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Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and timeless


Biblical Philosophy

Conventional readings of Ecclesiastes suggest as much. The description of Ecclesiastes provided in the Encyclopaedia Britannica is a case in point: “The author examines everything—material things, wisdom, toil, wealth—and finds them unable to give meaning to life.”16 And yet, this attitude is at odds not only with numerous passages in the text itself, as cited above, but also with classical Jewish beliefs about the nature of mortality. In fact, visions of the afterlife are discouraged in the biblical narrative, and God is shown to place great value on man’s actions in the material world. As such, it seems unlikely that Ecclesiastes’ intention is to conclude that our involvement in the world is without meaning.


If we are to make sense of this challenging text, we must read it another way. We should approach it as a text that is part of, and speaks to, a broader biblical tradition. Indeed, to the assembled Israelites of the First Temple period, Kohelet’s famous opening line—“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”—would have been instantly recognizable as an allusion to another text in their unique intellectual heritage: The story of Cain and Abel from the book of Genesis. The most important clue to the mystery of Ecclesiastes, therefore, is found in the striking reference it makes to the Bible’s first book

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