Rembrandt, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands

In my previous post about books with weird endings I noted that the actual meaning of the Hebrew ending of Lamentations (5:22) is enigmatic, but whatever it means it is an odd way to end the book. This post deals with the technical issues and why it’s difficult to translate the final verse.

Having prayed for restoration in verse 21 (“Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old”) the poem concludes with a line which is difficult to translate:

כִּי אִם־מָאֹס מְאַסְתָּנוּ קָצַפְתָּ עָלֵינוּ עַד־מְאֹד

The difficulty which confronts translators is reflected in the variety of translations, of which the following is a brief sample:

NRSV unless you have utterly rejected us,

            and are angry with us beyond measure.

RSV Or hast thou utterly rejected us?  Art thou exceedingly angry with us?

JPS  Thou canst not have utterly rejected us, and be exceeding wroth against us.

NJPS For truly, You have rejected us,

            Bitterly raged against us.

Gordis even though you had despised us greatly and were very angry with us.[1]

Linafelt For if truly you have rejected us, raging bitterly against us – [2]

There are three main possibilities for translating the beginning of the final line:

  1. As a declaration – “but you have utterly rejected us”
  2. As a question – “have you utterly rejected us?”
  3. As an exclamation – “you cannot have utterly rejected us!”

Is it a question?

Various translations and interpretations of the difficult opening particles כִּי אִם־ (pronounced ki ͗im) have been offered. These two particles are both very common in the Hebrew Bible; כִּי (ki) generally means because or for, and אִם (im) means if or when. The combination of the two particles, כִּי אִם as here, is also common enough, although the precise meaning will vary depending on context and it’s not possible to assign one set meaning to it; and sometimes English translators don’t translate it at all as its usage is idiomatic and doesn’t always add anything to the meaning. However, it’s difficult from the context of Lamentations 5:22 to know just how to translate it there. Some translators have turned it into an interrogative, a question, (“have you utterly rejected us?”) in much the same way as the conclusion to the book of Jonah.[3] Hence, the Revised Standard Version translates it as a question: “Hast thou utterly rejected us?” (although this reading was not followed by the New Revised Standard Version which instead has “unless you have utterly rejected us …”).[4] Tod Linafelt rejects translating it as a question on grammatical grounds as there is no evidence elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible that כִּי אִם־ without any interrogatory marker should introduce a question (Hebrew contains some grammatical markers which function like the English question mark, including using the particle הַ at the beginning of a question in much the same way as we place a “?” at the end of one in English, but there are none of these markers in this verse).[5] Robert Gordis also rejects treating the verse as an interrogative as “there is no evidence for rendering ki ͗im as ‘or,’ whether interrogatively or otherwise.” He notes that the dual conjunction “is used widely and rather loosely in biblical Hebrew” but prefers the rendering “even if, although” in this verse.[6] A variety of interpretations have been provided for this verse by commentators. Johan Renkema responds to Gordis and points to the use of כִּי אִם־ in Deuteronomy 10:12 and Micah 6:8 and argues that the latter implicitly contains a question, so then Lamentations 5:21-22 contains two possibilities: either God will hear their prayer and renew them, or renewal is not what he wants, and although rejection might seem unthinkable the possibility is also found in Jeremiah 14:19. He translates v. 22 as “Or do you prefer to reject us forever, to rage against us without measure?”[7] Hillers surveys several possible meanings before opting for the most usual adversative meaning “but you have utterly rejected us.”[8]

Against the view that there is no evidence elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible that כִּי אִם־ without any interrogatory marker should introduce a question, Wiebe argues that Esther 4:14 (“For if you keep silence at such a time as this …”) should be read as a rhetorical question (“Will you keep silence at such a time as this?”) and asserts that interrogatories do not necessarily have to be introduced by the הַ particle (for example, a question which begins with why, what, who or when doesn’t require a הַ “question mark”), and that context will always be the best guide. Interestingly, this sentence in Esther is immediately followed by a question (מִי יוֹדֵעַ Who knows?) and it is possible that the כִּי אִם־ at the beginning of the verse works in a similar way so that we actually have a couplet with two rhetorical questions. Alternately, following Linafelt’s argument below for reading Lamentations 5:22, it could mark the beginning of a conditional statement with the subsequent question (מִי יוֹדֵעַ) reinforcing the protasis (“if you keep silence … who knows if your family will perish?”)[9]

