Shiur #35: Eikha: Chapter 3 (continued)

  • Dr. Yael Ziegler
Eikha 3:1-3
 
אֲנִ֤י הַגֶּ֙בֶר֙ רָאָ֣ה עֳנִ֔י
בְּשֵׁ֖בֶט עֶבְרָתֽוֹ
 
אוֹתִ֥י נָהַ֛ג וַיֹּלַ֖ךְ
חֹ֥שֶׁךְ וְלֹא־אֽוֹר
 
אַ֣ךְ בִּ֥י יָשֻׁ֛ב
יַהֲפֹ֥ךְ יָד֖וֹ כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם
 
I am the man who has seen affliction
by the rod of His anger
 
Me, He has led, and He walked me
In darkness and not light
 
Against me He has returned
His hand turns[1] all day
 
The gever opens his tale of woe by focusing the reader’s attention upon himself, using the word ani, I.[2] This word directs our attention to the central figure of this chapter, the individual. Completely absorbed by his own misery, the gever repeatedly employs self-referential words at the inception of the chapter, such as oti (which opens verse 2) and bi (the second word of verse 3). Rashi observes the gever’s self-absorption, suggesting that this individual regards himself as the singular recipient of God’s attention:
 
Against me He has returned. I alone am struck continuously, for all of the cycles of His blows are upon me. (Rashi, Eikha 3:1)
 
Rashi’s reading of the gever’s narcissistic attitude may naturally evoke the reader’s criticism; it seems unduly self-centered to focus on one’s unparalleled suffering in a book that dwells at length on the collective suffering of the nation. Perhaps for this reason, R. Yosef Kara reads the gever’s complaint as a communal one, relating to the fate of the nation:
 
Against me He has returned, His hand turns all day. All of the nations sin, but you have no nation in the world that God punishes her for sin, except Israel. (R. Yosef Kara, Eikha 3:1)
 
While R’ Kara’s interpretation alleviates the self-centeredness of the gever’s statement, it does not cohere well with the context of the chapter. The gever tells a story of personal (not national) adversity; in his tale, he remains fixated upon himself.
 
The Identity of the Gever: Jerusalem, Jeremiah, or Everyman?
 
Who is this gever, who recounts his travails with such pathos? Biblical interpreters have suggested several possibilities to identify this central figure of the book. Some suggest that the gever represents the nation, the collective “I” (perhaps even the voice of Jerusalem, as we encountered in the first person speaker of both chapters 1 and 2),[3] while others point to a specific historical figure, generally identified as Jeremiah.[4] Some regard the gever as an anonymous individual, who could be anyone (Everyman), a sufferer who seeks to extract meaning that could impact others from his personal experience.[5]
 
Jeremiah, the Gever
 
Rashi maintains that Jeremiah is the gever in this chapter, in which he recollects the numerous difficulties and challenges of his prophetic career, as recorded in the book of Jeremiah:
 
I am the man who has seen affliction. Jeremiah was bemoaning and saying: I am the man who has seen affliction, who has seen more misfortune than any of the prophets who prophesied about the destruction of the Temple. For in their days the Temple was not destroyed; in my days, it was. (Rashi, Eikha 3:1)
 
Linguistic and thematic parallels between the gever’s account and Jeremiah’s personal story support Rashi’s contention. Note, for example, the gever’s self-depiction of his alienation from his people:
 
I was a laughingstock for my nation, their plaything all the day. (Eikha 3:14)
 
In one of Jeremiah’s most evocative laments over his role as prophet, he similarly bemoans his isolation and the misery of his prophetic mantle:
 
I was a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me. (Jeremiah 20:7)
 
Echoes of Jeremiah’s misfortunes arise in the gever’s account of his imprisonment in a pit (3:52, 55; see Jeremiah 38:6), as well as the beatings he suffered (3:30; see Jeremiah 20:2; 37:15).
 
In identifying the gever as Jeremiah, Rashi applies the tradition of Jeremiah’s authorship of Eikha to the first person account of chapter 3.[6] It seems logical to assume that the personal account in a book belongs to the personal life of its author, who introduces his own life experiences as they seem relevant.
 
Nevertheless, the chapter does not indicate anywhere that the gever is Jeremiah. More significantly, it is not clear why Jeremiah’s individual story should be relevant to the book of Eikha. The prophet stands above the people, outside of them, judging and chastising them; his personal account seems to harbor little similarity to the experience of the common person. Moreover, Jeremiah's suffering takes place at the hands of his Israelite compatriots and not the Babylonian enemy. Are the Israelites the gever’s cruel antagonists? And if Jeremiah’s troubles stem from the tensions with his constituents, then the lessons that he draws from his troubles have little resonance for those who cause his misfortune. Why should Jeremiah's personal hardships appear in a book about national calamity and its theological application? How does this cohere with the general tone and message of the book?
 
