Shiur #23: Eikha 2:2

  • Dr. Yael Ziegler
Dedicated in memory of our alumnus
Rav Elyashiv Mordechai Knohl,
The Rav of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion and one of its founders.
Yehi zikhro barukh.

Shiur #23: Eikha 2:2
בִּלַּ֨ע אֲדֹנָ֜י [לא] וְלֹ֣א חָמַ֗ל
 אֵ֚ת כָּל־נְא֣וֹת יַעֲקֹ֔ב
 הָרַ֧ס בְּעֶבְרָת֛וֹ
 מִבְצְרֵ֥י בַת־יְהוּדָ֖ה
 הִגִּ֣יעַ לָאָ֑רֶץ
 חִלֵּ֥ל מַמְלָכָ֖ה וְשָׂרֶֽיהָ
God swallowed up; He did not pity
All of the habitations of Jacob
He demolished in his rage
The fortresses of the daughter of Judah
He thrusts it down to the earth
He profaned the kingdom and her officers
While the previous verse had a vertical movement, which directs the reader’s gaze up (clouds, heaven, God) and down (Zion, earth, God’s footstool), this verse offers us a horizontal landscape of destruction. God swallows, demolishes, and profanes a broad swathe of Judah: houses and fortresses, kingdom, and officers. The verse moves from the common habitations (possibly in the countryside[1]) to those protected by fortresses. It also contains the first indication of the special attention that this chapter gives to the destruction of the royal elite of the city: “[God] profaned the kingdom and her officers.”
Verbs: Bila, lo chamal, haras, higi’a, chillel
Five verbs portray the active destruction in this verse. God is the subject of each of the verbs: He swallows, does not pity, demolishes, thrusts to the ground, and desecrates His nation.
Frequently employed as a verb of destruction, bila literally means to swallow. A verb that can describe the behavior of mindless animals (Jonah 2:1) and wicked people (Habbakuk 1:13), “swallowing” is an all-consuming act, one that engulfs and overpowers, leaving behind no remnant. Often used to describe the hostile act of an enemy (e.g. Hosea 8:7-8), this is how God presents the actions of Job’s adversary, the Satan, who induces God to torment Job for no good reason (Job 2:3). Jeremiah depicts the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, swallowing Jerusalem in a serpent-like act of rapacious hunger (Jeremiah 51:34). In our verse, the Babylonian enemy recedes into the background; it is God Who swallows the city. This verb will appear twice more in verse 5 as part of a terrifying portrait of God’s enmity. The final appearance of this verb in Eikha reverts to the enemies, who gleefully proclaim (in 2:16), “We have swallowed!” The dual usage of this verb to portray both God and enemies illustrates how the chapter blurs between them, as they collaborate to devour Jerusalem.
For the second verse in a row, a verbal clause begins with the negative lo, highlighting what God does not do. In this case, God does not exhibit compassion (lo chamal), a phrase that will recur twice more in this chapter (verses 17 and 21). The word lo suggests purposeful withholding, rather than passivity. God’s compassion for His nation is commonplace (e.g. Isaiah 63:9; Joel 2:18; Malachi 3:17); one has the impression that God suppresses His natural instinct.
Often used within a ritual, sacred context, the word chillel means to profane something, or remove its sacredness. This verb can denote either sinfulness (e.g. Jeremiah 16:18) or punishment for sins (e.g. Isaiah 47:6), as in our verse. The desecration of the kingdom and her officers hints to their former consecrated status.[2] Finally, the orthography of the verb chillel parallels the nominal challal, designating the corpses that languish on Jerusalem’s streets in Eikha 2:12. This apt wordplay illustrates the defilement of the formerly pure city, now sullied by the corpses strewn in its midst.
The Use of Language in Eikha 2:2
Language conveys meaning in many ways. Within the context of the biblical canon, words tend to echo each other in a significant manner. When a word or phrase evokes another biblical passage, it hints to an inter-textual relationship that can offer a richer understanding of both passages. In the following section, we will use Eikha 2:2 as an example to illustrate these linguistic flourishes.