Only a handful of translations have opted for ending Lamentations with a question (such as the RSV and the NET which provides it as an alternative reading in a footnote). However, as Robert Gordis puts it, “the closing verse in Lamentations is crucial for the meaning and spirit of the entire poem.”[10]

Protasis without an Apodosis?

Linafelt argues that כִּי אִם־ should be read as introducing the protasis of a conditional statement (“if”) and understands the apodosis (“then”) to be understood rather than stated; an “if” without the “then.”[11] He therefore translates 5:20-22 as “For if truly you have rejected us, raging bitterly against us – ” and argues that “by its very incompleteness” or a “willful nonending” the book leaves open the possibility of a different future. 

Why have you forgotten us utterly, forsaken us for so long? Take us back, O LORD, to yourself, and we will come back. Renew our days as of old. For if truly you have rejected us,  raging bitterly against us –

Translated this way the book concludes abruptly, seemingly mid-sentence, which is precisely what Linafelt thinks the writer intended:

Rendered thus, the final line of v. 22 is a poignantly appropriate way to end the book of Lamentations, indicating by its very incompleteness a refusal to move – in the face of YHWH’s lack of response – beyond lament to praise, but also a refusal to conclude at all. The ending of the book is, then, a willful nonending. The poetry is left opening out into the emptiness of God’s nonresponse.[12]

Adele Berlin, however, thinks Linafelt’s solution may resonate with a modern reader, but is “likely too modern for the ancient author.”[13] Linafelt’s conclusion is hardly hopeful, but by leaving the statement dangling he argues that it defers the apodosis and allows the reader to imagine the possibility of a different “then” and therefore a different future. As Linafelt notes, there may very well be an allusion back to the assurance in 3:30-32 which he translates as:

For the Lord does not reject forever, but rather having afflicted he will show compassion according to his abundant kindness.

The reading of Lamentations in synagogues follows the practice of repeating this penultimate verse so as not to end with “a somber verse”. This is true also for Isaiah, Malachi and Ecclesiastes. There is also some sense of this in Jonah where, having threatened to destroy Nineveh, God relents because, according to the prophet, he is gracious and merciful (Jonah 4:1).[14] It seems to me that the conclusion to Jonah bears some similarities to this ending of Lamentations, in that it too is a kind of abrupt nonending, leaving the reader to ponder its meaning. The post-exilic reader knew that Nineveh was eventually destroyed by the Babylonians and Medes, and if their reading of Jonah was followed by a reading of Nahum – and the Septuagint guides the reader to read the two consecutively – they might have concluded that this was always God’s plan. However, the unstated questions which can be inferred from Jonah’s distress remain unanswered: why is God compassionate to Nineveh, if only in the short term, for a long enough duration that they would be enabled to destroy the northern kingdom in the meantime? Where was God’s compassion in this for his own people? The idea of turning and returning, making use of the root שׁוב, is a prominent theme in the Twelve, including in Jonah, and there may very well be an inner-biblical allusion to Lamentations 5:21 ‏הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְהוָ֤ה אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה  Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored. In Jonah not only do the people of Nineveh turn to God, there is a sense of God himself twisting and turning in his mind-changing, making it difficult (or impossible) to predict what he will do, so that at the end the reader is almost forced to ponder again the king of Nineveh’s question, the same question which Mordecai put to Esther –   מִי־יוֹדֵעַ Who knows [what God will do]? – perhaps wondering what the next turn will bring. Lamentations and Jonah seem to be dealing with similar questions, both using שׁוב as a Leitwört. The root שׁוב occurs 15 times in four of the five poems of Lamentations and twice in the climactic penultimate verse: ‏ הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְהוָ֤ה אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָהRestore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored (5:21). It occurs 5 times in Jonah.[15] There may be an irony in the fact that Lamentations leaves the reader hanging on the question of whether God will turn Israel back, and Jonah ending with some doubt as to the direction in which God will next turn, and whether he will at some stage turn to Israel. If Jonah is alluding to Lamentations, the allusion could well be one of irony.

