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Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and timeless


Biblical Philosophy

Abel, moreover, carries an additional symbol that works most strongly against a pejorative reading of his name. He is, after all, the paradigmatic shepherd. This is a vivid marker to anyone familiar with the Bible’s greatest heroes: Abraham, Isaac, Rachel, and Jacob, as well as Moses and David, are all shepherds. Shepherds are ever mobile, and their presence in the Bible symbolizes the idea of life as a journey, and spirituality as an ongoing quest. In fact, in Ecclesiastes and elsewhere, the image of the shepherd is extended to God, and in the Song of Songs, also attributed to Solomon, the author reserves the role of shepherd for himself. The idea of the roving shepherd has ultimately come to represent the Jewish people as a whole: When, for example, Joseph alludes to the metaphysical divide between the worldviews of Egypt and Israel, he tells his brothers that “all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians,”25 meaning that the Egyptians disdained the spiritual freedom and “unattachment” which shepherds represent, in favor of a Cain-like materialism. The brothers, in turn, proudly tell Pharaoh, “We your servants are shepherds, as were also our fathers.”26 Our fathers, that is, all the way back to Abel. Like the nomadic Abraham, who left behind all that he knew in Ur to establish a new nation in Canaan , our self-identity as a nation of shepherds symbolizes our dynamic historic mission. As such, Abel is the forerunner of this spiritual lineage, and his transient life the inspiration for all those on a quest for enlightenment. 27


A better reading of hevel, then, and one that provides us with an extremely important tool for understanding both Genesis and Ecclesiastes, takes us back to the root meaning of the word: Vapor or mist. What is important about the life of Abel is not its futility, but its transience. It was as fleeting as a puff of air, yet his life’s calling was nonetheless fulfilled.

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