Trauma and the Failure of Narrative in Lamentations

The Book of Lamentations reflects the sorts of struggles that trauma survivors encounter when provided with narratives that attempt to explain the suffering that resulted in their trauma. We encounter some voices in Lamentations trying to create explanatory narratives for the destruction of Jerusalem that resulted in the survivors’ suffering, only to find the voices of the survivors reject or contradict those narrative explanations.

See Also: Trauma and the Failure of History (SBL Press, 2019).

By David Janzen
Department of Theology and Religion
Durham University
Durham, United Kingdom
March 2019

In 587 or 586 BCE, the Babylonians besieged and destroyed Jerusalem, and the slaughter and destruction in Jerusalem and throughout the whole land of Judah during and following that sixteen-month siege was horrific. The population of Judah at the beginning of the sixth century BCE was about one hundred and ten thousand,[1] but by the end of that century it had fallen by seventy or eighty percent.[2] Archaeologists link the widespread depopulation of Judah and surrounding regions to the war with Babylon and to the famine and disease that accompanied it; the removal of some of the inhabitants to Mesopotamia in the Babylonian exile that followed the destruction played some role in this drastic decrease in population, as well.[3] Current scholarship almost universally sees Lamentations as composed in the wake of these events, since it refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah (2:2, 5, 8-9), the enemy’s entry into the city and its temple (1:10; 2:1, 6, 7; 4:12), and to the exile of the people, nobility, and king (1:3, 5, 6; 4:15-16, 20), issues that appear to reflect the specific events of 587/6 BCE. Throughout the work, Lamentations obviously seems to reflect the suffering of the people from siege warfare and its attendant horrors, such as starvation (1:11, 19; 2:11-12; 4:3-4, 10; 5:4, 6, 9, 10), rape of the survivors (1:8; 5:11), and slaughter in the city’s streets (1:20). The suffering of the inhabitants of the city is the focus of the work, and Zion—the book’s name for Jerusalem—is even personified as a female voice who speaks in the book’s five chapters of poetry, written before the Persian destruction of the Babylonian Empire.


Many of those who survived the siege and destruction and remained in the land in the early sixth century BCE would have suffered from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, something we see reflected in Lamentations. Victims of PTSD have been overwhelmed by traumatic events—things such as exposure to warfare, rape, mass killings, and torture—that many of them have not truly experienced or known. In neurobiological terms, the dorsal vagal complex, part of the parasympathetic nervous system, is activated as a response to traumatic events, and in practical terms this means victims can neither fight nor flee, and that their awareness of the event is shut down, closing off experience of it.[4] Nor do all victims of psychological trauma truly remember the event, since traumatic “memories” can be encoded as dissociated fragments, sensations, images, and sounds associated with it, which is not the way the body normally processes sensory information.[5] Normal memories change over time because with new experiences one’s sense of self changes, and that means older memories have to change to accommodate this evolving understanding of who one is, but, for some, traumatic memories have not been stored as normal ones have and do not change. The original lack of experience of the event means that there cannot be a clear awareness of the trauma for the victim, and the “memories” cannot form part of their autobiographical sense of self. In some cases, then, this dissociation is the key feature of psychological trauma: victims do not remember the trauma, but relive it in fugue states or other kinds of flashbacks as the brain secretes chemicals in response to a danger that is no longer present.[6]

The psychologist Henry Greenspan refers to conversations with a Holocaust survivor who told him that his story about the Holocaust “is not a story. It has to be made a story. In order to convey it. And with all the frustration that implies.”[7] In the dissociation of trauma, there is no true narrative of events, merely what Greenspan calls a “not-story,” events survivors have not truly experienced and do not truly remember, meaning that they have not been incorporated into survivors’ autobiographical narratives. And if there is no better known author of Holocaust literature than Elie Wiesel, it is telling that he claimed that “[t]here is no such thing as literature of the Holocaust, nor can there be. The very expression is a contradiction in terms.”[8] For those who have not experienced their trauma and have not been able to integrate it into their autobiographical narratives, their very sense of who they are, there can never be a narrative of trauma that could be accepted as true. This is why Holocaust survivors interviewed in Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah frequently refer to their inability to believe what happened during their time in the camps. Simon Srebnik, for example, one of a handful of survivors of Chelmno, a concentration camp where as many as two hundred thousand Jews were murdered, said, “It was terrible. No one can describe it. No one can recreate what happened here. Impossible? And no one can understand it. Even I, here, now…. I can’t believe I’m here. No, I just can’t believe it.”[9] Srebnik refers both to his lack of belief, the result of the dissociative aspect of trauma, and the resultant impossibility of describing and understanding the traumatic events in narrative, and if one cannot believe one has undergone a traumatic event, one can hardly make clear truth claims about it. So as the epigraph for None of Us Will Return, the first volume of her Holocaust trilogy, the Auschwitz survivor Charlotte Delbo writes, “Today I am not sure that what I wrote is true. I am certain it is truthful.”[10] Without true experience and memory—with dissociation, to put that another way—there can be no narrative about the traumatic events that a survivor could truly believe or claim as true, and knowing this helps us make sense of the failure of narrative and explanation that we see in Lamentations.

