You are on page 1of 18

Beau Harris

Carleen Mandolfo
The Silent God in Lamentations

It verges on the oxymoronic to suggest that we can or should develop a “theology of
silence” in the Hebrew Bible, but the presence of books like Lamentations in the canon requires
this of us. God’s silence, in the aftermath of severe trauma and tragedy in particular, can be seen
as confounding, frustrating, and infuriating. Understanding the form and function of God’s
silence in the book of Lamentations requires patience, creativity, good listening and reading
skills, and a deep appreciation for so called “negative spaces” of God’s silence in the book. This
essay first listens for the sounds of lamentation preserved in its many dialogic facets in an effort
to establish the “positive spaces” 1 against which we can contrast God’s deafening silence in the
book, in a manner that is similar to the contrast of negative and positive spaces in artistic
creations of many kinds. Once this loud and clamoring background is established, an inquiry
into God’s eerie silence necessarily produces many options for interpreting and understanding
God’s silence in the book of Lamentations.
A brief evaluation of the dialogic aspects of the book of Lamentations will lend a sharper
contrast to this discussion of God’s silence in the book. Biblical scholars, borrowing from the
work of literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, use this term “dialogic” (and its variants: “dialogical”


To be clear, the use of “negative” and “positive” space is a quantitative usage of the terminology rather than a
qualitative usage of these terms. In other words, God’s silence is not necessarily a negative, as in “bad for you,”
thing. Likewise the voicing and sounds of the book of Lamentations are positive only insofar as they have substance
which can be analyzed, not that they are “happy” or “hopeful.”

or “dialogism”) to describe both a process and a product. A dialogic conversation or
composition is one that preserves multiple, diverse, unmerged perspectives. This is different
than a monolog (a speech by a single person or many persons confined to a single perspective)
because authentic dialogue introduces all of its participants to new ideas, experiences, and
insights that are brought to the dialogue by the many different partners. Alternatively, a
conversation between two people who agree on all their talking points will not stimulate growth
in either person because nothing new has been introduced to them by the other party.
Dialogic products are a little trickier to cultivate. There is a funneling or filtering that
often happens once an editor or author enters into the equation because of our common human
tendency to fit our experiences into a framework that has meaning and importance for us as
individuals. A collection of essays, for example, can be selected for publication in a single
volume because of their uniformity of opinion on a given subject; this would result in a
monologic product despite the collaboration of multiple partners. Alternatively, a collection of
essays might be assembled specifically for their diversity of opinions (or outright contradictions)
on a given subject; this would result in a more dialogic product even though the authors may not
have ever met or interacted with one another. A reader’s interaction with this product would also
constitute a dialogic process because of their own encounter with the differing perspectives.
Much of Bakhtin’s most important work was on the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky who
was one of the few authors, in Bakhtin’s opinion, that was able to author a work that genuinely
preserved multiple, diverse, unmerged perspectives in the characters and story lines that he
created. This means that a dialogic product does not necessarily have to come out of a dialogic
process involving the input of multiple partners, but it must find a way to preserve or embody
differing perspectives without forcing them into a monologic framework. Biblical scholars have

embraced Bakhtin’s concepts as a response to the often constraining attempts in biblical theology
to find the hermeneutic “center” of the Hebrew Bible. After decades of such attempts, many
scholars feel liberated by the idea that the meaning of the Bible cannot be limited to any one
organizing principle.
Now that dialogical processes and products have been explained, two primary facets of
Lamentation’s dialogic nature will be highlighted.

1. Narration from Multiple Perspectives. The first dialogic feature of the book, as can be
seen in each of the five chapters in the book of Lamentations, is the consistent shifting back and
forth between two (or more) different voices in the narration of the book. The voice that opens
the book neither identifies itself nor refers to itself using first person “I” language. In reference
to psalmic laments this voice has been referred to as the Didactic Voice (DV) because it
punctuates (or interrupts, or adds to) the supplicant’s lamentation with explanations about the
relationships between humans, God, sin, and justice.2 In Lamentations the DV describes the
actions committed by and against the various characters in the text (Daughter Zion, God,
enemies etc.) as can be seen in the following example:
Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper,
because the LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions3;
her children have gone away, captives before the foe. (1:5)
Additionally, the DV does not address God directly in a prayer-like posture, but rather speaks of
God in descriptive terms. However, as can be seen in 1:21, there is another voice that speaks in