The Gever as Everyman
 
After raising the possibility that Jeremiah composes this chapter about his life, Ibn Ezra offers an intriguing second suggestion. Perhaps this chapter is written from the perspective of “every person from Israel,” namely, Everyman.[7] Instead of focusing on a specific individual, the chapter spotlights a figure whose experience of suffering is universal and prototypical. The chapter employs figurative language of suffering (as found also in Iyov and Tehillim) to describe a general experience, designed to apply to all sufferers.
 
Everyman is also No-one, inasmuch as the details of the account may not apply in a precise sense to any one individual. Indeed, this chapter is about human suffering in general, rather than the specific events of 586 BCE. The national calamity fades in the background, as this chapter allows the reader a recess from the catastrophe of gargantuan proportions and instead encounter one lone individual, whose excruciating suffering typifies many individuals. In tracing the journey of an individual, the chapter encourages the reader to empathize with the sufferer and identify with his pain.[8]
 
This approach has several additional advantages. If one individual reflects every person, then it underscores the mass suffering that is common to everyone at this time, allowing individuals to discover a shared communal experience. This fosters a sense of community among the sufferers. The gever arrives at this realization, as is evident by his shift to a collective plural voice when he addresses his fellow sufferer in verses 41-46. In these verses, the individual briefly merges with the community of sufferers, only to return to the individual once again. Sharing one’s pain with others does not simply alleviate the isolation of grief;[9]  it can also provide meaning to the experience. In sharing one’s experience with others, personal pain can become useful and beneficial to others.
 
Moreover, if all suffering follows a common trajectory, this chapter takes on a proscriptive quality, in which the gever’s experience becomes a guidebook that can instruct the suffering individual how to progress on his challenging journey.  In this way, the chapter ensures that sufferers do not flounder and stall, paralyzed by despair. The individual’s journey from lonely agony to theological reflection to renewed hope functions as a blueprint for the suffering individual, regardless of the context or circumstances of his suffering. This chapter is both an integrated part of the book and rises above it, functioning as an independent chapter that can offer solace and guidance for any experience of human suffering.
 
The Word Gever
 
Perhaps the word gever can offer a clue to the identity of the man in the chapter. Gever is certainly not the most common word used to refer to an adult male in the Bible. Synonyms for man include ish (the most common referent), enosh, and adam. Synonyms enrich a language mainly because they are not absolutely synonymous one with the other. If they were, languages would likely not develop these synonyms, because there would be little need for them. While often interchangeable within a sentence, synonymous words tend to retain subtle distinctive meanings that necessitate their particular usage.
 
Etymologically, the word gever relates to gevura, strength. Thus, the word gever may be used to refer to a man who wields his physical or military strength.[10] The gever may refer to himself here as a gever, ironically or bitterly, to underscore his abuse and defeat, in spite of his ostensible physical might.[11]
 
The gever may be a person who maintains particular spiritual strength,[12] or inner strength, the heroic ability to overcome suffering:
 
Happy is the gever whom You make suffer, God, and You teach Him from Your instructions. (Tehillim 94:12)
 
It is fitting, therefore, that Iyov refers to himself as a gever at the opening of his discourse (Iyov 3:3). Indeed, the word gever appears with unusual frequency in Iyov, the book that contends most directly with human suffering.[13] The use of the word gever corroborates Ibn Ezra’s suggestion that this chapter tells the story of Everyman – the stereotypical sufferer who serves as a model to instruct others how to cope with suffering.
 
Who is the Perpetrator of the Gever’s Suffering?
 
This chapter describes the ruthless brutality that the gever endures in sixteen excruciating verses. He is struck with a rod and led in darkness, swallowed and smashed, encircled with poison and burdened by iron fetters, ambushed and mangled, set up as a target and riddled with arrows. The administrator of these harsh afflictions remains anonymous; the gever employs a hidden third person to veil the identity of the perpetrator.
 
According to Rashi, God is the disciplinarian in these verses:
 
By the rod of His anger. Of the one who dominates and strikes – He is God. (Rashi, Eikha 3:1)[14]
 
In this reading, the divine anger (evrato, verse 1), which burned so fiercely in the previous chapter (see the word evrato in 2:2), continues unabated in chapter 3.
 
