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Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and timeless

Biblical Philosophy


The author wishes to express his deep gratitude to Professor Menachem Fisch, who opened that door so many years ago.

1.For 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.Ecclesiastes 2:17-21. All verse translations are mine, based on the New King James Version.

3.Although 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 ( San Francisco : Harper, 2000). Other scholars have also alluded to this theme, albeit sporadically; see, for example, Daniel C. Fredericks, who writes of Kohelet’s “timely laughter, dancing and embracing, and love and peace,” in Coping with Transience: Ecclesiastes on Brevity in Life (Sheffield: JSOT, 1993), p. 68.

4.Ecclesiastes 3:22.

5.Ecclesiastes 8:15.

6.Ecclesiastes 9:7.

7.I Kings 4:20 .

8.Ecclesiastes 2:13 , 7:12 , 7:19 , 8:1-5, and elsewhere.

9.Indeed, the Talmud tells us how the rabbis considered suppressing the entire book as a result of its apparent inner contradictions. Shabbat 30b.

10.M. James Sawyer, “The Theology of Ecclesiastes,” Biblical Studies Foundation website, www.bible.org/docs/ot/books/ecc/theoecc.htm.

11.Cf. Giorgio de Santillana, Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time (Boston: David Godine, 1994).

12.Cf. Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt : History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs ( New York : Metropolitan, 2002); Serge Sauneron, The Search for God in Ancient Egypt , trans. David Lorton ( Ithaca , N.Y. : Cornell, 2000).

13.The Koran, trans. N.J. Dawood (Middlesex: Penguin, 1974), 78:31, p. 53.

14.John 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.

15.Cf. Maimonides, Mishneh Tora, Laws of Repentance 8:6.

16.From the entry for “Biblical Literature” in Encyclopaedia Britannica ( Chicago : University of Chicago , 2003), vol. xiv, p. 951.

17.From the Latin Vanitas vanitatum omina vanitas, Jerome’s Latin Vulgate (405 A.D.).

18.Genesis 4:1-8.

19.Ecclesiastes 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.

20.Isaiah 45:17.

21.Deuteronomy 33:29.

22.Exodus 14:30.

23.Cf. Numbers 6:26 . 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.

24.Abel, 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.

25.Genesis 46:34.

26.Genesis 47:3.

27.Indeed, 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.

28.Translations 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 6:12 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.

Furthermore, 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.” Lys , Ecclesiastes, or What is Life Worth? Translation, General Introduction, and Commentary on 1/1 to 4/3 (Paris: Letouzey, 1977), pp. 75, 275, A. Heler (7:6) calls hevel “all that is doomed, by its very essence, to disappear.” [French] Notes on Kohelet ( Paris , 1951), p. 72 [French]; and Jean-Luc Marion determines the word to mean “all that is can dissipate,” then explains in the context of this discussion that “man finds himself carried away by the breath of his own defeat.” Cited in Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being, trans. Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991), pp. 125-126.

All 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 Fredericks , part of “a cursed world.” Fredericks , Coping with Transience, p. 11. This becomes evident in the tone of his conclusion as well: Kohelet “also depends heavily on joy of work, even strenuous labor, to counterbalance the pains of a fleeting world which consists only as moments.” Fredericks , Coping with Transience, p. 97. What is missing in Fredericks’ analysis is the awareness of Kohelet’s existential revolution—that is, Fredericks does not concede the fact of an all-encompassing transience as the positive message—and the intellectual development within the book that eventually embraces the fleeting nature of pain, suffering, evil, and even death itself. At the opposite pole we find Rami Shapiro, who turns transience into the be-all and end-all of existence. Though there is much to respect in his radical Taoist reading of Ecclesiastes, which correctly integrates core insights in the book (“Nothing lasts, Solomon tells us, and that is the most liberating truth of all,” p. 119), he lacks the linguistic proficiency to decode its systematic terminology, hence missing Kohelet’s rationalistic metaphysics. Shapiro asserts that the literal meaning of hevel (“breath,” in his view) connotes the “fleeting, ephemeral, impermanent” (p. 96), but he then takes the leap to seeing hevel as a metaphoric signifier of a greater Taoist idea of “emptiness.” Thus, even Kohelet’s first encounters with transience, explicitly causing him to hate life (Ecclesiastes 2:17 ), are colored by Shapiro with detached contemplativeness (“how foolish this quest for permanence”; p. 27). Indeed, “emptiness” implies “empty of permanence” (p. 2), but, for Shapiro, it encompasses a much more radical negation of an eternal “self,” creation, God’s judgment, and ultimately wisdom as the crux of redemption. All in all, Shapiro’s imaginative rendering is too deliberately loose, with respect to the Hebrew, to be of concrete interpretive use.

Nevertheless, 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, original intent.

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