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Monday, June 25, 2007

Qohelet, God and Meaning

I recently had a bit of a disagreement with fellow blogger and OT professor, Dr. Mariottini that I wondered if you all could weigh in on. (You can find it here.) The disagreement concerned the interpretation of Qohelet (the voice in the book of Ecclesiastes). These days it seems that the standard Conservative/Evangelical interpretation of Qohelet is as follows: Without God there is no meaning in life, but with God a person can experience a meaningful life.

Here is the problem as I see it: The following statement is not found in Qohelet, nor is anything that even resembles it.

There are a few verses that Dr. M used to rebut my point:

For to the man who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God, 2:26

That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil-- this is the gift of God, 3:13

Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work-- this is a gift of God, 5:19

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do, 9:7

I suggest that a close reading of the text shows that in context these are references to God's sovereignty. God is in control of meaning/satisfaction, and one should be happy if God grants to you the good life and the ability to enjoy it.

I realize that this upsets the typical interpretation of Qohelet. However, as I suggested to Dr. M, I believe that much of this interpretation has been driven by a desire to refute Nietzsche, Sartre, and other non-Christian existentialists who seem to promote the meaninglessness of life. As such, Qohelet became a useful god-of-the-gaps, and we used him to win an artificial battle with non-Christian philosophy.

I suggest that the point of Qohelet is not to use God as a variable in an equation. Ever seen the bumper sticker, "Know God, know peace. No God, no peace"? Qohelet is not saying, "Know God, know meaning. No God, no meaning." Rather, Qohelet's point is that meaning can never, (ever!) be found at the end of a simple equation. Rather, meaning is something that is something one is fortunate to find. All of life is hebel. Hebel is the Hebrew word that is often translated as "meaningless," and in my opinion it is incorrect to do so, for hebel is the situation of life that destabilizes all of our efforts to attain meaning.

What say you? Can we find in Qohelet a formula for the meaningful life, whereby God is the missing variable???

Notes, etc.:
For a more technical discussion of some of the themes in this post see my essay
Nothing new under the Sun: An exegetical analysis of hebel as a deconstruction of the human experience
Dr. Claude Mariottini's post "The book of Ecclesiastes: Vanity of Vanities"


ktismatics said...

In looking at the good doctor's post it's possible to discern evidence of your observation about how Ecclesiastes is used as a polemic against secular wisdom. Marionitti says of the "all is vanity" refrain: This cry, found throughout the book, reflects the futile effort at understanding the things of God through human wisdom. It seems to me that Qohelet claims not that his search was futile, but rather that what he discovered was the pervasiveness of futility. You get no sense that Qohelet regards himself as a secularist, nor is he distinguishing secular from godly wisdom. He concludes that the pursuit of wisdom is "a striving after wind," but so is everything else.

You observe in your comment that Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre in effect support the Biblical writer's contention. In response Mariottini delivers what might be regarded as a low blow: Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens only see evil in the world, they see inequities and enigmas everywhere and they end up with the pessimism of Qoheleth and they become skeptics like he was. If God is the cause of habel and “responsible for this mess,” as you wrote, then Dawkins and Hitches are right.

First, of course, to say that Dawkins and Hitchens "only see evil in the world" is either an error in Marionitti's understanding or a conscious deception. Then to blacken your impeccable evangelical credentials by lumping you in with these evil-seeing pessimistic skeptics seems like one of those fascistic tactics we've come to expect from the evangelical right.

I say three cheers for Erdman in his efforts to establish a more nuanced, less preacherly reading of the Preacher!

Jonathan Erdman said...

It is interesting to think about Qohelet in relation to Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre and various existentialist thinkers of the 19th and 20th century. In fact, Michael Fox, a highly respected Jewish Qohelet scholar, has done extensive research and publishing on the relationship between the "absurd" and The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus.

Consider this long quote from Fox's article "The Meaning of Hebel for Qohelet":

No one English word corresponds exactly to the semantic shape of hebel as Qohelet uses it, but it is possible to render hte word by an equivalent that comes close to representing its range of meaning and that bears similar connotations. The best translation equivalent for hebel in Qohelet's usage is "absurd, absurdity," understood in a sense close to that given the concept in Albert Camus's classic description of the absurd, The Myth of Sisyphus. The essence of the absurd is a disparity between two terms that are supposed to be joined by a link of harmony or causality but are, in fact, disjunt. The absurd is an affront to reason, in the broad sense of the human faculty that looks for order in the world about us. The quality of absurdity does not inhere in a being, act, or event in and of itself (though these may be called "absurd"), but rather in the tension between a certain reality and a framework of expectations. In Camus's words:
The feeling of absurdity does not spring from the mere scrutiny of a fact or an impression, but...bursts form the comparison between a bare fact and a certain reality, between an action and the world that transcends it. The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation.

Citation: Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 105, No. 3 (Sep., 1986), pp. 409-427

ktismatics said...

