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Ecclesiastes: it begins

So. Ecclesiastes. What the hell?

I’ve been reading the thing in preparation, and I have to say: this is a strange, scary, bad book. This may not be fun. On the other hand, it is perhaps more important to do the work to dig into a strange, scary bad book than it is to read, say, Ruth. Not that Ruth doesn’t have its own problems. But this is… different. The Anchor version’s introduction begins with R.B.Y. Scott saying Ecclesiastes is the strangest book in the Bible. The Cambridge Bible Commentary edition starts with a section called The Problem of the Book. My favorite line is from Edward Plumptre, who starts his book by saying not only that every interpreter of this book thinks that all previous interpreters have been wrong but by saying that this aspect of the book has become almost a proverb. He wrote this in 1880. And then he wrote that I can honestly say that I have worked through the arguments by which the writers have supported them [conclusions about Ecclesiastes] and have not found them satisfy the laws of evidence or the conditions of historical probability. In other words, all previous interpreters really have been wrong. Likely this was true, and likely it is still true. I am certainly not going to change that.

I do not have the Key to the book; I am not looking for the Key. What am I looking for? Well, and I never really know until I find it, and often not then, but I suppose what I am looking for is how I, as a reader and believer living in my world, can reach through the text to the Divine—if I believe that the text is Scripture, it is by its essence a Divine message, not just to the people of its time but to me right now. That’s my definition of Scripture, and why I consider Scripture to be miraculous stuff, different ontologically from non-Scripture. I am looking for that message primarily for myself, but also for people who are in some sense like me—living in my culture at my time, speaking my language, sharing much of my perception of the universe.

That does require looking at the context it was written in, looking at the meaning of the text, what it might have meant to the writer at the time, what it might have meant to its first readers. It isn’t constrained to those meanings, but it is informed by them. I can conclude that the meaning for me is not what it was for the ancient People of Israel, but my method involves attempting at least to ascertain what that meaning was. If only to reject it and keep looking. So I’m going to be looking, as best I can, into the language and the poetry as well as the meaning and the context. I’m going to be looking for metaphors and balances (tho’ triples are evidently rare in our text, which as Gentle Readers will be aware is a sadness for Your Humble Blogger). I’m going to be looking for resonances elsewhere in Scripture. I’m going to be looking at different translations, if only to find out what the text meant to the translators. I’m going to be looking at some of the rabbinic commentary, to the extent that I can easily track it down. And I’m hoping I will be looking at your suggestions and interpretations, too, Gentle Readers. Don’t make me do this by myself.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Go for it!! I for one am looking forward to what you see in it. :)

I'm way behind on blog reading, obviously, but looking forward to catching up on this project.

I will attempt to blog slowly, slowly, so as to make it easy for you.


So I have pretty much this same exact attitude towards Scripture and what I read it for, and the role of the original meaning in informing the meaning I receive.

But I'm struck by this: "different ontologically from non-Scripture". Ontologically, really? Because for me the difference doesn't relate to the ontological status of the text, but rather to my relationship with it. I think it's actually the mode of reading which enables the miraculous encounter, not the text as is. It's Scripture for me because it was given to me as Scripture, by my tradition, and I'm welcome to expand that tradition, and to personally accept as, and engage with, something as Scripture that might not be Scripture for anyone else -- classic Looney Tunes cartoons, to use my usual example (which I'm totally sincere about).

See, no. I mean, from a practical point of view, yes—if there is a line between Scripture and non-Scripture, then any person will see the things within the Scripture line as being Scripture and the things outside the line as being non-Scripture, which is an assessment of their ontological status. People are going to perceive that line as being in a different place—my Best Reader, for instance, considers the Letters of Saul of Tarsus to be Scripture, whereas not so much me. Which it always seems to me is not really a matter for argument, but for some combination of tradition and epiphany. So for the person who has had the epiphany that Tortoise Beats Hare is Scripture, and therefore wants to personally accept and engage with it as Scripture, then they are Scripture to that person, yes. But that (to me) requires the person to believe that they are Scripture, and thus ontologically different from non-Scripture.

What I'm saying is that I believe that there is Scripture and non-Scripture, and they are different things, and the difference is inherent in the things themselves. But—and this is a big but—I don't think that everybody has the same Scripture. So for practical purposes, yes, what distinguishes them is the mode of reading. But for me it's quite important that the line is not redrawn arbitrarily or willfully, or even analytically, but—for want of a better word at the moment—devotionally. And frankly I can't imagine, myself, being willing to make such a step without the community joining me (what community? Oy, like the discussion needed more complications. Let's say a big community and leave it) in that devotional endeavor.

I also (and I know I disagree with Matt H, at least, among Gentle Readers here) think that it's important to have that category of non-Scripture, to be appropriately read with the other mode of reading. But that's yet another different discussion…


And yet.

Are not Pierre and Where the Wild Things Are, then, the Oral Torah? Was not the Oral Torah also given to us on Sinai?

And is not Bugs Bunny not Brer Rabbit, and is Brer Rabbit not Anansi, and was not Anansi given to the Ashanti? Or something? And if it was given to them, can we not also listen in?

Certainly the line is drawn devotionally. And certainly I sympathize with the sense that it matters that that choice is backed up by a devotional community.

Still, it's very hard for me to imagine reading, say, the Tao Te Ching and not listening for the still, small voice. I would have to block up my ears pretty hard.

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