Lamentations by F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Westminster John Knox) The destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. marks the great watershed in Judean history, and students of the Bible have long recognized the extraordinary impact of this single event upon biblical literature, as survivors sought to counteract the shattered paradigms of old (city, king, temple, land, covenant) imaginatively and rhetorically through an outpouring of literary generativity. Though more complex and multivocal than usually assumed, most of the biblical literature surviving from this period bears the peculiar ideological‑theological stamp of the Diaspora communities. So profound, in fact, was the exile experience for the Judaism emerging from this period and for the texts it generated that memories of the population that remained in Palestine and their struggles for survival were all but forgotten. But the continuing presence of people in the land of Palestine throughout the period of Babylonian rule has been made visible once again through archaeological excavations and surveys. While it is clear that Jerusalem and some of the fortress towns and major cities immediately to its south suffered tremendous damage at the hands of the Babyloniansdestruction layers exist at Tell el‑Duweir (Lachish), Tell Beit N4irsim, and Tel Batashthe rest of the region witnesses a remarkable degree of continuity in material culture down through the Persian period. For example, destruction strata clearly attributable to the Babylonian invasions are lacking in the northern regions (Samaria and Galilee), Transjordan, Philistia, and the Negeb. Cities just north of Jerusalem, such as Gibeon, Mizpah, and Bethel, also appear to have escaped unscathed. And in the south all was not destroyed either, as surveys f reveal the ongoing presence of small provincial towns and villages. Even in Jerusalem itself the material remains from burial caves, such as those at Ketef Hinnom and near the Sultan's Pool, support the assumption, also inferred from the biblical text (e.g., Jer. 40:7‑12; 41:4‑5), that some form of existence continued even among the city's ruins. In shoe the notion of Judah's total destruction and depopulation, a notion projected to greater and to lesser degrees in much of the Diaspora literature from this period and later, can finally be laid to rest.
But if the facticity of the Palestinian community's continued existence after 586 is more obvious today than in previous generations, in no way should this lead us to minimize the otherwise catastrophic impact of these events, nor to misread the direness of that community's lived reality. Judah lost its national independence and was forced to live under foreign domination and persecution. Its governing and principal sociocultural institutions were forever changed. Many people died, either in the fighting or through starvation associated with the siege and its aftermath. The cumulative effect of the successive deportations of 598/97, 586, and 582 was severe, even if they were not as all‑encompassing or pernicious as earlier Assyrian deportations. The leading citizenry and much of the skilled labor force were cruelly siphoned off the land‑not to mention the permanent psychological scars that exile left on those exiled and their loved ones left behind. The economy of Judah was likely reduced to a purely agricultural base, leaving a predominantly rural community to get by as best they could.
And yet, however dark life must have been for the post‑destruction community of Jerusalem and its surrounding environs, it is a fitting tribute to this community's resilience that the one literary work that can be attributed to its members most securely, the sequence of five poems collected in the biblical book of Lamentations, is a most profoundly life embracing work. If Jews historically have been more attentive than Christians as readers of Lamentations, both Jews and Christians alike typically have muted and dulled the unique timbre of the Palestinian voice in these remarkable poems, persistently filtering their readings through the more prominent lenses of the Diaspora literature of the Bible. A chief intent of this commentary is to restore, as it were, something of the distinctiveness of the Palestinian voice found in these poems.
Lamentations may well be the most remarkable and compelling testament to the human spirit's will to live in all of the Old Testament.I hasten to add that these poems constitute some of the Bible's most violent and brutal pieces of writing as well, as they emerge, both liter ally and figuratively, out of the ashes and ruins of Jerusalem and are filled with horrifyingly dark and grizzly images of raw human pain and suffering. The commentary will endeavor to apprehend and confront the horror and pain of human suffering presented in these poems as a reality in itself, without recourse to romantic or nostalgic notions of the purposiveness or redemptive power of suffering. Readers of these poems who have just witnessed the close of the twentieth century cannot help but read and experience them in light of the Holocaust and the literature of atrocity that our singularly evil epoch in human history has generated. Indeed, Lamentations shares with this body of literature the need to witness to the utterly harmful and irredeemable nature of human suffering. However, Lamentations ultimately arises out of very different historical circumstances. The Holocaust in every way was unique. In it, reality outstripped (and continues to do so to this day) even the most demented and vile contortions of the human mind, and thus the overriding goal of much Holocaust literature is to make such an unsayable and unthinkable reality possible for the imagination. By contrast, the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, though singularly important in the history of ancient Judah, was by no means unparalleled in antiquity. Ancient Jerusalemites would likely have had firsthand experience of war and its bloody consequences, and if not, an acquaintance with war would have been mediated through the memories of generations past. This is not meant to devalue in anyway the horror and terror that surely accompanied these events, nor to deny that every experience of radical suffering, no matter its cause, is intolerable, but rather to suggest that Lamentations' response to the horrific events that motivated it is shaped as much by familiarity as by horror. That is, Lamentations stubbornly holds onto life and manifests a will to live that comes from knowledge of (or the belief in) tomorrow. Death and suffering are found throughout these remarkable poems, but they stand, for the most part, as "memory's beginning," not life's end (L. Langer, Holocaust, 28‑29). To be sure, the reader will not find in them, despite many contentions to the contrary, any straightforward and unadulterated statements of hope. Rather, their will to live arises in a more nuanced fashion, almost under the surface of the poetry, through innuendo and implication, in the poems' lyric play, in tone, and in the poet's vibrant intelligence that animates and courses through every line. Literature has always provided people with the metaphors and imagery necessary to enable them to confront and understand the vicissitudes of history, and to help muster the wherewithal to transfigure and survive them. Lamentations stands squarely within such a literary tradition. If these poems do not (because they cannot) imagine, in specific hues and colors, the substance of the tomorrow they want to remember, they do much of the foundation‑razing (apropos of their overarching literary genre) necessary to ensure it. The violence and brutality of these lyrics stand as a monument condemning the reality of human suffering. But as they turn over and sift through Judah's literary and religious traditions in order to remember and bend and shape the past so that it serves the poems' present and the community's future, first by articulating the feelings of horror and grief and outrage, and then by measuring them, as they frankly and brutally probe and confront God and God's actions, silence, and absence, and as they seek to realize a new kind of community, these lyrics fashion a linguistic balm capable of salving‑if not removing‑the scars and wounds of the suffering they so painfully figure. In doing so they create the capacity to be otherwise and the possibility for survival, for remembering the tomorrow that Zion so tragically neglected.
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