Saturday, September 01, 2012

I noticed all skill and labor springs from envy, another thing that is stupid (Ecclesiastes 4:4)

Ecclesiastes 4:4-6 (ESV)

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind
The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.

Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.

As I've been blogging on Ecclesiastes and about things discussed by Martin Shields' The End of Wisdom I've been discussing how things in Ecclesiastes, the more you dig into them, can't be squared with orthodox Jewish or Christian thinking as it is normally understood. When Qoholeth questions rhetorically whether it's even possible to know if the breath of a dying man ascends or the breath of a dying animal descends he's saying that death eliminates the distinction between man and beast. and that this is why God, Israel's God, has permitted death to demonstrate that humans are mere animals, this is hard to defend as a statement that is orthodox.

The "pious bias" in biblical interpretation may kick in to save the day but Shields lays out a persuasive book-length case that the whole point of Ecclesiastes is to share offensive statements. When we read that famous "not one woman among them all" it may need to be kept in mind that for people who would have known the stories of Ruth, Deborah, Huldah and others that this observation was supposed to be offensive because people who knew even of other writings in the wisdom literature (like Proverbs) could point out that there were supposed to be righteous men and women.

That gets us to a clue, perhaps, that when Qoholeth says there's nobody righteous that even that "one man among a thousand" may be rhetorical flourish.  Shields makes a case that in light of the universal condemnation of human stupidity and corruption that even "one man among a thousand" is better read and understood as "not one man among a thousand, not one woman in them all" and then "this only is what I found, God made people upright but they are prone to scheming."  In the end Qoholeth is only certain, maybe, that God made us good but we have opted for scheming.

But Qoholeth's minimalist and pessimistic observations can seem to go too far, can't it?  In Ecclesiastes 4 he tells us that all skill in labor and achievement is motivated by envy.  Now a friend of mine has blogged about feeling insecure about her children not reaching certain milestones.  Qoholeth's declaration would have it that this is an anxiety that springs from envy.

But would that be true? If it were true then a Christian has to find a way to establish that there is a godly envy, but envy is attested as sinful in so many places that either we have to accept that everyone, even those who believe, are motivated to skill entirely by envy, or we have to consider that this observation from Qoholeth could be worth second-guessing.  It may be true in a fallen world, as some would say, but then it becomes the kind of proverb that the pious will never quote.  You're not going to hear a megachurch pastor who says all scripture is inspired quote this proverb about how all toil and skill comes from envy of his neighbor.  We know that skill and labor often comes from genuinely loving to do something.

But that's the thing about Qoholeth's observations, they seem especially grim and yet as the epilogue puts it, Qoholeth sought to find pleasing words but wrote down what is true.  Even if we dismiss "envy" as too strong a word there's another sense in which anxiety about status does seem to drive what we do and who we aspire to be.  Depending on where you are and what is held up as the measure of truly fulfilled humanity you can feel anxious that you're single, whether that you haven't married or haven't gotten a date in years or maybe haven't gotten a date at all.  As my friend Wendy has blogged the thing about anxiety is it can stick with you.  A woman can be anxious that she isn't married while she is single and then she can be anxious that she's not a mother when she's married and then she can be anxious about the development and health of her children once she has them.

Qoholeth's observation would be that we constantly seek and toil for things that can't satisfy us.  We continually pursue a wisdom that inevitably fails us as it failed him, both in the sense that he saw that it did not make him different from fool or beast and in the sense that even having obtained it (such as it was) he found himself more miserable and unhappy than before he'd gained it.  Why, then, had he become so very wise?

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