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Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and timeless
author wishes to express his deep gratitude to Professor Menachem Fisch,
who opened that door so many years ago.
the purpose of this essay, it is of little significance whether or not the
historical king Solomon actually wrote the work of Ecclesiastes. It is
clear both from the opening verse and from numerous other examples that
its author intended it to be read as a statement of Solomon’s wisdom.
2:17-21. All verse translations are mine, based on the New King James
mistaking hevel for “emptiness,” Rami Shapiro fleshes out the
pro-joy theme in his The Way of Solomon: Finding Joy and Contentment in
the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes (
, 8:1-5, and elsewhere.
the Talmud tells us how the rabbis considered suppressing the entire book
as a result of its apparent inner contradictions. Shabbat 30b.
James Sawyer, “The Theology of Ecclesiastes,” Biblical Studies
Foundation website, www.bible.org/docs/ot/books/ecc/theoecc.htm.
Giorgio de Santillana, Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay on Myth and the Frame
of Time (Boston: David Godine, 1994).
Jan Assmann, The Mind of
Koran, trans. N.J. Dawood (Middlesex: Penguin, 1974), 78:31, p. 53.
Woodroffe, in his introduction to The Tibetan Book of the Dead,
explains, “The after-death apparitions are ‘real’ enough for the
deceased.” (London: Oxford, 1960), p. lxxiii.
Maimonides, Mishneh Tora, Laws of Repentance 8:6.
the entry for “Biblical Literature” in Encyclopaedia Britannica
the Latin Vanitas vanitatum omina vanitas, Jerome’s Latin Vulgate
12:5-8. The word hevel, moreover, resembles a number of Hebrew
roots clearly dealing with demise over time: “And we all do wither (navel)
as a leaf”(Isaiah 64:5); “They shall perish... all of them shall wear
out (yivlu)... and they shall pass” (Psalms 102:27); “And your
dead shall live; corpses (nevelati) shall arise... (Isaiah 26:19).
This root, moreover, finds cognates in Old South Arabian, where blwt
is “grave”; the Ugaritic bly and the Ethopic balya
(“to be consumed”); and the Akkadian balu (“to fade, pass
away”). Cf. Cyrus H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook, entry #471; ZAW
75:307; Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic
Lexicon of the Old Testament (Boston: Brill, 2001), p. 132.
. This teaching, it should be noted, rejects
the pagan view of a mechanistic element to worship and sacrifice,
according to which humans manipulate the gods through ritual, independent
of their purity of intentions.
however, might very well have been the first to take a life:
Whereas Cain’s sacrifice was a portion of his harvest, Abel’s was an
animal. In light of the questions of life and death that pervade his
story, this fact takes on new meaning. In sacrificing an animal’s life,
Abel ascertained a higher value: Something for which it is worth
forfeiting a life.
the thread runs through Genesis 4:25-26: “And Adam knew his wife again,
and she bore a son and named him Seth, ‘For God has appointed another
seed for me instead of Hevel, whom Cain killed.’ And as for Seth, to him
also a son was born; and he named him Enosh; then [man] began to call on
the name of the Lord....” The very next person to “call on the name of
the Lord” was Abraham (Genesis 13:4), further solidifying the link
between Abel and the Jewish people.
of hevel as “fleeting” have appeared in the past. Notably, the
Jewish Publication Society Bible—as opposed to the Artscroll and Judaica
Press renditions—translates verse 11:10 as “youth and black hair are
fleeting.” The JPS version, in fact, goes even further, substituting
“fleeting” for the appearances of hevel in
and 9:9. However, these are clearly
exceptions resulting from the misreading of re’ut ruah, and not
the consistent rule. See note 29 below.
Christian readings have referred to the etymological root of the word,
whose meaning is close to that of vapor or steam, in an effort to explain
the source of Ecclesiastes’ hevel as a metaphor for the
insubstantial: Daniel Lys calls it the “present but evanescent.”
of these readings, however, while understanding hevel to mean the
transient nature of vapor, still see the borrowed use as implying
worthlessness, or vanity, rather than the objective, non-pejorative,
fleeting reality of mortal life. Some scholars use “transience” in
some verses but not in others (as is the case in the JPS Bible). These
include Douglas B. Miller, in his Symbol and Rhetoric in Ecclesiastes:
The Place of Hevel in Kohelet’s Work (Leiden: Brill, 2002), p. 180,
who concludes that “some aspects of human existence, even humans
themselves, are insubstantial, while other things are transient, and
others are foul.” The admirable exception is found in Daniel C.
Fredericks’ treatise, Coping with Transience, in which he Notes
correctly the presence of ephemeral efforts, passing pleasures, and
transient tragedies, while insisting on linguistic and symbolic
consistency throughout Ecclesiastes. But even here, as is evident from the
title, transience is viewed as innately problematic: It is, according to
both Fredericks and Shapiro offer landmark steps in rescuing Ecclesiastes
from sixteen centuries of misreading. I believe that a sensitive,
intertextual biblical approach, as well as a structured approach towards
Ecclesiastes’ take on natural philosophy (in dialogue with other,
pre-Socratic elemental cosmologies), constitutes the golden path that
balances both their readings in search of Ecclesiastes’ straightforward,
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