The failure of narrative in Lamentations

Lamentations is divided into five poems, each of which occupies a single chapter in the book. And although Lam 1-2 amounts to two different poems, it makes sense as we begin a discussion of the book to read the two as a unit, since we find the same two speakers in both, whereas the speakers change in succeeding chapters. One of the two voices in Lam 1-2 is normally referred to as the narrator, and his speech alternates with that of Zion, a personification of Jerusalem and its surviving inhabitants. Almost all of the speech in 1:1-11 comes from the narrator, who provides an explanation for Zion’s suffering: “Yhwh made her suffer for the greatness of her iniquities” (1:5), he says; “Jerusalem sinned greatly, therefore she has become a lament” (1:8). Here indeed we find a narrative, an explanation like those we can find in Kings, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel, which also explain Jerusalem’s destruction by referring to the sin of its inhabitants. As Zion begins to speak at the end of 1:11, she sometimes repeats ideas the narrator has already raised, accepting his explanation that her pain results from divine punishment for her sin, and Zion says even more about this narrative than he does. Like him, she refers to her “iniquity” and agrees that God punished her because of it (cf. 1:5 and 22). She says that she has rebelled against God’s command, and claims that God is “righteous” (1:18), and in each verse from 1:12 through 1:15 refers to different ways that divine punishment was enacted upon her. Zion applies her acceptance of the narrative explanation that sin leads to divine punishment in the final verses of the poem as she urges God to punish her enemies, since they too have done evil (1:22). “Let them be like I am,” she asks, and may this be done “on the day you have announced” (1:21).

Lam 1 by itself provides a narrative of explanation of the disaster that befell the city, but this narrative does not survive the speech of the two voices that continues in the next poem. The narrator opens Lam 2 with a reference to God’s “day,” yet here it is not the future day of the punishment of Zion’s enemies that the city desired at the end of Lam 1, but “the day of his anger” in the past in which God punished Jerusalem (2:1). The narrator’s speech dominates Lam 2, and it is notable not only for his continued focus on Zion’s suffering caused by the day of divine anger, but also for his complete abandonment of his earlier explanation for it. In Lam 2, the narrator and Zion can speak only of her suffering. Zion accepted the narrator’s explanation in Lam 1, but no part of it recurs in this poem as both voices ignore it entirely; the future “day” Zion desired in 1:21 has become “the day” of her trauma that repeats imagery of past suffering as it recurs in the present. As much as Zion wishes to accept it, narrative has failed to provide her with an explanation that she can truly accept or that can ever seem as real as the suffering of trauma that the victims of the city’s disaster continuously relive. It is the suffering, not the explanatory narrative, that is repeated in this chapter—that, in fact, seems to drown out the narrative from chapter 1—and this is an experience that reflects the way that some PTSD sufferers relive their trauma in flashbacks and fugue states even as they fail to absorb a narrative that could allow them to understand it or that they could acknowledge as true.

There is scholarly debate concerning the number of voices speaking in Lam 3, the next poem, but the chapter reads perfectly well if we see a single speaker, the one who identifies himself in 3:1 as “the man,” someone who dialogues with himself about Jerusalem’s suffering and can even use the first person plural at points to speak for the community who suffers with him. The opening of the poem in 3:1-20 is dominated by the man’s description of his suffering, but his perspective seems to undergo a radical shift in 3:21-41, where he provides a narrative that can explain this pain. The community has been responsible for evil, the man says in 3:34-36, crushing prisoners and perverting justice; God does not willingly inflict the suffering the man has described (3:33), but apparently had no choice under these circumstances. Nonetheless, he says, he has hope (3:21, 24, 29), because the community can depend on God’s steadfast love and mercy (3:22, 31-32), and he urges his fellows to “search out and examine our ways and repent to Yhwh” (3:40).

