In the opening poem of Lamentations, readers are confronted at once with the hurt and pain of physical suffering in the lived immediacy of a single woman ravished, abandoned, and uncomforted. That woman, the personified, destroyed city of Jerusalem, is the central figure through and in which Lamentations 1 is shaped and unified. Otherwise, it is only the poem’s formal patterns of repetition that hold the whole together. The alphabetic acrostic constrains the first line of every stanza and the stanzas themselves consist of six lines or three couplets (1:7 is the only exception). Along with Lamentations 2, this poem exhibits the highest proportion of enjambed lines within the couplet. The first half of the poem (1:1-11) shows the suffering as it is refracted through personified Jerusalem herself. She is the grammatical and semantic topic throughout, the chief antecedent of most of the verbs and pronominal forms in this section. Third-person feminine pronominal forms dominate. This serial repetition of like independent pronouns and pronominal affixes on nouns and verbs serves as an important organizing device throughout Lamentations, helping to secure intersectional unity (e.g., first-person singular forms [I/me/my] in 1:12-22, third-person masculine forms [he/him/his] in 2:1-8, and first-person plural forms [we/us/our] in 5:1-22). The suffering itself is related through a series of images that are drawn chiefly from female experiences: Jerusalem is imagined as a widow (1:1b), a princess who has become enslaved (1:1c), a woman exiled and homeless (1:3a–b), a refugee relentlessly pursued by her captors (1:3c), a mother forced to watch her children taken into captivity (1:5c), and a woman subjected to sexual assault and rape (1:8-10). Throughout this half of the poem the reader is positioned principally as a third party who is only hearing of Jerusalem’s horrid experience from someone else. The reader is not totally disinterested. Presumably members of the poem’s original audience would have experienced the events refracted in the poem and, besides, the figure of Zion is at one level a personification of the peoplethemselves. Therefore, while space is created initially between Jerusalem’s experience and that of the reader through the poem’s positioning of the reader, allowing him or her to remain detached (aesthetically) from the events described in the poem, there is nevertheless a close connection between the two that lies dormant, just under the surface of the poem, to be exploited later. That is, this poem, and indeed Lamentations as a whole, exhibits strong sympathies for the plight of the personified city and those whom she represents.
A dramatic shift occurs in the second half of the poem (1:12-22). The suffering in this section is voiced instead of shown, as the personified city becomes the poem’s principal speaker. Now first-person singular verbs and pronouns dominate. Jerusalem names her suffering (e.g., “Is there any pain like my pain” [au. trans.], 1:12b); identifies, in especially dark language, her chief tormentor, God (e.g., “From on high he sends fire,/ and causes it to descend deep in my bones,” 1:13a); and calls for vengeance against the enemies (1:21-22) who surrounded (1:17b) and prevailed over her (1:16c). The reader is now confronted by the actual presence of the sufferer whom he or she only heard about in the first half of the poem. The result is that the aesthetic distance between the discourse of the poem and the reader’s experience of that discourse is suddenly collapsed. The use of the first-person voice draws readers into the poem, makes them identify with the speaker, and invites them to experience vicariously the suffering and affliction that the poem figures. And in an effort to ensure the success of the poet’s rhetoric, the reader’s sympathies are elicited more or less explicitly from the outset of Jerusalem’s speech, as the personified figure asks the passersby, who function as stand-ins for the poem’s readers, whether there is any pain like the pain God has inflicted upon her (1:12). Thus, this poem’s placement at the outset of the sequence is crucial for the success of Lamentations’ larger rhetorical ambitions.
