Ancient Near Eastern laments (Lamentations 3)

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Illustration: Lamenting Women, from the tomb of Ramose

Mourning over calamities and deaths are common in human society, and both Israel and other ancient societies had ritualized means for expressing lamentation and grief. A lament could be for a single person who had died or for an entire city that had met disaster. Both kinds of lament are well represented in the Bible.

  • For individuals: A number of texts indicate mourning for soldiers and kings killed in combat. David composed a lament for Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1). 2 Chronicles 35:24 describes a national lamentation for Josiah after his death in battle, and David commanded respectful mourning for Abner (2 Samuel 3:31). People naturally mourn the death of a loved one. Abraham grieved for Sarah (Genesis 23:2), and David mourned excessively for Absalom (2 Samuel 18:33), considering the awkward circumstances with regard to his loyal troops. Luke 8:52-53 reflects the presence of professional mourners carrying out ritual lamentation for a deceased girl. Job repeatedly bewailed the calamities that had befallen him (e,g. Job 3:1-26, 30:26-31). In his case personal disasters of several kinds (the deaths of loved ones, the loss of wealth  and status, and personal sickness) were the occasions for his laments.
  • For cities and states: The entire book of Lamentations is a series of lament songs for Jerusalem, which had been destroyed in 586 B.C. Prophets often grieved for states and cities (Jeremiah 6:26 – for Jerusalem, Ezekiel 27 – for Tyre, Ezekiel 32 – for Egypt, and Micah 1:8-9 – for Jerusalem).

The tradition for ritual mourning and the composition of lamentation texts is also found elsewhere in the ancient world. There are numerous examples of mourning over deceased individuals:

  • Egyptian funerary texts tend to focus on the afterlife, but Egyptian funerals were carried out with elaborate bereavement ceremonies. The Egyptian Song of the Harper, for example, alludes to such mourning. Egyptian artwork contains depictions of weeping mourners in funeral processions.
  • In the Epic of Gilgamesh (from Mesopotamia), the hero lament bitterly over the death of his friend, Enkidu.
  • A remarkable Akkadian poem bemoans a woman who had died in childbirth from the perspective of the deceased woman herself. She laments the fact that death has suddenly seized her and taken her away from her home, and she poignantly recalls how her husband grieved at her passing.
  • In the Greek world, dirges were sung over the dead and elaborate funerals were carried out, as is reflected in various passages in the Illiad and Odyssey, as well as in Greek tragedy.
  • Ritual mourning was a fixture in pagan religions that included a myth of a dying-and-rising god (such as Baal, Tammuz and Osiris). Worshippers would, in ritual fashion, lament the god’s death.

Examples of mourning over a city occur in Sumerian literature. There we find lamentations for Ur, Sumer, Nippur, Eridu and Uruk, all dating from the Isin-Larsa period (ca. 1950-1700 B.C.). For example, after Ur was destroyed by Elamites, a mourner bemoaned the fall of the city in great detail and in a manner reminiscent of the Biblical book of Lamentations. Although he had pleaded with the gods for the safety of Ur, they had decreed that the city be destroyed. The song describes the warriors being struck down, citizens perishing by fire and hunger and even children expiring in their mother’s laps. Similarly, the Biblical book of Lamentations depicts Jerusalem’s fall as being the will of God and speaks at length of the suffering of the people. In spite of these similarities, however, direct linkage between Lamentations and the Sumerian texts is impossible. Both are part of a broad literary tradition, and both reflect the universal human response to calamity.


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