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Introduction to Ecclesiastes
It is best to be frank from the outset: Ecclesiastes is a difficult book. It is written in a form of Hebrew different from much of the remainder of the Old Testament, and it regularly challenges the reader of the original as to grammar and syntax. The interpretation even of words that occur frequently in the book is often unclear and a matter of dispute, partly because there is frequent wordplay in the course of the argument. The argument is itself complex and sometimes puzzling and has often provoked the charge of inconsistency or outright self-contradiction.
When considered in the larger context of the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes stands out as an unusual book whose connection with the main stream of biblical tradition seems tenuous. There is nothing here of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; of the Exodus; of God's special dealings with Israel in the Promised Land; or of prophetic hope in a great future. Instead we find ourselves apparently reading about the meaninglessness of life and the certainty of death, in a universe in which God is certainly present, but is distant and somewhat uninvolved. When considered in the context of the New Testament, the dissonance between Ecclesiastes and its scriptural context seems even greater, for if there is one thing that we do not find in this book, it is the joy of resurrection. Perhaps this is one reason why Ecclesiastes is seldom read or preached in modern churches.
The discomfort of the community of biblical faith with Ecclesiastes is not, however, a new phenomenon. From the very beginning it is evident that the nature of the book itself as authoritative Scripture was doubted by significant numbers of Jews. Two famous passages in the Mishnah,1 echoed in the Talmud and in later Jewish writings, refer to disputes among the rabbis on precisely this point__whether or not Ecclesiastes 'defiles the hands.' They make clear that this issue divided the famous rabbinic schools of Hillel (which thought it did defile the hands) and Shammai (which thought it did not).
One of the main grounds of rabbinic difficulty clearly lay in the contradictions perceived in the book, which were felt to be unusually difficult to harmonize (e.g., 2:2 and 8:15, respectively questioning and commending Heb. saimh=a, 'pleasure, joy'; 7:3 and 9, respectively commending and criticizing Heb. ka Another concern was its perceived hedonistic tone, found in the frequent advice to 'eat and drink and find satisfaction' (e.g., 2:24; 3:13); connected with this is an alleged heretical tendency, insofar as the book questions, for example, whether there is any real profit to be made from life God has created (e.g., 1:3), and claims that there is nothing better than a life of eating, drinking, and enjoyment (e.g., 2:24; 8:15). The author particularly commends a licentious way of life to the young (11:9).3 Our earliest commentaries on Ecclesiastes, whether Jewish or Christian, indicate just how uncomfortable such sentiments made many religious readers of the book feel, for they often avoided interpreting the text according to its plain sense when dealing with such troublesome passages, attempting to make it more 'spiritual' than it otherwise appeared to them.
We are dealing here, then, with an unsettling book. Ecclesiastes has a long history of perturbation behind it. What is to be done with it? We might organize a campaign to remove it from the canon of Scripture, perhaps; but such a campaign would be unlikely to succeed, given the long-standing acceptance of the book by the church universal, and we ourselves with our new, slightly slimmer canon would stand in questionable relationship to this larger church. We should also require to ask ourselves questions about our view of its Founder and his first apostles, all of whom regarded the Old Testament Scriptures as foundational to Christian faith and life, and none of whom ever intended their sayings and writings to be understood outside the context of the Old Testament Scriptures.
A more popular alternative, adopted by many modern Christians, is to continue to accept Ecclesiastes in principle as part of the canon but to ignore it in practice. Whole areas of the modern church, indeed, seem to have adopted this strategy in respect of almost the entire Old Testament, in the mistaken belief that there exists something called 'New Testament Christianity.' To claim that Scriptures are authoritative, however, while in reality ignoring them, is to provoke serious questions about one's integrity.
A third possible response to our problematic book might be to find ways of reinterpreting what it has to say__perhaps by resorting to the kind of allegorical, spiritualizing approach to biblical interpretation that was so popular among ancient and medieval Christian commentators. As the long history of biblical interpretation has itself shown, however, this approach makes it simply too easy to force the text to say what one wishes it to say and thus simply to subvert its authority in a different way. Such an interpretative method may increase the reader's comfort level, but it can do great violence to the text.
When, for example, Jerome interprets Ecclesiastes as a treatise aiming 'to show the utter vanity of every [my italics] sublunary enjoyment, and hence the necessity of betaking one's self to an ascetic life [my italics] devoted entirely to the service of God,'4 it seems obvious to us (although presumably not to Jerome) that the text is not in control of Jerome, but Jerome of the text. His method of reading enabled him too easily to shape the text in his own image and disabled him from hearing anything in it that might challenge his own assumptions and beliefs.