Reviewing commentaries is a tricky business – particularly for me as a generalist, and an in-publisher editor of commentaries! I tend to offer my review based on the format and content of the volume, and it’s utility or otherwise to preachers and pastors. Occasionally I’ll digress into particularly theological or stylistic quirks.
The book of Lamentations is one that I think a lot of readers of the Bible are aware of, but not one that is particularly often preached, or studied devotionally. Certainly it isn’t one I’ve spent much time in. So this year I decided to work through three commentaries – though one of these I ended up reading separately from my devotional time. As well as the Wisdom Commentary volume by Gina Hens-Piazza I’m reviewing today, I read Jonny Gibson’s entry in the ESV Expository Commentary, and John Goldingay’s new NICOT volume. The Wisdom Commentary self-describes as a feminist commentary – as the back cover declares, “Feminist biblical interpretation has reached a level of maturity that now makes possible a commentary series on every book of the Bible“. The definition of feminism/feminist is somewhat free-flowing, in my view, and means that this is not a series I am likely to recommend unreservedly – this is backed up by the introduction to the series that takes up a fair few pages at the front of the volume.
This volume, though, is focused on Lamentations, and offers an interesting angle on the text. Some will struggle with the early suggestions that the ‘first speaker’ of 1:1-11 offers something shocking: “his impartial, emotionless description objectifies her. Moreover, when his account moves beyond what is publicly observable to what constitutes sexual violations and even rape, his reporting provides details that suggest his stance as voyeuristic” (p. 3). The use of the word ‘voyeuristic’ is probably deliberately provocative – this is a commentary that wants you to see things differently. Biblically-theologically speaking, the personification of lady Jerusalem calls to mind other women abused in the various narrative elements of scripture – violence against women is not something we can avoid*. As this commentary notes, “All too often, women avoid reporting sexual assault…“, and that in Lamentations “only textual inferences indict Woman Zion as an adulterer and that these references cultivate ambiguity rather than certainty warrant suspicion” (p. 10). This opening part of the commentary is robust and strong in relation to hearing the victim, and seeing a different way.
Understanding the voice of the victim is one key theological theme of this commentary – recognising the silence of God is another. On page 3, we read that “God, if even in earshot of these recitations, remains utterly silent“, whilst a little later after the first few pieces of text (immediately after the printing of the text of 1:12-16) Hens-Piazza suggests that “Amid Woman Zion’s complete aloneness, God remains unresponsive. The Lord remains utterly silent. God not only is unresponsive to her pain and alienation but also has ordered this suffering…” (p. 13). This commentary writes hauntingly here, in a way that merits reflection for the preacher, but a biblical-theological or canonical link to the story of Job might have improved this section. The silence of God is poignant theme in this commentary – and, in the preaching and studying of texts in which we can hear God’s voice, this is something to note and ponder.
Hens-Piazza writes in a way that takes the biblical text seriously (though not how I would), and also connects with human experience. For example, she comments that “In the absence of anyone to console her, Woman Zion’s only comfort resides in her overture to God. She pleads that her enemies be dealt with the way she herself has been treated” (p. 16-17). This echoes what feels like a natural human response of revenge and vengeance – and also resonates with the embodied reality of human existence. A key example of this comes in the comment on Lamentations 5, where Hens-Piazza notes that “The Hebrew word use here… clearly intends to indicate rape” (p. 85). The Bible is clear on rape – it is a violent sin and an affront to God – and this commentary is helpful, if painful and difficult to read – in fleshing out why that is so.
This commentary makes it very clear that the Bible is a complex book, or collection of books, and the way that it uses Scripture is not always how I would seek to engage with the Bible. That said, by bringing different and difficult questions to bear, it creates a valuable conversation partner – if I ever have the privilege of preaching Lamentations, this volume will be on my desk. Here, in Hens-Piazza’s own words, is why:
“Lamentatiosn offers a refuge for those riddled with doubt, darkness, desperation, and a sense of abandonment. It provides a haven for honest confession about the experience of suffering and the inner struggle that is, regrettably, often without resolution” (p. 90).
Suffering is a reality that often bumps up against belief – to put it mildly, and this commentary offers one way to think about it: “Suffering not only has costly physical and social consequences but also summons reexaminations of one’s beliefs with unpredictable spiritual consequences for those who have enough strength to dare” (p. 46). Lamentations is a book to encounter bravely – not an easy book, but a part of the canon for a reason.
The closing words of this commentary are helpful for illustrating it’s potential, and what in my view are it’s problems:
“when Woman Zion confronts the deity, she also challenges this theology. Audaciously, she names this deity ‘the enemy’. She gives voice not only to her own emancipation from the clutches of self-blame and victimhood; she also occasions a prayer space for other women to express their anger and their pain. And in the process, women can move forward in an embrace of the full value of their lives as women and begin to recognize the real Holy Presence within their midst” (p. 99)
This is a commentary that blends theologically concerning trajectories and conclusions with very helpful questions and suggestions. It challenged me to read the Bible differently – in the case of Lamentations to take particularly seriously the feminine personification of Zion – but also to remember that the Bible (in my view) is not to be used by us, but to speak to and shape us. I think this commentary offers a helpful perspective, but is ultimately flawed by it’s lack of clarity about who God is, what feminism is at the moment, and how we might understand what a woman is. The format is logical and workmanlike – even if the introductory pages before the commentary gets going are overlong (and could have been more normally paginated). I’ll need to read more volumes from the same series to make more technical comments, but overall I’d give it 4/5.
*Two good books on this are Elaine Storkey’s Scars Across Humanity, engaging practically and theologically with the epidemic of violence against women, and Elizabeth Gerhardt’s The Cross and Gendercide, which