Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Bible in a Year: Ecclesiastes

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week I’m studying Ecclesiastes. The name comes from the Septuagint. The Hebrew name is קֹהֶלֶת, transliterated Qoheleth or Koheleth, which means "the Preacher." Both names (Ecclesiastes and Koheleth) derive from words denoting assemblies of believers, to which one would preach. The book has traditionally been attributed to Solomon. It is the fourth of the "writings" or "wisdom" books between Esther (the last of the historical books) and Isaiah (the first of the prophetic books).

Here is an outline of Ecclesiastes, which contains four discourses and a conclusion.

Chapters 1-2 consider the vanity of human striving. 

1:1-3. The theme of the book is the vanity of human toil, "vanity of vanities." In this sense, "vanity" means worthless, meaningless, or futile, and so human toil is the most futile of all futile  efforts.

1:4-11   The author demonstrates the meaninglessness of the cycles of life.

1:12-18.  Human wisdom is futile.

2:1-11. Pleasure and wealth are pointless.

2:12-17. The foolish and the wise alike will die.

2:18-22. Bequeathing the fruit of one’s toil to undeserving heirs is meaningless and futile.

Chapters 3-5 consider life’s disappointments

Chapter 3: We need a proper attitude toward life. There is a time for everything (3:1-8), but that fact also points to the fruitlessness of our striving (3:9-15), and knowing that we are dust, we make the best of life (3:16-21).

Chapter 4: Life is disappointing. Life can be oppressing, and political fame is also vanity. It’s best to have companions on life’s difficult journey.

Chapter 5: The self-serving life is vain and futile, for the oppressor and oppressed alike end the same way. One should make the best of life.

Chapters 6-8: Wealth and honor are meaningless. 

Chapter 6: Our desires and goals are frustrated, and we eventually disappear.

Chapter 7: In spite of life’s vanity and disappointment, it is better to value wisdom, moderation, and perspective.

Chapter 8: Nevertheless, life is filled with injustices and wickedness, and God’s ways are beyond our wisdom.

Chapter 9 to Chapter 12 verse 8: We should leave injustices to God 

9:1-6. Death comes to everyone.

9:7-10: Enjoy life while you are alive.

9:11-12: We are all subject to chance.

9:12-10:20: Still, living by wisdom is better than living by foolishness  folly, empty talk, and sin.

11:1-8: Living charitably and with joy is better, even though all is still pointless. The well-known verses 1-2 urge sharing of one's gifts and hospitality.

11:9-12:8: A young person should also live gratefully and with happiness, even though youth, too, is vanity.

Chapter 12 verses 9-14: Concluding thoughts. “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.”

The book fascinates readers. Even more than Job, it seems an outlier in the Bible. The Bible's covenantal and sapiential theology that promises reward or punishment in response to righteousness or wickedness contrast with the world-weary, pessimistic perspective of Ecclesiastes. But the Preacher's words do resonate, at least sometimes!

In my old Harper Study Bible, which I’ve used for forty years, I have these notes from divinity school: “Not an orthodox Jewish work, [Koheleth] was not accepted as [Jewish] canon until about AD 100. The book is critical of human nature, with a gloomy world view. The author probably lived before the Maccabean revolt. Koheleth tests faith through secular discovery, instead of a traditional religious outlook. He is preaching life, not just God (referred to with the general name “Elohim” throughout). Unlike the prophets, he has no oracles, only very rationalistic wisdom. He denies retribution dogma and neglects ultimate values. The world is ordered on opposites (3:1-8), judgments, and God is remote (cf. Job 38-41). The book is a radical marginal note to wisdom; in a world without knowledge of God, Koheleth seeks God. If Christian theology rejects his conclusions, it applauds his rejection of a confident humanism.”

In also divinity school, I noted passages that interject more theologically positive content into the work: 2:26, 3:15, 5:19, 7:18, 7:26, 7:29, 8:11-13, 12:13. My professor, Brevard Childs, offered the possibility that these passages were added by another author to soften the book’s more gloomy judgments. He added, though, that the “canonical shape” of the book invites us to consider what the whole book teaches.

My Jewish Study Bible has this: [Koheleth is the] “sage who comes to [wisdom] through his experiences, one might even say experiments” (p. 1603). A few years ago I wrote an article, unaccepted, in which I reflected on the “experimental” quality of religious faith. If we have religious faith for the long haul, we may very well have occasions where our theology, where our interpretation of favorite Bible passages, are inadequate to the challenge we’re facing. Also, we may be challenged by theologies and interpretations that upset us. In a similar manner as scientific experiments, we can gain wisdom for our lives by testing and retesting our beliefs and our experiences. Koholeth did so, and faced the fact that his conclusions were discouraging.

The Jewish Study Bible points out themes of the book, like friendship, wealth, wisdom, and others. A primary theme is futility or vanity, “the inability of humans to make sense of the world around them, to see a coherent pattern, a plan to their lives and to nature, in the sense of a movement toward lasting goals, a line of development or progress.” We try, but we’re frustrated, and good or bad outcomes don’t seem to balance with our efforts (p. 1603).

Death is the other major theme, and for Koheleth we can’t rely upon ideas of postmortem life or endurance through memory. And so in response, we should enjoy our lives as long as we can (pp. 1603-1604).

The role of wisdom is to figure out our limits of knowledge and abilities. That doesn’t mean God isn’t in control, however. “This affirmation of God’s authority and judgment is, indeed, what rabbinic interpreters have emphasized as the central element in Koheleth, and while some modern critics have assigned the [verses] that express it to later, orthodox editor(s) of the book, it comports well with the limits on human wisdom, a central theme of the original author (p. 1604).

Rabbi Telushkin, whose book Biblical Literacy I’ve used before in these posts, points out that Koholeth can be disturbing, as in 9:2-3 where God seems “morally indifferent.” But he also offers wise advice, as in 5:4, 5:14, 9:10-11, and of course the famous and singable 3:1-8, as well as 12:13 (366). Telushkin wonders if the tradition attribution of the work to Solomon is “a gentle revenge” of the Sages against Solomon, who had declined in wisdom by his later years (367); in other words, if you fail (as Solomon did) to diligently pursue wisdom all your life, you may end up discouraged and jaded, too!

Telushkin notes that Koholeth is read in synagogues on the festival Sukkoth, the conclusion of the harvest period and of the year’s weekly cycle of Torah readings. “This celebration of work completed, expressed both as joy and as a mood of reflection on memory and time past, resonates with themes of Koheleth, and so may have established the connection between the book and the festival.” (p. 365). Walter Brueggemann also notes that, since Sukkoth is a joyful holiday in Judaism, the books’ annual recitation creates a contrast between the happiness of the harvest and the difficulties of life (Brueggemann and Linafelt, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 367).

As we’ve seen elsewhere in the Bible, we gain insights when we look at the overall context not only of passages but of the biblical books. Ecclesiastes is situated between the generally optimistic Proverbs and the joyful eroticism of Song of Songs. Looking at the three books together, we have three views of the world with which we can learn: a lively confidence in God and in moral living, a respect for the power of life to discourage and disappoint, and the wonders and mysteries of love.

And finally... Here is The Byrds, singing "Turn, Turn, Turn".

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