Excursus: Personified Zion
The figure of the personified city in this poem and the next is undoubtedly the most compellingly drawn figure in the whole of Lamentations. One of the consequences of the city-lament genre having been transplanted to Israelite/Judean soil was the metamorphosis of the city goddess into the personified city (presumably because of the theological pressures associated with ancient Israel and Judah’s monolatrous culture). The personified city-temple complex in Lamentations functions analogously to the sorrowful, tender, and compassionate weeping goddess in the Mesopotamian laments, who so vividly and graphically realizes the agony and torment and distress that so assaultedthe Sumerian psyche through the experience of the catastrophic close of the Ur III period. Like these weeping goddesses, the personified city in Lamentations mourns the destruction of her city and temple and the suffering of her people (1:2a, 4c, 8c, 16a, 17a, 21a; 2:19c), confronts God in his capacity as the divine agent of destruction (1:9c, 20-22; 2:20-22), and is portrayed as a mother (1:4b, 5c, 11a, 15, 16c; 2:9b, c, 10a, 14, 19c, 21b, 22c; 4:13; cf. 5:3) who has become homeless and unable to find rest (1:1c, 3a–b, 7a). Moreover, she is even imbued with a series of epithets that all have good divine parallels: “daughter [of] Zion” (1:6a; cf. 2:1a, 2b [MT], 4c, 5c, 8a, 10a, 13a, 15b, 18a; 4:21a, 22a), “maiden Judah” (2:2a [Vg]), “maiden (= “virgin” in NRSV) daughter [of] Judah” (1:15c; cf. 2:13b), and “daughter of my people” (= “my people” in NRSV; 2:11b; 3:48; 4:3b, 6a, 10b). Indeed, the phrases translated by the NRSV as “she that was great among the nations” (1:1b) and “she that was princess among the provinces” (1:1c) cannot be so construed syntactically, but instead must name the city who is imagined as widow and slave in these couplets: “Lady/Mistress over the Nations” and “Princess over the Provinces.” Good parallels to the latter are again found among divine (and royal) epithets in West Semitic, and especially in Akkadian and Sumerian in the Mesopotamian city laments, where the weeping goddesses bear comparable epithets. In addition to further elaborating the poet’s portrait of the personified city and revealing her divine lineage, these epithets, given their divine associations, enhance the status and authority of the figure so entitled. She is no mere woman, but a woman infused with the aura of divinity and royalty, and thus a woman whose testimony cannot be lightly dismissed. Furthermore, several of the epithets—those involving terms for “daughter” and “maiden”—effect undertones of affection, sympathy, and vulnerability that, among other things, help draw readers to Zion’s side.
The use of personification to render the figure of Jerusalem in this poem has a number of felicitous consequences that move beyond its original theological motivation and that bear directly on the poem’s achievements. By imbuing the city with personality and individuality, the poet gives his portrait of suffering the humanity and concreteness required to ring true to and to grip his audience. That is, it is one thing to look at a city in ruins, even if it is your own city, and quite another to imagine that city as a person who has suffered enormously. A city however beloved remains an inanimate object. Once destroyed it can always be rebuilt, even, at least potentially, better than before. But a person can never fully erase the scars of radical suffering. Moreover, as Farley notes, suffering “arises out of the particularity of a situation and is experienced through personal immediacy.” However it is occasioned, she continues,“it is always and irreducibly my own. Even if my suffering is explicitly as a member of a community, the experience of it remains uniquely mine and cannot be absorbed into the larger whole” (56). Therefore, the poet’s use of personification both skillfully ups the emotional ante—Jerusalem, as city is something more than the sum of all of its walls, buildings, gates, and roads, and the full gravity of its destruction can only begin to be fathomed if we envision the city as a person—and gives authenticity and sharpness to the city’s plight by individuating the experience. And yet as personified Jerusalem’s communal identity is so obvious—she is the people personified as well as the city’s leading citizen—the particularity of the pain and anguish that she refracts is made so as to resonate more broadly.
