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Ecclesiastes 1:3

Five more verses.

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? [One] generation passeth away, and [another] generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea [is] not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. [Ecc 1:3-7 KJV]

Starting with that first verse, we have two more favorites of our writer: profit (yitron) and under the sun (tachat shemesh). They are both words (ok, a word and a phrase) that appear nowhere else in Scripture, but Kehelet refers to profit ten times and uses the sununder phrase twenty-seven times. On the other hand, these aren’t obscure things that make it difficult to know what he means: yitron is from the ytr root and clearly means surplus, excess, what is left over, what is saved. As for tachat shemesh, back in Genesis 1:7 we see under the firmament and in Genesis 6:17 we see under heaven. So that’s all right. It’s unusual writing but not obscure. It's interesting that he chooses the sun, and that nobody else does, but it's not obscure.

The rhetorical question phrasing (ma yitron) is also familiar (ma tovu, mi camocha, ma nishtana even ma dodech midod from the Song of Songs) although… now that I’m thinking about it, there is ambiguity there as well. Rhetorical questions in general are ambiguous, of course, but this formulation is used both extremely positively and extremely negatively. I am inclined to interpret the poetic craft of this piece as using the tension of opposites, you know, and this is seems to fall into that category. In ma tovu (Numbers 23:5) the implied answer to how goodly is very very goodly. In Gen 23:15 KJV (My lord, hearken unto me: the land [is worth] four hundred shekels of silver; what [is] that betwixt me and thee? bury therefore thy dead) the implied answer to what is that is very very little. In Num 16:11 KJV (For which cause [both] thou and all thy company [are] gathered together against the LORD: and what [is] Aaron, that ye murmur against him?) the implied answer to Aaron, what is he is very very great. I think. I’m actually not sure about that one. In Num 23:23 KJV (Surely [there is] no enchantment against Jacob, neither [is there] any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath Gd wrought!) the implied answer to What hath Gd wrought! is rather a lot, really.

On the other hand, in Gen 25:32 KJV (And Esau said, Behold, I [am] at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?) the answer to what profit (not yitron here but more literally what is this birthright to me) is very very little. In Gen 37:26 KJV (And Judah said unto his brethren, What profit [is it] if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood?), the answer to what profit (not yitron here but betsa, filthy lucre) is very very little. So my idea—that absent that havayl havalim introduction, this would be an ambiguous rhetorical gambit is… not well taken. Sorry, me.

Oh, my goodness. All that up there and I’m only through verse three? Maybe the best thing would be to come back with the rest tomorrow.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


As a KJV reader of Scripture, it is fascinating to me to discover that the word that shows up in the KJV Ecclesiastes as "profit" is not the same as the words that show up as "profit" in other places in the KJV and is, in fact, unique to Ecclesiastes. It's also fascinating that it gets at "profit" as "surplus, excess, what is left over, what is saved," which is, technically, what profit is, but not, in contemporary conversational capitalist usage, what "profit" means, exactly. Skipping a little bit ahead in Ecclesiastes, I find that this technical meaning of "profit" as "what is left over" helps to make sense of the position the kohelet (sp?) will take later. If I remember correctly (and I've read Ecclesiastes carefully a couple of times, but not in the last 15 years) that position proclaims the value of labor but the vanity of profit. That's where the ambiguity of the opening question comes in, at least from a modern, capitalist-inflected perspective. If "we" hear the rhetorical question, "What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?" and "we" infer that the implied answer is "very little" (and I think that is the implication, which is reinforced by the verses following), then we likely assume that the speaker is implying that labour is pointless, because profitless, without considering the possibility that the value of the work lies in the doing of the work, and not in the excess that remains after the work is done, which will not remain with us, nor us with it. Yitron enables that possible reading--for labor but against profit--to emerge more readily than "profit" does, I think.

Well taken, Christopher, that's an excellent point. I meant to point out at some point that Kohelet is clearly dealing with a money-based economy, not a primarily agricultural one—I'm sure it's what we think of as an agricultural society, this is a thousand years before the development of the bourgeoisie, but I read him as a city fellow dealing with cash money, not (f'r'ex) a farmer exchanging food for labor. It's a different world than that inhabited by Jacob and Laban or even Ruth and Boaz.

If that's true, then we can look at this (particularly in light of the context) as being about savings: what's the point of working hard to save up money? I think that's a narrow take on it, but perhaps a narrowly useful take for us.

Or alternately, we could look at the labor and profit question within the context of alienated labor. Is the value of the work in doing the work? What happens when the work is such that the worker does not consider that he profits from the work? Is this not a fundamental question of a person's spiritual life?


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