One of the most interesting books in the OT is Ecclesiastes. This paper by one of our members is worth reading!
The Book of Ecclesiastes is, in many ways, the strangest book in the Hebrew Bible. Nowhere in Ecclesiastes do you find the human slaughter of The book of Judges or the historical/theological listing of names and events of The Books of Kings. There are no etiological myths in Ecclesiastes, nor are there any special births, miracles, or declarations from the mouth of God. In fact, the wisdom offered by Qoheleth – the speaker/author of Ecclesiastes – seems to run in an exact opposite direction to the rest of the Hebrew Bible.
The author of Ecclesiastes demonstrates a very liberal sense of piety but is primarily a rationalist; faith is not reliable enough for Qoheleth. The Speaker is concerned only with what reason can and cannot penetrate and explain. Qoheleth’s appeal to modern readers stems, in part, from this hard-nosed reason; from his inability to take someone’s word as bond. Qoheleth is a skeptic; he is suspicious about answers and tidy programs for “living the good life.” For Qoheleth, it appears as though those things which the Bible’s official line holds as the highest values – obedience to God, faith, acceptance – have been devalued. This diminishment/destruction of the highest values is what Nietzsche would call “nihilism” because meaning and purpose are lacking: `WHY? ‘ finds no answer” (Quoted in Crosby, 8). It is here, in the notion of a very personal subject making rational demands of the universe that Ecclesiastes departs most radically from the Bible it finds itself in. And it is also here, in Qoheleth’s questionings which he must, finally, answer himself, that the Book of Ecclesiastes predates by over two thousand years the emergence of the “modern mind” (Crosby 119).
Read the entire paper by Colin Whyte.
According to Camus, there is no finer sight to a human mind “devoid of blinkers” than “that of the intelligence at grips with a reality that transcends it” ( 54). Qoheleth has undoubtedly dropped his blinkers through incessant questioning, and has reached this state of non-understanding with which Camus concerns himself. But what does a person do when the universe stops making sense and loses the value s/he had stamped on it? Qoheleth decides to treat it on its own terms; he acts on those more Epicurean things which tend to yield satisfying results – such as eating and drinking (5.18). As for the larger issue regarding the possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven, Qoheleth applies his touchstone to all of them: “All is vanity.”
This leitmotif, the “all is vanity” claim that runs through the text, is at once the most interesting and most slippery of Qoheleth’s claims. It is slippery because the word we all know in English as “vanity” has several connotations and, as we shall see shortly, “vanity” might not be the most accurate translation of the Hebrew, “hebel.” The literal twentieth century reading of the word “vanity” puts it in the same bag as “conceit.” It is possible to replace every “hebel” in Ecclesiastes with the word “conceit” but this replacement tends to muddy things still further.
In The Great Code, Northrop Frye claims that the word “hebel” has a “metaphorical kernel of fog, mist, vapor, or breath,” and that this is a recurrent metaphor in the New Testament (Frye 123). Frye then goes on to suggest that what Ecclesiastes is saying – in claiming that “all is vanity” – is that all things are “full of emptiness” (123). This emptiness, says Frye, is not a negative absence but is rather a conception like the “shunyata” void of Buddhist teachings; “the world as everything within nothingness” (123). Frye ties in the metaphor of fog to this notion of emptiness and concludes that Qoheleth’s point is that life is something to find a way through; “and that the way of wisdom is the way out” (124).
Frye’s conclusions regarding the essence of “hebel” are contingent upon “hebel” being a metaphor. According to Michael Fox, though, “hebel” is not a metaphor at all in Ecclesiastes; the hebel-predications seldom require the two-level (literal/figurative) interpretation that defines a metaphor (Fox 411-12). Fox examines every possible rendering of “hebel” – from “vapor” to “insignificant” – and concludes that “hebel” should be translated in English as “absurd.” This might seem like a dubious claim at first because of the fact that “absurd” has such twentieth century connotations, but Fox’s argument is solid. And, as we have already seen, Qoheleth’s rational demands of the universe and his attitude already place him firmly in the camp of the modern mind.