Carleen Mandolfo, God in the Dock: Dialogic Tension in the Psalms of Lament (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield
Academic Press, 2002). Mandolfo demonstrates the presence of the DV in many Psalms of Lament as well as the
book of Lamentations (Carleen Mandolfo, Daughter Zion Talks Back to the Prophets: A Dialogic Theology of the
Book of Lamentations [Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007]).
The Hebrew word used here, pesha`, can also mean “rebellions” or “revolts.”

first person discourse (“I” and “me”) and addresses God directly using mostly second person
language (“You”):
They heard how I was groaning, with no one to comfort me.
All my enemies heard of my trouble; they are glad that you have done it.
Bring on the day you have announced, and let them be as I am. (1:21)
In chapter 1 this voice makes an appearance in vv. 9 and 11, but then takes over the narration for
the second half of the chapter starting in v. 12. Thus the DV gives the third person descriptions
of Zion’s sufferings and God’s actions, and the second voice is a voice of supplication, of prayer,
of protest, and of anger born out of personal experiences of suffering.
This second voice is the voice of Daughter Zion herself. In the Hebrew Bible and other
ancient Near Eastern cultures cities were often described in feminine terms or assigned a female
persona.4 The city of Jerusalem is called Daughter Zion here in the book of Lamentations, and in
many other parts of the Hebrew Bible as well (2 Kgs 19:21; Ps 9:15; Isa 1:8, 10:32, 16:1, 37:22,
52:2, 62:11; Jer 4:31, 6:2, 6:23; Mic 1:13, 4:8, 4:10, 4:13; Zep 3:14; Zec 2:14, 9:9). God’s silent
response to the cries of Daughter Zion is the primary subject of this evaluation.
2. Disputing the Prophets. The second dialogic facet of Lamentations is Daughter
Zion’s disputation with or “talking back to”5 the prophetic mode of linking political and social
trauma to God’s divine punishment of Israel’s sins. Consider, for example, Jeremiah 6:19-23
where God, speaking through the prophet, threatens to “bring disaster on this people, the fruit of
their schemes, because they have not given heed to my words; and as for my teaching, they have
rejected it.” Thus the peoples’ rejection of God’s teaching brings about the destruction told of in


For an introduction to the city-lament genre of Lamentations see F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations (Louisville:
John Knox Press, 2002), 6-12.
To use Mandolfo’s phrase.

the later verses where “parents and children together, neighbor and friend shall perish. Therefore
thus says the LORD: See, a people is coming from the land of the north… they ride on horses,
equipped like a warrior for battle, against you, O daughter Zion!” Here God’s punishment is the
just consequence of the sins of the people. In the book of Lamentations, Daughter Zion suggests
that the horrible things happening to her are unjust, overreactions on the part of God to whatever
far less offensive sins she may have committed.
My transgressions were bound into a yoke; by his hand they were fastened together;
they weigh on my neck, sapping my strength;
the Lord handed me over to those whom I cannot withstand. (1:14)
Moreover, her “sin” of seeking out other “friends” and “lovers”6 was motivated by starvation!
Thus the overly harsh actions attributed to God in the following verses from chapter 2 are a
result of God forgetting, taking the role of the enemy, being unjust, or being angry:
The Lord has become like an enemy; he has destroyed Israel;
He has destroyed all its palaces, laid in ruins its strongholds,
and multiplied in daughter Judah mourning and lamentation. (2:5, DV)
The young and the old are lying on the ground in the streets;
my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword;
in the day of your anger you have killed them, slaughtering without mercy. (2:21, Zion)
Through these images Daughter Zion gives voice to a theological position that is both different
from and critical of the positions espoused by the prophets. The focus here is not the sins of


These two translations “friends” in 1:2 and “lovers” in 1:19 come from the same Hebrew root ‘ahav. The word
can mean both of these things, but its inconsistency in translation is notable and should be kept in mind when other
occurrences of these English words show up because they have very different applications in English.