Having provided an explanatory narrative for his community’s suffering, however, the man immediately complicates the conclusions he drew in it by going on to say in 3:42-51, the third section of the poem, that “we have transgressed and rebelled, but you have not forgiven” (3:42). He has just implied that an end to suffering depends on repentance and an appeal to the divine (3:40-41), but now says that this is not possible because “you wrapped yourself in a cloud so no prayer can pass through” (3:44). As soon as he has finished articulating the basis of his hope for an end to suffering in 3:21-41, the man goes on to contradict it, repeating a point he had made in 3:1-20, the hope-less first part of his speech—“I call and cry out; he shuts out my prayer” (3:8)—and in 3:42-51 he returns to imagery of suffering and grief, although now extending it to encompass that felt by all of Jerusalem’s inhabitants. Here, the repetition and reliving of trauma contradict and seem to erase the man’s earlier narrative conclusions.

The man’s outlook on his plight changes yet again in the final section of the poem, 3:52-66. Here he begins with a reference to some event from his past when his enemies hunted him “for no reason” (3:52) and he found himself near death (3:53-54), but God responded to his plea for help and saved him (3:55-58). In the poem’s concluding verses, he asks that God observe his current plight and destroy his enemies, who are still rising against him (3:59-66). He has clearly returned to the more hopeful mood of 3:21-41, but his speech of 3:52-66 differs from that earlier section in some important respects. Here at the end of the poem, he refers to a past in which his enemies acted against him “for no reason,” while in 3:21-41 he had said that he and his community were guilty of the same perversion of justice to which his enemies are currently subjecting him. Both 3:35-36 and 3:58-60 refer to a lack of justice (Hebrew mišpāṭ), use the Hebrew root ‘āwat in the sense of perversion of justice, and say there has been a failure to adequately adjudicate the rîb “lawsuit.” In 3:35-36, however, the man says that he and his community were responsible for these failings and are suffering the punishment for them, whereas in 3:58-60 the man says he is the innocent victim of this perversion of justice and is calling upon God with confidence to set things right and punish the wrongdoers.

So the case is not that Lam 3 provides readers with no narrative that could explain Jerusalem’s suffering, but that it provides no consistent and coherent narrative. In 3:21-41, the man advances the same sort of narrative we see in Lam 1 (or in Kings, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), which explains suffering as the result of punishment for sin; he says there as well that God does not willingly act to induce suffering, and so locates hope in repentance and divine mercy (although he immediately moves to undercut this hope in 3:42-51). In 3:52-66, the man says he suffers “for no reason,” and locates hope in divine justice. If he truly believes that the community is guilty, as he claims in 3:21-41, then his speech of 3:52-66 cannot be a basis of their hope. We see him struggle with different ways of making sense of Jerusalem’s great suffering, but he is unable to reconcile these competing and incompatible narratives, and there is no narrator or divine voice that attempts to resolve the contradiction. Perhaps Jerusalem is guilty and God will respond to repentance, or perhaps God is impossible to reach and the suffering will go on forever. Perhaps the people are innocent, as the man says he was in 3:52-66, and God will save them as God saved the man in the past. But if the people suffer “for no reason,” and if God makes them suffer, then God is like the enemy the man describes in 3:52-66. Narrative explanation in Lam 3 collapses not because there is no explanation but because there are incompatible ones between which the man makes no effort to distinguish. The man seems as attached to his contradictory explanations as Zion did to the one offered to her in Lam 1, but because they are contradictory what readers see is something like the experience of trauma victims who find no narrative that will decisively explain their trauma and that they can recognize as true.

We encounter a similar situation in the last two poems of the book. Lam 4-5, like Lam 1-2, presents readers with two speaking voices, in this case a narrator and a communal voice of survivors of Jerusalem’s trauma, and here too we find an unresolved contradiction in narratives offered to victims to explain their trauma. The narrator dominates the speech of Lam 4, interrupted only briefly by the communal voice in 4:17-20, but it is the community who speaks alone in Lam 5. Like the narrator of Lam 1-2, that of Lam 4 spends much more time describing Jerusalem’s suffering than providing explanations for it, and some aspects of the description repeat ones readers have already come across, most horrifically the starvation of the children in the streets (4:1-4; cf. 2:11-12, 19) and women so hungry they eat their own offspring (4:10; cf. 2:20). What explanation the narrator does provide reminds us of the situation in this regard in Lam 3, for he says both that the sin of Jerusalem’s priests and prophets explains what happened (4:13-15) and that the failure of the people to honor the priests was responsible (4:16). Yet if the priests did what was evil, why would it be a sin to refuse to honor them? It is not impossible that these two ideas could be reconciled, but the narrator makes no attempt to do so, and so, as in Lam 3, what readers encounter are attempts to solve the problem of Jerusalem’s suffering that fail in contradiction.

