Monday, August 27, 2012

The epilogue of Ecclesiastes, the end as a beginning

Wisdom literature in the Bible is a curious thing and it can be easy to misunderstand or misrepresent its nature.  It's not that difficult to transform Proverbs into a book that simplistically advocates what many would identify as a prosperity gospel.  The proverbs in Proverbs, properly understood, are not promises from God but axioms and riddles which provide an opportunity to consider the human condition.  

For instance, an atomized handling of "He who finds a wife finds what is good and has favor from the Lord" is not really a blanket endorsement of all marriages.  This proverb would not be possible to construe as a blessing on an Israelite to marry a foreigner in all cases (or else a whole raft of issues emerge in Ezra/Nehemiah.  Obviously since Solomon's numerous wives enticed him to worship other gods no one would infer that because he who finds a wife finds what is good that he who finds many wives finds what is even better.  But by another measure proverbs warning about the nagging wife and the wife who is like rot in the bones of her husband are not exactly ringing endorsements that it is always better to be married than not.

Proverbs may be seen not as law but as a kind of axiomatic set of case studies, the voices of experience distilled into non-statistical observations of trends.  It will tend to go better for you if you do X rather than Y in circumstances A and B but if you are in circumstances C or D then you should rely on the instructions of proverbs M and Q, not proverbs W and L.  

Something that has been proposed in a traditional interpretation of Ecclesiastes, the idea that Solomon was writing his way through repentance, misses out on something.  Qoholeth tells us he sought to understand both wisdom and folly and to observe what advantages there were to be found.  We discover that the advantages are few, fleeting, and conditional, often conditional in terrible, mercurial ways.  

Now it's very widely accepted that the epilogue of Ecclesiastes was written by someone else who is not the author of the bulk of the work.  There may be some teachers and preachers who say otherwise but this attribution has to be more than just one citing a tradition or an interpretive approach informed by what some have called a "pious bias".  In fact the more pious Ecclesiastes is presented as being the less apt it is to accurately account for the bulk of the book.  Martin Shields' commentary The End of Wisdom goes quite some way to spelling this out.

There are some things that leap off the page if you set aside the popular but ultimately unlikely idea that Solomon wrote this book in a process of repentance.  Let's just take a few strategic statements.  For instance in Ecclesiastes 4 the author observes that all hard work springs from envy and that is senseless.  Hard work is extolled throughout Proverbs.  If the author of Ecclesiastes were Solomon, and Solomon were writing his way through repentance, then he seems to have a major bummer on the value of working hard.  It's not the work in itself, which Ecclesiastes suggests we enjoy "if" we can, it's that the whole motive for our work is envy, which is lame.  

Then we get two proverbs. 

The fool folds his hands and eats his flesh.
Better one handful of gratification than two fists full of labor which is pursuit of the wind.

Here we see that there are two paths that are stupid.  The lazybones is an idiot for not working but the man who must always ever work and do more and is never satisfied is just as much an idiot as the lazybones.  

We've seen two proverbs that warn against extremes but that Golden Mean, that perfect balance in the middle is an ideal for lots of reasons.  As Qoholeth observes that which is bent and crooked cannot be straightened.  What we have seen in Ecclesiastes 4 is a small sample of Qoholeth pitting proverb against proverb to show the limits of both.  Both proverbs are true as far as they go but Qoholeth goes on to observe that in the real world neither proverb goes all that far.  There are those who work hard yet have no one to share with and no heirs to leave their fortune to.  

In Ecclesiastes 3 we see the observation that men and beasts both die.  Who, we are asked, knows whether the breath of one goes up to heaven and the breath of the other returns to the earth?  

It is in this passage where it is virtually impossible to sustain an interpretation of Ecclesiastes as Solomon writing his way through repentance.  Qoholeth says that God has elected to show men that they are but animals and that men will die just as beasts die.  Death, as Martin Shields points out in his overview of Ecclesiastes 3: 18-21, not only obliterates the distinctions between the wise and the foolish but even between beasts and men.  It's hard to overstate how unorthodox this sentiment is within any canonical book.  The question about whether the breath of man rises upward and that of animals descends comes after Qoholeth says he told himself that God will appoint justice.  Qoholeth's conclusion is that what God's "justice" seems to be is to show that humans and animals die and are thereby put on the same level.  

One of the most damaging weaknesses of Solomon-as-repentant-author-of-Ecclesiastes is that "if" this were Solomon and "if" he were repenting why is there not a single reference to the Scriptures or the Torah in the book?  Even though in Ecclesiastes 3:18-21 there "could" be an allusion to the breath of God animating humanity Martin Shields points out that this makes the passage even more remarkably unorthodox than it would have been if Qoholeth were not referring to Scripture.  This would entail, after all, that Qoholeth himself is openly questioning the truth of Scripture on the question of whether humanity bears the image of God.  How can you be so sure you were made in the image of God if you die just like dogs in the street do? For Qoholeth the question of where the breath of the dying goes can't be answered but the question itself is framed in a way which, given Genesis 2-3, casts doubt on one of the most basic claims about humans having been brought to life by the breath of God.  Ecclesiastes 3:18-21 is too agnostic on the subject of humans bearing the divine image to come across as a convincing case of Solomon repentantly working his way back to an orthodox life and thought.  

So if Qoholeth expresses ideas that openly question things that are presented as true elsewhere in Scripture, and if Qoholeth tends to pit proverbs against each other and finds them all wanting what do we make of the book?  It is here, Shields proposes, that the epilogue serves as a guide.  We must read through the words of Qoholeth, though, before we get to it.  