Daughter Zion bringing about God’s just punishment as it is in Jeremiah 6. Rather, God is being
called out by both Daughter Zion and the DV7 because of the extreme losses experienced by the
people. This is a particularly striking fact because the DV, as represented in the psalms of
lament, is often a theodic voice that defends God’s actions as right and just against the
theological challenges born out of the supplicant’s experiences and complaints. The evidence
that the DV has changed allegiances to the side of the supplicant (Daughter Zion, in this case)
shows that this is a decidedly unique occasion for lamenting.8
Now that the dialogical character of Lamentations has been laid out, one complicated
portion of text near the end of chapter 3 deserves consideration because it may be an instance
where God breaks the otherwise dominating silence maintained in the rest of the book.
To be sure, God’s presence is never absent from the book of Lamentations. God is
perhaps overly active in the minds of the authors of the text as was seen in the language of
chapter 2 discussed above. Like in Job 7:17-21 God’s presence is not always seen as comforting
during times of great trauma. Moreover, perceiving God’s simultaneous presence and silence in
the midst of profound suffering is torturous. So torturous that it appears as though another
author or editor of Lamentations decided to place the decidedly “different” chapter 3 in the
middle of the other four laments. If we hear God’s voice at all in the book of Lamentations, it
happens only once, and it happens in 3:57:
I called on your name, O LORD, from the depths of the pit; (3:55)
you heard my plea, "Do not close your ear to my cry for help, but give me relief!" (3:56)
You came near when I called on you; you said, "Do not fear!” (lo tiyra’) (3:57)


Markers of their distinct voices are highlighted in the underlined portions of the above passages.
See Mandolfo, Daughter Zion Talks Back to the Prophets, 58-67.

There are three good reasons to consider chapter 3 as being related to, but ultimately different
than the other four chapters. First, the voice of the supplicant (the prayerful, first person voice)
is not the voice of a female, personified city as it is in chapters 1 and 2, and possibly in 4 and 5.
Rather, it is narrated from the perspective of an explicitly male supplicant9 who speaks in
abstract terms about his own losses as opposed to the very specific, heart-wrenching images of
starving children and violent attacks against all of the people of Jerusalem given in the rest of the
book. Second, there is no mention of Zion, Judah, or Jerusalem (and their variants, “Daughter
Zion” etc.) in the third chapter. There are a few references to a community (3:40-47 uses “us”
rather than “I” like the rest of the chapter) but never to a city or place explicitly. This is
markedly different than the other four chapters which refer to the physical space of a city or the
personified city with great frequency (Zion/Daughter Zion—1:4, 6, 17; 2:1, 4, 6, 8, 10, 13, 18;
4:2, 11, 22; 5:11, 18. Judah/Daughter Judah—1:3, 15; 2:2, 5; 5:11. Jerusalem/Daughter
Jerusalem—1:7, 8, 17; 2:10, 13, 15; 4:12. Jacob—2:2, 2:3. Israel—2:5. Sodom—4:6. Edom/ Uz/
Daughter Edom—4:21, 22. Egypt/ Assyria—5:6). Third, from 3:21 on there is a much greater
confidence in God’s justice and faithfulness than can be seen anywhere in the other four
chapters. This is odd when compared with the last few verses of chapter 5, the last words of the
book as we have it:
Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days?
Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old-unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure. (5:20-22)


Unfortunately the NRSV commitment to inclusive language obscures the Hebrew text of verse 1. The Hebrew text
starts off saying ‘aniy hagever ra’ah `aniy. While it is not always obvious that the term gever refers only to men
when referring to a large group (see Exo 12:37 for an unclear example) it is relatively certain that on an individual
level that the term does refer to a man (see Job 3:3 where gever is rendered by the NRSV “man-child”).