If “hebel” does in fact mean the same thing as “absurd,” we must be clear as to what we mean by “absurd” – or, as Camus calls it, “the absurd.” The pre-philosophical (and pre-Camus) definition of absurd involves, first and foremost, a disparity between two terms; a lack of harmony that seems silly or ridiculous. The meaning which Camus added to comes form his enlargement of absurdity’s context: the two terms in this enlarged case are now “us” and “the universe”; the absurdity of the human situation springs from our mind’s desire to comprehend the universe and our Qoheleth- like inability to do so. To call something absurd is to recognize a tension between an observed fact and an expectation, and it is a tension that reason says should not be there.
If, as Fox claims, Qoheleth is calling everything absurd by calling everything “hebel“, we encounter a slight problem: What happens to God for Qoheleth? Although many of Qoheleth’s references to God are not actually his and appear to have been tacked on by a hyper-pious editor, Qoheleth still believes in God; he just realizes that His ways are unknowable. How can Camus’ notion of the absurd exist in a universe populated by God? Camus goes so far as to say that the absurd takes the place of sin in the absence of God (Myth 42), but where does this leave Qoheleth whose God is still in His heaven? By Fox’s logic, if God’s will is unknowable, as Qoheleth certainly believes, this is an affront to reason, and therefore absurd (Fox 425). Qoheleth questions the way in which divine justice is dispensed throughout the twelve chapters, and, if we take Fox’s absurd thesis at full value, Qoheleth is calling divine behavior itself irrational. This amounts to a “complaint against God” (Fox 427). Ecclesiastes 7:13-14 backs up this statement:
Consider God’s handiwork; who can straighten what he has made
crooked? When things go well, be glad; but when things go ill, consider
this: God has set the one alongside the other in such a way that no
one can find out what is to happen next. (NEB)
It is an insult to Qoheleth’s expectations that divine justice is not more deed-oriented. God is responsible, by Fox’s estimation, for this deed/consequence distortion, and it is this absurd divorce which strips human deeds of their significance (427).
Fox concludes his essay, “The meaning of Hebel for Qoheleth” by going so far as to say that awareness of the absurdity of life fills the human heart with “evil and madness” (9:3) (427). This, however, seems contrary to the conclusions which Qoheleth himself makes by the time Ecclesiastes closes. Qoheleth’s heart isn’t full of “evil and madness” at all; it is full of the truth.
Blaise Pascal in his Pensées often deals with the same type of tough questions as Qoheleth. Pascal’s conclusions, although coloured by Christianity rather than Judaism, seem more akin to the spirit of Qoheleth than Fox’s harsher judgment, and may be of some use here. Pascal, like Qoheleth, has a tough time reconciling what his reason tells him is true and what his faith tells him ought to be true. Again, like Qoheleth, Pascal is keenly aware of his own existence and this, in turn, makes him “miserable”:
#397 The greatness of man is great in that he knows himself to be miserable.
A tree does not know itself to be miserable. It is then being miserable to
know oneself to be miserable; but it is also great to know that one is
#398 All these same miseries prove man’s greatness. They are the miseries of
a great lord, of a deposed king. (quoted from Beardsley 129)
Pascal sees the misery which comes from asking unanswerable questions of the universe in much the same way as Qoheleth does. Misery is not the same as Fox’s “evil and madness”; neither Pascal nor Qoheleth see the existential conclusion as being essentially negative. Self-consciousness of the kind we see all through the Pensées, Camus, and Ecclesiastes tends to lead to a readjustment of context, that’s all. Recognizing the absurd context is neither flippant (the typical Christian claim) nor demoralizing (Fox’s claim 427). Qoheleth’s recognition of everything being hebel is, rather, liberating and practical; he knows that he is better than a tree.
The inherently practical advantages presented by Qoheleth are quite obvious, but they were not obvious to him until he learned about hebel. The new context set by “hebellion” – that is, rebellion within the absurd context within the Hebrew language – allows Qoheleth to make judgments and suggestions which are amoral but useful. (For other, practical conclusions in Ecc see 5.3, 5.8, and 8.5). For example, the rhetorical questions asked by Qoheleth at 6.11-12 set up – through their unanswerability – the nature of the very matrix in which a conscious human mind finds itself “under the sun”:
The more words one uses the greater is the emptiness of it all: and where is the advantage to a man? For who can know what is good for a man in this life, this brief span of empty existence through which he passes like a shadow? Who can tell a man what is to happen next under the sun?
