washington on the end of wisdom

A new review of The End of Wisdom has recently appeared in RBL. I felt that the review, by Harold C. Washington, warranted a few comments. Washington’s words are block-quoted and italicised, followed by my own comments.

The “end” of wisdom in the book’s title signifies not wisdom’s aim but its demise.

This is not correct, “end” in the title is intended to be deliberately ambiguous, referring both to the demise (of the speculative wisdom exemplified in Qohelet’s words) and the “goal” of wisdom which is the fear of Yahweh. My reading of Qohelet is not that it is about the demise of wisdom, but its reformation. It is a call back to wisdom’s roots, as I state in the conclusion (and elsewhere):

… [Ecclesiastes] becomes a warning directed at students and prospective students of the wisdom movement against the way of wisdom that Qoheleth had followed and a call back to a theological wisdom grounded in the fear of God and obedience to his commandments. (p. 238)

Furthermore, the fact that I do not propose that wisdom was a simple monolithic entity which either stood or fell should be apparent by my repeated reference to speculative wisdom, i.e., to one particular manifestation of wisdom which the author of Ecclesiastes sought to discredit. After all, as my words above make clear, the aim I suggest is not to destroy wisdom but to reform it, to promote one form of wisdom over another. This distinction is, of course, not one that I alone have made in analysing the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible, and so Washington should not be unfamiliar with it.

Let’s move to more substantive matters in Washington’s review.

The next chapter argues that the epilogist’s effort to debunk wisdom teachings aligns with a predominantly negative attitude toward wisdom throughout the Hebrew Bible. Shields claims that “outside of the book of Proverbs, wisdom and those who practice it are almost universally decried,” an overstatement, to be sure (7). Shields surveys the Hebrew Bible section by section, arguing with limited success that negative characterizations of wisdom outweigh the positive and that human wisdom is uniformly devalued; only God’s wisdom is genuinely affirmed.

An example would have been useful — it is hard to argue against an apparently subjective assessment as Washington gives here. I do not believe that any of my readings of the status of wisdom reflected elsewhere in the HB are new as attested by the references in the book to those who endorse the reading I’ve offered. Furthermore, I do not simply weigh up positive verses negative, but highlight an awareness of different forms of wisdom, for example:

Within the Pentateuch, it is only in Deuteronomy that we encounter wisdom in a positive light. Here it is designated as one of the attributes to be sought in prospective leaders over the tribes (see Deut 1:13, 15; 34:9). However, this positive representation of wisdom cannot be used as a basis for approving the speculative wisdom of Qoheleth, for the definition of wisdom in Deuteronomy is entirely foreign to Qoheleth… (p. 8).

Washington then reflects upon my exegesis of the body of Ecclesiastes, the words of Qohelet:

Every section of the commentary proceeds, tendentiously at times, toward the conclusion that Qoheleth’s words are in conflict with the “biblical teaching” upheld by the epilogist.

Of course it is tendentious, i.e., “expressing or intending to promote a particular cause or point of view.” The point of the detailed examination of Qohelet’s words is to demonstrate that my reading of the book is coherent and accounts for the content of the work. Hence I concentrate on the manner in which each portion of the text fits into my claims about the significance of the work as a whole. I make this quite clear at the outset of chapter four in which the words of Qohelet are examined in detail:

In this chapter, my examination of Qoheleth’s words will focus primarily on understanding how they relate to the understanding of the epilogue revealed in the previous chapter. (p. 110)

Following on, Washington writes:

It is often observed in studies of Ecclesiastes that—perhaps because of the book’s tensions and ambiguities—commentators tend to project upon Qoheleth their own worldviews and dispositions. We peer into the murky depths of Ecclesiastes and glimpse, lo, our own faces. Shields clearly has no inclination to fashion Qoheleth in his own image, but perhaps he takes a parallel path in overidentifying with the epilogist, resulting in a regrettably one-dimensional reading of Ecclesiastes.

If it is a one-dimensional reading it is so because my aim is to demonstrate the viability of my interpretation. I do not argue that I have exhausted the meaning of the text at each and every point, but my book does seek to establish the point that the book of Ecclesiastes can be understood to have a unified theme which can account for its content. This criticism appears to reflect a failure to note the purpose of the analysis — Washington is apparently reading my book expecting an altogether different type of book and then finds himself unhappy that it isn’t that other book!

