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Ecclesiastes, before we go further

Before we go on to the next few verses, I should probably attempt to put the thing into some sort of context. Unlike the Avot, which is a compendium of different sayings from different people, and which therefore doesn’t need to hang together as a single unit—there is certainly a benefit to being aware of Avot as a whole, the surrounding verses, some structural themes, uswusf, as you are closely reading a single verse (or a single phrase), but you can go phrase by phrase as we did and build that up without knowing what’s to come. In Ecclesiastes, I think we need to have at least some sense of what’s going on in order to get anywhere at all.

So. Ecclesiastes. What the hell?

In general, the writer is talking about Life and this world. What’s the point, he asks. He writes poetically about the transitory and unfulfilling nature of the rewards of the world. He seeks solace, one way and another, and mostly doesn’t find it. He advises the readers about the world and its ways, and suggests methods to avoid or ameliorate misery. He draws our attention to some aspects of the world as he finds it. He muses on death and impermanence. He muses some more on death and impermanence. And finally, he muses on death and impermanence.

That’s pretty much it.

Where’s the Divine in all this? Well, it’s interesting—the book begins The words of Kohelet, and not, for example, The word of the LORD that came unto Hosea or The word of the LORD that came to Joel or The word of the LORD that came to Micah or The word of the LORD which came unto Zephaniah or even In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, in the first day of the month, came the word of the LORD by Haggai the prophet unto Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Josedech, the high priest. It’s not the only book to leave out the LORD in its first verse (The words of Jeremiah, f’r’ex), but in this case it seems to stand as a notice that this is not prophecy. These are the words of Kohelet, not of the Divine.

Which is not to say that Kohelet is an atheist, or unconcerned with the Divine. It’s that this book is not claiming (within itself) Divine inspiration, but is rather inspired by empirical observation of the world. In fact, Kohelet appears to have the (modern?) view that we reach the Divine through empirical observation of the world, rather than observing the world through the lenses of the Divine. Or perhaps I am overreaching. We can discuss that as we go—in fact, where’s the Divine in all this is one of the things I will want to be looking at and talking about with y’all as we go through the text.

Other questions: Is the Kohelet perspective—semi-rationalist, empirical, analytical—acceptable within Scripture? Or are we just attributing that kind of perspective to Kohelet because we find it sympathetic to our own? When is Kohelet saying what he means, and when is he saying the opposite of what he means, and how can we tell? When is Kohelet in line with other bits of Scripture and when is he not, and what do we do with it when he isn’t?

I think that’s plenty to go on with—unless, Gentle Reader, you have your own.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I assume you're going to get to the bit in the Talmud where they discuss all this, basically say: "Ecclesiastes. What the hell?" and just barely, with some rather imaginative arguments, decide to leave this book in the canon.

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