Introduction to the Book of Lamentations   Leave a comment

Above:  Heading and Opening of Lamentations

Image Scanned from an Old Bible

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READING LAMENTATIONS, PART I

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The tradition that the prophet composed the Book of Lamentations immediately after the Fall of Jerusalem (586 B.C.E.) and prior to departing involuntarily for Egypt is deeply ingrained in many minds.  That tradition is evident in the brief preface in the Septuagint and the Vulgate:

When Israel had been taken into captivity and Jerusalem had become a wilderness, it happened that the prophet Jeremiah sat down in tears; he uttered this lament over Jerusalem, he said….

–Quoted from a footnote in The Jerusalem Bible (1966)

This tradition has its origin in an interpretation of 2 Chronicles 35:25:

Jeremiah also made a lament for Josiah; and to this day the minstrels, both men and women, commemorate Josiah in their lamentations.  Such laments have become traditional in Israel, and they are found in the written collections.

The Revised English Bible (1989)

King Josiah of Judah died in 609 B.C.E.

The Book of Lamentations laments the Fall of Jerusalem (586 B.C.E.) and never mentions King Josiah.  The language is similar to that in the Books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  Much of the language is sufficiently vague that the laments can apply to many disasters, other than the Fall of Jerusalem.

The text does not answer the question of authorship.  One may perhaps legitimately hypothesize that the prophet Jeremiah contributed to the Book of Lamentations.  The most likely scenario is that the Book of Lamentations is the product of authors.

The Book of Lamentations, completed before the dedication of the Second Temple (516 B.C.E.), embraces the Deuteronomic theology of divine retribution (as in the Book of Jeremiah).  Lamentations also contains material from various sources.  There are four voices–those of the Poet, Fair Zion, the Man (personified Israel), and the Community–in five poems.  Chapters 1-4 are Hebrew acrostic poems.  Chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5 have 22 verses each.  Chapter 3 has 66 verses.

The placement of the Book of Lamentations varies.  The Book of Lamentations, classified as a prophetic book in Christian Bibles, exists in different places, relative to other books, in Christian canons of scripture.  It is between Jeremiah and Baruch in Roman Catholic Bibles, between Jeremiah and Ezekiel in Protestant and Anglican Bibles, between Baruch and Ezekiel in Ethiopian Orthodox Bibles, and between Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah in The Orthodox Study Bible (2008).  The Book of Lamentations, in the Writings (not the Prophets) section of the Hebrew Bible, sits between Ruth and Ecclesiastes.

Major lectionaries ignore most of the Book of Lamentations.  The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) does this:

  1. 1:1-6 is one of two possible First Readings for Proper 22, Year C.  On that Sunday, 3:19-26  is an alternative response.
  2. 3:1-9, 19-24 is a reading for Holy Saturday, Years A, B, and C.  But how many congregations who follow the RCL conduct the Holy Saturday liturgy?

The introduction to the Book of Lamentations in The Catholic Study Bible, Third Edition (2016), acknowledges that the Roman Catholic Church, outside of Holy Week,

has otherwise tended to neglect the book.

–1142

Indeed, the current Roman Catholic Mass lectionaries assign little–yet more than the RCL does–from the Book of Lamentations:

  1. 1:1-6 is the First Reading for Proper 27, Year C.
  2. 2:2, 10-14, 18-19 is the First Reading for Saturday, Week 12, Ordinary Time, Year 2.
  3. 3:1-9, 19-24 is the First Reading on Holy Saturday, Years A, B, and C.
  4. 3:19-26 is the First Reading on Proper 22, Year C.
  5. 3:23-33 is the First Reading on Proper 9, Year B.

The introduction to the Book of Lamentations in The Catholic Study Bible, Third Edition (2016), continues from the quote above:

It is not hard to see why; a more anguished piece of writing is scarcely imaginable….But with its unsparing focus on destruction, pain, and suffering the book serves an invaluable function as part of Scripture, witnessing to a biblical faith determined to express honestly the harsh realities of a violent world and providing contemporary readers the language to do the same.

–1142-1143

Observant Jews read or hear the Book of Lamentations read liturgically on the ninth day of Av (in July or August), the day of public mourning and fasting in commemoration of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. and the Second Temple in 70 C.E.  The ninth day of Av is also a day to commemorate other disasters and catastrophes in the Jewish past.  The recitation of the Book of Lamentations occurs in candlelight or dim light, while the reader and the congregation sit on the floor or low benches.

Rereading the Book of Lamentations in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic may help individuals and faith communities express an honest, Biblical faith in a world in which many people, institutions, and societies have lost their minds and gone off the rails, and in which returning to the old normal is impossible.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JUNE 16, 2021 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF GEORGE BERKELEY, IRISH ANGLICAN BISHOP AND PHILOSOPHER; AND JOSEPH BUTLER, ANGLICAN BISHOP AND THEOLOGIAN

THE FEAST OF SAINT JOHN FRANCIS REGIS, ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST

THE FEAST OF NORMAN MACLEOD, SCOTTISH PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER AND HYMN WRITER; AND HIS COUSIN, NORMAN MACLEOD, SCOTTISH PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER, LITURGIST, AND HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF RUFUS JONES, U.S. QUAKER THEOLOGIAN AND COFOUNDER OF THE AMERICAN FRIENDS SERVICE COMMITTEE

THE FEAST OF WILLIAM HIRAM FOULKES, U.S. PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER AND HYMN WRITER

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