The use of personification in these poems also adds a depth and complexity of character to the figure of the city-temple complex that is missing in the weeping goddess motif in Mesopotamian laments. Personification may be likened to a sentence that has a literal subject and a metaphorical predicate. The subject, the object personified, is always to be taken literally and is always present at some level. The metaphorical predicate provides the persona and any second-order referents, and it is that which engages the reader. In the case of the personified city in Lamentations, the city constitutes the literal subject, whether referring to the actual physical entity of walls, gates, roads, and buildings or by metonymic extension to the city’s human inhabitants. A variety of feminine imagery forms the metaphorical predicate, the persona that enlivens the figure of Zion in these poems. Any or all of these aspects of the personified figure may be foregrounded at any one time. Moreover, an additional layer of complexity is added by the fluidity of geographical references associated with the personified figure in Lamentations, for example, Zion, Jerusalem, Judah, and even Jacob and Israel. While there may well be an intended narrowing or enlarging of focus depending on the specific geographical term used in any one instance, we should not insist on distinguishing these figures too sharply. This kind of fluidity of reference is traceable within the biblical traditions themselves. For example, within the Zion tradition, talk of Zion moves to talk of Jerusalem and even to the whole land of Israel and Judah quite easily, with no apparent distinction intended. The name Zion itself, which occurs fifteen times in Lamentations and is by far the most common geographical designation used in these poems, exhibits especially fluid associations. Originally, it probably was a designation for Jebusite Jerusalem, which David is said to have conquered (2 Sam. 5:7; 1 Kgs. 8:1). It then becomes a specific designation for the Temple Mount (Pss. 48:2, 11; 78:68-69; Isa. 31:4; Joel 3:17, 21)—whichlikely is its prototypical resonance throughout Lamentations. And eventually, through synecdoche, Zion becomes a designation for the whole of Jerusalem (2 Kgs. 19:31; Isa. 2:3; 30:19) and, in Lamentations, through the cohering force of the personification and genre associations, even Judah. Such fluidity allows the poet to manipulate the breadth and depth of focus as he deems appropriate without destroying the coherence imposed by the use of the female persona.
Finally, if personified Jerusalem finds her literary roots in Mesopotamia, she gains an afterlife in the Hellenistic tychē poleōs—the deified personification of fortune or fate, the mater dolorosa, the Shekhinah and the personified “Community of Israel” known from the Talmud, and the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem. Regarding the latter, both Matthew (23:37-39) and Luke (13:34-35) portray Jesus uttering a lament over Jerusalem (“Jerusalem, Jerusalem …”) in which he likens himself to a mother hen and remarks on the abandonment of the temple. And in a passage unique to Luke (19:41-44), Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and utters a second lament. This time he predicts that in the “coming days” Jerusalem will be besieged and destroyed and she and her children dashed to pieces (see also Matt. 23:38). That the Gospel writers’ dependence on the city-lament tradition in these passages is not mere happenstance is further suggested by our poet’s determination to show Zion as taking on her children’s sins and suffering in ways that prefigure the Jesus of the Gospel accounts (see below). For Christians, then, the hurt, grief, and love refracted in and through personified Jerusalem gains special significance as it reverberates and echoes in the similar portrayal of Jesus in the New Testament.