These are not words spoken out of a place of confidence. These words come from a place of
doubt, anxiety, and frustration with a God once thought to be familiar and trustworthy.
In light of the overwhelming differences between chapter 3 and the other four chapters,
the two words spoken in 3:57 might also take on a less than obvious interpretation. Perhaps what
is often read as God speaking in the precise moment of Daughter Zion’s anguish is actually a
reflection on past words of comfort and previous saving actions to which the community is
looking for their future hope. The use of the perfect tense in Hebrew does convey a sense that
this is an action that is fully complete—“you have said to me”—rather than an imperfect or
participle which could be rendered in the present tense: “you say” or “you are saying to me.”
Thus these verses are not necessarily God speaking words of comfort to Israel but could be read
as the traditions of Israel calling out to Daughter Zion.
To be clear, chapter 3 has a great deal of value in its own right. The suggestion that it
should be read as both amid and distant from the other four chapters is not meant to suggest that
these are not wise words or that these words should be ignored because they seek to give comfort
to an ailing community. Rather, the presence of this odd chapter in the exact center of a five part
book leads one to inquire about how this chapter belongs to the other four. If chapter 3 was
inserted by a later editor in an effort to relieve the utter hopelessness and anxiety impressed upon
the reader by an intimate reading of the book then it seems we ought to first try to experience the
raw fear of God and enemies preserved in the other four chapters before we let ourselves hear
those two small words spoken by God: lo tiyra’ “do not fear.”
Making meaning out of acute suffering is extremely complicated for any community,
religious or otherwise. There is, however, a certain theological challenge that one faces in a

religious setting where there is only one God. Especially when this is a God portrayed as the
creator of all things and the one who grants power to leaders, judges, kings, and empires. So not
only does God’s “oneness” require explanation in the face of evil10 but God’s frequent
involvement in the life of Israel must also give us pause in our effort to understand when and
why such an active and powerful God chooses to keep silence. We have established a tortured,
tumultuous background against which God’s silence in the book of Lamentations can be
contrasted. Now a very brief look at two preliminary questions regarding God’s characterization
in other parts of the Hebrew Bible will serve as another background against which we can
compare God’s silent response to the suffering of Daughter Zion.
1. Who is this silent God? The long and tumultuous history of biblical theologians trying
to attach one “signature” characteristic to the God of the Hebrew Bible is often thwarted by the
book of Lamentations. This is because God’s actions in the book do not conjure up images of
God’s covenantal love, justice, or righteousness. The type of approach proposed in Walter
Brueggemann’s work An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible11 adapts well to
complicated texts like Lamentations because it is founded on the principle that a dialogic God
cannot ever truly be settled in one simplistic category or another if this God authentically
engages with the ever-changing human community. This gets to the (intentional?) word play of
the title of Brueggemann’s book. On the one hand the God depicted in the Hebrew Bible is
“unsettling” because the modes of divine communication, human interaction with God, and
divinely appointed human leaders are constantly shifting throughout the biblical text. On the
other hand this God is “unsettling” because adaptation, even for a better or more intimate

See the similar sounding questions posed in Lam 3:38 “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and
bad come?” and Job 2:10 “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?"
Walter Brueggemann, An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press,

relationship between God and humans, is still adaptation. This is an unsettling thought because
God, being unbound by anything but God’s own self, could choose something other than what is
known. God’s absolute freedom sharpens the anxiety behind statements about God becoming an
enemy (2:5) or God “utterly rejecting” Israel (5:22), even though these sentiments match neither
the words that God spoke to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 (in which case God would have to curse
God’s self) nor the numerous iterations of God proclaiming that a remnant of Israel would be
preserved (Gen 8:21, 2Kgs 19:30 / Isa 37:31, Zech 8:6 etc.).
2. Why is this God silent? In their recent study The Silent God, Marjo Korpel and
Johannes de Moor remind us that God speaks much more frequently in the Hebrew Bible than
God explicitly keeps silent. By their count there are 1, 882 verbs and nouns denoting God’s
speech, and only 29 verbs and nouns that explicitly mark God’s silence.12 Their study first
examines modern conceptions of the silent God in literature, media, philosophy, and theology.
Then they summarize and analyze how silence functions in the literatures of the Ancient Near
East (Mesopotamia and Egypt especially) and the Hebrew Bible. They divide this second part of
their study by the type of relationship in which silence plays a role: human silence toward other
humans (ch. 3), human silence before God (chs. 4-5), and finally God’s silence toward humans
(ch. 6). For each of these three types of relationships they recognize five common reasons why
silence is kept: offence, awe or fear, forbearance or prudence, incapacity, and sleep. In God’s
case, however, they suggest that the categories of “incapacity” and “sleep” are not really
applicable, even though God is called to wake up, for example, in Ps 44:24 (25 in Hebrew):
“Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever!”


