John Hobbins Reconstructing Lamentations 3

Megillat Eicha, Alsace c. 18th century (image:

John has an intriguing post regarding Lam. 3:51: Lamentations 3:51: A New Proposal This is a notoriously problematic passage and John has an interesting proposal for a textual reconstruction. Of greater interest to me is his broader conclusions that I am not sure that I can agree with.

On this reading, in 3:1, at the onset of a larger whole, a female lamenter explicitly casts herself as a male persona, an “everyman” (Hillers’ characterization (1992:122) developed by Dobbs-Allsopp [2002:105-109]) who gives voice to a collective experience, only to allude to her particular identity in 3:51. In the poem’s conclusion, 3:52-66, the singular “I” continues to be used, but, as Dobbs-Allsopp notes (107), “it has become more inclusive.” As she did throughout Lam 3, the lamenter concludes by voicing the grief and hopes of an entire community.

The public articulation of grief by women is extremely well-attested cross-culturally. The details have become the subject of intense study by anthropologists. Those familiar with this research will formulate, almost as a matter of course, a working hypothesis: Lam 1 is a dialogue in which (a) a chorus of lamenting women provide a context for the voice of (b) a single lamenting woman speaking in the voice of Zion: (a): Lam 1:1-11 except for 1:9c and 1:11c; (b): Lam 1:9c.11c.12-22. Lam 2 is easily understood as a dialogue between two lamenting women, (a) a lamenter who speaks of and to Zion, and (b) a lamenter once again speaking in the voice of Zion: (a) 2:1-19; (b) 2:20-22. On this understanding, it is one of “the maidens of Jerusalem” spoken of as a lamenter in Lam 2:10 whose words we hear in 2:11-12 with its focus on children and mothers. Lam 3, with 3:51 construed as suggested above, is a monologue of a lamenting woman, a female citizen of her city, who gives voice to the grief and hopes of an entire community.

It seems to me that John makes a tremendous leap from his textual analysis to proposing a female author (even one that poses as a male persona). John is of course correct that women are often those most visible and vocal in the grieving process in many cultures and indeed it has been the subject of a great amount of study lately. At the risk of being labelled a misogynist, I would suggest caution when moving from that research to the reconstructions offered by John. I am sure that those familiar with such research would offer such a hypothesis but it seems overly cumbersome.

The most obvious hurdle is that the text itself takes the voice of a man. Would we not have to then argue that the original female author (which seems to be John’s argument) felt the need to present her laments as a male composition because, presumably, the culture would not accept a composition written by a woman. Yet if the culture is so affirming of women as lead lamenters then why would they not also accept such a composition? Certainly the identification of  Zion as woman and Daughter Zion introduce the feminine perspective (and see Dobbs-Allsopp and Linafelt for more on these themes), but does that necessitate a female author?

Finally, does the gender of the speaker or author matter? That is to say, do we read the text differently if we have a man or a woman in our consciousness as the author? It might provide us with slightly different nuances to our readings, but what do we gain exegetically? And that holds true even if arguing for a male author.

I can genuinely say that I do not feel a vested interest in whether it was a man or a woman (or, more likely, men or women) who wrote these laments. I just question whether or not such a thing is knowable and how it would change our readings. Then I wonder, should it? When we read an anonymous work we tend to take the words at their “face value” (a dubious concept, but you know what I mean), but once we know the author there can be a tendency to read that work through the filter of what we believe we know about the author and what we think their agenda might be.

Is it possible not to offer a gender neutral rendering of the text, but rather a gender neutral reading? Should that be our goal?

I also thought I would share with you all the targumist’s rendering and reading of the passage (Lam. 3:49-51). (You can find my translation of TgLam, my doctoral thesis, and other articles on this blog as well. See the tab above or go here.)

עיני זלגת דמעין ולא תשתיק מלמבכי מדלית פאיג עקתי וממלל תנחומין לי

עד כדו דסיתכי ויחזו עולבני יי מן שמיא

בכותא דעייני אסתקפת למרע נפשי על חורבן פילכי עמי וניוול בנתא דירושלם קרתי

49 My eye weeps tears and does not cease from crying. There is no respite from my anguish or anyone to comfort me;

50 Until the Lord looks out and sees my humiliation from heaven.

51 The weeping of my eyes is the cause of the affliction of my soul over the destruction of the districts of my people and the humiliation of the daughters of Jerusalem, my city.


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3 thoughts on “John Hobbins Reconstructing Lamentations

  • John Hobbins

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for picking up on this. It is interesting that the Targum reconstructs as it were the word Hillers and I (and others I imagine) think lies behind “my eye” in Lam 3:51, but as a supplement, not a substitution. Tg Lam 3:50 also supplements, in a way that agrees with NJPSV’s conjecture.

    For the rest, exegetes have never had a problem assuming that a male author casts himself as a female persona, Zion, in the relevant passages in Lam 1-2. Why is it any more or less problematic to assume the reverse in Lam 3?

    Furthermore, why assume that a male is the implied author of the speeches in Lam 1-2? Maybe it’s about time to question the unargued assumption.

    • Chris Brady Post author

      John – I appreciate your provoking entry and comments, so thank you for that. I have gone back and added the Aramaic so that everyone can see what lies behind my translation of TgLam. That the targumist should supplement is not surprising, that is the usual method for targum, to render what they understand as a “word for word” translation (even if they do not understand it clearly) and then insert explanatory text. I don’t know the NJPSV but I would wonder if they perhaps were guided by the targum.

      I think that the “unargued” assumption is reasonable since everything we know about the culture and community tell us that women were not, as a rule, literate and thus capable of producing such literature. That does not mean that it is impossible, we can conceive of such circumstances and there was the wife of a rabbi (whose names escape me now) from the Tannaitic period, as I recall, who was noted for her learning, but it requires an exceptional demonstration.

      We could, of course, problematize this by arguing that the women produced the oral tradition that was then written down by a scribe, that is certainly possible as well. But as with so many of our reconstructions we have no evidence, simply plausibility. So in the absence of any additional evidence, what is most plausible?

  • John Hobbins

    Very capable comeback, Chris.

    Yes, a distinction has to be made between the poet-performer and the scribe. Just as we do in the case of prophecy (prophets and prophetesses, already at Mari). Just as we assume in the case of the song of Deborah. Song of Songs, idem.

    Once that distinction is made, I would think the working hypothesis I propose becomes plausible.