« Ecclesiastes: it begins | Main | Convection, radiation, confusion »

Ecclesiastes 1:1-2

Shall we begin?

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all [is] vanity.[Ecc 1:1-2 KJV]

You know, I was hoping to get through three verses in this first note, but I don’t think that’s going to happen, do you?

We’ve already talked about kohelet the word that comes out in the KJV as the Preacher, and I don’t know that we need to go on any more about it at this stage. I will note that it’s not the kohelet here but just kohelet, which makes it seem more like a name. Oh, and I didn’t mention that kohelet has a feminine form, though it is used as a masculine noun—if it is a name, it’s in some sense like having a male character named Ricarda or Michaela—it’s not grammatically crazy or anything, but I think there’s a tension going on there, almost an opposition. If it’s a name.

In the second half of the verse—if we accept that this was written much later than Solomon’s time (and we can talk about that, but I’m quite convinced), then either the writer is using a literary conceit and writing as if he were Solomon or he is using the son of form to indicate descent from the Davidic line, which of course can be a Big Deal. The phrasing king in Jerusalem doesn’t necessarily imply king of Israel or even King of Judah; it could mean something like rightful king by descent, even if not actually ruling. Or the first verse was added later by an editor who wanted to attribute the writings to the famously wise king. Anyway: the first verse is an identification that completely fails to identify. Is there a point to that? Are we beginning to hold contradictions in mind?

The text proper begins with the second verse, and Kohelet’s favorite word: hevel, which the KJV calls vanity. More language trouble! It doesn’t have anything to do with being vain in the sense of being prideful; it’s more to do with the idea of attempting something in vain, uselessly. The KJV is going directly from the Latin vanitas vanitatum, which may be relying on the Septuagint, where it comes across as folly, more or less. Or perhaps vanitas has more of the connotation of emptiness which is in the original Hebrew. It’s connected to the word for breath. R.B.Y. Scott, in fact, translates the thing thusly:

Breath of a breath! (says Qoheleth). The slightest breath! All is a breath!

Which is kinda poetic and shit, innit, but doesn’t so much mean anything. Rami Shapiro goes elsewhere in two different translations, first choosing “Emptiness! Emptiness upon emptiness!” and in a later version “Emptying upon emptying!” H.L. Ginsberg dispenses with the metaphor entirely: “Utter futility! —said Koheleth— Utter futility! All is futile!” Translation is hard.

I’ll attempt to transliterate—I may do that a fair amount in this book, as I think the sound is important: havayl havalim amar kohelet havayl havalim hacol havayl. It has a very heavy sound, doesn’t it? Yes, there are all those aitches, but all that vayl-vul-vayl-vul-vayl comes off to me as very heavy-sounding. So if we are supposed to think of breath and emptiness and vapor and incorporeality, then the sound is working against the sense, in my opinion, rather than with it. And I think if we are intended to think of emptiness and breath, the repetition works against any sense of lightness or airiness: piling breath upon breath upon breath, making an oppressive blanket of that emptiness or nothingness. And how can everything—ha-col, the all—be nothingness?

I should also observe that what with the language being all sparse and ambiguous and so on, it seems perfectly plausible to read these two lines as something closer to The words of Koholet, son of King David in Jerusalem, are breaths only—he speaks but it’s all breath and breath and breath! I’m not proposing that as a serious translation, but as a sort of warning. I’m not expecting, when we’re done, to have anything more than breath (vapor, emptiness, futility, vanity). On the other hand, the other words for breath and breathing are connected to ruach and nephesh, spirit and soul—are we to take hevel as being opposite to them, or like them? Or both?

YHB is a both/and kinda guy, you know. Solomonic folly, feminine masculinity, towers of emptiness, all of everything is of nothing. We’re gonna need big categories here.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Why [havayl havalim] [hacol havayl] instead of [havayl havalim hacol] [havayl]? Breath of all breaths is but a breath. An accumulation of nothing is still nothing. Gather all the gossamer wisps together, and find you're holding air. I like the image.

An excellent idea and an excellent image. I don't know enough grammar to know if it holds, and I suspect (from my reading) that the writer is using a sort of poetic grammar anyway, so I think that sort of phrase bracketing is fair game. I suppose one would check the cantillation marks. Doesn't the BLB have those? Yeah, it does. So the chanting does bracket them as [havayl havalim] [hacol havayl], with the pairing of down-and-then-up and then the down-and-then-down one. That doesn't mean that the traditional interpretation is better than yours, of course, but it's older.

…should I know the names of those things? I know what some of them are supposed to sound like, but I think of them as the two-dots one and the one at the end and the two that are always together and the uppy-downy one and so on.


See, I've already learned a whole bunch so far. :) I thought Solomon wrote it when he was having a bad day...

The evidence of the language puts it somewhere around 300-200 BCE—it can't be much later than that, because of other documents that mention it or quote from it, but it's unlikely to be earlier than that due to the influence of Persian on the language. Definitely not 10th C. BCE, though.

If, that is, you are willing to accept evidence that contradicts tradition. It is certain that tradition claims Solomon as the author. There's quite a lovely arc, there, from the claimed authorship of the Song of Songs in his youth, to the claimed authorship of Proverbs in his prime, to the claimed authorship of Ecclesiastes in his old age, which is rather ruined by knowing the evidence that he didn't actually write any of them.


Post a comment

Please join in. Comments on older posts will be held for moderation. Don't be a jerk. Eat fruit.