I'll paraphrase Shields' rendering as follows:

Because Qoholeth was a sage he constantly taught knowledge to the people. He heard, studied, and corrected many proverbs. Qoholeth sought to find pleasing words but very honest words were written.  The words of the wise are goads, like cattle-prods are masters of collections, which are used by a lone shepherd. In addition to these, my son, beware of excessive book-making, this never ends, and of endless study--it exhausts the body. 

Shields makes what I consider to be a good case that if Qoholeth is simply said to be "wise" then to say he was wise in the epilogue is redundant.  If, however, Qoholeth were described as a sage then this means that he is presented to us as the wisest sage of them all.  That becomes important in how we interpret what we have read through Ecclesiastes up to this point in the epilogue.  Qoholeth is presented as an exceptional, fantastic sage.  Shields discusses how we are told specifically that Qoholeth constantly taught the people.  This is something that would not need to be mentioned UNLESS sages were not known, at that time, for teaching ordinary people.  

Shields does a nice overview of the scribes and sages in the OT and comments about scribes and sages by prophets but that warrants a separate post.  His case about the epilogue, one I find persuasive (or at least highly interesting) is that the sages as a class are presented in a negative light.  Qoholeth is presented as a sage, as the sage of sages, yet Qoholeth spends almost the entire book of Ecclesiastes observing that everything is broken, nothing works as it should, the world does not seem to provide any evidence of divine blessing.  In fact the world seems to suggest that God, though real, has consigned us to lives that are hardly different from those of animals.  Those who enjoy God's favor, somehow, get to be happy in life but we are not really told there is any way to gain God's favor.  The wicked prosper despite their cruelty while the righteous die early.  Qoholeth casts doubt on the justice in God's creation and the dignity of human life itself.  Though God makes all things beautiful in their times these are not times that can be adequately found out by mortals.  Wisdom is of some value, to be sure, but only a little and all of the advantages of wisdom can be undone by even a tiny amount of folly.  Why then, have I become so very wise?

Qoholeth, in other words, comes to question the most basic assumptions about wisdom being able to answer the questions about life for which it was offered as an answer.  Yet Qoholeth was presented as a sage of sages.  How can this be?  The epilogue tips us off but subtly.  We are told the man was a great sage and that he sought pleasing words ("useful sayings" is how the JPS puts it).  The NIV has it that Qoholeth sought just the right words and wrote what is upright and true.  Yes, well, we can wonder about that.  The ESV tells us he "sought to find words of delight and uprightly he wrote words of truth."   So that would include casting doubt on whether or not humans gained life through the breath of God?  Shields' proposal here is that Qoholeth is praised as the best of the sages but we should not presume from this that the author of the epilogue is Qoholeth or that the sages as a class were considered commendable. 

To get specific, when we are warned of the endless production of books who but sages would keep writing books in which they purport to tell us they have unlocked the mysteries of living well?  In an ancient Near Eastern society this becomes more rather than less obvious.  Qoholeth, dare I suggest a strained analogy, found himself objecting to insipid self-help books produced by self-proclaimed experts on the challenges of socially and financially ambitious young men with big-time aspirations, too.  
The author of the epilogue, Shields proposes, presents Qoholeth as the ultimate sage to reveal that the best sage is not someone who shares pretty and pleasant observations about how with the right wisdom you can prosper.  No, Qoholeth reveals that wisdom fails to attain any certainty about the things it is sold for.  Sages may gladly take your money to tell you things they claim to know and claim to have learned but they're no more able to answer the vexatious questions of life or get you closer to inscrutable divine favor than anyone else.  

Shields pointed out something in his commentary on Ecclesiastes I had not stopped to consider before, there's absolutely nothing in the text of Ecclesiastes that tells you HOW to please God or gain the Lord's favor.  There are also no references to any scripture at all.  In how many other books of the Bible are references to the Exodus made, for instance?  In how many other books of the Bible are there references to significant moments and figures in Israelite history?   There are scholars and teachers who have inferred from this that Ecclesiastes is a book in which we see what can be known of the human condition if there is no God who reveals anything about the divine to us.  This is, I think we'll see, more accurate than attempting to present Ecclesiastes as some path of repenting of anything.  Ecclesiastes shows us a man repenting more for having gained wisdom at all then of any of the sins attributed to Solomon.  As we've noted in earlier blogging on this book of the Bible there's no indication that Solomon abdicated as is indicated in Ecclesiastes.  

To simplify the case Shields makes about Ecclesiastes as a whole and the author of the epilogue, the compiler of Ecclesiastes has given us the book and its epilogue as a kind of Pentagon papers or Wikileaks of the wisdom movement of that time.  This is not just a case sustained by reference to the text of Ecclesiastes itself but also by cross-referencing discussions of sages and scribes elsewhere in the canon.  I hope to get to that topic later in the week but here seems like a decent stopping point.  If you have read Ecclesiastes and gotten the impression that what it says doesn't fit anything in orthodox Jewish or Christian thought then, Shields argues, you're getting the point that the author of the epilogue has been making.  The bigger point of the book is that the wisdom movement that held itself out as being able to find the laws of order and prosperity is completely unable to do so.  The more certainly self-described gurus and sages tell you they've got the answers to living well the more you should be inclined to doubt them because Qoholeth, the greatest of the sages, realized that all that was stupid and meaningless.  He was the one sage he was honest enough to admit he didn't have any pretty axioms to share that would help your life be less miserable. 

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