Eerdmans have recently published a new volume by David Penchansky entitled Understanding Wisdom Literature. This is a book which examines the biblical and post-biblical wisdom literature and raises questions and issues which are sometimes uncomfortable but are nonetheless (or perhaps I should say “are thus”) important. Below is my review of Penchansky’s book.
Translators and scholars have long debated the best translation for the term הבל (hebel, traditionally “vanity”) in Qohelet (Ecclesiastes). The term refers to vapour, something intangible, but is almost always used metaphorically in the Hebrew Bible.
Now rather than discuss all possible meanings, in this post I’d like to examine one particular proposal: that הבל means ‘fleeting’.1 I’ve come across this a couple of times recently, first at The Briefing, and second from Gary Millar who’s recently taken up the post of Principal at Queensland Theological College and who spoke at Katoomba Men’s Convention.
For why “fleeting” isn’t an adequate translation of הבל, read on…
John Hobbins raised the 2011 NIV’s rendering of Eccl 11:1–2 (although it really just retains the TNIV’s translation and so isn’t a new feature of this translation). The 2011 NIV/TNIV render these verses as follows:
Ship your grain across the sea;
after many days you may receive a return.
Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.
The interpretation is promoted by a number of commentators, in particular Gordis, Delitzsch, and Longman. Of course, as others have noted, the translation is somewhat tendentious — offering far more interpretation of the text than is normal elsewhere in the NIV family of translations. A rendering which more closely reflects the Hebrew is this:
Cast your bread on the surface of the water,
for after many days you may find it.
Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
for you do not know what trouble may come upon the earth.
Traditionally the passage has been understood to refer to alms-giving or charity. It also appears to reflect a similar proverb in the Egyptian Instruction of Onkhsheshonqy, which reads:
Do a good deed and throw it in the water,
when it dries up you will find it.1
The 2011 NIV/TNIV understand the text to refer to maritime trade. לחם is understood to refer to merchandise or to grain, and the second verse supposedly advises spreading the risk of such trade.
While this may be a legitimate interpretation of the passage (more on this below), is it a legitimate translation or does it move too far down the spectrum by excluding possibilities inherent in the Hebrew? Read on for more…
A friend of mine who pastors a church asked my opinion of Kirk Patston’s interpretation of Ecclesiastes which he had promulgated in a series of talks at the Katoomba Easter Convention in 2009. I hadn’t heard them, but did find a copy of some talks he had given at SMBC which were based on his KEC talks, so I downloaded them and listened to them (available here). I’d guess that they’re truncated a little — the first one went for only about 20 minutes. As such it is probably a little unfair to offer too comprehensive a critique of his views (they’re fairly light on exegesis and heavy on anecdote and illustration which is fair for the genre of his talks but really doesn’t offer a comprehensive defence of his position with which I can engage). Nonetheless, since it is all I have to go on, here we go!
Patston argues that Qohelet was a wise and faithful teacher who basically had something positive to say. The book is about gift vs. gain: it begins with an examination of gain (Eccl 1:3), deduces that gain is pointless, and then concludes that life is a gift and ought to be enjoyed as such. Patston treats “gain” as primarily material gain, that which we strive for and accrue in life. (Although I’m sure he wouldn’t endorse them entirely, there are a few scholars who propose generally positive readings of Ecclesiastes such as Whybray and Ogden.)
It’s an appealing interpretation of the most difficult of biblical books. It is immediately relevant to people living in our modern materialistic culture. But is it right? Read on for more detailed evaluation…
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.
There have been a few reviews of The End of Wisdom to date, and so I’m going to take this opportunity to make a few comments about them (to see some of them you can click on the book to the right to go to Eisenbraun’s page which includes some extacts).
First, a couple of comments about the review by Marianne Dacy NDS in the Australian Biblical Review. The review has one particularly puzzling comment:
Martin Shields, whose background as an artist is reflected in the book’s attractive presentation…
What is puzzling is that I was unaware that I had a background as an artist! I’m not sure where that idea has come from, perhaps a misdirected Google search?
The only other comment I have relates to the concluding paragraph where the reviewer clearly holds to a Persian date and thinks the evidence conclusive. Now I’ve told Ian Young and expect him to have words with her about this, after all he argues quite convincingly that biblical texts cannot be dated linguistically (see Hebrew Studies 46  341–51)! And as I explain in the book, I don’t think that identifying a date for Ecclesiastes will ultimately have a strong bearing on its interpretation.
Second, a couple of comments on the very brief review by John Jarick in JSOT 31.5 (2007) 157–158. The substantive portion of Jarick’s review is as follows:
It seems that the book as a whole—not just the epilogue—has been designed by the epilogist to hoist Qoheleth with his own petard, to expose the sages as empty men who cannot understand the world and cannot offer conclusive advice on how we should live. The book possesses the ‘speciﬁc overarching purpose of deterring prospective students of speculative wisdom from embracing the wisdom movement and pointing them to their religious heritage, which offered a way out of the senseless and futile world of the sages’ (p. 239). One wonders if that really was the purpose of Ecclesiastes, a work that has in fact won so many fans for ‘the wisdom movement’ over the years, or whether it is rather the purpose of S.’s book… But one can be conﬁdent that many readers of Ecclesiastes will ﬁnd more wisdom in Qoheleth’s words than S. does.
I have a number of problems with Jarick’s take on the book. First, by referring to “speculative wisdom” I clearly distinguish the target of Qohelet’s ire from wisdom more broadly conceived and more specifically manifest in Proverbs, Sirach, and elsewhere. Rather, I went to some lengths to show that there is a form of wisdom which is consistently decried within the pages of the OT/HB, wisdom that even the other wisdom literature debunks. Take, for example, Job, which goes to great lengths to counter the retributive foundations of the traditional wisdom exemplified in the arguments of Job’s friends.
The point is, of course, to note that criticising one manifestation of wisdom does not equate to rejecting all wisdom. The epilogist extolls the wisdom of Qohelet precisely because he called a spade a spade: there are limits to human wisdom, and indeed Qohelet failed to find answers to all the questions he asked and then had to be content with recommending that we enjoy what we can in life because he can offer no more unequivocal advice about how to achieve positive outcomes in life. If the greatest of all sages failed in this task, what hope do others have?
Second, Jarick’s final sentence ultimately highlights the very methodological problem many readers bring to biblical texts (of all genres) which I sought to redress in the book: we read the text through our lens, a lens which invariably affects our appreciation of the meaning of the text and inevitably results in some degree of domestication of the text. And our lens differs from that of the author and his (chances are very slim it was a ‘her’ I’m afraid) original audience. The reading proposed in the book is an attempt to suggest how such a difference in perspective might bear on the meaning we take from the text. Modern readers relate to the doubts of Qohelet, but do they reflect the mindset of all readers at all times? I think the later history of the wisdom movement as revealed in Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon highlights the significance of this gap between us and them.