Four thousand years ago, ancient Sumerian priests composed poems of lament to mourn the catastrophes visited on the city of Ur—the birthplace of Abraham—due to foreign invasion. Edward Greenstein notes some similarities between these texts and the biblical book of Lamentations, composed a millennium and a half later, after the destruction of the First Temple, although he deems it “implausible” that the Babylonian works had any direct influence on the Jewish one. He also observes a striking difference between Lamentations—read in synagogues this Saturday night, the beginning of the fast day of Tisha b’Av—and its pagan precursors:
Nowhere in Lamentations does God show any compassion. Just the opposite: the phrase “had no compassion” (v’lo ḥamal) recurs as a refrain throughout chapters 2 and 3; [note also] “You were unforgiving” in 3:42. . . . In the Sumerian laments, [by contrast], the gods, and particularly the goddesses, of the devastated cities cry over the desolation of the sites and the people.
The impression is created in Lamentations that the biblical Deity is unfeeling and cruel. He is unmoved by the profound human suffering He causes. But the classical sages would not let that impression stand. . . . [W]hereas the God of Lamentations sheds no tears over the destruction He has wrought, the God of the midrashic compilation known as Lamentations Rabbah not only cries—He shows himself to be a virtuoso of grieving.
According to [one passage in this] work, the Deity so wearies himself with weeping that He must get help. This [interpretation] is based on a close reading of a passage in Jeremiah (9:16-17), where God tells the prophet, “Look around, and summon the female keeners, that they come; and send for the wise women, that they come. Let them hurry and raise up a wailing for us; and let our eyes run with tears and our eyeballs flow with water!”
The midrash discerns that the Deity here speaks in the first-person plural. Let the keeners wail for us; let our eyes flow with tears. God includes Himself as a beneficiary of the women mourners’ services. The Deity, the midrash infers, had so tired Himself with mourning over the destruction of the northern kingdom [in the 8th century BCE] and other disasters that He felt compelled to wreak on the people of Israel and Judah, that He would need assistance in properly grieving over the destruction of Jerusalem.