Calamity and distress in Ipuwer (Lamentations 5)

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Illustration: Ipuwer papyrus

Composed between 2000 and 1800 B.C., the text known as The Admonitions of Ipuwer laments the state of affairs in Egypt. Although it is found in a single Egyptian manuscript from the Nineteenth Dynasty, the work was in all probanility written much earlier. The sage Ipuwer recounted the calamities that had befallen the nation, as well as the distress of the people, livestock and even the land. Much of the discussion is couched in terms that demonstrate reversals of the normal state of affairs: Slaves had become masters; the rich were reduced to poverty; servant girls ruled households; foreigners assumed leading positions of state; kings once buried in great pyramids now lay exposed on bare ground. Ipuwer blamed these disasters on the sun god Ra (Re), who, the sage pointed out, did not differentiate between good and evil people and had been unable to perceive the evil brooding in the hearts of the violent. Although there are differing interpretations of the text, it appears that Ipuwer also criticized the ineptitude of the reigning king and looked forward to the arrival of a redemptive ruler who would restore order and peace.

The book of Lamentations, written between 586 and 516 B.C., also deals with the themes of national calamity and distress. Here we also see reversals of fortunes: Jerusalem, once a queen, was now a slave (Lamentations 1:1), ruled by “slaves” (i.e. Babylonians, 5:8); gold and gems had lost their value (4:2); the rich sat in ash pits (4:5); and those who had been pure and polished in appearance were now so blackened with soot as to be unrecognizable (4:7-8). As in Ipuwer, foreigners had gained the upper hand (5:2), and princes and elders were being shown disrespect (5:12). Unlike Ipuwer, however, the author of Lamentations did not blame the disaster of God’s passivity. Rather, he understood that the Lord was justly judging the sins of the people (1:5, 8, 18, 3:38-42, 4:13). Although God was displaying His righteous anger (2:1-4, 4:11), His love and compassion were ever near (3:21-26, 31-32). The judgement on the sins of Judah was His means of refining and restoring a remnant to Himself.

Apart from that issue, Ipuwer does have some striking parallels to other parts of the Bible. The author bemoaned a situation of social upheaval in Egypt in which criminals, lowlifes and slaves had become wealthy and powerful and even maidservants felt free to be impudent toward their mistresses. This is similar to Ecclesiastes 10:6-7: “Fools are out in many high positions, while the rich occupy the low ones. I have seen slaves on horseback, while princes go on foot like slaves.” Also, Ipuwer contains a striking reference to the Nile being turned to blood.


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