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  • He Answered Them

Is the Book of Ecclesiastes Resistance Literature?

Outline

This paper will review Knut Martin Heim’s central premise in the book of Ecclesiastes. It will provide a short overview of his central premise and then critically discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the ideas put forward; we will look to other scholarly interpretations of the important catchphrases identified by Heim to provide balance in the review.


Heim’s Central Premise

Heim holds that Ecclesiastes is designed as work of political satire that is intended for oratory delivery. The use of the language, which is of late Biblical Hebrew, places the dating of the book into the final decades of the third century B.C; this was a period of foreign rule over Judea by the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Greece. Heim notes ‘three prominent phrases in Qoheleth’s oratory – the catchphrase under the sun (tahat hassemes), the buzzword, success (yitron) and the metaphor hebel’ which Heim translates as mirage.[1] These phrases have a particular meaning for Qoheleth’s intended audience which cement the book as a form of subversive resistance literature. For Heim, ‘the purpose of Qoheleth’s entire speech [was] namely to motivate his contemporaries to remain faithful to their God and their traditional cultural values’.[2] The Ptolemies may have been advancing a particular cultural Hellenization within the geographical area that ‘the Qoheleth’, as a completely fictional creation, secretly spoke out about. This was achieved in a performative manner; the subtext of which was hidden within a larger, innocuous, and openly theoretical debate on the purpose of life.


Strengths of Heim’s presentation

Before going into further detail, we shall provide a brief outlay of the positives to Heim’s investigation. Heim provides for the reader a translation which he states is ‘semantically, grammatically and syntactically expressive’ his intention is to reflect the ‘feel’ of the Hebrew original.[3] What results is a though provoking and useful guide to the Hebrew for a non-Hebrew reader, with the highlighting of specific wordplay in the original text. There is much to puzzle on within the writing of Ecclesiastes, there are several contradictions made apparent, which are vital to the understanding of the book. Heim refers to this as ‘underdetermined language’. He does not try to skirt over the difficult text, he incorporates them into his over- arching premise quite deftly. What he refers to as strategies of indirection, he posits are employed by both Qoheleth and modern stand-up comedians to deliver intentionally vague language that allows for a plausible deniability.[4] The three main phrases that Heim chooses to focus on are also the focus of several other scholars, so he in no way diverts from important scholarly investigation to maintain his unique understanding Ecclesiastes. Indeed, John Jarick also holds to the view that Ecclesiastes is intended as a comic performance; he has written two articles on the subject ‘Ecclessiastes among the Tragedarians’ which more highlights the Greek connections[5], and ‘Ecclesiastes among the Comedians’ which appears in a book about intertextuality.[6]


Analysis

A great hermeneutical weight is placed by Heim on his interpretation of the phrase ‘Under the Sun’. It isn’t completely pivotal to his argument, but any other rational interpretation offered would cause a set back to the belief that it operates ‘as a cypher for Egyptian rule’; there are many such alternates available. George Aaron Barton, for example, notes that although it is a phrase ‘peculiar to Qoheleth among the OT writers’, he determines it as a way to ‘denote all sublunary things’ which acts as a parallel to the expression under the heavens (1:13; 2:3; 3:1) and upon the earth (8:14,16; 11:2).[7] It can be considered as a poetic synonym for all things relating to the endeavours of man. James L. Crenshaw notes that ‘nothing falls outside the area circumscribed by tahat hassames, except Sheol and heaven’.[8] He also points out that the expression can also to be found in the Gilgamesh epic, where it particularly resonates with themes of futility found in Ecclesiastes.[9] Phoenician inscriptions from the sixth and fifth century B.C.E, found at Tabnit and Eshmunazer respectively, alongside a twelfth century Elamite document, all use the phrase with no connection to the Ptolemaic Dynasty; Crenshaw goes as far as to suggest that this even indicates there is not necessarily any Greek influence on the book.[10] Crenshaw points out that the phrase reinforces the universal sweep of the thematic statement that Qoheleth makes (everything is vanity/meaningless)and it’s rationale.[11] Robert Gordis takes this idea, and the phrase’s usage in 1:3, and places it into a robust contextual understanding. In a section titled "On the Monotony of Nature”, Gordis illuminates how Qoheleth views the processes of nature as part of a ceaseless and changeless cycle, without goal or meaning. ‘Under the sun’ encompasses how all things of the human realm are subject to this monotony.[12] 


