Lamentations: A Commentary
Berlin, professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Maryland, makes an important contribution to the study of this short, often-neglected book of the Old Testament. Well known for her work in biblical poetry and poetics, she is eminently qualified to write on this literary masterpiece. Berlin writes with lucidity, acumen, and literary sensitivity as she brings out the significant theological themes of Lamentations. Although Lamentations is mournful, her writing successfully appropriates the theological ideas within Lamentations so that all readers will discover joy in her commentary. It is fitting that this commentary is part of the theologically oriented Old Testament Library series.
The introduction to the commentary discusses the poetry of Lamentations, gender and suffering, mourning as a religious concept, the theology of destruction and exile, the literary context of Lamentations, authorship, date and purpose, and Lamentations at Qumran.
The commentary proper includes Berlin’s translation, accompanied by technical notes and exegetical observations. As she explains in the preface, she is selective and does not attempt to interact with every exegetical viewpoint. She characterizes her work as “literary, with emphasis on understanding the poetic discourse, vocabulary, and imagery of the Masoretic Text” (p. ix). But literary sensitivity is the foundation for theological understanding. As Berlin explains, “Behind the metaphors and other literary tropes lies a conceptual world of religious beliefs. One of my goals is to discover the religious worldview that informs the imagery of the book and to explicate the imagery in light of the worldview. Frames of reference such as the concept of purity, mourning, repentance, and the Davidic covenant are useful in this effort” (p. ix). Those who have literary and theological interests will be grateful for her model and her exegetical insights.
An ancient text like Lamentations must be read in its cultural context. To this end Berlin incorporates many insights from Canaanite, Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Egyptian literature. For example in her word study of hn:m;l]a', “widow,” in 1:1 she examines line 27 of the Merneptah Stele, which uses the widow metaphor for loneliness and vulnerability (p. 49).
One of the key passages in understanding the theological viewpoint of Lamentations is chapter three, where the author affirmed the faithfulness of the Lord and sought to put the nation’s suffering in perspective. Berlin’s discussion of this passage is insightful and helpful, but she drifts into or at least toward an overly deterministic reading of the text. Commenting on 3:37–39, she says that God is the “source of good and evil” (p. 93) and that “both good and bad originate from God” (p. 95). For support she appeals to Job 2:10 and Isaiah 45:7. This monistic understanding of God is popular among those who espouse the so-called “demonic-in-Yahweh” viewpoint. But Fredrik Lindström has challenged and refuted this position. He demonstrates that Job 2:10; Isaiah 45:7; Lamentations 3, and the many other texts used to defend this theory are inappropriately universalized and do not support a monistic reading when examined within their contexts. (See his God and the Origin of Evil: A Contextual Analysis of Alleged Monistic Evidence in the Old Testament [Lund: Gleerup, 1983].)
Unfortunately Berlin does not cite or interact with Lindström’s important work. She does temper her discussion somewhat by citing Weissbleuth’s observation that divine sovereignty and human freedom must be viewed in balance. Summarizing his view, Berlin states, “If a person sins, it is by his own free will; and thus he has no right to complain about the results of his sin” (p. 95). This is an important observation. Rather than portraying God as the source of both good and evil, Lamentations 3:37–39 simply affirms that God is just (see vv. 34–36) and that He fairly rewards and punishes human beings. When calamity overtakes sinners, it is because the Lord has decreed it as the appropriate punishment. The correct response in such cases is confession of sin and repentance (vv. 40–42).