Marjo C. A. Korpel and Johannes C. de Moor, The Silent God (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011), 35. While their
study examines implicit nods to God being silent these numbers only reflect explicit instances of God’s silence
because the implicit cases they examine can have other arguments made in their support.

This is not equivalent to human incapacity or sleepiness because here the supplicant expects that
God can still hear and respond to the call.
More strongly they suggest that while silence may have been kept because of fear or awe
by the gods of the Ancient Near East that “such feelings are rarely, if ever, attributed to God in
the canonical books of the Bible.”13 While this seems to be true on an explicit level, it will be
proposed later that God could be keeping silent in the book of Lamentations because God is
baffled by the extent of Daughter Zion’s destruction at the hands of God’s Babylonian punishing
rod. Korpel and de Moor recognize this idea in part when they suggest that God is left out of
some of the more violent and horrendous scenes, of rape in particular, in the Hebrew Bible.14
That leaves two clear options left in trying to determine the source of divine silence:
offence and forbearance or prudence. For example, when the people offend God by demanding
the installation of a king Samuel declares, in 1 Sam 8:18, that God will ignore any future
complaints that Israel has concerning their king:
And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for
yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.
Other times it is made clear that God kept silent because it was prudent for the life of the
community. For example, in Jer 7:22-24 we read that God had no need to mention burnt
offerings because the people were only instructed to be responsive to God’s voice:

For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to

them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. 23But this command I
gave them, "Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and

Korpel and de Moor, The Silent God, 246.
Korpel and de Moor, The Silent God, 244. See also the article by Leah Schulte and Tammi Schneider, “The
Absence of the Deity in Rape Scenes of the Hebrew Bible,” in The Presence and Absence of God, Dalferth ed.
(Religion in Philosophy and Theology, 42; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), 21-33.

walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you." 24Yet they
did not obey or incline their ear, but, in the stubbornness of their evil will, they walked in
their own counsels, and looked backward rather than forward.
In other words, God kept silent concerning some matters so that the people could focus on the
matters about which God was speaking—namely to stay in right relationship with God by
trusting in the new place toward which God was leading them rather than longing for that which
was behind them. Occasions for God’s prudent or forbearing silence are rare, but they give us
some insight into the telos or function of God’s silence in a way that other moments of silence
cannot do with the same sort of clarity.
It is time to turn back to Daughter Zion now that we have established both the dialogical
character of the book of Lamentations and the difficult and partially subjective nature of trying to
determine why God chooses to remain silent in the Hebrew Bible.
1. Silence because of Daughter Zion’s sin or offence? Because Israel’s sin is a common
reason for God’s silence in the Hebrew Bible, its relevance to the book of Lamentations should
be explored. Both Daughter Zion and the DV remember something that offended God in some
way as can be seen in the following verses:
Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper,
because the LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions (pesha`);
her children have gone away, captives before the foe. (DV, 1:5)
The LORD is in the right, for I have rebelled (marah) against his word;
but hear, all you peoples, and behold my suffering;
my young women and young men have gone into captivity. (Zion, 1:18)

