ECCLESIASTES


ECCLESIASTES (Heb. קּוֹהֶלֶת ,הַקּוֹהֶלֶת), one of the group of minor writings of the Hagiographa known as the Five Scrolls (Megillot). The name Ecclesiastes is Greek and probably means "member of the assembly." It renders the Hebrew word kohelet (qohelet, or ha-qohelet = the Qohelet; 1:1, 2, 12; 7:27; 12:8, 9, 10). Qohelet is not a proper name but means something like "one who acts in the assembly" or "teaches the public" – see the description of his activities in 12:9. Qohelet is usually thought to be the author, but he may be a fictional persona, the author's "mouthpiece." Though Qohelet never claims to be Solomon, he does describe himself in Solomon-like terms: He is "king in Jerusalem" (1:12) and "son of David, king in Jerusalem" (1:1). Traditionally, therefore, he was identified with Solomon. Solomonic authorship, however, is ruled out by evidence of language and content.

Language and Date

The Hebrew of the book represents the latest stage in the evolution of biblical Hebrew. An example of the indicators of late biblical Hebrew is the root tqf (4:12; 6:10), which can only be borrowed from Aramaic, and not before the seventh century B.C.E. Also, the nouns pardes "orchard" (2:5) and pitgam "decree" (8:11) are both borrowed from Persian. Persia only emerged from obscurity in the middle of the sixth century B.C.E., and no words are known to have been borrowed from its language before that. Moreover, pardes, from the Persian piridaēza ("rampart," a domain of the king) was also borrowed by the Greeks (paradeisos) in the sense of "orchard," the sense it has in Ecclesiastes 2:5. The word avadeyhem "their deeds" in 9:1 is Aramaic, not Hebrew. So too, ʾillu, the Aramaic and post-biblical equivalent of the classical lu, occurs in the Bible only in Ecclesiastes 6:6 and in *Esther 7:4 (the latter being obviously post-exilic and probably third century B.C.E.). There are, in fact, Aramaisms in Qohelet at a much greater frequency than we would expect in a pre-exilic work. Indeed it has been argued – see the items by Ginsberg in the Bibliography – that the book was written in Aramaic and later translated into Hebrew. This theory has not been accepted by other scholars, but it calls for further examination. On the linguistic background of the book, see especially the books by Schoors and Seow.

The content too points to a Hellenistic dating. There is reason to think that the author was influenced by Stoic philosophy (see Rudman in Bibliography). Also, competitive foot races, alluded to in 9:11, entered the Near East only in the third century B.C.E. A deeper indicator of Greek influence (which would scarcely be possible before the Hellenistic period) is the book's display of the mindset of Greek philosophy. This enterprise tried to determine the good by the application of human reason alone, without appeal to tradition or revelation. Qohelet, alone of the Bible, follows this path.

Contents

The book of Ecclesiastes is a reflection on life together with advice on making one's way through it. Qohelet introduces himself as a wise king who sought to examine all that happens on earth (1:12–18), including toil, wisdom, and pleasure. His goal is to determine "what is good for man to do under the heavens during the few days of his life" (2:3). He amassed wealth and belongings, and this accomplishment seems to have given him pleasure; but ultimately he found it senseless (2:4–2:26). As Qohelet proceeds on his investigation, he observes a variety of values and typical events. Most of these he finds senseless and "bad," but he does suggest various ways of maneuvering through life and, from time to time, does praise certain modes of behavior and experiences. Still, he begins and concludes with a judgment that recurs throughout the book, "All is hevel," a keyword usually translated "vanity" or "transient" but that might be better translated "senseless" or "absurd."

Recurring topics include injustices (3:16–22); social oppressions (4:1–3; 5:7–11); the futility of toil and pleasure (2:18–26; 4:4–8; 5:12–6:9); the failure of wisdom and the frailty of its achievements (4:13–16; 6:10–12; 7:13–14, 23–24; 8:16–9:10; 9:1–3). Occasionally he grants wisdom's (limited) value (9:13–18; 10:1–3). He more emphatically affirms life's goodness and the importance of grasping life's pleasures when they present themselves (9:4–10; 11:7–12:1) – an imperative made all the more urgent by the incessant awareness of death's grim certainty (9:7–10; 12:1–8). He concludes with a mysterious description of the path to death (12:2–7). The opening declaration "All is hevel" concludes his words. An epilogue (12:9–14) speaks about Ecclesiastes from the standpoint of a later sage.

Teaching

The book of Ecclesiastes is written in an unusual, difficult Hebrew, and its thought is self-contradictory and sometimes opaque. Hence its interpretation has been marked by sharp disagreement among the commentators.

Traditional commentators, following the Midrash (especially Kohelet Rabbah), regard the book to be King Solomon's words in old age. Having experienced both the world's glories and its disappointments, he realized the futility of mundane strivings and the insignificance of earthly goods – matters "beneath the sun" (1:3 and often). These he deemed hevel (understood to mean "trivial"). In contrast, matters that are not "beneath the sun" but rather belong to the transcendent, spiritual realm, have great and everlasting value. These are, above all, the eternal life and study of Torah. The book teaches that one must resign oneself to God's will, for all his works are good. Injustices will eventually be rectified and righteousness rewarded, if not in this life then in a blessed eternity, the "world to come."