The narrator concludes Lam 4 by announcing that Jerusalem’s punishment has come to an end, and that their enemies will suffer instead (4:21-22), but in Lam 5, where the survivors alone speak, they do not mimic the narrator’s confidence in an imminent end to their pain. They offer some brief narrative explanations for their suffering in 5:7 and 16, although like the two the narrator presented in Lam 4, they are contradictory, for in 5:7 they blame their ancestors’ sin and in 5:16 they refer to their own, and they make no attempt to relate or resolve these two ideas. Their focus is instead on aspects of their suffering that readers have encountered throughout the book: they are starving and do not have enough food (cf. 5:4, 6, 9, 10; and 1:11, 19; 2:11-12; 4:3-4, 10); women in Jerusalem and Judah are raped (cf. 5:11 and 1:8); they have become forced labor (cf. 5:5, 13 and 1:1); foreigners have taken their possessions (cf. 5:2 and 1:10); and the list goes on. The overall effect is of a repetitive reliving of events that cannot be explained, something that reflects the way many PTSD victims relive trauma without understanding it.

The case is not that the survivors in Lam 5, or anywhere else in the book, have no narrative explanation to offer that could explain their community’s vast suffering, it is rather that trauma triumphs over narrative, displaces and ultimately rejects it. Narrative seems like something the survivors want to embrace, but in the end their trauma is a problem with no narrative resolution. Lamentations reflects the lack of belief in and inability to make truth claims about traumatic events that survivors suffering from dissociation encounter. Some scholars advance what Miriam Bier calls “theodic” readings of Lamentations, which is to say interpretations that portray the book as a whole as a theodicy that makes narrative sense of the survivors’ suffering (2015, 12-19), while others argue for what Bier calls “anti-theodic” interpretations, and see Lamentations as a condemnation of the divine (2015, 19-24). Yet Lamentations is neither one nor the other, not fully; it provides readers with some voices trying to advance narrative explanation, and even shows trauma sufferers trying to accept them, only for these narratives to fall away or contradict themselves, as trauma situates itself in survivors’ lives as a problem so overwhelming that there is no narrative solution for it.

References cited

Bier, M. 2015. “Perhaps there is hope”: Reading Lamentations as a Polyphony of Pain, Penitence, and Protest. London: Bloomsbury.

Delbo, C. 1995. Auschwitz and After. Translated by R. Lamont. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Faust, A. 2011. “Deportation and Demography in Sixth-Century b.c.e. Judah.” Pages 91-103 in Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts. Edited by B. Kelle, F. Ames, and J. Wright. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

_____. 2012. Judah in the Neo-Babylonian Period: The Archaeology of Destruction. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Greenspan, H. 2010. On Listening to Holocaust Survivors: Beyond Testimony. 2nd ed. St. Paul: Paragon House.

Kolk, B. van der. 2014. The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking.

Lanzmann, C. 1995. Shoah: The Complete Text of the Acclaimed Holocaust Film. New York: Da Capo Press.

Lipschits, O. 2005. The Fall and Rise of Jerusalem: Judah under Babylonian Rule. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

Rosenfeld, A. 1978. “The Problematics of Holocaust Literature.” Pages 1-30 in Confronting the Holocaust: The Impact of Elie Wiesel. Edited by A. Rosenfeld and I. Greenberg. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


[1] Lipschits 2005, 59.

[2] Lipschits 2005, 267-71 and Faust 2012, 119-47.

[3] Faust 2011.

[4] Kolk 2014, 54-55, 60-62, 80-84.

[5] Kolk 2014, 175-76.

[6] Kolk 2014, 66-69.

[7] Greenspan 2010, 3. Italics in the original.

[8] Quoted in Rosenfeld 1978, 4.

[9] Quoted in Lanzmann 1995, 3.

[10] Delbo 1995, 1.

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