A Lament over Zion
The poem itself opens ominously at night (1:2a) and amid the aftermath of the catastrophe, portraying in its first couplet the image of ruined Jerusalem and the death, suffering, and cultural upheaval which a broken and deserted city so powerfully symbolizes. Many of the Bible’s destruction narratives (e.g., Gen. 19; Josh. 2; Judg. 19-21) are set at night to evoke the sense of malevolence and foreboding associated with darkness. Indeed, words for “night,” “darkness,” and “blackness” always have negative and disastrous associations in Lamentations(see 2:1a, 19a; 3:2; 4:8; 5:10). Superimposed over this image of dark destruction are the sights, sounds, and feelings associated with a funeral. Key elements of the funeral dirge are liberally deployed in this initial stanza. The poem’s opening particle (“How,” esp. Isa. 1:21; Jer. 48:17); the use of the contrast motif—here contrasting a populated, secure, and queenly Jerusalem before the destruction with a deserted, widowed, and enslaved Jerusalem after the destruction; the imagining of Jerusalem as a widow; and the rhythmic frame of the qinah meter, which begins in earnest in the second stanza and continues prominently throughout the rest of the poem, all are elements found in or associated with Israelite funeral dirges. This strong evocation of the funeral dirge effects a predominantly sad and somber tone that matches the eerie darkness in which the poem is enshrouded. More immediately, it provides the context in which personified Jerusalem is first encountered. The poet, drawing on the personified city’s divine lineage, skillfully brings the metaphor to life right before the reader’s eyes. The poem’s opening couplet is rich and complex, full of the kind of wordplay illustrated above in the Introduction. The first double entendre plays on the phrase “lonely sits” which, when considered initially and in isolation from the sentence’s conclusion in the second line of the couplet, suggests the image of a city set apart and secure (Num. 23:9; Deut. 33:28; Jer. 49:31), an image of Israel in fact foretold by Balaam in Num. 23:9. The placement of the line terminus after “lonely” in the Hebrew ensures that this initial image of a city set apart and secure will resonate with the reader. Unfortunately, the rendering of NRSV obscures the effect of the Hebrew lineation, which is better captured in the following translation:
How she sits alone,
the city that once was full of people!
In this translation the comma and the line break force the reader to consider, at least initially, the significance of the phrase “How she sits alone” without reference to the second line. The subject-noun phrase, which follows only in the succeeding line, remains compatible with this positive notion. Only the introductory “How!” (and its mournful associations) and the immediately following image of Jerusalem as “widow” intimate that the phrase can take on another meaning as well, that of a city alone and abandoned (cf. Isa. 27:10). The image, then, must be radically reenvisioned. The city does not sit alone, apart from other nations, because it is secure and privileged, but because it has been deserted. Thus, two images are presented and allowed to play off one another. The net effect is to contrast Jerusalem’s glorious past, when she satsecurely, filled with many people, and her desolate present, when she sits alone, abandoned, and demolished.
This first double entendre sets the stage for the second, out of which the persona of the city emerges. In the immediately succeeding couplets the city of Jerusalem is said to have become “like a widow” and enslaved in a labor gang (i.e., “a vassal”). That is, the city is anthropomorphized and, as was noted earlier, named using the epithets “Lady/Mistress over the Nations” and “Princess over the Provinces.” Therefore, by stanza’s end the opening couplet takes on an additional resonance as “the city that once was full of people,” which may be construed appositionally as well as adjectivally, consisting of yet another epithet of the personified city: “Lady/Mistress of the People.” The key word in the Hebrew (rabbātî) is contextualized so as to allow for two competing interpretations, either as the adjective “full, many, great” or as the substantive “lady, great one” (as commonly in titles). The image on the appositional reading, then, is that of the persona of the city sitting alone at the site of ruined Jerusalem—an image comparable to that of the city goddess in the Mesopotamian laments sitting and lamenting at the site of her ruined city. Thus, the personified figure of Jerusalem comes to life in the words and phrases which constitute the poetry itself, as if the stone and mudbrick of the destroyed city suddenly by poetic magic metamorphose into the flesh and bones of a woman with blood coursing through her veins.
This act of linguistic creation, all the more striking as it is accomplished amid the sorrowful sounds and images of a funeral, strongly symbolizes the poem’s embrace of life. While the personified city is evoked intentionally as the subject of the dirge in these opening lines, which allows access to the complex range of emotions and thoughts that death and loss elicit in human beings, that she also is imagined (contradictorily!) as widow and slave shows that she is not quite dead. That is, unlike Amos’ image of Maiden Israel (Amos 5:2), who has fallen dead and will not rise again, personified Jerusalem in Lamentations 1 is shown weeping in 1:2, going into exile in 1:3, and speaking throughout the second half of the poem. By bringing the personified city to life out of the dying husk of the ruined material city, the poet effectively tropes the acts of human and cultural creation contained in the Genesis stories, albeit in a transposed mode and with more sorrowful accents, and fashions a metaphorical substitute for the material act of rebuilding (the raison d’être of the city-lament genre as known from Mesopotamia) that cannot yet be envisioned. Each time we, the readers, return to these words, reading or hearing them afresh, we breathe new life back into Jerusalem, we match the poet’s originary feat of creation with one ofour own, thus enabling Jerusalem to shimmer again with imaginative and life-enhancing presence. It is in the fact of the personified city’s continued existence (now and then, literally and figuratively in our imagination), in her ability to cry and articulate pain and outrage, and even in her continued suffering where this poem’s strong grip on life is to be found. The city, like the people whom she embodies and is a part, is alive and exhibits a will to live. This is not life celebrated, but it is life embraced, and it is such an embrace which, according to Geertz (104), ultimately leads people to find the wherewithal to endure prolonged and intense suffering, and in enduring, ultimately to survive.
