F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations.
(Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 2002), xiv, 159 pp.
ISBN 0-8042-3141-9. $21.95
Reviewed by Michael S. Moore
Fuller Theological Seminary Southwest

This book is a succinct, evocative reading of the five poems which stand at the heart of Israel’s lament literature. The author locates the origin of these poems in Palestine, rejects the hoary tradition of Jeremianic authorship, rejects the scholarly tradition of multiple authorship, and dates them all to the sixth century on the basis of internal linguistic and stylistic analysis. With S. R. Driver, he believes that Lamentations is “conscious art” possessing a “carefully elaborated” nature. This commentary sets out to describe and interpret Lamentations as art.

Drawing on his dissertational research, the author interprets these poems as strongly influenced by the Mesopotamian city-lament genre, noting no less than nine parallels between Lamentations and the Mesopotamian city-laments: subject and mood, structure and poetic technique, divine abandonment, assignment of responsibility, divine agent of destruction, destruction, weeping goddess, lamentation, and divine restoration. For example, where Ningal, the goddess of Ur, laments the city’s destruction in Lamentation Over the Destruction of Ur,

“The country’s blood now fills its holes, like metal in a mold;
Bodies dissolving like butter left in the sun.”

The Widow Zion laments Jerusalem’s destruction:

“The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals
All her gates are desolate; her priests groan.”

Unlike the Mesopotamian city-laments, however, Lamentations conspicuously leaves off any mention of divine rescue or restoration, and this omission significantly distances the book from its Mesopotamian counterparts. To Dobbs-Allsopp, this means that Lamentations cannot have been composed to prepare Israel for the rebuilding of the second Temple.

Methodologically the book’s primary contribution is its painstaking interpretation of Lamentations as lyric poetry (the discussion on pp. 12–20 is worth the price of the book!). The author notes correctly that these poems are in no way narrative-like—not even in the least. Plot and characterization simply do not exist. Instead Lamentations, like all lyric poetry, must rely on the power and pathos of language itself to communicate its message—however coherent or incoherent it might seem to (post)moderns. The much-discussed alphabetic acrostic, for example, is but one of several lyrical characteristics in these fascinating poems, too long overshadowing its literary comrades—metaphor, diction, wordplay, pun, euphony, and enjambment.

One would like to have seen this discussion go deeper to engage the insights of Roman Jakobson and Steven Geller (Parallelism in Early Biblical Poetry [Missoula: Scholars, 1979]) on the realities and intricacies of grammatical and semantic parallelism in early biblical and other ancient poetry. His discussion of “enjambment” in particular (pp. 18–20) might have profited greatly from a serious engagement with James Kugel’s The Idea of Biblical Poetry (New Haven: Yale, 1981). Yet by repositioning the discussion of Lamentations’ acrostic format within a broader discussion of lyric poetry, this commentary helpfully advances our appreciation of these poems as great artistic achievements.

Theologically this commentary focuses on those characteristics of the book which make it “congenial to our postmodern moment.” Because the author believes that “the poetry simply builds in intensity until a certain kind of emotional or cognitive intensity or awareness is reached, and then lets go” (p. 23), he builds on this to argue that “the poems steadfastly resist all attempts to superimpose on them a single, unifying theological perspective” (p. 24—see my differing analysis in “Human Suffering in Lamentations,” RB 90 [1983] 534–55). The author sees the book’s theology as “occasional, pluralistic, equivocating, and fragmentary” (p. 23). He feels that any search to interpret these poems through a specific theological grid—deuteronomistic or Zionistic—is “antithetical to the poet’s lyric way of thinking and writing” (p. 26).

Yet he also thinks that these poems address a number of what we might call here “pre-theological” concerns: suffering, grief, complaint, anger, fidelity, (divine) violence, hope, theodicy. He is very careful to say that none of these concerns receives the depth of treatment here that they receive later in books like Ezekiel and Second Isaiah, but he also emphasizes “the depth of these poems’ piety, their unabashed fidelity to and intentional alignment with God” (p. 28).

Two further avenues of interpretation might have gone a long way toward improving this commentary and making it more user-friendly to its intended audience. The first is its total lack of attention to matters of intertextuality. The famous diaspora story of the mother and her seven sons, for example, emphasizes the same sort of “compassion” Dobbs-Allsopp sees here as central to Lamentations’ theological message (p. 25—N. B. the keyword κaτoικτίρωμενin 4 Macc 8:20). His justifiable hesitance before Lamentations’ “complexity” might also have been strengthened by giving attention to this mother’s “complex” love for her children (πολύπλοκος, 14:13). Other themes common to both books include “pity,” “justice,” and “suffering.” Most significantly, both Lam 5:7 and 2 Macc 7:32 emphasize that judgment comes often as a result of “sin,” and this might well have tempered the rather disproportionate remarks in the book’s discussion of “The Lord as Enemy” (pp. 79–90). Lamentations has an intertextual history, and this history can help bring balance and perspective.

The second approach which might have improved the book is that provided by feminist biblical scholarship. The author’s understanding of Lady Zion, for example, might have been immeasurably deepened by giving attention to, say, Claudia Camp’s Wise, Strange and Holy: The Strange Woman and the Making of the Bible (Sheffield: Academic Press, 2000) or even Phyllis Trible’s classic God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978). Feminist writers know a lot about suffering, and no other book in the Bible can more greatly profit from these insights—particularly a book which couches its message in such overtly feminine language.

In spite of these blind-spots, this is an elegantly written commentary. Anyone interested in Lamentations, particularly Lamentations’ lyric poetry, will find it indispensable.