By Don C. Benjamin
School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies
Arizona State University
The Confessions of Jeremiah (Jer 11:18-20; 12:1-6; 15:10-21, 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-13) are not memoirs; they are laments (Hebrew: qinot). Jeremiah is not an individual pouring out his personal feelings; he is a mourner crying out for Jerusalem whom Yahweh allowed the Babylonians to destroy.
Contemporary psychological understandings of the individual and emotions are sometimes projected back onto biblical traditions like the Confessions creating pastoral interpretations which help people of faith today survive suffering. If Jeremiah suffers, then suffering is not a punishment for sin; if Jeremiah cries out against Yahweh, then others may do the same. Biblical traditions, however, do not focus on individuals; they look at the world from the perspective of their communities. Furthermore, the relationship between individuals and their households, villages, clans and tribes in the world of the Bible is not parallel to the relationship between individuals and society today.
Likewise, personality in the world of the Bible is corporate, not individual. Now community is a collection of individuals; then community was a single body with individual personalities. Even in legal traditions the corporate households of defendants are as much on trial as the individual defendants. Now individuals and their communities are emotionally and legally distinct from one another; then individuals and their communities were interchangeable. Now the living and the dead are joined only in memory; then the living and the dead members of communities were interchangeable. Long dead ancestors were actively present to their living descendants and the living incarnated their dead ancestors.
Today actions and emotions are equally important, even in the law. Murderers must not only take a life – an action, but also have clearly premeditated to take that life – an emotion. In the Bible actions are important; emotions are not. Israel’s love for Yahweh in Deuteronomy, for example, is not a metaphor for a parental or conjugal emotion. Love is a Near Eastern idiom describing the legal relationship created by covenants between patrons and clients. Love is not an emotion; it is a legal obligation.
Lamenting the destruction of a city was a Sumerian ritual. The Sumerians settled and farmed between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as early as 3200 B.C.E. Archaeologists have recovered their laments for Ur, Sumer, Nippur, Eridu and Uruk. Wars in the world of the Bible were never simply struggles between two peoples – Babylon and Judah, but between two members of the divine assembly – Marduk and Yahweh. Each Sumerian lament indicts the city’s divine patron for failing not only to protect it from a military disaster but also for creating a profound crisis of faith. Similarly, the laments of Jeremiah indict Yahweh for both the physical and spiritual suffering caused by the destruction of Jerusalem.
The two most common genres in Psalms are hymns and laments. Laments can have five components. There are complaints which describe the suffering. There are petitions which identify how victims want Yahweh to respond. There are declarations of innocence certifying that the victims are without sin. There are professions of faith affirming that despite suffering victims are still faithful to Yahweh. There are vows made by the victims to tell the stories of their deliverance.
The laments of Jeremiah contain the same components as the laments in Psalms. Occasionally, however, the laments of Jeremiah include Yahweh’s response to the petitions. Jeremiah and Psalms indict Yahweh for failing to protect Jerusalem from its enemies (Ps 44, 60, 74, 79, 80-83, 89). The laments in Psalms have a profession of faith (Ps 44:1-8), a complaint (Ps 44: 9-16), a declaration of innocence (Ps 44:17-22), and a petition (Ps 44: 23-26). The Laments of Jeremiah (Jer 11:18-23) also have a complaint (Jer 11: 18-19), a profession of faith (Jer 11:20) and a petition (Jer 11: 20). In time the Laments in Jeremiah inspired the five laments for Jerusalem now in the book of Lamentations (Lam 1:1-11; 2:1-22; 3:1-66; 4:1-22; 5:1-22) and the laments of Jesus for Jerusalem (Matt 23:32-39; Luke 13:34-35; 19:41-43).
Midwives intoned hymns praising Yahweh for delivering newborns from the water and darkness of the womb just as Yahweh delivered the Hebrews through the water and darkness of the sea and delivered the cosmos from the water and darkness of chaos. Similarly, mourners intoned laments to announce the passing of the dead from the human plane into the afterlife. As the legal representatives of the dead, the laments of mourners petitioned the long-dead to accept the newly-dead as members into their households on the divine plane. The primal scream of newborns was a legal petition to enter the households of the living; the keening of mourners was a legal petition for admittance into the afterlife.
Mourners were the midwives for the dead. Both were the guardians of the thresholds which newborns crossed to enter the human plane and which the dead crossed to enter the afterlife. Midwives opened the eyes and cleared the airways of the newborn; mourners closed the eyes and mouths of the dead. Midwives washed and anointed the bodies of the newborn, mourners of the newly dead. Midwives swaddled newborns; mourners shrouded the dead. Midwives nursed the newborn; mourners placed food at graves for the dead.
Jeremiah is not weeping for himself, but lamenting for the people of Jerusalem. These laments are not a unique biography of personal pain, but part of a long and rich tradition of communal grieving in the Bible. Much the same could be said for the book of Job and the Suffering Servant Songs in the book of Isaiah (Isa 42:1-9; Isa 49:1-6; Isa 50:4-11; Isa 52:13—53:12).