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Surrounded with the complexities of South African culture, I encountered two vibrant communities knee-deep in biblical texts: a university classroom and a township church. As I was confronted with the ideologies and experiences of the people in these places—vastly different from one another and from my own—both communities of interpretation challenged established readings and reshaped my scholarly identity.

The University Classroom

A dozen cultures and languages were represented at the graduate seminars at the University of Stellenbosch. Afrikaans-, Zulu-, Khoisan- and English-speaking South Africans gathered with students from Zimbabwe, Namibia, the Congo, the Sudan, India, Korea and the United States. The range of seminar topics diverged distinctly from my experience in American classrooms, reflecting instead the contours of South African society. More than any other, the topic of poverty in the Hebrew Bible highlighted the differences between American, Asian, and African perspectives, as we struggled even to arrive at a definition of poverty in the Hebrew Bible from our native contexts.

The seminar's collision of cultures and ideologies was both unsettling and instructive. Following a heated discussion of poverty and debt in Deuteronomy 15, one of my colleagues approached me and said matter-of-factly, "You are very different." Not sure whether this was a compliment or an insult, I listened as she continued. "The way you dress, speak, and carry yourself—it's classic American. Look at yourself." Her comments surprised me, since I had been trying to avoid stereotypical American behaviors. The keen observation stayed with me, compelling me to take a more honest look at the influence of my politics, religion, and nationality on my approach to biblical texts. Thereafter I encountered the lives and perspectives of colleagues from around the world with my own identity in vivid relief.

The Township Church

The African township of Khayamandi lies just outside the town of Stellenbosch. Here, like the university classroom, biblical texts saturate the community. When I arrived in Khayamandi one morning, I was met by a tall man with a bright smile. He greeted me in Xhosa and English. "Molo, umfundisi. I am Good Answer." "Pleased to meet you," I replied. "Good Answer?" I added hesitantly. "Yes, my mother named me Good Answer because she was like Hannah. She had no children and prayed ten years to have a child. When I was born my mother called me Good Answer because God gave a good answer to her long prayers. My Xhosa name is Dumisani Uyehova. It means 'sing praise to Yehovah.'" Good Answer's evocation of 1 Samuel 1-2, the lament and praise of Hannah, captures the immediacy and relevance of the biblical texts in the township.

Walking through the streets of Khayamandi on a Sunday morning one can hear vigorous cries of lament and boisterous songs of praise echoing from every cinderblock and sheet metal church. One of the most popular hymns in these churches is a Xhosa translation of 1 Samuel 2, sung to an Africanized version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The stirring text and complex polyphony of this hymn is often sung in services juxtaposed with fierce prayers of lament.

Xhosa laments are extemporaneously spoken, cried, or shouted prayers that have distinct musical and rhythmic dimensions. As one Xhosa man described, "You can tell when someone is really praying. There is a rhythm to the sadness." Xhosa laments push the limits of simple speech and traverse the borderland between speech and song. The prayers are highly inflected: encompassing vast dynamic and tonal ranges with emotionally charged use of silence and sustained vowels. The congregation affirms the suppliant with regular and rhythmic groans and shouts.

With a single motion, the lament ends, and the community shifts to praise. At "Amen" someone cries out a voluntary, the first line of a hymn such as Hannah's prayer of thanksgiving. Then the congregation, slowly rising from hands and knees, begins to swell into song, adding harmonies that undergird the volunteer's tune. A heavy, steady rhythm beaten into a book or a wall keeps time, driving the congregation's dancing and marching.

This musical pattern of lament and praise, central to weekly Xhosa worship, remarkably resembles the juxtaposition of lament and praise in the book of Psalms. Lament psalms such as Psalm 22 begin with desperate pleas and rhythmic cries— "My God, my God"—which within several lines are transformed into exuberant choruses of praise.

This famous shift of emotion in the psalms has prompted much debate. Some postulate ancient cultic scenarios in which a priest proclaimed an oracle of salvation at the end of a lament, spurring the psalmist to praise. Others suggest that a span of time elapsed between the singing of a lament and the praise portions in any given psalm, so that praise comes only after deliverance. However, in Khayamandi, lament moves to praise in an instant. Between lament and praise, township violence continues, AIDS is a pandemic, unemployment is rampant, and yet the praise following lament—as in so many biblical psalms —is arresting for its verve, earnestness, and suddenness. For the Xhosa community, the oscillation between lament and praise has a larger rhythm, as does Hebrew psalmody, moving back and forth between lament and praise within individual psalms and in the Psalter as a whole.

The Value of Studying Abroad

Listening to and studying biblical texts in South Africa offered me perspectives difficult to attain at home and challenged me to find a new balance in my scholarship. Self and scholarly identities were enhanced by the diversity of colleagues in the classroom, and I saw genres of biblical literature come to life in the township church. In short, I discovered lament and praise at the Cape of Good Hope.

Joel M. LeMon is a Ph.D. student at Emory University and part-time staff member at the Society of Biblical Literature.

Citation: Joel M. LeMon, " Lament and Praise at the Cape of Good Hope: Learning to Read the Bible in a Foreign Land," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2004]. Online:


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