[1] Robert Gordis, “The Conclusion of the Book of Lamentations (5:22),”  JBL 93, no. 2 (1974): 289-83.

[2] Tod Linafelt, “The Refusal of a Conclusion in the Book of Lamentations,”  JBL 120, no. 2 (2001): 340-43.

[3] The books of Jonah, Nahum and Lamentations are the only biblical books which possibly end with a question. The interrogatory reading of Jonah 4:11 (“should I not be concerned about Nineveh?”) has been challenged in favour of a declarative reading (“I am not concerned about Nineveh”) by Alan Cooper, “In Praise of Divine Caprice: The Significance of the Book of Jonah,” in Among the Prophets: Language, Image, and Structure in the Prophetic Writings (eds. Davies and Clines; Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1993); Philippe Guillaume, “The End of Jonah is the Beginning of Wisdom,”  Biblica 87, no. 2 (2006); Carolyn J. Sharp, Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009); Catherine L. Muldoon, In Defense of Divine Justice: An Intertextual Approach to the Book of Jonah (CBQMS 47 47; Washington: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2010); Stephen Cook, “’Who knows?’ Reading the Book of Jonah as a Satirical Challenge to Theodicy of the Exile” (University of Sydney, 2019) 32-62. For an interpretation which allows for both readings, interrogatory and declarative concurrently, see Ehud Ben Zvi, “Jonah 4:11 and the Metaprophetic Character of the Book of Jonah,”  JHS 9, no. 5 (2009).

[4] Westerman, however, follows the RSV’s reading in his commentary. Claus Westermann, Lamentations: Issues and Interpretation (Augsburg: Fortress Press, 1994), 210.

[5] Linafelt, “The Refusal of a Conclusion in the Book of Lamentations,” 340.  

[6] Gordis, “The Conclusion of the Book of Lamentations (5:22),” 289, 91.

[7] Johan Renkema, Lamentations (Leuven [Belgium]: Peeters, 1998), 630-34.

[8] Delbert R. Hillers, Lamentations: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible 7A; New York: Doubleday & Company, 1972), 100-01.

[9] John M. Wiebe, “Esther 4:14: Will Relief and Deliverance Arise for the Jews from Another Place?,”  CBQ 53, no. 3 (1991): 409-15. Wiebe’s arguments are supported by Frederic W Bush, Ruth, Esther (WBC 9; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996), 396-97; Adele Berlin, Esther(Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001), 44.

[10] Gordis, “The Conclusion of the Book of Lamentations (5:22),” 289.

[11] Linafelt, “The Refusal of a Conclusion in the Book of Lamentations,” 342.

[12] Linafelt, “The Refusal of a Conclusion in the Book of Lamentations,” 343.

[13] Adele Berlin, Lamentations: A Commentary (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 125-26.

[14] The character Jonah seems to be troubled by this, possibly because the continued existence of Nineveh would be a threat to the nation of Israel and compassion shown to Nineveh would therefore imply a lack of compassion to Israel. However, the conclusion contains a twist when God reveals that he will not be troubled about Nineveh (reading 4:11 as declarative rather than interrogatory), so the fate of Nineveh is left unresolved. 

[15] For discussion of penitence as a major agenda in Lamentations see Mark J. Boda, “The Priceless Gain of Penitence: From Communal Lament To Penitential Prayer in the ‘Exilic’ Liturgy of Israel,”  Horizons in Biblical Theology 25, no. 1 (2003): 51-75.