June 12, 2024
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The Authorship of Eicha

The Talmud attributes our book to Jeremiah. Let us evaluate this suggestion.

The book has five chapters. But there are three unusual aspects to its structure: 1) The first four chapters are acrostics but the fifth is not; 2) in the third chapter there are three verses for each letter, while the other chapters have only one; and 3) in the first chapter the acrostics follow the usual order of ayin preceding peh, while in chapters 2-4 we have the order of peh preceding ayin.

At first glance, some of the above suggests that we are dealing with multiple authors. As stated in the “Lamentations” entry in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1972 edition: “The unusual alphabetic order of chapters 2 through 4 suggests that they may not be by the same author as chapter 1, and the absence of acrostic in chapter 5 suggests the same for it.” This entry is reprinted in the 2006 edition. (Most of the entries in the 2006 edition are merely reprints.) Let us take a closer look at the above argument.

The Dead Sea scroll text of the first chapter of Eicha was not published for several decades. It turns out that it has peh preceding ayin in the first chapter. Moreover, based on archaeological discoveries that began in 1976 and continued thereafter, it now seems that peh preceding ayin was the exclusive order in ancient Israel, until the exilic period. I have written much about this. (See my “Esther Unmasked” pp. 207-230 and my article in Biblical Archaeology Review, July-Aug., 2012. Psalm 34 makes much better sense if peh preceded ayin. See Daat Mikra 34:18, n. 9.) Accordingly, assuming the Dead Sea text preserves the original version of chapter 1, chapters 1 through 4 do follow the same alphabetic order.

Regarding the fifth chapter, although it is not an acrostic, it has 22 verses, just like chapters 1, 2 and 4. It is possible that this is mere coincidence. But alternatively, the author may be suggesting that the intensity of his grief exhausted his poetic powers so that by the time of the fifth chapter, he was no longer able to write an acrostic! So not only do we have an explanation for the 22-letter chapter, we have an explanation that is consistent with a single author for the five chapters! (The meter in the fifth chapter differs from the meter in the first four chapters. But this is not enough to refute unitary authorship.)

What about three verses per letter in the third chapter? That too is not meaningful evidence of different authorship. (I have seen the suggestion that we are dealing with a five-chapter book by one author in a chiastic structure. There are parallels between the first chapter and the fifth chapter and the second chapter and the fourth chapter. The third chapter is the high point of the structure and this explains its expanded acrostic.)

In chapter 1, starting in the second half of verse 11, the verses are written in the singular, as it is Jerusalem herself that grieves for her lost inhabitants. On the other hand, much of chapter 3 (beginning 3:1) speaks in the voice of a lone man. But differences like this are not meaningful evidence of different authors.

Accordingly, from a structural point of view, the book can easily have had one author. As to the date of the book, the book must have been composed prior to Cyrus’ permission in 538 B.C.E. to rebuild the Temple, “since none of the hope which it engendered is reflected in the book.” (EJ 10:1374).

But can we really tie the book to Jeremiah? Why does the Talmud do so?

There are many similar metaphors and expressions in the two works. See, e.g., Daat Mikra, intro., p. 20. Perhaps this alone motivated the identification.

But I prefer a different explanation. The book is called קינות in the earliest rabbinic sources (e.g., Bava Batra 14b-15a). Yet no words related to this word are found in the book! Why should the book be referred to by this name?

The answer lies with 2 Chronicles 35:25. Here we are told that Jeremiah lamented (ויקונן) for Josiah (d. 609 B.C.E.) and that these were written down and included in “kinot.” In a plain-sense reading, the reference is to a collection of “kinot” that has not been preserved. (See, e.g., Soncino comm.) But by calling the book of Eicha “kinot,” the Sages were able to connect it with this verse and its reference to writings of Jeremiah. The Sages also took the position that Eicha 4:20 (“the anointed of the Lord”) is a reference to Josiah (Taan. 22b; see also Eicha Rab. to 4:1). This is another way that they fit the book of Eicha into the reference at 2 Chron. 35:25. So by a non-plain-sense reading of 2 Chron. 35:25 they were able to identify Jeremiah as the author of Eicha. (On the simplest level, Josiah is not mentioned or alluded to in Eicha so the verse is not referring to our book.)

In sum, unitary authorship and a date before 538 BCE are reasonable. But the connection to Jeremiah himself, though possible, is not proven. (See also the last phrase of Jer. 36:32 for another possible way to connect Jeremiah with the book of Eicha, and Rashi and Radak there.)

Of course, one can never “prove” authorship of ancient texts. Also, I have seen the suggestion that Jeremiah purposely wrote the book anonymously to make it easier for readers to identify with the grief he describes.

Scholars try to find contradictions between the book of Jeremiah and the book of Eicha. For example, Eicha 4:20 is probably a reference to Tzedekiah and here he is called the משיח of God. Yet at Jer. 37:2, Tzedekiah is viewed unfavorably. An easy resolution is that Eicha 4:20 is not praising Tzedekiah himself. Whatever his failings, he was still the anointed of God and of the House of David.

Eicha is largely vague on the specific sins of Israel. The weak argument is sometimes made that this would not have come from the pen of Jeremiah who pointed to many specific sins.

The Targum to Eicha begins with a statement that what follows are the words of Jeremiah. It is also of interest that the Greek translation of Eicha begins with such a statement as well: “And it came to pass after Israel had been taken away into captivity…that Jeremiah sat weeping and lamented this lamentation over Jerusalem and said.” Our earliest manuscripts of the Greek translation are only from the fourth century. But if this material was there when the translation was authored, the material would date to Egypt circa 100 B.C.E. (The book of Eicha is called “Threnoi” in Greek, which is a word derived from 2 Chron. 35:25. “Lamentationes” is the title of the book in Latin.)


There was an English translation that tried to reflect the acrostic pattern, and started the translation of the first verse with “A,” the second with “B,” and continued through the 22nd verse with “V.” It is often suggested that writing an acrostic symbolizes “completeness” (“from A to Z”). But here the “completeness” image could not be reflected, since the 22nd letter of the English alphabet is not the last letter!

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He would have used “Z” as the last letter, instead of “V.”

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