This hard-nosed practical conclusion seems out of place in the Bible, but it is there. Qoheleth is figuring out – to borrow Robert Frost’s saying – “what to make of a diminished thing.” In realizing the absurdity of speech, temporal existence, and chance, Qoheleth has recalibrated his approach to life – and death.
Death, and its built-in absurdity to the human mind, is a point to which Qoheleth returns again and again. The fact that death comes to the wise man and to the fool alike, the idea that “death happeneth to all” is irreconcilable to Qoheleth (2.15). In 3.21, Qoheleth claims that men have “no advantage over beasts;” we all die. Qoheleth has realized, in the words of William James, that “the luster of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities that go with it” (124). Death is the ultimate possibility. But, as Qoheleth states explicitly in the first half of chapter three, there is a time for everything. In 9.2-3, death is the reason for hebel, for absurdity, because it comes to both the wise-man and the fool, to both the righteous and the wicked. By 9.5 however, Qoheleth has already “dealt with death.” He knows, as James puts it, that “the skull will grin in at the banquet”: but he has contextualized death by putting more value on life under the sun (124). In the words of the Speaker, “a live dog is better than a dead lion” (9.5).
It is from this same part, chapter nine, that Fox pulls his conclusion that, because of hebel, “men’s hearts are full of evil and madness” (427). A closer reading of both Ecclesiastes and of Camus – from whom Fox directly borrows the notion of the absurd – reveals that this madness and evil are not, as we have seen, negative in the new hebel context. The “misery” Pascal wrote of is close to Qoheleth in chapters nine through twelve, but there is another dimension to it. Pascal did not explain the necessity of misery, he only said that it made him better than a tree. Tolstoy touched on its essence: “The meaningless absurdity of life is the only incontestable knowledge accessible to man” (quoted in James 134). At least absurdity is a sure thing for Qoheleth. The way divine justice is dispensed, and the fact that the good and the bad alike both die is absurd, according to Qoheleth; but at least he knows this. In 9.6, Qoheleth’s new attitude toward death is similar to that of Meursault in L’étranger, the night before his scheduled execution. Meursault wants only something he can sink his teeth into, a certainty. When the priest babbles on to him about the certainties of heaven, Meursault, fed up, screams random insults at the priest and writes, “none of [the priest’s] certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair” (182). Further on, in the same scene-recollection, Meursault muses that there is only one class of men, “the privileged class” – because “they are alive” (184).
This is the same point that Qoheleth makes with his live dog and dead lion in 9.5: living is not perfect, but it is better than death, for the dead have nothing. Qoheleth has, in a sense, made peace with the universe; he has agreed to disagree. Meursault does much the same thing the night before he is to be decapitated: “… je m’ouvrais pour la premiére fois á la tendre indifférence du monde. De l’éprouver si pareil a moi, si fraternal enfin, j’ai senti que j’avais été heureux, et que j’etais encore” (186). [… for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself – so like a brother really – I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.] Meursault has recognized the “benign indifference” of the world in facing death, and, at bottom, the “whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe” (James 49). Qoheleth has accepted, as Meursault has, the harsh conclusions that come from asking the wrong questions.
Qoheleth deals with the absurdity of time and chance much in the same way as he deals with death – he meets them on their own terms. The “all is vanity” or “all is hebel” touchstone that Qoheleth applies to events emanates as much from the passing of time and the blind rule of chance as it does from looming death. Particularly in the first three chapters of Ecclesiastes, there is a hyper-sensitivity to time. According to Donald Crosby, in The Specter of the Absurd, time’s passing is one of the major “causes” of absurdity: “Like some universal solvent, [time] dissolves the sense of self and destroys any basis for belief in a coherent pattern or encompassing meaning for one’s life” (64). There is no point in placing value on events because all events are fleeting; nothing can last, so nothing is satisfying. “There is no enduring meaning of the past, no reliability of the future, and no repose in the present” (Crosby 66). Usually, it is our memory looking back to events that stamps meaning onto them. Qoheleth knows this: “but time and chance happeneth to them all” (KJ 9.11). Time nullifies everything it comes in contact with and this, in part, causes Qoheleth’s anxiety or misery. Qoleth knows, at bottom, that even if his temporal existence were not plagued by hebel (ephemerality, discontinuity, the sketchiness of the future – not to mention the hollow green coffee can clang of boredom) he would still have to face Mr. Death, the ultimate absurdity, that final punctuation that might be three dots, or just one.