Actualizing Prophecies of Admonition
The language of destruction in this verse (and throughout Eikha) frequently evokes prophetic admonitions, indicating that their fulfillment has arrived. For example, both Jeremiah and Ezekiel inform Judah of the possibility that God will withhold compassion from His people:
And I will also act in anger: My eyes will not have compassion and I will not pity (ve-lo echmol), and they will call out in my ears with a great shout, but I will not listen to them. (Ezekiel 8:18) [3]
The destructive verb haras likewise evokes Jeremiah’s stern admonitions:
So shall you say to him, “So says God, Behold that which I built, I will destroy (hores) and that which I planted, I will uproot, along with all of this land” (Jeremiah 45:4).[4]
Similarly, the unusual phrase higi’a la-aretz appears in Ezekiel 13:14 alongside another linguistic association with Eikha 2:2 (haras):
And I will demolish (harasti) the wall that you covered with plaster, and I will make it reach the ground (ve-higa’atihu el ha-aretz) and its foundations will be exposed and it will fall, and you will perish within it and you will know that I am God. (Ezekiel 13:14)
By employing words that recall prophetic admonitions, Eikha suggests that no part of this catastrophe is unforeseen. While this may be small comfort for those suffering in Jerusalem, it places these events within the broader biblical theology of destruction, making it clear that these catastrophic events are part of the divine order.
Reversing Prophecies of Doom
Prophetic texts of consolation are also in dialogue with Eikha. Several passages spin Eikha’s language of destruction into language of redemption in a linguistic flourish designed to offer solace and hope. For example, Isaiah 49:19 alludes to the destruction described in Eikha 2:2, using its harsh words (haras and bila) to describe Israel’s reconstruction:[5]
For your ruins and your desolate places and your destroyed land (eretz harisuteikh) will now be bursting with inhabitants, and those who consumed you (mivale’ayikh) will be distanced. (Isaiah 49:19)
By employing the same words used to convey the ruin in order to reverse it, the prophet offers hope for a full rehabilitation of Jerusalem and the nation. The broader picture offers an assurance of perfect reconstruction, using the very same language that conveyed a terrible portrait of devastation.
In referring to Eikha, these prophets also imply that the destruction is only one stage in God’s plan for His nation. Jerusalem’s destruction is not the end of her story. When the circumstances allow, God will surely reverse Jerusalem’s calamity, returning her to her former status and glory. Therefore, embedded within destruction are the means for her restoration; Jerusalem’s calamity is part of the ongoing relationship between God and His nation.
This is the message of R. Akiva, who, in a celebrated aggadic account in Makkot 24b, expresses his stalwart faith in the future, even as he witnesses the collapse of the present.[6] In this anecdote, R. Akiva expresses joy in the fulfillment of the prophets’ threat of destruction, inasmuch as it confirms the veracity of the prophets’ messages of rejuvenation. This consoles his forlorn friends, who begin to see the catastrophe as part of a broader historical plan, conceived by God, foretold by prophets, and experienced by the nation of Israel over the course of the long span of Jewish history.
Eikha 2:3
גָּדַ֣ע בָּֽחֳרִי־אַ֗ף
 כֹּ֚ל קֶ֣רֶן יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
 הֵשִׁ֥יב אָח֛וֹר יְמִינ֖וֹ
 מִפְּנֵ֣י אוֹיֵ֑ב
 וַיִּבְעַ֤ר בְּיַעֲקֹב֙ כְּאֵ֣שׁ לֶֽהָבָ֔ה
 אָכְלָ֖ה סָבִֽיב
He hewed down in his smoking anger
All the horns of Israel
He withdrew His right hand backward
In the face of the enemy
And he burned in Jacob as a flaming fire
That consumes its surroundings
God’s anger continues to smolder in the fourth mention of divine wrath in the chapter’s three initial verses. God’s anger causes Him to becloud the city, purposefully not to remember her, and to destroy her fortresses. In our verse, God’s anger bursts into lethal flames, consuming everything in its environs. In the next verse, that same anger will surface as a fire that spills over from God, surging forward to obliterate the tent of the daughter of Zion.
The first and third sentences in this verse conform to the general pattern of destruction. They each contain a verb denoting destruction (gada, va-yiv’ar) as well as the object that is destroyed (keren Yisrael, Ya’akov).[7] The third sentence describes the burning fire in more detail than in most sentences, focusing upon the central theme of the conflagration of Jerusalem.