Several words highlight the absence of God’s benevolence, indicating that He exchanges His previous acts of divine liberation with punitive ones. For example, the divine hand that was once wielded to deliver His people (Shemot 14:31; Tehillim 74:11) now strikes the gever mercilessly (verse 3).[15] Consider also the gever’s opening statement that he has seen his own affliction (3:1). God frequently “sees” (and empathizes with) the afflictions of His people in the Bible (Shemot 3:7; Tehillim 31:8). The gever’s description in 3:1 implicitly points to the absence of God’s compassion; because God declines to “see” his afflictions, the gever must regard them on his own. God hovers ominously, if obliquely, in the backdrop of the chapter. Withdrawn kindnesses combine with God’s wrathful acts to produce a frightening depiction of divine antagonism to the hapless gever.
 
Despite the gever’s decision to exclude any direct mention of God, the gever feels God’s absence acutely. By refusing to name God, even though His implicit presence is so central to the narrative, the gever consciously diverts attention to himself, focusing the narrative on his suffering. More significantly, the gever’s unwillingness to name God indicates the extent of the alienation that prevails between them.
 
Tehillim 23
 
The rod of God’s anger (shevet) that conducts the gever through darkness recalls God’s rod (shivtekha) that comforts the individual in Tehillim 23:4. In that idyllic chapter, God shepherds the vulnerable individual as He would a sheep, ushering him to rest in green pastures and guiding him (yenahaleini) to walk along a tranquil watercourse (23:2). God safeguards his circuitous route, steering him justly on its pathways (23:3). “Even when” (gam ki) he finds himself in a valley of deep darkness, this person does not fear, for he knows that God is with him (23:4).
 
The initial description of the suffering individual in Eikha 3 reverses the idyllic portrait of Tehillim 23.[16] God accompanies him on a difficult journey, but this time God drives him into darkness, leading him toward danger and persecution. Afflicting him with the rod (shevet) that once comforted (3:1), God deliberately thwarts and impedes the gever’s journey, building a stone fence to block him (3:9), twisting his pathway (3:9), and diverting his route (3:11). No one offers food, water, or restful pastures to the gever on his perilous perambulations, and God only offers him obstructions and opposition. “Even when” (gam ki) he calls out in his desperation, his prayer is blocked; no one answers or heeds his cries (3:8).
 
The description of an arduous journey in Eikha 3 evokes the exile following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.[17] Even if the gever is describing a personal expedition and not his descent into exile, it is difficult to avoid this association in a chapter placed within this historical context. The reader notes that the miserable individual (the Everyman whose suffering is embedded within a book that recounts the exile from Jerusalem) also endures a grueling trek, fraught with dangers and lacking a clear destination.[18]
 
Isaiah’s prophecy reverses this image, alongside his promises of the reversal of the period of exile and hardships stemming from the churban of 586 BCE.[19] Promising the nation that they will reestablish their land and repossess their desolate inheritances, Isaiah also describes the journey homeward in language that simultaneously recalls Tehillim 23 and overturns Eikha 3:
 
Saying to the prisoners, “Exit!” To those who are in darkness, “Reveal yourselves!” They will pasture on the pathways, and on every high place will be their pastures. They will not be hungry and they will not be thirsty, and the heat and sun will not strike them, for the One who has compassion on them will conduct them (yinahagam), and he will guide them (yenahaleim) along springs of water. (Isaiah 49:9-10)
 
The biblical narrative maintains a continuum of events. Redemption and autonomy may be followed by exile and hardships. Nevertheless, that does not represent the conclusion of Israel’s journey. Just as surely as exile can follow redemption, it can be reversed. During Israel’s period of exile, a new redemption awaits, offering the promise of renewal and hope.
 
 

