Bible's least optimistic book offers lessons on difficulties
Saturday, May 4, 2002
Without quite admitting it, American Christians, both conservatives and liberals, often excise those gnarly, negative portions of the Bible.
Preachers offer self-help, self-affirmation, psychology, positive thinking and possibility thinking. The "prosperity gospel" (aka "name it and claim it") guarantees health and wealth, while the big-selling "Prayer of Jabez" promises spiritual successes.
What place, then, for Lamentations, the Bible's least optimistic and perhaps least preached-upon book?
Yet this may well be Scripture's "most remarkable and compelling testament to the human spirit's will to live," says E.W. Dobbs-Allsopp in his new commentary "Lamentations," part of the John Knox Press "Interpretation" series.
He depicts Lamentations as a stunning poetic cry of fury and abandonment, conveyed through intricate structure and compelling artistry.
Why bother with such difficult, downbeat material? Because it's ideal fare for Americans after the events of Sept. 11, which "stunningly -- horrifically -- remind us of evil's omnipresence," Dobbs-Allsopp writes.
Not that we should have needed that reminder, he thinks, after Stalin's gulags, Hiroshima, Mao's purges, Cambodia's killing fields, Nicaragua's death squads and Serbia's "ethnic cleansing." His list of horrors includes the Jewish Holocaust but also the "Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948," when 750,000 people were displaced from their land.
Jews may lament that last point. But Dobbs-Allsopp, a Presbyterian who teaches Old Testament at Princeton (N.J.) Theological Seminary, credits Jews with wisdom that Christians lack in requiring annual readings of Lamentations.
The book is recited to commemorate the national calamities when Jerusalem was sacked by Babylon in 586 B.C. and by Rome in A.D. 70. Dobbs-Allsopp thinks it's quite certain the book was written soon after the Babylonian assault.
Less clear is whether it was written by a group or a single poet. Ancient Greek manuscripts said it was the work of Jeremiah, as did the Latin Vulgate Bible, Judaism's Talmud and other sources. But the normative Hebrew text is anonymous, and so Dobbs-Allsopp thinks it must remain.
Lamentations has four chapters of torment, with one chapter in the middle that offers glimmers of hope.
The imagery is nearly unbearable, particularly the grotesque infanticide in 2:20 and 4:10, where the mothers of Israel turn into cannibals and eat their own children.
What's more frightening is the poet's sense of abandonment by God, who is even addressed as Israel's opponent: "He bent his bow like an enemy, poised his right hand like a foe. ..." (2:4).
God is surely judging Israel for its sin, the poet teaches, but he protests the severity of the punishment and even doubts divine benevolence. Nonetheless, the poet never questions God's existence.
Like the book of Job, the Bible's far longer poetic meditation on suffering, Lamentations promises no easy answers. It neither accepts nor explains. Unlike Job, God maintains silence throughout.
Dobbs-Allsopp thinks that alarming silence reminds us of the limitations of human reasoning compared with God's infinite perspective. The silence is hurtful but also hopeful, truthful to human experience and "provides for the very possibility and meaningfulness of faith," Dobbs-Allsopp believes.
Lamentations "confronts God's silence straight on and navigates that silence as best he humanly can, naming the hurt and speaking the truth as he discerns it," in order to "remain faithful to the God he cannot hear."
The poet believed life could go on without a Jerusalem, temple, or monarchy, but "it cannot even be contemplated without God at its center," Dobbs-Allsopp says.
After Sept. 11, many were offended when conservatives Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson gave offhand TV pronouncements about God's judgment upon America's domestic sins, while liberal clergy suggested the United States brought the disaster upon itself through incorrect foreign policy.
Modern lamentations might be taken more seriously if they were offered with less partisanship and more echoes of the Bible's exalted poetry.