4 Honor-Shame Motifs of Lamentations 1
The realities of dishonor and shame pervade the book of Lamentations (see previous post). Four motifs express the honor-shame dynamics in Lamentations 1—defilement, loneliness, subjugation, and desperation, as this post explores.
The poet portrays the destruction of Israel is terms of defilement and uncleanness. Israel has become unacceptable and dismissed. The city is a violated virgin.
Jerusalem has sinned greatly
and so has become unclean.
All who honored her despise her,
for they have all seen her naked;
she herself groans
and turns away.
Her filthiness clung to her skirts;
she did not consider her future. (1:8-9a)
Israel is “unclean,” “naked,” and “filthy.” This state has come about because of her sins and through her enemies. The poet uses verbs of sexual violence against the city.
The enemy laid hands on all her treasures;
she saw pagan nations enter her sanctuary—
those you had forbidden to enter your assembly. (Lam 1:10)
God’s city has been violated and spoiled. The “Virgin Daughter of Judah” has been trampled in the winepress and lost her purity (1:15, cf. Jer 14:17). The implicit result is disgrace, for both Israel herself and her father/husband YHWH.
Israel’s defilement raises a chicken-and-egg type problem? What came first—Israel’s defilement, or their judgment? Was Israel defiled through judgment? Or, were they judged because they were defiled. The answer is, yes to both. Israel had become an unclean person through spiritual prostitution (1:9). Their skirts have become filthy from sexual fluids. This is a metaphor of Israel’s gross disloyalty to God (not a prophecy about the dress of a Presidential aid). Israel had failed to consider the future consequences of such harlotry. But now she has been exposed for his sin. As a covenant keeping husband, God has publicized Israel’s spiritual disgrace. Theological shame (before God) has led to Israel’s social shame (through Babylon). The exile displayed their shame. Or in the words of Jer 13:26, “I will pull up your skirts over your face that your shame may be seen.”
Israel was completely abandoned. She has no friends or allies. Nobody sought relationship with Israel. The nation was rendered useless and tossed aside like trash. Israel has no covenant relationships, no social connections to help in times of distress. The words “no one” and “none” fill the chapter.
Among all her lovers
there is no one to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her;
they have become her enemies. (1:2)
When her people fell into enemy hands,
there was no one to help her. (1:7b)
there was none to comfort her. (1:9, 17, and 21)
No one is near to comfort me,
no one to restore my spirit. (1:16)
“I called to my allies but they betrayed me.” (1:19)
In a society where social relationships define status and identity, such alienation is utmost disgrace. Israel had become an unwelcome relative (cf. Job 19:13-19).
The theme of abandonment is a common motif in the lives of God’s people. Joseph, Job, and Jesus were abandoned by family and friends. They were left to die alone in disgrace, but were later divinely exalted.
Jerusalem was once the queen city. She was the political capital of Israel, but also the dwelling of God, the place where heaven met earth. But now others rule over Jerusalem. The people of Israel have been enslaved and subjugated. The personified Jerusalem says, “The Lord handed me over to those whom I cannot withstand” (1:14b).
Her foes have become the masters,
her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has made her suffer
for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away,
captives before the foe. (1:5)
“Her pursuers have all overtaken her” (1:3) and inflict suffering (1:12). Babylon “despises” Jerusalem and her inhabitants (1:8, 11). Israel faces deliberate humiliation from others. They have become less than human. Lamentations 5 articulates how every social class in Israel had been degraded.
The people now live in a state of desperation and turmoil, not order and structure. Instead of celebrating the national holidays as a people, they scrounge for water. The people are in survival mode. They live like rats scurrying for food and are chased away. Such desperation creates feelings of worthlessness.
All her people groan
as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
to revive their strength.
Look, O Lord, and see
how worthless I have become. (1:12)
They only sit and mourn like a dispossessed widow. “She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks” (1:2).
The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her young girls grieve,
and her lot is bitter. (1:4)
The despair causes mourning, an act of symbolic self-shaming wherein people embody their lowliness and chaos.
The destruction of Jerusalem brought disgrace and shame upon Israel. The people of God were defiled, abandoned, subjugated, and desperate.