[1] The phrase, yahafokh yado, seems to imply a repeated beating (see e.g. Targum, Ibn Ezra). The word yahafokh (to turn) also recalls the destruction of Sodom and Amorah, the Bible’s paradigmatic sinful cities, annihilated and overturned (vayahafokh) by God (Bereishit 19:25).
[2] This opening word is particularly distinctive, given that chapters 1 and 2 open with the word eikha, and chapter 4 will again revert to that inaugural word.
[3] See e.g. O. Eissfeldt, The Old Testament: An Introduction, P. Akroyd, trans. (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), pp. 502-503; Albrektson, Studies in Text and Theology in the Book of Lamentations (Lund: Gleerup, 1963), pp. 127-129; Gottwald, Lamentations, pp. 37-42. Gordis, Lamentations, p. 171, critiques this approach, noting that it is difficult to reconcile alongside the references that seem to point to an individual in this chapter, particularly in the middle section, which contains reflections on the meaning of suffering (verses 27-29, 35-36). It is especially difficult to identify the gever with Jerusalem, given that biblical passages tend to refer to Jerusalem as a woman, while the figure in chapter 3 is male.
[4] For a list of the many scholars who conclude that Jeremiah is the speaker (along with a summary of the different positions that scholars hold on this subject), see House, Lamentations, pp. 405-406. The obvious weakness of this argument rests on the fact that the chapter does not name Jeremiah (or any known biblical individual) as its subject. An outlying opinion suggests that the figure is Jehoahin, although the evidence for this remains flimsy (see Norman Porteous, “Jerusalem: Zion, The Growth of a Symbol,” in Verbannung und Geimkehr, Rudolph Festschrift, W. Randolph, ed. [Tubingen: Mohr, 1961], pp. 244-245). Saebo, “Who is ‘the Man’ in Lamentations 3? A Fresh Approach to the Interpretation of the Book of Lamentations,” in Understanding Poets and Prophets, A. G. Auld, ed. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), pp. 302-304, similarly suggests that the man is Zedekiah.
[5] See, for example, Hillers, Lamentations, p. 122; Renkema, Lamentations, pp. 348-352; Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, pp. 106-109.
[6] We examined this topic at some length in our introduction.
[7] As noted above, this approach is adopted by many scholars. Even if Jeremiah writes this chapter about no one in particular, it is understandable that he would draw upon his personal experience when composing it, without intending to suggest that this chapter is his story. That could account for the correlations between Jeremiah's life and the suffering gever.
[8] Similarly, in commemorating the Holocaust, museums and memorial ceremonies often focus on the stories of individuals and families, rather than on the collective. This creates an experience of empathy and identification, more than the account of the collective, which can feel too vast and overwhelming to comprehend.
[9] 3:14 alludes to the isolation that initially accompanies the sufferer in his overwhelming, lonely grief. Once the sufferer joins a community, his loneliness dissipates, relieving one aspect of his pain.
[10] See e.g. Shofetim 5:30; Joel 2:8. See also the rabbinic interpretation of the term keli gever (Devarim 22:5) in Nazir 59a. The physical strength of the gever may also relate to his fertility (e.g. Tehillim 127:3-5).
[11] The word gever recalls its verbal usage in Eikha 1:16, describing the enemy overpowering Jerusalem (gavar oyev).
[12] Jeremiah 17:5-7; Tehillim 40:5.
[13] This is corroborated by ANE literature (Akkadian wisdom literature), in which the anonymous sufferer is called a gever.
[14] Many translators and interpreters agree with Rashi’s approach. Some translators actually insert the word God or a capitalized “He” into the translation (e.g. NRSV, NJPS). I have committed a similar heavy-handed act of interpretation by capitalizing the He in my translation, thereby indicating God. Scholars who assume that God is the hidden enemy of this chapter include Westermann, Lamentations, pp. 170-172, and Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, pp. 109-111.
Some commentators do not regard God as the implied perpetrator. Ibn Ezra, for example, acknowledges but rejects this reading, preferring to identify the perpetrator of this chapter’s atrocities as the human adversary. See also O’ Connor, Lamentations, p. 47. As noted, I have adopted Rashi’s reading in my translation and commentary.
[15] This is not to say that God employs His “hand” only to deliver His people. Many biblical passages describe God punishing His nation with His “hand” (e.g. Isaiah 5:25; Jeremiah 21:5; Tehillim 39:11). Nevertheless, the ideal usage of God’s “hand” appears in the story of the liberation from Egypt, in which Israel witnesses God’s “great hand” that liberates them from slavery. Any opposite use of God’s hand against Israel seems to be a terrible reversal of the desired state.
[16] See Hillers, Lamentations, pp. 65-66.
[17] The word nahag, describing God leading the gever into darkness (3:2), is used similarly to describe the Assyrians leadings captives into exile in Isaiah 20:4.
[18] Intriguingly, the Aramaic Targum reads Tehillim 23 as a description of Israel’s return from the exile in Egypt, recording the journey from exile to redemption. See also Shemot Rabba 25:7. Radak, Tehilim 23:1, suggests that this psalm may be written in order to be sung by the people as they return from exile.
[19] Isaiah’s prophecies of comfort often endeavor to repair the catastrophe of 586 BCE, calling for the return of the nation from the Babylonian exile (48:20) and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the destroyed Judean cities (44:26).