Unlike the surrounding sentences, the middle sentence of this verse does not have a direct object, nor does it contain an active verb of destruction; God merely withdraws His right hand, allowing the enemy unfettered entrance. Instead of featuring Jerusalem or some part of it, this middle sentence highlights the enemy, whose terrifying appearance in place of God’s protective right hand suggests imminent ruination.
Gada… kol keren Yisrael
The word gada means to hew down an object, thereby detaching it from its tight connection, often a biological one. Gada can refer to the hewing down of trees, which, once separated from their roots, fall and crash (e.g. Isaiah 9:9). By extension, this verb sometimes describes the felling of humans (Isaiah 10:33), whose height, grandeur, and immutability are likened to majestic trees,[8] planted deep in the earth.
In this verse, the word gada modifies the “horn of Israel.” This phrase recalls the magnificent horns of an animal, which serve as a symbol of their strength, glory, and beauty. Hewing off Israel’s horn may metaphorically connote the removal of Israel’s might and splendor,[9] leaving it defenseless and deformed.[10]
Keren Yisrael can refer metonymically to those anointed by oil poured from a horn, namely the kings.[11] This continues the end of the previous verse, which referenced the desecration of the kingship. God instructs Samuel to anoint David with a keren (I Samuel 16:2), and this becomes the accepted mode for anointing those kings whose reign is designed to endure (see also I Kings 1:39).[12] Thus, the verse’s testimony that God cut off the horn of Israel may allude to the termination of the Davidic dynasty, in spite of God’s promise that it shall be eternal.[13]
This phrase (gadakeren) may also hint to the sins that provoke this punishment. Biblical texts employ the word gada to instruct Israelites to hew down idolatry (e.g. Devarim 7:5; 12:3), and sometimes specifically the corners (literally, the horns) of the idolatrous alters (karnei ha-mizbeach) (Amos 3:14). This suggests that the failure to obliterate idolatry entangles Israel in a situation of sinfulness that concludes with their own destruction.
Heshiv yemino
God’s right hand is “glorious in power” and “shatters the enemies” as it protects Israel at the Sea (Shemot 15:6).[14] After the incident at the Sea, Israel continues to benefit from God’s might, frequently depicted simply as God’s right hand (e.g. Tehillim 21:9; 44:4; 60:7). In our verse, God withdraws His right hand, deliberately leaving Jerusalem defenseless and exposed. The absence of God’s protective power enables the enemy to enter.[15] Nevertheless, the enemy does not assume the pivotal role in Jerusalem’s destruction in this chapter. Even in this verse, the human foe emerges briefly, only to fade quickly into the background, making way for God to resume His assault on Jerusalem.
Va-Yiv’ar Be-Ya’akov
The subject of the burning fire is either God (who is the subject of every other sentence in this verse) or God’s anger (God spills his wrath out like fire in the next verse). Fire is a common depiction both of divine revelation (Shemot 24:17; Tehillim 18:13-14) and of God’s anger (e.g. Isaiah 66:15; Jeremiah 4:4) and punishment (Devarim 32:22). Shapeless and intangible, fire offers an apt metaphor for God’s rage, which burns and incinerates offenders (e.g. Vayikra 10:2; Bamidbar 16:35; II Kings 1:9-14). This verse describes a frightening destructive fire, a terrible conflagration that envelops Jerusalem, consuming everything in its environs.
Nevertheless, fire maintains beneficial qualities as well, offering warmth and light. Metaphorically, this conveys the favorable aspects of divine revelation – its clarity, protection, and mysterious splendor. Humans seeking spirituality and divine radiance sometimes encounter this fire. Thus, Moses veers from his path to contemplate the burning bush (Shemot 3:2-3), Elijah is spirited heavenward amidst flaming chariots and horses (II Kings 2:11), and Elisha perceives similar fiery cavalry that surrounds and protects him (II Kings 6:17). A fire that signifies God’s glory burns at the top of Sinai (e.g. Shemot 24:17) and on the Mishkan at night (Shemot 40:38). In Zechariah’s vision of the ideal state of Jerusalem, he describes God as a ring of fire around Israel, providing glory and protection:
Jerusalem will be an unwalled city, [continually growing] from the multitude of people and animals in its midst. And I will be for her, says God, a wall of surrounding fire; I will be a glory in her midst. (Zechariah 2:8-9)
Language of Destruction and Redemption
Despite its debilitating message, the language used to depict Judah’s destruction evokes redemption. The hewing down of the horns of Israel recalls biblical passages that promise the cleaving of the enemy’s horn, indicating Israel’s salvation (e.g. Jeremiah 48:25; Tehillim 75:11). The horn also anticipates the raising of Israel’s horn, implying the restoration of her fortunes (Tehillim 112:9).[16] God’s right hand appears elsewhere in biblical passages to strengthen and support Israel and deliver them from their enemies (Isaiah 41:10-11). As noted, the fire of destruction can easily transform into a protective fire, reflecting God’s resplendence and His defense of Israel.
