In This Article Lamentations

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Surveys of Scholarship
  • Date, Location, and Authorship
  • Ancient Near Eastern Comparative Studies
  • Intertextual Studies
  • Reception History
  • Gender Approaches
  • Cross-Cultural Readings
  • Psychological Approaches
  • Ecological Approaches
  • Lamentations as Jewish and Christian Scripture

Biblical Studies Lamentations
by
Robert Williamson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0220

Introduction

The book of Lamentations expresses the humiliation, suffering, and despair of Jerusalem and her people following the destruction of the city by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. Traditionally attributed to the authorship of the prophet Jeremiah, Lamentations was more likely written for public rituals commemorating the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and its Temple. Lamentations is notable both for the starkness of its imagery of the devastated city and for its poetic artistry. The book consists of five poems, the first four written as alphabetic acrostics proceeding through the alphabet from aleph to tav, while the fifth evokes the alphabet with its twenty-two-line structure. While Lamentations has for millennia been an important liturgical piece in Jewish commemorations of Tisha b’Av, it has only recently begun to flourish in the scholarly literature, perhaps because the devastations of the past century, including particularly the Holocaust and more recently 9/11, have made its message more urgent and timely. While scholars for a time found the primary theological purpose of the book in the Deuteronomic righteousness-reward theology with its hope in the possibility of repentance, more recent discussions have viewed Lamentations as an unresolved expression of grief following the trauma of Jerusalem’s devastation. Recent literary approaches focusing on Lamentations as an open, dialogic text have particularly emphasized the figure of Daughter Zion (personified Jerusalem), who has also been the subject of both feminist and queer studies. Reception historical approaches have also begun to show how Lamentations has echoed through the ages not only in liturgy, but also in literature, music, and art. Because of its focus on grief following devastation, Lamentations speaks not only to the specifics of its own historical circumstances, but also to the timeless human experience of life.

General Overviews

Several general overviews offer succinct introductions to the book of Lamentations itself and the scholarship related to it. The most useful of these are Joyce 2001 and Hillers 1992. Gwaltney 1999 provides a brief history of interpretation. Bailey 2014 offers a useful introduction for more theologically oriented readers, while Landy 1987 provides a literary introduction.

  • Bailey, Wilma Ann. “Lamentations.” In Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The Old Testament and Apocrypha. Edited by Gale A. Yee, Hugh R. Page Jr., and Matthew J. M. Coomber, 767–773. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014.

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    Offers a highly accessible overview of the text in its ancient context, the interpretive tradition, and contemporary Jewish and Christian communities.

  • Gwaltney, William C., Jr. “Lamentations.” In Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation. Vol. 2. Edited by John H. Hayes, 44–48. Nashville: Abingdon, 1999.

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    Provides an overview of the major issues in the history of Lamentations scholarship, focusing not only on 20th-century scholarship, but also including interpreters from late Antiquity onward. Pays particular interest to the relationship of Lamentations to Mesopotamian literature (see Ancient Near Eastern Comparative Studies).

  • Hillers, Delbert R. “Lamentations, Book of.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 4. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 137–141. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

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    A standard scholarly introduction to the major issues in Lamentations research, though now somewhat dated; particularly useful for historical-critical issues.

  • Joyce, Paul M. “Lamentations.” In The Oxford Bible Commentary. Edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, 528–533. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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    A thorough scholarly introduction to the book of Lamentations, including introductory comments on genre, authorship, date, and theology as well as a section-by-section commentary on the entire book.

  • Landy, Francis. “Lamentations.” In The Literary Guide to the Bible. Edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, 329–334. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1987.

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    A commentary considering each of the five chapters of Lamentations in turn, paying particular attention to the literary features of the text.

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