L is for Lamentations

A reader new to the Hebrew Bible might well be puzzled by just how much of its content seems to rail against God. The prophet Jeremiah and the book of Job are riddled with cries to God from a place of anger. The Book of Psalms which has provided a template for Jewish and Christian prayer over the centuries is made up of a great variety of songs and poems, but by any reckoning at least one third are cries to God. This Hebraic style of calling out to God is often termed Lament. No matter how provocative and desperate this language of lament gets it is always said (or cried) from a stance of faith—these are no cries into the empty void, but they are desperate pleas to a God who can and from the psalmists standpoint, should deliver.

However profound the anger and suffering found in the Psalms of Lament there is a place that goes further still into the depths of dark experience, the Book of Lamentations. Lamentations deals with the horror of events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and the immediate aftermath. Its nature, as a collection of distinct literary units means that there is a recapitulation of key themes like abandonment by Yahweh, suffering, judgement and confession. Given the desperate context we might expect that the laments of Lamentations would be crude spontaneous prayers. The truth could not be further away from this, for despite the terrible nature of the event as a whole, and the specific grim details, all of Lamentations is intricately-crafted poetry. It is not only poetic but has all the hallmarks of meticulous care and attention in its design. All five chapters use an acrostic device—in each separate lament each line begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This device quickly explains why chapters 1,2, 4 and 5 all have 22 verses and why the central chapter 3 has 66, see the table below.

Lamentations Structure

Although there is no over-arching narrative to the book, there is a certain symmetry about its structure, with the larger chapter three lying at its heart. Some scholars hesitate in identifying chapter 5 as an implied acrostic. Recently, however, attention has been drawn to the existence of implied acrostics, or quasi-acrostics, in the Psalter too, see [1]. Although chapter 5 of Lamentations clearly differs from the other chapters—it is not an acrostic, but it has 22 verses and is by association an implied acrostic. Quite why it has been composed free of the normal constraint of an acrostic will probably remain a mystery. Perhaps the book has finally freed itself of the constraint necessary to contain grief?

Why would the author or editors of the book of Lamentations choose such a dominant  literary form as the acrostic device? It is perhaps an attempt to bring poetic order to what appears to be so thoroughly disordered. It is as if the poet is trying what is almost impossible, voicing the most profound questions, and in doing so has found that the order imposed by the acrostic device gives a framework to hold on to. The existence of the five literary units highlights the ongoing nature of attempting to ask the right questions whilst dealing with acute pain and grief. It is possible that the constraints of poetry provide a way to structure and shape the work of the poet, to enable processing of the terrors experienced and seen. This type of catharsis is certainly part of the preservation of this text. It is thoroughly human to rehearse tragedy and reiterate injustice. How much more appropriate when events have challenged the very core belief of your people, that Yahweh shows his people irrevocable covenant faithfulness?

 

  1. O. Palmer Robertson, ‘The Alphabetic Acrostic in Book I of the Psalms: An Overlooked Element of Psalter Structure’, pp.225-238, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 2015, p.236.

H is for Hebrew Bible

The term Hebrew Bible denotes a collection of texts. These are the same texts that comprise the Old Testament recognised by Protestants as Scripture. The Hebrew Bible is however meaningfully distinct from the Old Testament in two ways. Firstly, the title Hebrew Bible is necessary because the designation Old Testament is unhelpfully loaded for Jews. How can a Jew be expected to use the term Old Testament which necessarily implies that there is more scripture and, even more problematically, intimates that the ‘Old’ has been superseded in some sense. The delineation of Hebrew Bible from Old Testament is however important for a second reason—an comparison will reveal the same texts but arranged in a different order. I hope to have time in a later post to explore how the ordering of such texts makes a real difference. In this post there is only space to explore the structure of the Hebrew Bible.

The differences between The Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament are summarised in the Table below. The Hebrew Bible organises the various books into three categories. The first is torah, sometimes termed the books of Moses or Pentateuch (the five). These are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number and Deuteronomy. In the Old Testament these five are also found at the outset grouped and categorised in the same order fashion and are often termed the Law. A later post will explore that equating the Hebrew word torah with law is unhelpful at a number of levels.

HB table

After the torah comes the second division known as the nevi’im or prophets. These prophets are further subdivided into Former and Latter prophets. The first four of these become the first six of the Christian historical books—both Samuel and Kings being split in half so as to create 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings and 2 Kings. The Latter Prophets are what Christians designate the prophetic books, although in the Old Testament Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve are joined by some other books which the Hebrew Bible categorise as Writings or khetuvim. This third division can seem rather hotchpotch to those used to the fourfold Protestant classification. It is however helpful to see these books in a different light to the other two divisions. The torah and nevi’im tell a continuous narrative, whereas the khetuvim are analogous to the commentaries and extras on a DVD. This has important consequences for interpretation. It leads to genres such as Rewritten History (e.g. Chronicles) [1] and Novellas (e.g. Jonah) [2]. Two later posts will explore how recognition of such genres can have important implications for interpreting and understanding these books.

In the Christian Bible the Writings are placed in very different places. Some of them join the historical books, and five become a new group sometimes termed the Wisdom books or literature. The remaining two, Lamentations and Daniel, join the prophetic books.

Whilst the above is a concise but complete account of the differences between the Hebrew Bible and the Protestant Old Testament, there are further complications when a comparison is made with the Orthodox and Catholic Bibles. Both have additional books as well as a small number of additions to the books mentioned above. In short these additions originate with Greek texts that the Jews of the Diaspora added to their religious corpus. These additions were important to the first Greek Speaking Christians as they used a collection of texts known as the Septuagint (sometimes designated LXX for seventy). The Orthodox and Catholic churches do not entirely agree on either the scope or the nature of these additions. All I am doing here is flagging up this complexity; there is insufficient space to unpack it further, the interested reader will have to look elsewhere [3].

 

References

  1. See, for example, Ehud Ben Zvi, ‘Late historical books and rewritten history’, pp.292–313 in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (eds: Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  2. See, for example, Lawrence M. Wills, ‘The biblical short story’, pp.314–330 in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (eds: Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  3. See, for example, John Barton, ‘The Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament’, pp.2‒23 in The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion (ed: John Barton), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016 and Stephen B. Chapman, ‘Collections, canons, and communities’, pp.28‒54 in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (eds: Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.