The misery that comes from Qoheleth’s realizations is seen, by many “modern” thinkers, as a requisite condition of conscious life. Heidegger, Camus, Sartre, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Wallace Stevens, and Mark Twain (in Letters from the Earth), all see the tension we have been discussing as both inevitable and necessary. Schopenhauer suggested (like Twain) that if the world “were one of paradise and ease, we would all die of boredom or hang ourselves” (quoted. in Crosby 67). Existential anxiety, Pascal’s misery, are our lot. But misery is better than monotony, and “great sufferers are never bored” (Crosby 67). Qoheleth sounds world-weary — and maybe this is why he sounds so modern — but he is never “bored” like some Gen X, Slacker, coffee-shop guy. His attitude is peppered with scorn, like that of Sisyphus–the absurd hero. Like Sisyphus, Qoheleth realizes that all is hebel, and this realization makes him great. Without stating explicitly that thinking too much has made him miserable, or that death’s absurdity has made him miserable, Qoheleth has come to that smug state of acceptance that characterizes most modern (and all existentialist) writing. The spirit of Qoheleth’s attitude change due to the uncovering of hebel‘s essence is tough to nail down, but a letter written by Voltaire at the ripe old age of 73 comes close:
As for myself, weak as I am, I carry on the war to the last moment, I
get a hundred pike-thrusts, I can return two hundred and I laugh…. I
can look upon the world as a farce even when it becomes as tragic as
it sometimes does. All comes out even at the end of the day, and all
comes out still more even when all the days are over.
(Quoted. in James 46).
Doesn’t this sound like Qoheleth in the “advice to a young man” section of 11:7 to 12:12? Voltaire’s words are known in France as an example of je m’en fichisme (and in Quebec as je m’en foutisme). In the case of Voltaire, je m’en fichisme becomes a systematic determination not to take anything in life too solemnly (James 47). Qoheleth, in realizing hebel, develops a similar je m’en fichism–although to a lesser extent because he still believes that God calls people to account for their actions (NEB 11:9).
My reason for dragging Voltaire into a discussion of Qoheleth stems from an attitude that both men share; an attitude which can only be called ironic. Fox argues, early on in his essay, that hebel is not an incongruity like irony because hebel is so much stronger — even tragic — in its consequences to the human mind (410). According to Fox, the “divorce between act and result is the reality upon which human reason founders; it robs human actions of their significance and undermines morality” (410). Fox is correct, to a point, but his essay concentrates only on hebel meaning the same thing as Camus’ absurd. I agree that the two terms are interchangeable, but irony, for Qoheleth, is much farther reaching than Fox’s reading allows. Once Qoheleth has stamped every damn thing under the sun as hebel, irony becomes a necessary tool for Qoheleth to go on living. I am not speaking here of situational irony, of the kind used by the writer of 2 Samuel who has Uriah deliver his own death warrant. Rather, for Qoheleth, irony takes on a much more important role; it becomes a filter through which he processes the world. The irony is hard to hear in Ecclesiastes because of the Hemingway-like flat writing style, but it is there, especially in the last three chapters. The mighty Kierkegaard wrote a book entirely on irony, and his discussion of this notion makes understanding the nature of Qoheleth’s irony somewhat easier (to the extent that Kierkegaard makes anything “easier”):
In irony, however, since everything is shown to be vanity, the subject becomes free. The more vain everything becomes, all the lighter, emptier, and volatilized the subject becomes. And while everything is in the process of becoming vanity, the ironic subject does not become vain in his own eyes but rescues his own vanity. For irony, everything becomes nothing, but nothing can be taken several ways. The “speculative nothing” is the vanishing at every moment with regard to the concretion, since it is itself the craving of the concrete, its nisus formativus ; the “mystic nothing” is a nothing with regard to the presentation, a nothing that nevertheless is just as full of content as the silence of the night is full of sounds for someone who has ears to hear. Finally the “ironic nothing” is the dead silence in which irony walks again and haunts. (258)
