« Hatchet Job: Bully Pulpit | Main | Unmaking the GRADE »

Ecclesiastes: 1:8

We’re almost to the end of the introductory poem, here.

[Ecc 1:8 KJV] All things [are] full of labour; man cannot utter [it]: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

The first bit is difficult to understand: col ha-divarim yagayim, all the words are exhausting. I’m pretty sure the KJV is just wrong. I strongly dislike obscuring the repetition at the end of the half-verse (lo-yukhal eesh l’dabayr); this whole stretch of poetry is about repetition (as I was saying last time) and so is this. So perhaps the difficulty in understanding is due to Kohelet choosing to prioritize the repetition over clarity. That’s worth paying attention to. Still, it’s an awkward pivot—the images of the sun, the wind, the rivers, all rushing around and returning to their starting point, and now we pivot to… words? Is it that words are constantly changing (that is, the we are constantly attempting to find new ways to describe what we observe) and that the words themselves return to the speaker (thus his inability to speak them)? That’s a bit of a stretch, innit? Still, it goes with what comes before and after.

Now I’m going to over-reach myself. Ready? The first time (I think) that this inability to speak (lo + yakhol + daver) comes into Scripture is in KJV Gen 24:50 when Abraham’s servant Eliezer comes to Betheul with Rebecca and tells him the story of the well and the vow and so on and so forth, and Betheul and Laban say “The thing proceedeth from the LORD: we cannot speak unto thee bad or good.” I think it’s clear that they are not literally unable to speak the words, nor even that they can’t tell whether it’s good or bad, but that it isn’t up to them to decide—they will acquiesce to the design of the Divine. Is it possible, then, that what Kohelet is getting at with lo-yukhal eesh l’dabayr is not that it is impossible to describe the weariness of the words (whatever that first daver refers to) but that he saying that it isn’t for Man to say it? Something more like—Complain about how exhausting all of that stuff in 1:4-6 is, but it’s not your call. While, of course, retaining the connotation of the literal unutterability.

Now, I want to be clear: nothing in any of the commentary I have read justifies any of this. Various people have various difficulties with the language, but nobody makes the Betheul connection or talks about not-being-able-to-speak-it intimating the speaker’s place in the world. It’s quite likely, given that total absence, that it’s a reading that the language simply does not support. Certainly other instances of lo + yakhol denote literal inability (f’r’ex, the blindness of Isaac or Eli) or a legal ban (f’r’ex, well, lots of Leviticus). When it’s about speaking, though… in addition to Bethuel, I have found three other places where people are described as being unable to speak, using those words. In Gen 37:4, Joseph’s brothers couldn’t speak to him peaceably; this is clearly not literal inability, but also is clearly not about it being their place to speak, so it’s a strike against my interpretation. In 2Sa 3:11 Ishbosheth can’t answer Abner a word, a totally different structure but has lo + yakhol + [answer any more to Abner] daver. That’s because he is afraid of Abner—I don’t know if we should imagine him struck dumb with fear, or if we’re to think that he chose not to speak, or if he thought at that point something like who am I to speak to Abner? The latter is plausible, though, as Abner has just been throwing his weight around.

The last example I found is very different and very interesting. In Num 22:38, Balaam actually says to Balak, yakhol + yakhol + daver Have I now any power to say anything? This one is not in the negative, that is, it doesn’t have the no word anywhere, and it has the doubled-for-emphasis able, so it’s not a close parallel to either our Ecclesiastes verse or the Bethuel and Eliezer verse. But the meaning is like the Bethuel one: Balaam is saying that it is not he who should speak, but that he will speak the words that the Divine puts in his mouth. This is after the talking donkey business, and is the set-up for the lengthy bit where Balaam, having been asked to curse the Israelites is instead compelled by the Divine to bless them. I interpret this as very similar to the Bethuel meaning: not how can I speak but who am I to speak?

Does that work with the second half of that verse? Something closer to saying that all that stuff (earth, sun, wind, water) isn’t there to satisfy your eyes or fill your ears; it’s there because of the Divine, or even it’s there just because it’s there, and the path of wisdom is to accept it, just as Betheul accepted Rebecca’s destiny or Balaam accepted the words of the Divine blessing the Israelites. Literally, it’s that your eyes can’t be satisfied with seeing, but really it’s that your eyes’ seeing is irrelevant to the process.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Post a comment

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