Kohelet is a knotty and naughty book

“Futility of futilities! All is futile!” I heard someone mutter recently while glancing up with darkened brow from the pages of Kohelet, the Biblical book also known as Ecclesiastes.

The utterance was understandable, since most commentators, if they agree on anything at all about Kohelet, seem in accordance that it is a most vexing and perplexing scroll.

Possessing a myriad of philosophical contradictions and inconsistencies, Kohelet also has such a convoluted structure that one 19th-century pseudo-scholar seriously proposed that it was composed on a set of index cards that were accidentally shuffled into permanent misarrangement. (The most satisfying interpretation I’ve heard is that the book presents a debate between four archetypes — the builder, hedonist, wise man and man who fears God — indeed, the precise quartet of qualities that best defines King Solomon, who was supposed to have written it.)

A knotty book, Kohelet is also a naughty book that seems at times to plunge headlong into heresy, as when the narrator advocates an “eat, drink and be merry” lifestyle because only dust and nothingness await beyond the grave. This is a flagrant denial of the Jewish belief in the World to Come and man’s accountability before God.

Kohelet generally repudiates such controversial opinions with statements more in harmony with Jewish values. Still, the book was the focus of intense discussion among the early rabbis over its inclusion in the Jewish canon.

They decided to do so for at least two major reasons. First, the book has a strong association with King Solomon, its ostensible narrator, to whom authorship is traditionally ascribed. Second and more significantly, its conclusion (12:13) — “The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments” — strongly reaffirms the Jewish belief system.

Classified as wisdom literature, Kohelet is a philosophic treatise that explores how best to live one’s life as well as the problems of good and evil, and reward and punishment. Although its language can be frustratingly obscure in places, its shining poetry has immeasurably enriched our language.

“To everything there is a season” is perhaps its most famous set piece, but it possesses many other familiar passages and phrases. It is Kohelet that tells us that there is nothing new under the sun, that a three-fold cord is not quickly broken, that the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the valiant. It is also Kohelet that advises us to cast our bread upon the waters and that a fly will sometimes get into the ointment.

Even though Kohelet warns that “the making of many books is without limit and much study is a wearying of the flesh,” I decided to explicitly ignore that caveat in order to present a brief discussion of the Jewish Publication Society’s recently published new translation of Ecclesiastes/ Kohelet with extensive commentary by Michael V. Fox.

In an impressive 20-page introduction, Fox discusses the issues mentioned above and many others — including dating of the text. Despite the traditional linkage to Solomon in the late 10th century BCE, he asserts that it is “clearly postexilic.” He summarizes the scientific evidence, linguistic and otherwise, to suggest it was likely written in the third century BCE.

Fox warns that the book “is in places extremely difficult” with an idiosyncratic vocabulary, strange syntax and many unclear sentences that resist imposed meanings. He defends Kohelet’s unity but like most commentators, ends up explaining away many of its philosophical diversions on a piecemeal basis.

Particularly useful are his summaries of numerous major interpretations from classical Midrash, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam and other sources. A “watershed” in understanding the book came in the mid-19th-century, he writes, when biblical scholars no longer felt compelled to see the work through the straitjacket of traditional biblical exegesis, and recognized in it “a darker, less pious countenance.”

Fox’s usually insightful commentary is not without its deficiencies. For example, when Kohelet the God-fearer famously refers to “Gavoah me-al Gavoah . . . ,” the One higher than the high who watches and the higher ones above them (5:7), he sees in this only an elaborate human bureaucracy without reference to either God or the angels.

This is a surprising lapse from one who so readily acknowledges Kohelet’s ultimate faith in God and His commandments. “For Koheleth, these are bedrock truths that experience can collide with but not dislodge,” he observes.

Likewise, the usually inventive translation seems idiosyncratic in spots. The repeated phrase “Ur-reut Ruach,” for instance, which is often taken as “a vexation of spirit,” is here reduced into “a vexation of wind.” Yes, both meanings are correct, but the first signifies a disturbance that gets deeply under the skin and so probably comes closer to the intended meaning.

JPS should be commended for its sensitive textual arrangement which sets off sections of poetic and metrical language into stanzas. Only the obviously poetic “Everything has its season” passage (3:1-8) receives similar treatment in the Art Scroll Ecclestiastes; everything else is presented as a continuous prose block.

The JPS volume should have featured more about Kohelet’s regal alter-ego. King Solomon was famed for his wisdom, built the Temple, took 1,000 wives and amassed huge wealth; our multifaceted narrator, even if we don’t accept that he is Solomon, obviously had much in common with him. However, Fox seems to dismiss the Solomonic connection without a serious discussion of the life and accomplishments of Israel’s legendary king. He also pays scant attention to the important subthemes related to the kingdom, inheritance and the father-son relationship.

Both the JPS and the Art Scroll editions of Kohelet possess their strengths and their weaknesses. Art Scroll’s commentary is more diligent about citing scriptural, Talmudic and rabbinical references, but often does so in such an abbreviated form as to appear breezily simplistic. The sum of the matter, when all is said and done, is that the JPS Ecclesiastes/Kohelet is a thorough, sensitive and engaging study with much to recommend it. ♦

© 2004 by Bill Gladstone