It is hard to believe that this passage was not written in reference to Ecclesiastes; so many of the elements are exactly like Qoheleth’s ponderings. Of course the “vanity” spoken of by Kierkegaard is not used in the same way as we have been looking at hebel, but its literal Hebrew meaning still has many connotations. As Kierkegaard points out, an ironic subject frees himself through recognizing hebel all around him. For Qoheleth, the “ironic nothing” is at the very heart of his musings – and it is interesting to note that the last word, “haunts,” carries with it, in Danish, the notion of “jests.” Qoheleth has become lighter, emptier, and more volatilized through his questionings, and comes to resemble a Kundera character near the end – although I doubt that The Speaker would ever become a window washing gigolo. Qoheleth, upon discovering hebel has decided to change his attitude towards the universe. Renan puts it this way:
Good-humor is a philosophic state of mind; it seems to say to Nature that we take her no more seriously than she takes us … We owe it to the Eternal to be virtuous; but we have the right to add to this tribute our irony as a sort of personal reprisal. (Quoted in James 47)
Renan has touched, unknowingly, upon the very pulse of Qoheleth’s new attitude – although Qoheleth is not nearly as cheeky. Recognition of the absurd should never be a conclusion. According to Camus, it is a starting point. The conclusion of recognizing the absurd is “the absurd universe which lights the world with its true colours to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude had discerned in it” (Myth 18). Qoheleth has exercised that ironic detachment that was the conclusion to his unanswerable questions. Frye’s conclusions regarding Qoheleth are similar as he writes: “As nothing is certain, permanent, real or unreal, the secret of wisdom is detachment without withdrawal” (123). Qoheleth needs this detachment to loosen up; for his life to become “an attitude and not a program, a scene and not a plot” (Lane 144).
A goal-oriented head space might help a person to get a lot done, but these goals, once reached, will be hebel and this is Qoheleth’s advice. When Qoheleth says that “there is nothing new under the sun” the statement applies to “wisdom but not to experience, to theory not to practice” (Frye 123). Like Camus this detachment is necessary for Qoheleth to find “the wine of the absurd and the bread of indifference on which he feeds his greatness” (Myth 52). Lowering the horizon of one’s expectations is liberating when all is deemed hebel, and only in realizing, as Qoheleth has done, that nothing is new can a person live with an intensity in which everything becomes new (Frye 123).
Qoheleth’s readjustment to life in hebel is tricky without the help of Camus, but Fox is on the right track with his new rendering of “hebel” as “absurd.” Qoheleth’s new attitude might be like T-Bone Watts’ attitude in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, All the Pretty Horses: “It’s sort of like Old T-Bone Watts when he worked for daddy they all fussed about him havin’ bad breath. He told ’em it was bettern no breath at all” (109). If, as Frye seems convinced, the lexical rendering of “hebel” should be “breath, fog, or vapor” it would still be better than no breath at all for Qoheleth (123).
But, in the words of the ever wise Qoheleth himself: “the use of books is endless, and much study is wearisome” (12.12).
Beardsley, Monroe C., ed. The European Philosphers form Descartes to Nietzsche. New York: Modern, 1960.
Camus, Albert. Létranger. Paris: Gallimard, 1971.
Crosby, Donald A. The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism. New York: SUNYP; 1988.
Fox, Michael V. “The Meaning of Hebel for Qohelet,” Journal of Biblical Literature. 105 (1986): 409-427.
Frye, Northrop. The Great Code: the Bible and Literature, Toronto, APC, 1982.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Collier-MacMillan, 1961.
Kierkegaard, Soren. The Concept of Irony; With Continual Reference to Socrates. Eds./Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: PUP, 1989.
Lane, Robert D. Reading the Bible: Intention, Text, Interpretation. Lanham: UPA, 1994.
McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses. New York: Random House, 1993.