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Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and timeless
central message of Ecclesiastes may be encapsulated in a single word: Hevel,
usually translated as “vanity.”17 The word appears 38 times
in the text, and it is clearly critical to understanding the book’s
message. It is most commonly understood to mean futility or
meaninglessness, or the idea that anything we do is in vain. Yet Hevel is
also the Hebrew name of Abel, Cain’s brother, the son of Adam and Eve.
Therefore we must first remind ourselves of the original text in Genesis
to which Kohelet is referring. For the sake of clarity, we will render it
using the Hebrew name for Abel:
Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have acquired a man from the Lord.” Then she bore again, this time his brother Hevel. Now Hevel was a pastor of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. Hevel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the Lord heeded Hevel and his offering, but he did not heed Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. So the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you better, you will transcend. And if you do not better, sin lies at the door. And its desire is toward you, and you will be its master.” Now Cain said to Hevel—and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Hevel his brother and killed him.
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