Shields invokes ardently the biblical orthodoxy that he sets against Qoheleth, dwelling on “a God who reveals and redeems, who chooses people and cares for them, … a God who has revealed his will in his commands to his people, … the God who intervenes in human history, … the God of Israel [who is] benevolent and just” (1, 97, 128, 170). These are undeniably major theological motifs of the Hebrew Bible, but the very notion of orthodoxy is an ill-fitting imposition. What is the benefit of holding Qoheleth to this inapt standard? Why not embrace the richly variegated theological and intellectual makeup of the Hebrew Scriptures, including the distinctiveness of Ecclesiastes?

Washington here points to something which is itself very ill-defined: just how “richly variegated” is the theological and intellectual makeup of the Hebrew Scriptures? I don’t dispute for one moment that there is some degree of variegation, but I do draw a line in the sand — there is a limit. The point then becomes whether Qohelet goes beyond what is found elsewhere, and it is my contention that he does. Here’s what I say in the book:

The problem with this view, however, is that the supposed tradition of skepticism or expressions of doubt elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible are not nearly as incessant or unremitting as the words of Qoheleth. Whybray explains this as a “development” of earlier doubts, as if Qoheleth’s views are simply the logical result of taking these earlier doubts to the extreme. This undermines the argument, however, for it does not follow that, because some expression of doubt or skepticism is accepted within the scope of “orthodox” thought, all expressions of doubt or skepticism can be acceptable. The simple truth is that, in spite of the existence of some expressions of doubt elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, there is none that matches Qoheleth’s words for a sustained denial of faith and doubt in the goodness of God. (p. 5)

I seek to justify this claim in my detailed examination of the words of Qohelet as well as through my analysis of the attitudes to wisdom expressed throughout the remainder of the Hebrew Bible. This examination which occupies a significant portion of the book and so which cannot be reproduced here!

Does Ecclesiastes display Hebrew wisdom in its worst moment, imploding for all to see? Or does Ecclesiastes represent the best qualities of the Hebrew wisdom literature: critical discernment, bracing honesty, above all persistent self-critique, a melding of integrity and humility that, after all, is not so far from the genuine pieties inculcated elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible? I concur with the generations of readers, devout or skeptical, who have taken the latter option. If however, Shields is right, and the epilogist really did compose Ecclesiastes in an effort to neutralize Qoheleth’s influence, the rich reception history of Ecclesiastes gives a clear verdict: that effort was in vain.

Washington here gets it partly right and partly wrong. First, he’s right to affirm Qohelet’s “self-critique,” for Qohelet highlights the failings and shortcomings of wisdom as well as its fragility — points which are affirmed in all the major commentaries.

But on another level he is wrong, for I am not arguing that the epilogist sought to neutralise Qohelet’s influence, for the epilogist concurs with Qohelet that speculative wisdom had failings and shortcomings and, appealing to him as the ultimate authority on wisdom, makes a case for a return to a more traditional form of wisdom founded upon the fear of Yahweh in conjunction with obedience to the Law. This is not wisdom imploding but wisdom reforming. Nor is this “Hebrew wisdom,” rather it is one part of Hebrew wisdom.

Furthermore, the “rich reception history” is not an unequivocal witness against my interpretation. For one, the earliest examples of wisdom to follow Qohelet’s probable time of publication reflect precisely the sort of reformation I suggest the epilogist sought: Sirach presents a renewed synthesis between the Law and wisdom which closely resembles the form of wisdom endorsed by the epilogist; and the Wisdom of Solomon includes an explicit repudiation of the speculative wisdom reflected in some of Qohelet’s words. Later readers, too, are often troubled by some of Qohelet’s words, or (as in the case of some ancient Jewish interpretations) offer entirely orthodox interpretations of even the most difficult words (to the point where the interpretations are almost an inversion of the meaning of Qohelet’s words). Similar comments can be made throughout the history of interpretation of the work, for there never has been any unified coherent interpretation of Qohelet’s words that somehow supports Washington’s contention that any effort by the epilogist to counter the influence of speculative wisdom had ultimately failed.

Washington may well be right in suggesting that “commentators tend to project upon Qoheleth their own worldviews and dispositions,” for that would appear to be what he has done. The modern predilection for finding all manner of diverse positions endorsed in the text of the Ecclesiastes (and, indeed, the entire Bible) oft reflects precisely this projection and a failure to reckon on the distance between modern reader and the ancient worldview of the author and original audience. I have even suggested that this loss of connection to the original context of the work is largely responsible for the multitude of interpretations. My interpretation may not be correct — it relies on a reconstruction of the historical context which can only be supported by secondary evidence (although I would argue that my reconstruction is not without such support) — but it is designed to take this into consideration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.