The two words, pesha` and marah do not necessarily signify the sinful or criminal applications
of the English word “transgression” used by the NRSV translators. Rather these verbs reflect
Daughter Zion’s decision to “transgress” (with the sense of moving across a boundary) her
relationship with the God of Israel by seeking comfort from other nations in the forms of food
and protection. However, when reading these verses in their larger context of chapter 1 and the
book as a whole, it appears that both Daughter Zion and the DV suggest that her rebellion and
transgression were motivated by the annihilation and starvation of her people (1:3, 5, 11, 13, 1820; 2:11-12, 20; 4:4-5, 9-10; 5:4, 9-10; see also Jer. 44:15-19). In other words, the narration of
the book as a whole minimizes whatever sins may have been committed by Israel and Daughter
Zion in order to focus her agonizing lament on what has been lost rather than bothering too much
with what she may or may not have done to bring about her destruction. Therefore it is
questionable whether or not God’s silence is caused by any sins or offences committed by
Daughter Zion because the book as a whole focuses on the severity of her suffering and the
absence of God’s response.
2. Respectful Silence. There are two ways in which God perhaps shows respect for
Daughter Zion by keeping silent. First, it shows that God is a good listener. There is no clear
indication in the text that Daughter Zion wants God to respond to her plight in an audible
fashion: “Unlike Job she does not even demand a response. Rather, self-expression seems to be
both the function and telos of her discourses.”15 Daughter Zion certainly shows a desire for her
own restoration and the annihilation of other nations, but she never actually asks for God to
Thus, if we are able to just for a brief moment overlook all of the violent deeds ascribed
to God in the book of Lamentations, we can actually see in God’s silence a moment of deep

Mandolfo, Daughter Zion Talks Back, 103.

respect for Daughter Zion to pour out her full lament. This is a good lesson for teaching and
pastoral communities today. Sometimes we need to rage uninterrupted. Silence is a pastoral tool
that is underutilized in a society that values the noise of patches and “apps” over quietness,
introspection, and silence. When hurting people come to their councilors, teachers, and pastors
there is too often the presumption that they desire an immediate response rather than a safe place
to pour out their raw feelings and ideas without the interruptions of snap-judgments or cookie
cutter psychological or theological analysis.
Second, silence is often the only respectful response to the severe trauma. The Jewish
tradition of shiv`ah sets aside seven days of mourning after the passing of a loved one. This is
not necessarily a time of silence, but it is a way of quieting all other life duties for an appointed
amount of time as a way of showing respect both for the deceased as well as the surviving
family. In the psalms of lament there is often some sort of praise, or vow of future praise given
for God’s actual or assumed intervention in the needs of the supplicant. The lack of such a vow
at the end of Lamentations (except, perhaps, for the later insertion of chapter 3) is perhaps a sign
that God is maintaining the space of mourning as a sign of respect for the destroyed city and her
many deceased inhabitants before getting back to the business of being their warrior God that
destroys enemies and builds up nations.
3. Baffled silence. Because laments do have such a typical form where some kind of
assurance from God is expected, one is left wondering “why not here?” As was mentioned
above, there are some scenes which are too horrifying for God to be associated with them, and so
God’s presence, actions, and even the divine name itself is totally missing from, for example, the
different scenes depicting rape in the Hebrew Bible. Although it would not be an unwarranted
stretch to compare the horrendous things that happen to Daughter Zion in this book with other

rape scenes in the Hebrew Bible, the presence of the divine name numerous places in
Lamentations requires that we formulate a slightly different question. If God is “on the scene”
(unlike the rape narratives) but not speaking (unlike most other narratives when God is present)
then what other reasons might God have for not breaking through the silence with a vow to
destroy Daughter Zion’s enemies or restore her fortunes? One thought is that God is simply
baffled—stunned into silence because God did not plan on the extensiveness of the devastation.
Perhaps God is silently ashamed of letting things get out of hand.16 There is even a hint in the
first chapter that God’s attempt at keeping the enemies of Israel out simply failed:
Enemies have stretched out their hands over all her precious things;
she has even seen the nations invade her sanctuary,
those whom you forbade to enter your congregation. (1:10)
If there were a time during the biblical period of Israel’s history where God would have kept
silent because of God’s own bafflement it would very likely be here: amid the ruins of the
destroyed temple and starved bodies of the people that God loves so dearly.
4. Pedagogic silence. Whether it is ultimately “right” or not (which can never be known,
but can be suggested), the book of Lamentations certainly avoids giving a simple, monologic
solution by attaching God’s words to the book. This forces the supplicant and the modern reader
to process, and be processed by, Daughter Zion’s words, her pain, and her anxiety without access
to an easy answer. We see this done every time a parent abstains from responding to a child’s
cry in order to help teach the child to take care of itself. Likewise, in the book of Lamentations,


The Hebrew verb naham is often used to note a shift in God’s thinking, often translated “relent” in English. For a
few examples of where God changes God’s mind about the course that had already been set see Gen 6:6, Exo 32:14,
and 1 Sam 15:11 (and the exact opposite application of this verb to God in 1 Sam 15: 19 where it says that God does
not change God’s mind).