All wisdom literature contains creation language, and we do see allusions to certain parts of the created order in 1:1-7; Katherine Dell does a more complete survey of the language in Ecclesiastes and ultimately concludes that intertextuality to Gen 1-11 is mostly lacking.[13]Her paper however does not exclude the possibility that whenever ‘under the sun’ is used, it should be read literally. We can therefore conclude that several other interpretations of the phrase ‘under the sun’ can be applied to the text, all of which sit comfortably within the broader themes of the book, as previously written, Heim hangs a large portion of his central idea on a specific translation. Although he also accepts the interpretation of ‘universality of human existence’, stating that the secondary meaning (that of the cypher) comes more into play in the latter part of the book. This paper contests that the opening verses are key to understanding Qoheleth’s main thrust of his argument and there is no need to bring the cypher interpretation to unpack Qoheleth’s meaning further.

Heim states that the word yitron is a ‘buzzword trending in Qoheleths time’ that ‘epitomises the aspirations of those who wanted to adopt the cultural values of Ptolemaic Greece.’[14] It is generally translated elsewhere as ‘profit’, ‘advantage’ or ‘success’. Heim also translates it as ‘success’, but he places it into this very specific context of the Ptolemaic counterculture that runs parallel to traditional Jewish wisdom. Unfortunately, Heim provides no reference or footnoting that in anyway supports his assertion that the word was used as a buzzword. Although his translation is well attested elsewhere, he is keen to tie the translation to the subversive nature of the book; no evidence is forthcoming that the original author’s intention is brought out more accurately by Heim’s understanding.


There is a wide range of interpretations of the word hebel. Meek provides an excellent summary of the general trends in the translation from the early Jewish and early Christian interpreters:


Early readings of הֶבֶל in Ecclesiastes followed two basic trajectories. Early Jewish interpreters drew on the term’s denotative meaning to understand it primarily in its metaphorical sense of temporality or brevity….Early Christian interpreters understood הֶבֶל strictly as a value judgment: vanity. For most interpreters, Qohelet declared that the entire world was valueless, which led them to interpret the book as justification for abandoning temporal reality in favour of the spiritual.[15]


Heim’s translation of the word as meaning ‘mirage’ encompasses much of the scholarly conclusions that came before him: the ephemeral, the transient, the illusory nature of something when used figuratively. He does not agree with Fox’s idea of ‘absurdity’[16] and does not apply the usage of ‘vanity’. However, the value judgement that Meek highlighted is present in Heim’s hermeneutic. Perhaps the closest interpretation to Heim comes from Rudman; he offers that the term expresses the idea or a course of action as being chaotic. Meek notes: ‘For him, the multiple nuances of הֶבֶל found in the Hebrew Bible are tied together by this one overarching theme, and thus the primary argument for the author of Ecclesiastes is that the ‘world [is] under the dominion of chaos’; in other words it is without YHWH, this dominion of chaos could be the figurative meaning of the Ptolemaic Dynasty found in Heim’s interpretation.[17] 


Meek writes: ‘Given the great degree to which scholars disagree over how הֶבֶל should be read in Ecclesiastes, a consensus is unlikely in the near future.’[18] Heim holds the optimistic view that ‘the interpretation of Ecclesiastes as resistance literature in the form of political satire resolves the scholarly impasse.’[19] Yet, the translation of ‘mirage’ does not go far enough to prove the idea put forward by Heim; at least not beyond any other interpretation previously offered by scholars on the words of Ecclesiastes.


Conclusion

Heim offers a rich theological commentary and offers a refreshing and insightful translation of the work, including the use of ‘mirage’. His ideas of yitron and tahat hassemes, however are underdeveloped without any concrete proof as to why he chose this interpretation. The historical reality for the Jews in Jerusalem around Heim’s dating is explored in depth by Angelo Segre.[20] Although there was tumult for the people as the Ptolemies and Seleucid’s clashed, the status of the Jew remained settled, this was in part the success of the Ptolemaic Dynasty: it allowed for colonized people to continue their religious praxis. For Segre too, the Hellenization of the Jews was ‘but skin deep’.[21] In Heim’s reading of the text he perhaps overestimates the level of oppression; if this is the historical reality, it is hard to see how the book would function as resistance literature.








