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Ecclesiastes 2:10-11

So. After four months, Your Humble Blogger comes crawling back to Ecclesiastes. I have gone back a verse, as (a) I think, on reflection, that 9 goes with 10-11, rather than with 4-8, or at least is a bridge between the two bits, and (2) I don’t know about you, but I’ve got right out of the rhythm of this stuff, so maybe we’d back up a few steps to get a running start.

Ecc 2:9-11 KJV So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me. And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labour: and this was my portion of all my labour. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all [was] vanity and vexation of spirit, and [there was] no profit under the sun.

The more I look into the word choice, the more impressed I am—I make no claims to really understand the connotations, or for that matter even the grammar, but there is so much going on with the choices of how to say what is being said, choices that totally overshadow what is being said, and I suspect were meant to. Well, and of course mostly it’s reinforcing the meaning, underscoring it, but not always, I think, and even then, not in any concrete way.

Let me lead in with some basic stuff about the beginning of verse ten: the phrase all is repeated four times in the verse: All my eye’s stuff I did not withhold; all the joys I did not withhold; all the labour was the object of my heart’s enjoyment; all the labor is my share. The repetition of all underscores the surfeit of material goods we were talking about last time. Then there are the body parts: I did not set aside all the stuff of my eyes, nor did I withhold all the joy from my heart. I’m claiming this is there to remind the hearer of the physical, worldly nature of the previous bit, the peculiar treasures of the kings and the shidah v’shidot. Then the doubling of the verb: lo-atzalti, I did not set aside, and lo-mana’ti I did not withhold. I don’t really know what different connotations the two have, but clearly there was a choice to use both, rather than repeat. It’s complicated writing.

Now. I’m going to be taking a close look at one word in 10-11, so… deep breath, Gentle Readers, I’m heading into the weeds. The word is amal, and it is repeated four times in the two verses, and is used thirty-one times in the book altogether, so we’re going to be seeing it again. It’s translated here as labour, and the KJV translates it as labour all but four of the instances in Ecclesiastes. The thing is, it’s only used 36 times outside Ecclesiastes, and it’s almost never translated as labour anywhere else: mischief, misery, travail, trouble, sorrow, grievance, grievousness, iniquity, miserable, pain, painful, perverseness, toil, wearisome, wickedness. Do you spot a common thread? It’s a very negative word, amal, or at the very least it’s a very negative word everywhere outside Ecclesiastes. And maybe Proverbs, in places.

I’m convinced that the Hebrew amal is closely associated with pain or suffering, or at least hardship—we could call it painful work or hard labor, I suppose. When the English text chose labour for the translation in this book, I think they were thinking of labour as having necessarily that negative connotation. Laboriousness. Or the labor of childbirth, although they wouldn’t have used that term, I don’t think. At any rate, they were using the Greek translation (the Septuagint) which seems (and thank you Gentle Reader Kendra for assistance on this) to have retained the negative element in the translation, and judging by the OED entry for the word, they were… well, in Your Humble Blogger’s judgment they were wrong, even at the time, not to see that the term was used without that connotation, but James’ Boys were not the ones to see the Dignity of Labour. At any rate, after looking into this as far as I possibly can, I am convinced that when the original readers of the Hebrew text read amal they thought pain and bad things, and that the Seventy intended to keep that connotation, and so did the committee putting together the Authorized English Version. And yet, it’s hard for us to read my heart rejoiced in all my labour and retain that negative connotation.

Let’s try, though. If we read my heart rejoiced in all my painful toil, that’s a startling flip from the luxurious servants-and-singers in verses 7-8, and a wonderful and perplexing contradiction, as well. Very kohelet-ish. The word joy (and rejoiced) here is simcha, by the way, a Hebrew word for joy or celebration that is used in modern Judaism to denote joyful occasions such as weddings and birthdays. Is he saying that the wealth in 7-8 makes of his amal a simcha? Or perhaps he is just contrasting holiday (sameach) and work, just to tighten the tension in his words, and his listeners, as he is wont to do.

In verse eleven, though, we get amal used in parallel with asah, which means to do or to make. It’s a very common word, and it shows up a lot in the book, as well as in the Scriptures generally. The noun form is ma’aseh, indicating a deed or a work, either the making or the thing made. So if we took amal as meaning labour in the sense of making things, they are synonyms. But the labour, if that’s what it is, of amal is always the labour of people; there are no instances (that I can find) of amal taking the Divine as a subject. This is not true about asah, starting with the second day of Creation, when the Divine made the firmament, vaya’as elohim. So when, in verse eleven, he turns to b’col ma’asai she’asu yadai, all the deeds done with my hands, u’ve’amal she’amalti la’asot, and all the (hard) labour I had laboured (hard) to do, it is in one sense a repetition and in another a contrast. It starts to sound like the common biblical Hebrew idiom of good-and-evil, coming-and-going, rising up and lying down. Using the and to join the two ends of the spectrum encompassing everything in between. Also very Ecclesiastes-ish. And all of it, all of that stuff, the rough with the smooth, is chevel u-r’ut ruach, vanity and vexation of spirit, ghost-wooing and breath.

And there is no profit! Let’s go back to Chris Cobb’s comment back in October, when all our hopes were still high for this kohelet-endeavor, “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”. Can we, as a potential method for digging meaning from the text, read amal and asah as alienated and unalienated labor in the Marxist sense. The toil and hardship of work done for another, the creativity and fulfillment of work that comes from within. The writer in verse ten may still be speaking in the persona of the king; he claims that “his” labor, the labor that is his share, is amal—he owns the painful labor of others (the musicians and servants and succubi or whatever he is on about in 7-8), and he delighted in having people labor for him, and considered it his proper place and theirs. And when he turns in verse eleven (and bye-the-bye I think it’s important that he turns himself at the beginning of verse ten, not just his eyes but his self, we have already seen the imagery of turning and will see it again) to the amal as well as the asah (with his hands!), he finds that there is no profit, no yitron, nothing left at the end. Is this distinction going to be sustainable over the rest of the book? I have no idea, maybe we’ll get there.

I do think, at least at this point, that this reading reinforces the other idea that I have been toying with, the idea of humility, of who is Man before the Divine as it comes through these verses. After the boasting of 4-9, we come to a peak of self-obsession, in 10—maybe self-mockingly so? Because I count in that verse 16 words of which 8 have the first-person possessive or active suffix. Eight. My eyes, my portion, my heart, my goodness gracious me this seems over the top, doesn’t it? And then in verse 11, what if we emphasize those I me me mines—I looked on my work of my hands, my labours that I laboured over, and pfft on those. Does this not demand the contrast: Whose works do remain at the end? Whose work is more than breath and spirit-grappling? The work and the works of the Divine, of course.

I still see the Divine behind and beyond all these words—kohelet is talking about people, resolutely talking about our earthbound world, yes. But all the intricate contradictory poetry of it is, in my sight anyway, pointing constantly above and beyond that subject. We read about everything under the sun; we think about what is not under it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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