In the sixth century BCE, the kingdom of Judah and its capitol in Jerusalem were besieged by the Babylonian forces of Nebuchadnezzar II. After a long period of deprivation, the walls of the city were finally breached. On the Hebrew date of the 9th of the month of Av—Tisha b’Av—the Temple that had stood in Jerusalem for centuries was plundered and destroyed, the inhabitants of the city were massacred, and the survivors were taken into captivity.

This experience remains one of the most traumatic in Jewish history. The Hebrew Bible records it in the book of Eicha, known in English as the book of Lamentations. Its five chapters, all of them highly structured, contain some of the most grotesque and poignant language of oppression and suffering in all of biblical literature. There are descriptions of mothers driven to such desperation that they resort to cannibalism; there is a haunting description of a man whose body has so withered from starvation that his skin hangs on him like desiccated wool.

Lamentations expresses a range of emotional responses to that trauma. Some, seemingly in line with Jeremiah’s chastening prophecy, understand the destruction of the city as a just punishment for a sinful people meted out by God; while others direct frustration, desperation, and even bitterness at God. The rabbi and academic Bible scholar Joshua Berman has just published a new commentary called The Book of Lamentations with Cambridge University Press. His interpretation and his new book frame a discussion this week with Mosaic editor Jonathan Silver.

Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.