Study Guide

Lamentations Women and Femininity

Women and Femininity

How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. (NRSV 1:1-2)

How is she become as a widow! She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary! She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks: among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her: all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies. (KJV 1:1-2)

The Poet often imagines the city of Jerusalem as an abandoned lover or widow and gives her all kinds of feminine roles. Here, she's a princess who's been stripped of her titles and glory. Now, she's just a servant girl or widow. Zion's also pretty emotional (some folks see weeping as a feminine trait). The mention of lovers and friends also seems to be more of a traditional woman's concern here.

From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. (NRSV 1:6)

From the daughter of Zion all her beauty is departed. (KJV 1:6)

Another female role: Jerusalem is like a once pretty daughter who lost her father and protector. In Biblical times, a father would avenge his ravaged daughter at all costs. But here, God's nowhere to be found at the moment.

All who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans, and turns her face away. Her uncleanness was in her skirts; she took no thought of her future; her downfall was appalling, with none to comfort her. "O Lord, look at my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed!" (NRSV 1:8-9)

All that honoured her despise her, because they have seen her nakedness: yea, she sigheth, and turneth backward. Her filthiness is in her skirts; she remembereth not her last end; therefore she came down wonderfully: she had no comforter. O Lord, behold my affliction: for the enemy hath magnified himself. (KJV 1:8-9)

In the original Hebrew, the word for "her uncleanness"—tumatah—means a state of spiritual and ritual impurity. A woman could be in this state for several reasons—she could be menstruating, or been sexually assaulted, or have come in contact with a dead body. Women in this condition were typically isolated from the community during the period of impurity, so the image is of a woman defiled and alone. Pretty sad.

The Lord has trodden as in a wine press the virgin daughter Judah. (NRSV 1:15)

The Lord hath trodden the virgin, the daughter of Judah, as in a winepress. (KJV 1:15)

This is a pretty striking passage. The defiling of virgins is as bad as it gets.

The young girls of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground. (NRSV 2:10)

The virgins of Jerusalem hang down their heads to the ground. (KJV 2:10)

The young maidens seem to represent the beauty and innocence of the city that is now crushed. They're the public mourners. This is often a role assigned to women in many cultures.

Infants and babes faint in the streets of the city. They cry to their mothers, "Where is bread and wine?" as they faint like the wounded in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers' bosom. What can I say for you, to what compare you, O daughter Jerusalem? To what can I liken you, that I may comfort you, O virgin daughter Zion? For vast as the sea is your ruin; who can heal you? (NRSV 2:11-13)

Children and the sucklings swoon in the streets of the city. They say to their mothers, Where is corn and wine? When they swooned as the wounded in the streets of the city, when their soul was poured out into their mothers' bosom. What thing shall I take to witness for thee? What thing shall I liken to thee, O daughter of Jerusalem? What shall I equal to thee, that I may comfort thee, O virgin daughter of Zion? For thy breach is great like the sea: who can heal thee? (KJV  2:11-13)

That's the ultimate in suffering for a mother, to be unable to protect or nurture her children.

Look, O Lord, and consider! To whom have you done this? Should women eat their offspring, the children they have borne? (NRSV 2:20)

Behold, O Lord, and consider to whom thou hast done this. Shall the women eat their fruit, and children of a span long? (KJV 2:20)

Maternal cannibalism is a pretty horrific image and the author uses it for maximum shock value. You can see how the natural order of things is completely upside down in this desolate place.

My eyes cause me grief at the fate of all the young women in my city. (NRSV 3:51)

Mine eye affecteth mine heart because of all the daughters of my city. (KJV 3:51)

The author doesn't want to say it, but we can probably guess what the fate of young, vulnerable women would be in a city under siege. Actually, we don't have to guess, because we know what often happens in our own day during wartime. Rape is a way of further destroying a culture, by replacing the population with children fathered by the conquerors. It's a powerful weapon of terror.

Even the jackals offer the breast and nurse their young, but my people has become cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness. The tongue of the infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst; the children beg for food, but no one gives them anything. (NRSV 4:3-4)

Even the sea monsters draw out the breast, they give suck to their young ones: the daughter of my people is become cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness. The tongue of the sucking child cleaveth to the roof of his mouth for thirst: the young children ask bread, and no man breaketh it unto them. (KJV 4:3-4)

Again, the author tells us to "think of the children!" A starving woman has nothing to offer her nursing baby. Children, because their bodies are growing, are the most vulnerable to famine. And starvation is as effective a weapon as fire in the destruction of a city.

The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food in the destruction of my people. (NRSV 4:10)

The hands of the pitiful women have sodden their own children: they were their meat in the destruction of the daughter of my people. (KJV 4:10)

More mention of moms/cannibals. This time the author compares the before-and-after state of the women. These mothers were once compassionate and loving, but now they're just hungry. The thought of being forced to boil dead babies for food to stay alive is pretty horrific. Another indication of the total breakdown of society. People are literally being driven insane.

Women are raped in Zion, virgins in the towns of Judah. (NRSV 5:11)

They ravished the women in Zion, and the maids in the cities of Judah. (KJV 5:11)

Okay, so the Poet finally comes out and describes mass rape. Women are being raped in the streets and there's nothing anyone can do about it. These are dark times, and they're especially dark for women.

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