The second stanza (1:2) builds on the personification introduced in the first and continues to evoke the funeral scene. Jerusalem, perhaps as widow, is envisioned as mourning the death that surrounds her. The imperfective verb form in the Hebrew (“she weeps”) makes one of its rare appearances here, viewing Jerusalem’s crying as dynamic, ongoing, and thus decidedly emphasizing the sense of immediacy and the need for prompt action. The latter is instantly frustrated in the stanza’s second couplet, as the funeral scene becomes strange and twisted. It was customary for the friends and relations of the bereaved to offer comfort and consolation. However, in the opening line of 1:2b we are informed that there is “no one to comfort” the grieving Jerusalem. None of Jerusalem’s metaphorical “loved ones” or “friends” (who in the idiom of ancient Near Eastern diplomacy may also represent Judah’s more literal erstwhile political allies—see above) will console her. Indeed, not only is the personified city bereft of comfort, but her friends and loved ones turn on her, becoming her enemies. The lack of a comforter or helper is mentioned again four more times in the poem (1:7c, 9b, 17a, 21a; cf. 16b). The theme is never developed logically or fully, but is simply allowed to surface here and there. Its force is nevertheless felt, especially as it is repeated, lending a certain pathos to the description of Jerusalem’s plight. It evokes (without explicit comment) sympathy and anger in the reader who is made to feel that the city deserves comfort in such a situation. The intensity builds with every repetition. It also functions as an incantation to call forth or conjure the sought after comforter, first, from among the poet’s compatriots (esp. 1:2a), but ultimately from God (1:9b, 17a, 21a; see the portrayal of God as the divine comforter more generally, e.g., Pss. 71:21; 86:17; Isa. 12:1; 49:13; Jer. 31:13). In this way the poem not only poignantly depicts the suffering of broken Jerusalem, but it also means to compel its readers to respond compassionately to this suffering.
As suggested above (see the Introduction), compassion is one of those emotions that Lamentations more generally seeks to evoke in itsreadership. Phenomenologically, compassion is predicated upon the ability to recognize the other person as human and as suffering (Farley, 37; Nussbaum, 383-84). Beyond the incantatory “no comforter” theme just noted, Lamentations 1 facilitates a compassionate disposition in its readers most spectacularly through the figure of personified Jerusalem. Not only is the reader shown Jerusalem’s suffering in human form, but she or he sees and hears her reacting to this suffering. In other words, the reader is unmistakably confronted by suffering in a most particular and personal form, which, as already suggested, is all important for the veracity and allure of the image. The myriad of vignettes that picture representative segments of the population suffering and in pain supplement and complement the portrait of suffering realized in personified Zion. That is, the multiple images of others suffering (mothers and children, men and women, young and old, priests and prophets, kings and princes), though not elaborated on in detail, serve both to individuate and particularize further the experience of suffering by focusing on specific groups or individuals, and to democratize and pluralize this same experience by insisting (through the contrivance of the alphabetic acrostic) that these individual vignettes be viewed cumulatively as well. Therefore, the portrait of pain registered in Lamentations 1 effectively achieves a communal scope without sacrificing the requisite individual particularity, and thus compassion’s response can be no less encompassing and particularly focused. In fact, many of the images that make up the mosaic of suffering in Lamentations 1 are such that they can only be responded to by compassion. That is, compassion is one of the responses that the poet seeks to elicit from his divine and human audience.