The feeling of absurdity does not spring from the mere scrutiny of a fact or an impression, but...bursts form the comparison between a bare fact and a certain reality, between an action and the world that transcends it. The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation. (Camus)

"Absurd" is the name for the space between "bare fact" and "a certain reality." So perhaps wisdom allows you to detect this gap. It is in this gap that God sutures together fact and reality -- and then undoes the stitches again as he sees fit.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yes, I think the idea of stiching and unstiching might apply well to Qohelet:

Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future. Qohelet 7:13-14

But now if we start talking about "gaps" and "spaces" it might bring to mind another 20th century philosopher by the name of Jaques Derrida.

Fox emphasizes in his research that much of what is hebel for Qohelet has to do with frustrated expectations. We expect that the world will make sense, but often things occur that seem completely absurd. That is, they don't fit into any coherent whole.

samlcarr said...

On the one hand everything faces the same fate. On the other there is wisom and there is foolishness. These set out the limits within which we exist and the limits of our choices.

From the perspective of endings all is the same, but from the perspective of life itself a realistic assessment of oneself and a realistic expectation will result in lives lived with some measure of joy, wheras foolishness and ambition will lead to lives of bitterness an emptiness.

samlcarr said...

Definitely, to answer your question, God is a given and a constant for all in Ecclesiastes. We can acknowlege an obey or not an in either case God has already 'numbered our tracks'.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I would say that your statements are in line with Qohelet, at least as far as I understand him.

However, I note that for Qohelet even though "wisdom is better than folly" (2:12-14) it still does not ensure a meaningful life. Wisdom has pragmatic advantages over folly, but a wise man may still be miserable, as was the case with Qohelet who came to hate life. (2:17) This is because wisdom and success does not ensure happiness or the feeling of having lived a meaningful life. There are many, many other factors that hover over us and threaten to steal meaningfulness and happiness away from us. Qohelet goes through these things throughout the book in an unsystematic way. As I see it, the presence of these unpredictable factors is one of the primary explanations of the term hebel.

But then I ask if adding God to one's life excuses one from all of the hebel that destabilizes our human experience. I simply don't see this as a concern for Qohelet. For Qohelet it is important to fear God, (5:1-7) and God holds the cards in terms of sovereignly bestowing the ability to enjoy life (5:19), however, nothing is a sure thing. In the end, it is all hebel (1:2, 12:8) and life is like a chasing after of the wind. We go for the gusto, but there are no guarantees.

If I am correct, then Evangelical and Conservative thought does violence to the text by insisting that having God in your life ensures that we are no longer chasing the wind. The thought is that chasing wind only applies to the non-believer. But is this Qohelet's idea or a handy recontextualization???

samlcarr said...

I think you are right Jon, and that's what i thought i would say with my second comment. Wisdom also does not guarantee happiness! But there is also a bit of a confession here, as I suspect that Qohelet is saying that tho he was wise, he misused the wisdom to try to find 'the magic formula' or the 'theory of everything' and failed, so his ambition caused him to misuse wisdom, as wisdom is more in the nature of a gift to be given away for the benefit of others.

However, where I still have a lot of doubts is with the nature of Hebel. Sometimes destabilising is good and as you point out absurd may fit too and then emptiness and even rubbish and disgust can be a part of the semantic cloud.

There is certainly a call to "go for the gusto" but at the same time Qohelet says don't overreach and he also says that even when things don't work out, the best you can hope for is some measure of contentment.

There are a lot of common roots in the thinking of Qohelet and the way in which Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven, but that's a different thread altogether...

Jonathan Erdman said...

However, where I still have a lot of doubts is with the nature of Hebel.

Yea, that's a tough one. It is a difficult subject because interpreting hebel involves bringing together several issues: the wide/diverse range in which the word is used, the single/unifying way in which it is used (1:2, 12:8, "all" is hebel), the novel/unique way in which Qohelet uses the term hebel (he takes a somewhat uncommon word and transforms it into the lynchpin of a philosophical treatise), one's overall interpretation of the book as a whole (which is difficult because it is very circular and unsystematic), the potential of multiple voices/writers, and as we have mentioned in this thread Qohelet's circular style and his "contradictions" lends the book to being easily recontextualized to fit one's pre-existing philosophical or theological commitments.

All of the above factors, and perhaps more, are necessary in trying to understand what hebel means.

Proceed with caution!

Jonathan Erdman said...

Minor correction: I meant to say that Qohelet takes a "common" (not "uncommon") word and uses it in a unique way. Hebel is used variously in the OT as a very non-spectacular word to describe "vapor" or to describe something that is useless or worthless. But Qohelet makes this rather unspectacular word into something quite remarkable. Heidegger, I would say, does something similar with Dasein, "being there" from the common German verb "sein".

Matt said...


Founds this post at random....

I think your views are definitely on the right track...and expose a significant misreading of Qoheleth by evangelicals. That is, they are reading their theology into the book, for the Bible certainly teaches that life without God is certainly 'meaningless'!

If you want review that gets at some of this, see M.M. Kline's detailed review of Tremper Longman's commentary on Ecclesiastes.