Book Review: Lamentations, Gina Hens-Piazza, 2017
Last November, just before my birthday, I went back to the optometrist and left with an updated prescription for some new lenses. I was surprised at how well I could see all of a sudden with these new glasses. I probably waited a little too long, and so when I could finally see again, I was happy to buy a few new books. The first few arrived around mid-December, the subject of this review included.
I know, you probably think it odd that anyone would read a commentary on the biblical book of Lamentations just before Christmas, December 21-23, but I did. My maternal grandparents married on December 21. My grandfather chose that day because “it is the longest night of the year.” So maybe it’s not so strange that I would start a book about suffering and lamentation on a long dark night. I enjoyed the book quite a bit, perhaps because I also have a little experience with Lamentation in my own personal life, and maybe you do too.
Gina Hens-Piazza is a truly gifted writer and teacher. Her prayerful scholarship is insightful, challenging, relevant and faithful. Having studied with Phyllis Tribble, she is no stranger to difficult biblical texts, and Lamentations is certainly a difficult text. Tribble wrote a book entitled “Texts of Terror” which dives into some of the most heinous violence committed against women as recorded in our scriptures. Some of this violence even presumes to be sacred or sanctioned by God.
Lamentations is similar in some terrifying aspects because this collection of liturgical prayers also uses language in a way to sanctify violence committed against women. This ancient textual tradition is more than 2600 years old and still reflects and sustain unjust these ways of thinking about violence and culpability. With Hens-Piazza, we need to call this out when we see it in our sacred texts and in our lives.
Lamentations was inscribed during a theological milieu which allowed the projection of communal blame away from powerful male leaders onto virtually powerless women. Blaming the female victim is then blessed with the strength of ancient (mis)conceptions about a god who punishes sinners with unmetered violence and traumatic devastation.
For better or for worse, texts don’t help us to forget, they help us to remember. Her commentary argues convincingly that this literature continues to infect the consciousness and language of people today yielding heart wrenching consequences, especially for women. But, she also shines a light on the more redeeming aspects of the same text, insisting that these same prayers also give witness to the community’s sacred resistance to outdated or “bankrupt theological traditions.”
Her prayerful scholarship implicitly encourages individual readers and entire communities to embrace the hard work of moral discernment which grows from the pain of injustice and nourished by faith. And I want to do the same thing explicitly. Sadly, there is much in our world which is lamentable. I can’t imagine a more timely or important challenge.
This commentary is part of a larger series edited and written by female biblical scholars. As such, it also benefits greatly from an editorial decision to include short personal reflections written by other contributors offering a range of contemporary and culturally contextualized appropriations. Even as these other contributors allow Hens-Piazza to focus on the scholarship involved in writing a biblical commentary, it is also clearly evident that she has a heart-warming sense of empathy for a world that knows deep suffering. Her students, this reviewer included, have been benefiting from this for years. Gina was my graduate advisor; I have been so blessed to study with her.
I have also been blessed to read this book. Christians celebrate Christ’s birth in December due to its proximity to the winter solstice (in the northern hemisphere). In our liturgical calendar, Christ is born in the darkest season of the year, just as the light returns to lighten our days. Lamentations too are prayers that are offered to God in the darkest of human experiences. In lament there is no longing of the human heart which is unspeakable to God. There is no sacrifice of prayer which God will not accept, no matter how painful, no matter how bitter. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, these prayers offered in the darkest hours are not a cruel resignation in the face of distress, or a vocal tranquilizer before a long nights rest.
These prayers are the testimony of a faith which stands in protest against evil and suffering, and in contradiction to humiliation and defeat. Indeed, moral discernment grows from the pain of injustice and is nourished by faith. Communities who travel this path together will also share in its fruits.
Blessed are those who weep and morn.