Most modern commentators understand the book to express skepticism about traditional beliefs, especially the verities of the book of Proverbs and similar wisdom literature, in particular the axioms of God's justice and the efficacy of wisdom and hard work. An example of a negative reading is that of Crenshaw, according to whom Qohelet directs a radical, unrelenting attack on the traditional beliefs of the sages and denies the reality of a moral order. All that is left, Qohelet concludes, is the pleasure of the moment, which may soothe the troubled spirit. A more positive reading is advocated by Fredericks, who argues that Ecclesiastes is only commenting on the human realm. This is characterized by transience, to be sure, but man can find ways to cope, namely by simple pleasures, wisdom, the joy of work, and resignation to God's will. Similarly, Seow argues that "all is hevel" does not mean that everything is meaningless or insignificant, but that the meaning of life and the rationale of its inequities transcend human comprehension. Humans must accept whatever happens, while making the most of life's possibilities.

Fox (1999, 2004) argues that the underlying issue that Qohelet addresses is the question of meaningfulness in life. For events to be meaningful, they would have to cohere in a comprehensible picture, with deeds securely and predictably producing the appropriate consequences. The righteous should be rewarded and the wicked punished; the one who toils should get to enjoy the full fruits of his work while the foolish should suffer penury; the wise should have a life the polar opposite of the fool's; and something should distinguish them in death.

Qohelet sees that these things do not happen, at least not consistently (see 6:2; 8:11; 9:11), and he is weighed down by the collapse of meaning, which is revealed by the contradictions that pervade life. These he repeatedly calls hevel – "absurd" or "senseless." Qohelet is frustrated that life does not make sense. The irrationality of the world is his fundamental grievance, and his other complaints – such as the brevity of life, the futility of effort, the triviality of worldly goods, the vulnerability of wisdom, and the anomalies in divine justice – are secondary to this one and serve to confirm it.

Qohelet believes, or at least tries to believe, that God will eventually execute justice (3:17; 11:9b). The righteous, in principle at least, live long and the wicked die young (8:11–12a, 14). But Qohelet does not see this happening at present and fears that justice will come too late (8:10–11, 14). Qohelet sees injustices but insists that God is just. Qohelet does not eliminate this contradiction but is just frustrated by it.

God for Qohelet is an absolute, unpredictable autocrat. He is a distant and all-powerful force who can be feared but not loved (3:14b; 5:1, 2, 4; 6). But, though rather steely and remote, He is not uniformly hostile. If (for unpredictable reasons) God should grant someone good things, He wants the fortunate man to enjoy these gifts (5:20; 9:7).

For all his complaints, Qohelet is not a nihilist. "Everything is absurd" is to be understood as expressing a general characterization of life, not an absolute negation of the value of all activities and values. Qohelet shows how humans can recover and reconstruct meanings. He does not arrive at a grand logic or theology that makes sense of everything, but he does recommend modest adjustments and small-scale accommodations in our individual lives.

Some things Qohelet does find worthwhile, such as moderate work, temperate enjoyment of the pleasures that come to hand, love and friendship, gaining and using whatever wisdom is within our capacity, being reasonably righteous, and fearing God. Though their benefits are brief, imperfect, and uncertain, they are enough to make life worth living. Qohelet comes to realize that despite all its unfairness and absurdity, life itself is good, to be grasped all the more eagerly for death's finality.

Qohelet's affirmations all look inward, to each individual's benefit, and his concerns are internal as well: what troubles people, what cheers them up, how they can get along in a world in which much is predetermined and opaque. Though there are practical things we can do to reduce the risks, the only real realm of real freedom and control is the human heart – the domain of emotions, thoughts, and attitudes. We are to enjoy whatever pleasures God makes possible and avoid whatever sorrow we can. This, we may note, is Stoic doctrine as well.

A different theology emerges in the epilogue, 12:9–14. This is commonly considered an addition by a later scribe, but it may well be the words of the anonymous author. The epilogue evaluates Qohelet from a more conventional standpoint. It assures the reader that Qohelet was a wise and eloquent teacher, but also warns that the words of the wise hold certain dangers. What is of ultimate importance is to fear God, obey His commandments, and live in awareness of His ultimate judgment.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

EARLY COMMENTARIES: MIDRASH QOHELET RABBA 8th–10th C. B.C.E.; ENGLISH TRANS. A. Cohen, Midrash Rabbah, 8 (1983); Saadiah Gaon; Rashi; Abraham Ibn Ezra; Samuel b. Meir; Samuel ibn Tibbon; Obadiah b. Jacob Sforno; Yosef Ibn Yahyah; Moshe b. Hayyim Alsheikh. MODERN COMMENTARIES: G.A. Barton (ICC, 1908); C.D. Ginsburg (1861; with extensive survey of older literature); E. Podechard (Fr., 1912); H.W. Hertzberg (Ger., 1932, 19632); R. Gordis (1951, 19673); H.L. Ginsberg (Heb., 1961); J.L. Crenshaw (OTL, 1987); R.L. Murphy (WBC, 1992); M.V. Fox (JPS Commentary, 2004); C.L. Seow (AB, 1997); T. Longman III (NICOT, 1998); N. Lohfink (Continental Commentaries, 2003). STUDIES: H.L. Ginsberg, Studies in Kohelet (1950); E. Bickerman, Four Strange Books of the Bible (1967), 139–67. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: A. Schoors, The Preacher Sought to Find Pleasing Words (1992); idem, Qohelet in the Context of Wisdom (1997); M.V. Fox, A Time to Tear Down and a Time to Build Up (1999); D.C. Fredericks, Coping With Transcience (1993); E. Christianson, A Time to Tell: Narrative Strategies in Qoheleth (1998); S. Burkes, Death in Qoheleth (1999); R. Sandberg, Rabbinic Views of Qohelet (1999); D. Rudman, Determinism in the Book of Ecclesiastes (2001).

[Harold Louis Ginsberg /

Michael v. Fox (2nd ed.)]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.