 


 

Bibliography

Crenshaw, James L., Ecclesiastes: A Commentary (Philadelphia: West Minster Press, 1987)

Dell, Katharine J., ‘“Exploring Intertextual Links between Ecclesiastes and Genesis 1–11”’, in The Solomonic Corpus of ‘Wisdom’ and Its Influence, ed. by Katharine J. Dell (Oxford University Press, 2020), p. 0 <https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780198861560.003.0013>

Dell, Katharine J., and Will Kynes, Reading Ecclesiastes Intertextually (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015)

Fox, Michael V., ‘The Meaning of Hebel for Qohelet’, Journal of Biblical Literature, 105.3 (1986), 409–27 <https://doi.org/10.2307/3260510>

George Aaaron Barton, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes (T. & T. Clark, 1908) <http://archive.org/details/acriticalandexe01bartgoog> [accessed 29 April 2024]

Gordis, Robert, Koheleth, the Man and His World; a Study of Ecclesiastes (New York, Schocken Books, 1968) <http://archive.org/details/kohelethmanhiswo0000gord> [accessed 29 April 2024]

Heim, Knut Martin, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Ecclesiastes (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2019)

Jarick, John, ‘Ecclesiastes Among the Tragedians’, in Goochem in Mokum, Wisdom in Amsterdam (Brill, 2016), pp. 95–107 <https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004314771_009>

Meek, Russell L., ‘Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Readings of Hebel (הֶבֶל) in Ecclesiastes’, Currents in Biblical Research, 14.3 (2016), 279–97 <https://doi.org/10.1177/1476993X15586039>

Segré, Angelo, ‘The Status of the Jews in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt: New Light from the Papyri’, Jewish Social Studies, 6.4 (1944), 375–400

 

 


[1] Knut Martin Heim, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Ecclesiastes (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2019), p. 6.

[2] Heim, p. 8.

[3] Heim, p. 17.

[4] Heim, p. 5.

[5] John Jarick, ‘Ecclesiastes Among the Tragedians’, in Goochem in Mokum, Wisdom in Amsterdam (Brill, 2016), pp. 95–107 <https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004314771_009>.

[6] Katharine J. Dell and Will Kynes, Reading Ecclesiastes Intertextually (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015).

[7] George Aaaron Barton, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes (T. & T. Clark, 1908), p. 70 <http://archive.org/details/acriticalandexe01bartgoog> [accessed 29 April 2024].

[8] James L. Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary (Philadelphia: West Minster Press, 1987), p. 60.

[9] ‘Only the gods [live] forever under the sun. As for mankind, numbered are their days; whatever they achieve is but the wind’- Crenshaw p60

[10] Crenshaw, p. 60.

[11] Crenshaw, p. 58.

[12] Robert Gordis, Koheleth, the Man and His World; a Study of Ecclesiastes (New York, Schocken Books, 1968) <http://archive.org/details/kohelethmanhiswo0000gord> [accessed 29 April 2024].

[13] Katharine J. Dell, ‘“Exploring Intertextual Links between Ecclesiastes and Genesis 1–11”’, in The Solomonic Corpus of ‘Wisdom’ and Its Influence, ed. by Katharine J. Dell (Oxford University Press, 2020), p. 0 <https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780198861560.003.0013>.

[14] Heim, p. 39.

[15] Russell L. Meek, ‘Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Readings of Hebel (הֶבֶל) in Ecclesiastes’, Currents in Biblical Research, 14.3 (2016), 279–97 <https://doi.org/10.1177/1476993X15586039>.

[16] Michael V. Fox, ‘The Meaning of Hebel for Qohelet’, Journal of Biblical Literature, 105.3 (1986), 409–27 <https://doi.org/10.2307/3260510>.

[17] Meek.

[18] Meek.

[19] Heim, p. 8.

[20] Angelo Segré, ‘The Status of the Jews in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt: New Light from the Papyri’, Jewish Social Studies, 6.4 (1944), 375–400.

[21] Segré, p. 377.

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