Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Bible in a Year: Lamentations, Baruch

This calendar year (and probably into Lent 2018), I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week I'm reading Lamentations, along with the apocrypha book Baruch.

The Book of Lamentations, traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah, is found in the Jewish Bible and all Christian Old Testaments. In the Jewish tradition, the book (entitled “Eichah,” “How,” the first word), is one of the Five Scrolls and is recited on the fast day of Tisha B’Av, the holiday that remembers the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

In Christian traditions, the book follows the book of Jeremiah. Passages are read during Tenebrae of the Holy Triduum.

Both Jeremiah and Lamentations share a terrible sorrowfulness. Here are just a few verses that cry out concerning the desolation of God's people in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem, and God's seeming absence amid the horrifying suffering. In his commentary on Jeremiah and Lamentations (1), John Bracke of Eden Seminary points out that the book is open enough to reflect a variety of terrible circumstances, which makes the book sadly timeless. (p. 187).

How lonely sits the city
   that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
   she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
   has become a vassal.

She weeps bitterly in the night,
   with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
   she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
   they have become her enemies (1:1-2).

Arise, cry out in the night,
   at the beginning of the watches!
Pour out your heart like water
   before the presence of the Lord!
Lift your hands to him
   for the lives of your children,
who faint for hunger
   at the head of every street.

Look, O Lord, and consider!
   To whom have you done this?
Should women eat their offspring,
   the children they have borne?
Should priest and prophet be killed
   in the sanctuary of the Lord? (2:19-20)

Those who feasted on delicacies
   perish in the streets;
those who were brought up in purple
   cling to ash heaps.

For the chastisement of my people has been greater
   than the punishment of Sodom,
which was overthrown in a moment,
   though no hand was laid on it (4:5-6).

Lamentations has five poems. Chapters 1, 2, and 4 have 22 verses that begin with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, those forming an acrostic. Chapter 3, with its 66 verses, thus have three acrostic poems. Chapter 5 has 22 verses but is not an acrostic. The Harper's Bible Commentary notes that, in the first four poems, the first line is usually longer than the second line. “Such imbalance produces a falling rhythm that is said to ‘limp,’ ‘choke,’ or ‘sob’ in sympathy with the mournful contents.” (p. 646). “The aim of the acrostic-building poet(s) seems to have been to foster a comprehensive catharsis of grief and confession linked to an inculcation of faith and hope, to be accomplished literally by covering the subject ‘from A to Z’” (p. 647).

John Bracke points out Nahum 1:2-8, Proverbs 31:10-31, and Psalms 9-10, 25, 34 37, 11, 112, 119, and 145 have an alphabetical arrangement as well (p. 183). Furthermore, Lamentations also reflects the kind of psalm that scholars call “communal lament,” such as 74, 97, and 137 (p. 185).

The Harper's Bible Commentary continues, “Lamentations, in its final form, exhibits a striking and innovating amalgam of prophetic, Deuteronomistic, and wisdom notions that subordinates and neutralizes Davidic-Zion traditions without rejecting them outright” (pp. 648-649).

Bracke has this helpful summary: “As we read the book of Lamentations, we should not expect the book to provide answers about suffering. instead, the book of Lamentations gives us words with which to address God about suffering… Our culture is optimistic and values certainty and confidence. to speak of suffering is a sign of weakness and pessimism, out of character in ‘can-do’ America… [but] The book of Lamentations invites us to speak honestly before God of the pain that afflicts us as we live in communities. Lamentations is a book to be prayed because in those communities where we live there is suffering of which God needs to know even if it is not immediately evident that God is paying attention or cares. Perhaps, as we pray through Lamentations, we may discover anew God’s reign even when God seems absent” (pp. 188-189).


John M. Bracke, Jeremiah 30-52 and Lamentations (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), and his Jeremiah 1-29 (same date and publisher).


Book of Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah.

In Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bibles (though not in the Jewish Bible and the Protestant Old Testament), the Book of Baruch (or 1 Baruch) follows Lamentations. The ascribed author is Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch ben Neriah, but the book was probably written during or after the Maccabean period. The five chapters concern the history of Israel and the crisis of exile.

Chapter 6 of Baruch is called the Letter (or Epistle) of Jeremiah and is addressed to exiles in Babylon. Orthodox Bibles has this letter as a stand-alone book that follows Baruch, while in Roman Catholic Bibles the letter is the last chapter/ appendix of Baruch.

After these, the next book is Ezekiel.

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