donderdag 21 februari 2013

Review of: Adele Berlin, Lamentations: A Commentary (OTL), Westminster John Knox, 2003; in: Interpretation

Adele Berlin, Lamentations: A Commentary (OTL), Westminster John Knox, 2003.

Review in: Interpretation 2003 57: 428
Review door: Nancy C. Lee
Gevonden op:

Lamentations: A Commentary
by Adele Berlin
Old Testament Library. Westminster John Knox, Louisville, 2002.
135 pp. $39.95 (cloth). ISBN 0-664-21849-0.

LAMENTATIONS IS RECEIVING renewed attention after some neglect. In practice, people of faith are often unfamiliar with its content, despite its longstanding use to commemorate the destruction of the Temple on the ninth day of the month of Ab in Jewish tradition and its reading during some Christian services of Holy Week. Yet perhaps the voices in Lamentations, their agony and unrelenting honesty, are finally finding resonance in present contexts of human suffering around the world.

New commentaries on Lamentations are emerging in major biblical series, including this excellent contribution. Berlin brings to it her noted expertise in poetic and literary analysis, as well as ancient Near Eastern studies. Her well-versed scholarly translation is complemented by a pragmatic and empathetic commentary that opens a large window on the troubled world of Lamentations. Berlin's approach—though primarily literary— eschews mere aestheticism in order to "discover the religious worldview that informs the imagery of the book" (p. ix). Her skill in translating the poetic artistry brings that world to life: "[t]he mournings and mutterings of my assailants are against me all day long. When they sit and when they rise, look, I am their tune" (Lam 3:62-63). Also, "[t]hose used to feasting on delicacies starved in the streets. Those reared in crimson huddled in garbage dumps" (Lam 4:5).

Berlin's sensitivity to socio-political layers of meaning is also apparent. For example, the NRSV reads, "All her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength" (Lam 1:11). Interpreters suggest that the "treasures" may include "children," sold as slaves for food for the parents' survival. Berlin, however, suggests that

in a besieged city, human beings had little value as a commodity to be sold Rather the desperate parents, who can no longer feed their children, are forced to give them away for the good of the children, to "sustain their life" (p. 56).

Berlin notes that this horrible choice, of relinquishing one's children in hopes that they would survive, happened in the Holocaust. It is witnessed in many contexts of war around the world today.

The substantial introduction includes well-organized discussions of: gender and suffering, theology of destruction and exile as God's punishment, the mourning context, purity, and broken ancient Near Eastern treaties. Berlin also illumines language in Lamentations that echoes the curse language of Deuteronomy 28.

Berlin notes the twentieth-century debate about whether Lamentations is influenced more by the funeral dirge genre or by the communal lament genre and concludes, with recent interpreters, that both are at play and one need not choose between them. However, she proposes that Lamentations "constitutes a new, post-586 type of lament" that she calls "the Jerusalem lament," which is also reflected in Psalms 44, 74, and 79 (p. 25). Berlin asks us to consider more deeply the relation between such laments and "Zion songs," for "the Jerusalem laments ... are the songs for the lost Zion" (p. 26).

Berlin suggests that each chapter of Lamentations points to overarching themes. In chapter one, mourning, shame, and suffering are borne by the city personified as a woman—first as a widow absent her divine spouse, then as a betrayed lover, and finally as a bereaved mother. But because Jerusalem is also said to have committed transgressions, she evokes both pity and revulsion. The anger of God and the anger of the poet for God's harshness are central to chapter two. The primary theme of chapter three is exile; of chapter four, degradation; of chapter five, prayer. Berlin pays close attention to how the poet in chapter four illustrates degradation by the use of brilliant colors that describe the life that once was and is to be erased and replaced by the dullness and blackness of famine and death in the devastated city.

Berlin's commentary provides a great deal of interpretative and theological insight with its modern literary approach. One wishes, however, for more exploration of traditional oral poetic practices of composition/performance in light of Lamentations' multiple "voices" in a mourning context. Is it self-evident that modern literary categories can be so easily applied to ancient poetic literature? One finds a modern literary approach, but one does not find exploration of the ancient poetic singer's traditional practice of oral composition/ performance and discussion of how such "voices" are brought together by a scribe/redactor. One does not find an explanation as to why modern literary categories can be so easily applied to ancient poetry. In her commnetary on Lamentations 3, Berlin states, "... there is no reason to conclude that an actual survivor wrote the chapter"(p. 6). But, again, one wishes for greater acknowledgment that real people who survived might have composed versions of these poems.

Finally, Berlin suggests that chapter one's refrain, "there is no comforter for her [Jerusalem]," is "a call to God to be Zion's comforter" (p. 48). At the close of her commentary, Berlin poignantly notes that the book ends

on a note of despair and a feeling of permanent rejection. The last chapter, and with it the book as a whole, fail to provide the comfort that has been sought throughout it. The book thereby remains a perpetual lament commemorating unconsolable mourning (p. 125).

As those familiar with lament psalms and suffering itself realize, some lamenters move to praise and some are left waiting for a divine answer. So too with interpreters of Lamentations through the centuries—some leave the agonized text hanging on its last desperate note; others desire to answer it with a positive, hopeful response, such as Second Isaiah. So Berlin offers, as a final word in her commentary: "In Jewish tradition the custom in public recitation is to repeat the penultimate verse when a book ends on a negative note . .. so as not to conclude on a note of despair" (p. 126). Ironically, this is to lament yet again: "Take us back, Lord, to yourself; O let us come back. Make us again as we were before" (Lam 5:21; p. 115).

Nancy C. Lee
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