The verses in chapter 2 that describe the downfall of Jerusalem do not represent the conclusion of the tale of Israel’s fortune. Downtrodden and demoralized, Judah undergoes a crushing blow. Nevertheless, Eikha weaves language of redemption into her language of destruction, thereby retaining a core of hope, which flutters softly within the portrait of gloom.
[1] The term naot (from the root n.v.h.) can mean either habitations (e.g. see the parallelism with the word bayit in Mishlei 3:33) or meadows (namely, dwelling places for animals: see e.g. Targum Eikha 2:2; Tehillim 23:2; Jeremiah 9:9). Some translators use the term habitations (e.g. NJPS), while others translate pastures (e.g. Westermann, Lamentations, p. 141).
[2] For a similar description of the manner in which God punishes the Davidic dynasty by desecrating their royal symbols, see Tehillim 89:39.
[3] See also e.g. Jeremiah 13:14; Ezekiel 5:11; 7:4, 9.
[4] Jeremiah’s opening prophecy also employs the word haras to caution of upcoming catastrophe; see Jeremiah 1:10.
[5] While I will not discuss the controversial question of the dating of the composition of Isaiah 40-66, these chapters explicitly offer consolation and promises of redemption that follow the destruction of Jerusalem described in Eikha. (See e.g. Isaiah 48:20; 52:9-10. Note also the explicit reference to Cyrus in Isaiah 44:28-45:1.) These chapters often linguistically reverse the book of Eikha, as we will continue to note throughout our commentary.
[6] See shiur #8, where I bring the full text of the aggada.
[7] The object that is burned in the third sentence is framed as part of a prepositional phrase, “and he burned in Jacob.” Nevertheless, it appears that Jacob is the object destroyed by the fire. Alternatively, the object destroyed by the fire is the unspecific environs (saviv).
[8] See e.g. Amos 2:9.
[9] See Rasag on Eikha 2:3.
[10] Drawing from various appearances of the word keren in the Bible, an evocative midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, I Samuel 81) describes Israel as possessing ten horns. These ten horns include righteous people (Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moshe, Messiah) and religious institutions (priests, Levites, Temple, prophecy, Torah). This midrash seems to suggest that these functioned both as Israel’s splendor and their fortification, beautifying them and protecting them from harm. The decisive removal of these horns means that Israel no longer deserves its horns, no longer adheres to the ideals that they represent, and is therefore no longer glorified or protected. Intriguingly, the midrash avers that once Israel sins, the horns are taken from them and given to the idolatrous nations. In spite of the harshness of transferring Israel’s horns to its enemies, this notion allows for the preservation of the glorious horns, which can be returned to Israel when Israel repents.
[11] Note the parallelism in I Samuel 2:10: “And He shall give strength to his king and raise the horn of His anointed.” See also e.g. Radak on II Samuel 22:3 and Tehillim 132:17; Malbim on Tehillim 89:25. Ibn Ezra (Eikha 2:3) suggests that this refers to both kingdoms (the northern kingdom of Israel destroyed by Assyria and the current destruction of the southern, Judean kingdom)
[12] Yerushalmi Shekalim 6:1.
[13] Tehillim 89 contends with the pressing theological problem of the abrogation of God’s promise of eternal reign to David.
[14] See R. Yosef Kara on Eikha 2:3.
[15] The Targum on this verse explains that God withdraws His right hand (which customarily gave assistance to Israel in the face of the enemy) so as not to give aid to His nation: “He drew back His right hand, and did not help His nation from the enemy.”
[16] Both of these ideas appear in the midrash cited above (Yalkut Shimoni, I Samuel 81), which concludes with the removal of the horns from the enemy and the return of the horns to the messianic figure who will restore Israel’s fortunes.