Gina Hens-Piazza. Lamentations: Wisdom Commentary, Volume 30, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press (Michael Glazier Book), 2017. Pp 110, $23.21 pb. ISBN 9780814681794 (ebook)/ 9780814681541 (hardcover). Reviewed by James ZEITZ, Our Lady of the Lake University, San Antonio, Texas 48207.


            Gina Hens-Piazza’s commentary on Lamentations—part of the new Wisdom Commentaries series on all 54 books of the Bible—is a feminist scholarly critical approach that presents the original historical contexts of books and authors in conversation with the modern world: especially the world of women. Two useful features of these commentaries are: the placement of the text blocks at the top of the pages with the commentaries and essays or commentaries distinguished by grey-background that relate to the scholarly commentary.

            Each of the Wisdom volumes begins with an “Editor’s Introduction to Wisdom Commentary” by Barbara E. Reid, O.P. and is followed by the author’s introduction. The author of this volume, Gina Hens-Piazza, is professor at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, and received her PhD from Union Theological Seminary, New York. She notes the importance of Lamentations: personal witness to the sufferings and physical misery caused by the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, the “focal calamity of the Bible” (citing Francis Landy), narrated by multiple voices. To the five Laments in the book, she adds another “lament” – regarding the “negative portrait of women: how blame is laid on Jerusalem portrayed as an unfaithful wife, although the calamity falls most heavily on women, who beyond losing their husbands, when carried off are raped and their deaths leave abandoned children behind. She cites Jewish scholar Naomi Seidman who says Lamentations “deserves to be excised from the canon” because of the “utter debasement of women.” But then she adds a feminist reason for the book’s inclusion: to identify “sources of strength…amid the rubble of misogynist landscapes”: Women Zion is a “courageous female voice who rises up …and confronts an insolvent theology and its deity with the injustice of innocent suffering” (p. xliii).

            The section “Literary Character” of Lamentations gives the following information about the structure: each chapter or poem is a ‘self-contained composition offering a unique perspective’ on the destruction of Jerusalem; the five chapters are arranged in an acrostic pattern—with Lamentations 3 as centerpiece…and the only glimpse of hope—and other acrostic structures within the books unite the book artistically; finally—regarding the ‘lament literary form—the use of  3+2 rhythm of the ‘qinah’ in the poetry of this book.   

            A sampling of the author’s commentaries: For Lamentations 1 [title “Is there any sorrow like my sorrow…”]  Gina Hens-Piazza (along with other feminist biblical critics) starts with the “power of a metaphor” - Jerusalem as a violated woman. She notes that a metaphor’s cultural framework is important because it influence future readings—encouraging hearers to “participate” in the metaphor’s meanings. Thus, “the notion of an abused, desolate woman who gets what she deserves are legion…” The grey box excerpt “From the Dublin Women’s Prison” demonstrates this truth: a story of a woman abused by a boyfriend, who resists rape and stabs him—and is in prison. The commentary then notes two-part structure of the poem: The Observer’s Account (Lam 1:1-11) and Woman Zion’s speech (1:11c-22). This offers two takes on the suffering, which interact: after the description of the tragedy, Woman Zion complains about God’s silence in face of the “enemy” who may even be God!

Lamentations 2 ‘mirrors the first chapter in form’ – first the observer (2:1-10), then the “cry of the poor” (2:11-19): about Woman Zion’s pain. This latter is complemented by a modern witness, Jill Marshall (a Maryknoll missionary in Latin America) who reflects on praying with Lamentations.

Lamentations 3: the center and ‘only message of hope’ features only one male voice: a first-person account of his experience of the destruction. It is structured as a triple acrostic and includes a summons to the community that bolsters hope (v.21: “This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope”) —supplemented by an essay: “The Hope of the Battered Women” by Sr. Anna Pham Phuc and “The Contours of Hope”, an essay by Sara Prendergast.

            Skipping to the final poem: Lamentations 5 and the final community’s prayer that summons God (“But you, O Lord, reign forever… Restore us to yourself, O Lord: 5:19-22), Gina Hens-Piazza calls this a “theology that confuses and frightens”: characterizes the dynamism of human suffering “that engages in desperate overtures to behold God.” She concludes that Lamentations contains poems as testimonies of those in the midst of captivity: a ‘sanctuary for human sorrow’ not a solution for suffering. The final essay: “Spending Holy Week with Lamentations” (by Nancy Haught)  is an example of this fact: she sees in Lamentations poetry that inventories destruction, offers some hope, and reminds her that sorrow and despair are part of life.