I/We, God, and the Enemy: Rhetorical and Theological Features of Lament in Israel vs. ANE

Recent scholarship has paid attention to the value of ancient Israel’s lament as a voice of faith, but there have been disagreements on its historical origin. Based on structural similarities between Israel’s lament and those of the ancient Near East (ANE), some scholars have suggested that Israel borrowed this genre from its neighboring cultures late in its historical development (i.e., from Babylon during the exile). However, observing lament as a “phenomenon of human existence,” Claus Westermann proposes that Israel’s lament had a broader history. Westermann asserts that the historical continuity of Israel’s lament is evident in its three subjects: the lamenting person(s), God, and the Enemy—which remains unchanged throughout history.
This paper will investigate Westermann’s claim by comparing and contrasting Israel’s lament with the lament genre of its surrounding cultures on the formal, rhetorical, and theological levels. Our comparative analysis will reveal that the two laments exhibit similar external structures, including the “three subjects.” For instance, the “Prayer of Lamentation to Ishtar” (7th century B.C.E.) features formal elements observed in Israel’s lament: an opening petition, a complaint/lament, a statement of confidence, a petition against the enemy, and even a concluding praise. However, the lament genre existed much earlier in the ANE, as evidenced by the city laments of Sumer (composed sometime after 2000 B.C.E.). The thematic and stylistic similarities that Israel’s lament shares with the lament genre in the ANE do not indicate Israel’s direct learning but rather its familiarity with the broader cultural currents of the ANE.
Beneath the surface, significant differences are found in the theological outlook shaping the three-subject relationship in the two laments. First, Israel’s lament expressed allegiance based on the unchanging covenant relationship between Israel and its one God, Yahweh (I/We-Thou). In contrast, the lament of the polytheistic ANE served as a negotiating rhetoric to haggle, entice, or fool multiple deities who may not be morally good or powerful enough to deliver the petitioner (I/We-Ye). Tellingly, “Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur” shows that upon the petitioner’s request, the patron goddess appeals to the more powerful male deities in the pantheon to spare the city, but they still destroy it. Secondly, Israel’s lament was often a call for divine justice for the whole covenant community by the witness of injustice (I/We) toward the creator of justice (God) against the ultimate cause of injustice (the Enemy). On the other hand, ANE’s lamenter often named his enemies (i.e., patron gods of enemy cities) and lacked an appeal for a higher standard of justice. One plausible reason is that the gods of justice in the ANE were not necessarily the highest gods in the pantheon, and as such, they lacked the power to change the plight of the afflicted.
In conclusion, understanding Israel’s lament in the ANE context can help us modern believers better appreciate and appropriate Israel’s lament in our pluralistic postmodern world, which surprisingly shares much in common with the polytheistic world of the ANE.