמִ֔ים
כִּ֥י גָבַ֖ר אוֹיֵֽב:
For these things do I weep,
My eye! My eye flows with water!
Far from me is any comforter
Who might revive my spirit;
My children are desolate,
For the foe has prevailed.
פֵּֽרְשָׂ֨ה צִיּ֜וֹן בְּיָדֶ֗יהָ
אֵ֤ין מְנַחֵם֙ לָ֔הּ
צִוָּ֧ה יְ-הֹוָ֛ה לְיַעֲקֹ֖ב
Zion spreads out her hands,
She has no one to comfort her;
The Lord has commanded against Jacob
Adversaries to surround him.
Jerusalem has become
A thing unclean among them.
The structure of the first chapter of Lamentations is thus similar to the dialogues in Job: an afflicted sufferer cries out in pain, and a companion tries to calm him down and prevent him from criticizing the deity too sharply.
A similar, but more acute, dialogue may be found in chapter 3.
The Dialogue in Chapter 3
The Male Sufferer: A Literary Type
Chapter 3 begins,
אֲנִ֤י הַגֶּ֙בֶר֙ רָאָ֣ה עֳנִ֔י בְּשֵׁ֖בֶט עֶבְרָתֽוֹ:
I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his (God’s) fury.
Interpreters differ over who this “man (גבר)” is—whether he is an identifiable person, such as Jeremiah or the final king of Judah, King Zedekiah, or a representative of the community. Many underscore his “maleness,” thus producing a neat contrast with the female voice of Daughter Zion in the two preceding chapters.
The use of the particular term גבר, however, does not point to the sufferer’s gender, but is a literary type. In Mesopotamian literature concerning the complaining sufferer and in biblical literature of this type, such as Psalm 88:5 (and compare Ps. 94:12) and Job 3:3 and 23, the complainant refers to himself as a “man” (gever in Hebrew, etlu in Akkadian).
Accordingly, the “man” of Lamentations 3:3 is not a male but a sufferer. The syntax of the verse supports this reading, for the speaker does not say, “I am the man—that I have seen affliction (אני הגבר ראיתי עני)” but rather “I am the man—that he has seen affliction (אני הגבר ראה עני).” The speaker identifies himself as a literary type.
Four Voices in Chapter 3
Some commentators maintain that one voice speaks throughout chapter 3. Most, however, discern a number of different voices in the poem. I am among those who hear four distinct voices.
The first speaker (vv. 1-21) complains of excessive affliction at the hands of God. Both in tone and in several of the images and phrases, this speaker is reminiscent of Job.
The second speaker (vv. 22-39) resembles one of Job’s companions, especially Eliphaz, who reminds the first speaker of God’s characteristic compassion, urging hope instead of impatience and silence instead of protest.
The second speaker then turns to the community, which follows suit and pursues repentance in the third discourse of this chapter. Verses 40-41 may reflect this transition.
The third speaker (vv. 42-47) is the community speaking with its own voice. The people confess to having sinned, but express dismay that God refuses to hear their prayers or forgive. The Joban voice of Speaker One has been answered but not suppressed.
The fourth speaker (vv. 48-66) is a singular (female) voice (see appendix). The speaker weeps, like Lady Zion in chapter 1 (verse 16). The speaker implores the deity to grant justice (3:59), having seen the tribulations to which a personified Jerusalem drew the divine attention in her outbursts in chapter 1 (verses 9, 11). The speaker enjoins the deity to annihilate those who have caused such severe distress (3:64-66), echoing Lady Zion in chapter 1 (verse 22). The speaker echoes the voice of female Jerusalem.
It is well known that in the world of the Bible and in many cultures, up until today, the task of lamentation falls typically to women (see, for example, Jeremiah 9:16). The voice of the keening woman in Lamentations 3, as said, echoes that of keening Jerusalem in chapter 1. In fact, it is possible to hear a shifting female voice throughout Lamentations 3—a dialogue of a female Job, a female friend, and a female cohort.
God’s Absent Voice
Given all the voices and speakers in the book, it is striking that the one voice we do not hear is the voice of God. God does not respond to the wails and supplications of the voices in the scroll—neither to the bereft city, nor to the bereft women. This absence is highlighted in 3:57, where the female speaker refers to the voice of God as a voice heard in the past, when God had been implored in desperate times and had answered the plea. At that time the Lord responded, “Do not fear!” The memory of divine assistance in the past expresses a powerful nostalgia for a temporarily lost divine presence.
Evidence that the Voice at the Close of Chapter 3 is Female
The fourth voice in chapter 3 sounds like female Jerusalem, and there is in fact a likely linguistic basis for identifying this voice as female.
The evidence is in verse 51: עֵינִי עוֹלְלָה לְנַפְשִׁי, מִכֹּל בְּנוֹת עִירִי, a verse that has been variously interpreted and widely regarded as a crux, mainly because the most obvious meaning is dismissed by interpreters out of hand. The most straightforward sense is: “My eye has tormented my spirit (myself), more than any of the daughters of my city.” What seems to be said is that the speaker is more distressed by what the speaker has seen than any other woman in the city.
The phrase mikkol occurs no fewer than 38 times in the Tanakh, and in all but two of them, a comparison is made between one person or thing and other members of a group to which that person or thing belongs.
שָׂכַ֤ל דָּוִד֙ מִכֹּל֙ עַבְדֵ֣י שָׁא֔וּל וַיִּיקַ֥ר שְׁמ֖וֹ מְאֹֽד:
“David was more intelligent than all the servants of Saul.”
אֹהֵ֣ב יְ֭-הֹוָה שַׁעֲרֵ֣י צִיּ֑וֹן מִ֝כֹּ֗ל מִשְׁכְּנ֥וֹת יַעֲקֹֽב:
“The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the habitations of Jacob.”
וַיֶּאֱהַ֨ב הַמֶּ֤לֶךְ אֶת־אֶסְתֵּר֙ מִכָּל ־הַנָּשִׁ֔ים וַתִּשָּׂא־חֵ֥ן וָחֶ֛סֶד לְפָנָ֖יו מִכָּל־הַבְּתוּלֹ֑ת
“The king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won his grace and favor more than all the young women.”
The comparative term מכל functions the same way in all of these verses. David is one of Saul’s servants, and he is more intelligent than the rest of them. Zion is one of Israel’s habitations, and Zion is more beloved than the rest of them. Esther was one of the women brought before the king, and she was loved more than the others.
By the very same grammar, the speaker in verse 51 is more pained at the travesties to be seen in Jerusalem than all the other “daughters”—which means, the speaker is one of the women of Jerusalem.
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July 22, 2015
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Prof. Edward L. Greenstein is Professor Emeritus of Bible at Bar-Ilan University. He received the EMET Prize (“Israel’s Nobel”) in Humanities-Biblical Studies for 2020, and his book, Job: A New Translation (Yale University Press, 2019), won the acclaim of the American Library Association, the Association for Jewish Studies, and many others. He has been writing a commentary on Lamentations for the Jewish Publication Society.
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