God could be trying to lead Israel into a new place, theologically speaking, by allowing her the
space to learn how to soothe herself uninterrupted.
As we can see from the example of the Dead Sea Scroll community, the time between the
fifth and first centuries B.C.E. was a time of gathering and collecting Israel’s stories. Perhaps the
book of Lamentations reflects a move by the community to question whether or not they are
living in the same situation as their forbearers. Imagine suffering the kinds of losses they did
while being told the story of the exodus where God sends plagues against Israel’s oppressors.
Daughter Zion cries “Where is that God, and why have we been forgotten?” Indeed the author of
Lamentations relays the shock of their situation compared with one of the stories of God’s very
active presence in the Bible:
For the chastisement of my people has been greater than the punishment of Sodom,
which was overthrown in a moment, though no hand was laid on it. (4:6)
Perhaps Lamentations denotes a shift in thinking away from a God who will swoop in at a
moment’s notice to save the day (very much unlike Psalm 44, for example). The reality of living
in a world of empires requires a thick skin to survive the constant battering of increasingly bigger
and more brutal enemies. God’s silence in Lamentations might be a way of drawing Israel into a
new place of understanding their relationship to God.
Communities that value the Hebrew Bible should be very grateful for and baffled by the
book of Lamentations. Silence from God pervades the typical religious experiences of most
folks the world over. Even people with highly devoted spiritual and prayer lives go an extremely
long time (or even their whole lives!) without experiencing the call of the divine voice.
Lamentations, as a reflection on suffering amid God’s presence and silence, has so many more

applications to biblical theology, pastoral care, and engaged ethics than most communities are
willing to audition. Interpreting God’s silence does require patience in thoroughly evaluating the
evidence that you do have before you; it requires creativity in exploring the “negative space” left
behind from a God that sometimes (in the Bible) and oftentimes (in contemporary living) does
not respond to human pain in an easily detectible manner; and it requires deep sensitivity and
respect for the pained voices calling out to us from the text, from our own world, and from our
future generations in order to better understand what we might learn even and especially when
God is silent.

Works Cited* and Bibliography:
Anderson, Gary A. A Time to Mourn, a Time to Dance: The Expression of Grief and Joy in
Israelite Religion. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.
Balentine, Samuel E. The Hidden God: The Hiding of the Face of God in the Old Testament.
Oxford Theological Monographs. Oxford, UK  ; New York, NY: Oxford University Press,
Berlin, Adele. Lamentations: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY:
Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
Boyce, Richard Nelson. The Cry to God in the Old Testament. Dissertation Series / Society of
Biblical Literature 103. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1988.
*Brueggemann, Walter. An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis, MN:
Fortress Press, 2009.
*Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W. Lamentations. Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and
Preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2002.

*Korpel, Marjo C. A., and Johannes C. de Moor. The Silent God. Leiden, The Netherlands  ;
Boston, MA: Brill, 2011.
Laato, Antti, and Johannes C. de Moor, eds. Theodicy in the World of the Bible. Leiden, The
Netherlands   ; Boston, MA: Brill, 2003.
Lee, Nancy C. Lyrics of Lament: From Tragedy to Transformation. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress
Press, 2010.
Linafelt, Tod. Surviving Lamentations: Catastrophe, Lament, and Protest in the Afterlife of a
Biblical Book. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
*Mandolfo, Carleen. Daughter Zion Talks Back to the Prophets: A Dialogic Theology of the
Book of Lamentations. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007.
*———. God in the Dock: Dialogic Tension in the Psalms of Lament. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield
Academic Press, 2002.
O’Connor, Kathleen M. Lamentations and the Tears of the World. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books,
Salters, Robert B. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Lamentations. International Critical
Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. London, UK  ; New
York, NY: T & T Clark, 2010.