Trying and Tiring

The words of Koheleth son of David, king in Jerusalem  Ecclesiastes 1:1 JPS

Koheleth – What do you know about the book of Ecclesiastes?  Did you assume it was written by Solomon (son of David)?  Do you know why it is so gloomy?  Did you know that the insertion of a positive ending is probably not in the original?  Did you realize that it was probably not written during the pre-exilic period?

Michael Fox’s commentary in the JPS series offers the following:

“ . . . the book is in places extremely difficult.  The reasons for this are manifold: The language is unlike the Hebrew of the rest of the Bible, with syntax that is often strange and vocabulary that is frequently idiosyncratic.  The sentences are often ambiguous for a variety of reasons, such as unclear antecedents for pronouns . . . Moreover, the text in some places was corrupted in the course of centuries of copying.  (The foregoing difficulties are often disguised in translation, which substitutes a meaningful English sentence for an obscure Hebrew one.)  Another source of difficulty is the fact that the book often expresses contradictory ideas.  Such problems do not preclude an intelligent engagement with a translated text, but the reader should realize that often in the Bible, and especially in Ecclesiastes, much remains uncertain and much work remains.”[1]

Now you can’t wait to get started, right?  Well, I’m not feeling that way.  I’m feeling tired.  All these issues, all these ambiguities, all this textual history—it just wears me down.  How can I ever know what YHVH, the God of Israel, really said to His followers over the centuries when I can’t be sure of the text now?  And it’s not just this book.  There are days when it seems as though the entire Bible is filled with these problems, including the apostolic writings.  Do I really know what Moses thought when he heard God speak?  Can I really understand the Mesopotamian world of Abraham?  Do I have any deep sense of the cultural views during the monarchy?  Can I even hope to understand what Galilean messianism was like?  I’m Western.  In fact, everyone I know (even those who are Jewish) has been infected by Western concepts.  Greco-Roman Hellenism saturates our world, including the world of exegesis.  We just don’t think like ancient Semites anymore, and I’m not so sure we ever will.

This has a deeper effect than simply intellectual exhaustion.  I also feel a bit like Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the hill only to have it run me over as it rolls back to the bottom.  In other words, it’s trying.  I see the goal—knowing what God said and what that means for living—but whenever I get close, another issue surfaces and I feel like I’m back at the bottom of the hill struggling to get up again.  It’s hard enough to think that the sacred material I have today might not be accurate, and certainly is truncated, but that fades compared to the onerous path of righteousness.   I know the trials and the toil, but where is the joy and celebration?  I can identify with Koheleth.  Under the sun, life is agonizing repetition.  Maybe that’s the reason this somber book is in the Bible—to remind us of human futility so we’ll look for some other way.

Topical Index: exhausted, repetition, Sisyphus, Ecclesiastes 1:1

[1] Michael V. Fox, The JPS Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes (JPS, 2004), p. xxii.

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Richard Bridgan

The joy and celebration arises from recognizing, participating in, and enjoying the underlying liturgical aim of the stories (and teaching/doctrine) of Scripture’s testimony of Israel’s ongoing, dynamic relationship with Yahweh. 

Scripture’s witness is not so different from the amazing ceiling frescoes and stunning architecture of the chapels and cathedrals that you, Skip, are privileged to enjoy first hand (and so generously share with us as well). Yes, there is much in the depictions that may challenge the concrete assumptions of theology; but then, recognizing they are means of conveying and communicating something approaching a feeling, such means mediate something more actual— “more than a feeling”— and they serve their purpose. 

God’s presence is mediated… and in speaking God’s promises, both God and his people sometimes… perhaps most often…use words. And by the provision of inspiration, they serve their purpose. 

Richard Bridgan

The signs and symbols of scripture are never merely means employed to convey ideas rationalistically from one mind to another; rather, these means function cognitively or didactically, enabling us to pass on ideas to other people and to remember or consider concepts, ideas, and things. Put simply, they inform and teach us. They are nothing in themselves apart from the reality that exists in reality itself… God alone.

Fundamentally, we, too, apart from God are nothing; but through His mercy and by grace we are brought near and reckoned actual, being made creatures who bear His image through the blood of witness in testimony to reality itself— the Son of God, Christ Jesus.

Derek Satz

Maybe I’m having trouble with this paradigm shift but I’ll have to throw out this question. What does one do when, “the book” (which now I’m understanding it’s not a book) is not in western terms, “accurate” in the ways I thought it was?

How does one make, “sacrifices” or such when I could be doing it all for vain because, “that’s not what it meant” or even better, ‘that was a forgery”. Other then the fact to make the decision to keep going and keep studying, how am I supposed to navigate?