Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Elizabeth Boase, The Fulfilment of Doom?  The Dialogic Interaction between the Book of Lamentations and the Pre-Exilic/Early Prophetic Literature (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, 437; New York/London: T 7 t Clark, 2006).  Pp. x + 268.  Hardcover, US$145.00.  ISBN 0-567-02672-8.

            A 1954 monograph by Norman Gottwald entitled Studies in the Book of Lamentations inspired Boase to delve more deeply into one of its conclusions, namely, that Lamentations has a definite prophetic orientation.  With the present study Boase seeks to explore the relationship between Lamentations and the eighth- to the sixth-century prophetic literature.  This exploration then leads her to examine how her findings influence the theology of the biblical book itself.  The interpretive framework within which she works is drawn from the theories of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin.  Boase agrees with Bakhtin’s claim that all texts are dialogic, polyphonic, and contain a double-voiced discourse.  These concepts are the interpretive lenses through which she reads Lamentations.

            Before launching out into her interpretation of Lamentation, Boase summarizes the way scholars like Carol Newsom, Charles Miller, and Patricia Tull apply Bakhtin’s concepts to biblical studies.  While Newsom applies them to the Book of Job, Tull and Miller work with various passages from Lamentations.  In this study, Boase builds on the insights gleaned by these scholars.  She maintains that the dialogic interaction within the text of Lamentations appears in two directions.  First, we can see that motifs and concepts from the prophets have been brought into the message of Lamentations. Secondly, the polyphonic character of the book can be seen in the fact that it contains various theological viewpoints which have retained their distinct positions without being forced into a monologic point of view.  Boase then shows how these various viewpoints enter into a dialogic relationship with each other.

            In the actual examination of the book, Boase examines three prominent prophetic motifs:  the personification of the city of Jerusalem as female; the Day of Yahweh; and the themes of sin and judgment.  She devotes a chapter to each of these themes.  After a careful and detailed analysis of passages from Isaiah 1-39, Micah, Jeremiah, and Zephaniah, Boase concludes that such personification is employed as a literary device in only certain discrete units of the texts, and these texts are mainly judgment texts.  There, the city (singular) normally stands for the populace (plural).  Similar literary traits are found in Lamentations.  However, where the prophetic use is usually found in warnings or announcements of impending doom, in Lamentations it is found in statements regarding the tragedy that has already befallen the city.  The prophetic usage underscores the sinfulness of the city, while in Lamentations the use elicits sympathy for the stricken city.

            The Day of Yahweh as a time of judgment is found in Amos, Isaiah 1-39, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, and Ezekiel.  In a comparable critical examination of passages from these prophetic writers, Boase shows the development in the description of that theme found in the writings of these prophets.  She points out the increase of military imagery, the emphasis on the wrath of God, and mention of cosmic involvement found there.  As with the case of the theme of the personification of the city, Lamentations does not merely appropriate the respective theme.   Boase highlights distinctions as well as affinities.  Causes of this day of wrath are developed in the prophetic books, while Lamentations concentrates on the impact of that day on both individuals and the community.  Furthermore, because the destruction of the city was a historical reality for the people, reference to cosmic involvement is absent in those passages.  Such differences significantly reinterpret the meaning of the Day of Yahweh.

            Boase’s examination of sin and judgment in relevant prophetic literature shows that divine judgment is the consequence of sin by both the individual and the nation.  Furthermore, it is exercised over both Israel and the nations.  In those passages in Lamentations where reference to sin and judgment is made, Boase uncovers definite differences.  Chief among them is an emphasis on Jerusalem’s sin as the cause of its suffering.  Furthermore, in Lamentations there is a lack of specificity regarding the city’s sin.

            In these three chapters, which constitute the bulk of Boase’s study, her literary analysis of the respective texts is very precise.  However, in those chapters she does not relate her findings to the three characteristics of Bakhtin.  It is in the fifth chapter that she returns to them.  Her careful analysis enables her to point easily to evidence of the polyphonic (many-voices) character of Lamentations and how they interact with each other.  It is there that she further demonstrates how the three themes of personification of the city, the Day of Yahweh, and sin and judgment are woven together in the text, another aspect of the book’s polyphonic character.

            Boase’s work has challenged the view claiming that a similarity of themes and motifs indicates the present of identical theology.  Her intertextual analyses has shown how, in some places, Lamentations questions the meaning of these themes and motifs as found in the prophetic material.  Where the prophetic message is usually one of condemnation and warning, that of Lamentations is often one of compassion and sympathy.  Thus, the prophetic message is not only interpreted, at times it is actually subverted.  Boase’s study has opened Lamentations in new ways and in doing so has demonstrated the usefulness of new methodological approaches. 

Dianne Bergant, CSA
Catholic Theological Union in Chicago