Compassion insists, as well, that human suffering must ultimately and always be resisted (Farley, 37). This is accomplished at two levels in Lamentations 1. At the divine level, the poem insists that God’s redemptive love is to be made manifest in the pain and cruelty of the present suffering. In addition to the “no comforter” theme, God is routinely beckoned to “look” and “see” Jerusalem suffering (1:9c, 11c, 20a) and to “hear” the city’s groans (1:21a). In 1:18 God is specifically imagined as the just judge who is expected to act compassionately on behalf of his subjects (see the discussion below). The this-worldly focus of divine redemption offers an important counterbalance to some of the more dominant eschatological perspectives exhibited elsewhere in the Bible. At the human level, the poem resists suffering first by identifying the conditions that cause suffering. As we will see, the second half of the poem is preoccupied with just such an effort, as it clearly identifies God and the enemy as the immediate causes of the destruction of Jerusalem and the resultant suffering (see below). The poem also seeksthrough some of its more aesthetic qualities (e.g., its lyric mode of discourse) to nourish and salve the human spirit and keep it from falling into despair. Finally, insofar as God is a “model for” human activity, to expect God to exercise compassion is also to expect God’s earthly subjects to do the same. And in fact, the call for God to take notice of Jerusalem’s (corporate and individual) suffering is extended to the human realm more generally (including the poem’s readers!) in 1:12: “… all you who pass by!/ See and look!/ Is there any pain like my pain?” (au. trans.). The passersby function here as a kind of dramatic stand-in for the reader, and thus the solicitation of sympathetic onlookers is meant to involve the reader in Zion’s pain directly.
With friends and loved ones turned into enemies, the scene in 1:3 metamorphoses again, this time from funeral at the site of the ruined city to exile among the nations and no rest. The transition from 1:2 to 1:3 exhibits no obvious logical development, only the progression of the alphabet from bet to gimel, and perhaps an associative link between the “enemies” at the end of 1:2c, and exile among the nations and being pursued and overtaken in 1:3. The sense of metamorphosis is a consequence of juxtaposition and parataxis; it literally emerges in the space between the stanzas. Indeed, it is at this point in the opening section of the poem that the centrifugal tendency of the poetry begins to be felt most keenly, the sense of fragmentation to become most apparent. Individual stanzas succeed one another paratactically with only the cadenced progression of the alphabet and the patterned repetition of third feminine pronominal forms to hold them together, strong threads that sew together otherwise disparate and disjointed stanzas. The exile imagery in 1:3 picks up on the enslavement imagery raised at the end of the first stanza. The personified city in her dual capacity as lamented corpse and bereaved widow taps into two of the most obvious experiential realities associated with a city’s destruction in antiquity: death and loss. Of course, the other chief experience of a such a catastrophe was exile and enslavement. In the ancient Near East, those among the vanquished who were lucky enough to survive the actual fighting were frequently subjected to exile and enslavement, especially the skilled laborers and members of the ruling elite. Slavery was an economic boon in the ancient Near East, depended upon by all monarchs, great and small alike. Here the poet aims to give expression to the reality of slavery for those who are actually enslaved: “suffering” and “hard servitude.” The yoke imagery in 1:14b similarly symbolizes the reality of the enslaved. In 1:5c and 18c the perspective is slightly different. These two couplets represent the emotional distress of those who are forced to watch loved ones taken into exile. This is especially clear in 1:5c, whereJerusalem’s children are imagined as being taken into exile by the enemy. Now even if we stipulate that the children are intended here chiefly as a metaphor for the city’s adult population, we are not simply to ignore the vehicle of the metaphor, namely, the children. The image of a child being physically separated from his or her parents and forced into a separated existence resonates no matter the obviousness of its ultimate referent and is meant to ratchet up the emotional quotient. It effectively captures, even if in an overdetermined way, the agony and heartbreak of watching a loved one forcibly taken against his or her will.
“Suffering” (Exod. 3:7, 17; 4:31) and “hard servitude” (Exod. 1:14; 2:23; 5:11; 6:6) comprise two of the dozen or so allusions to the Egyptian captivity in this poem (see below). Here, however, instead of being delivered out of the affliction and hard servitude in Egypt and ultimately given rest in the promised land (Exod. 33:14), Judah is “exiled” from the affliction and hardship associated with the siege and destruction of Jerusalem (e.g., 1:12-22; 2:1-8) only to be denied a “resting place.” She moves from one horror to another. The reference to Judah’s inability to find a “resting place” has many resonances: it mirrors the plight of the weeping goddess in the Mesopotamian laments and the personified city elsewhere in the Old Testament (e.g., Isa. 23:12); it is one of the treaty-curses threatened should Israel fail to live up to her covenant obligations (cf . Deut. 28:65); it is that which is denied to those who are suffering (e.g., Jer. 45:3; Job 3:26); it comes to women through marriage (cf. Ruth 1:9); and it was one of the chief promises made by God to Israel (e.g., Exod. 33:14; Deut. 3:20; Josh. 1:13, 15; 22:4). The lack of rest, in each of these dimensions, signifies negatively, turning upside down the positive sentiments normally associated with the rest motif in Judah’s literary tradition and thus emphatically pointing up Jerusalem’s reversal of fortunes. The Hebrew term “distress” in 1:3c is similarly multivocal. Beyond its more literal connotations and its pun on the name “Egypt” (see the Introduction), the term, as in derivatively related words in Jeremiah (4:31; 48:41; 49:22, 24), intentionally evokes the pain and suffering experienced by women in childbirth.
The reference to “Judah” in this stanza is not to be construed as signifying a persona distinct from that of Zion. Rather, as noted above, the frequent changing of names for the personified figure in Lamentations mostly seems to shift the geographical focus projected by the figure itself. Here the focus enlarges to include the entire nation of Judah, the significance of which lies in registering the national scope of the calamity. The political featured prominently in Judah’s cultural and religious self-understanding. Yahweh’s relationship with Judah was established as much through the national polity as through individuals. AsMichael Wyschogrod observes, “the relationship that started with Abraham, the individual, soon becomes a relationship with a nation that becomes the elect nation. The promise of salvation is thus not held out to man as an individual but as a member of his nation” (68). Therefore, the need to counteract the loss of national independence would be a central concern for any fully comprehensive response to the events of 586 (cf. Isa. 40-55; Ezek. 40-48). Lamentations, however, offers no such tonic. Rather, the evocation of the nation here chiefly serves to heighten the sense and depth of loss refracted in the personified figure, to point out a dimension of hurt that someday would require mending.
The scene shifts back to the site of the destroyed Jerusalem in 1:4. Again, the stanza is not explicitly situated into its surrounding context except through the acrostic (the letter dalet) and the repetition of pronouns (e.g., “her gates,” “her priests,” “her young women,” and “she”). It begins in reverse of our expectations: the city roads mourn the absence of the festival goers. What is striking, however, is the fantastic or surrealistic quality of this image. Instead of the literal deathly silence that surely prevailed, the poet, by endowing the roads with life and voice, accentuates the lack of gaiety and celebration that usually accompanied such festival processions (Pss. 42:5; 68:25-26; 84:4, 6, 7; 149: 1-5) and registers, quite appallingly, the complete absence of people (who do not come, presumably, because they are dead—an implication of the verb “mourn”). Then in the second couplet a more normative image appears as the priests lament the destruction of Jerusalem’s city gates. In the final couplet the structuring device of cause and effect, lament and reason for lament, is abandoned. Instead, the maidens and personified city are shown responding alike to the destruction and suffering.