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Ecclesiastes 2:16

Last week we told our hearts that there was no profit in dying wise; what is not havel is… well, that we have left as an exercise for the reader. This week, another verse, Ecclesiastes 2:16:

For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool.

I want to talk a little bit about time, in this verse, and in Scripture and in our lives. When the KJV says that there will be no remembrance for ever, the Hebrew is l'olam. Now, that's fine: l'olam does mean forever. But it also means the world (or even the universe). How does that work? Well, this is complicated, because language is complicated. But bear with me, because I think it's lovely: olam comes from a verb alam which means to hide or conceal. In this sense olam is hidden time; eternity, time out of mind, forever. I like the idea of eternity as hidden time, myself, but you can also think of it as the vanishing point, if you like, what we can't see.

Time is, in Scripture, not entirely linear. I wouldn't personally go so far as to describe it as a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff, but certainly it isn't reliable that one thing causes the next, rather than vice-versa. And there is a thing that Amy-Jill Levine used to call eschatological time, a kind of eternity that happens outside time altogether, in which prophecies and visions occur. Perhaps the sun stands still, perhaps the mountains are laid low—space is also affected, I have to say. You can take it as a rhetorical device or as metaphysical speculation. Or as miracle, remembering however that experiencing linear time is pretty miraculous, too. At any rate, when you come across two events in Scripture, one after the other, do not necessarily assume that they have been placed there because B happened right after A. The connection may be thematic, or even logical, rather than causal or chronological.

Now, I believe that what happened with the word olam is that it became associated with two phrases: ha-olam ha'zeh and ha-olam ha'ba. Zeh is this (or here) and ba is coming (or there). This forever and that forever; the time we experience and the time to come, this world and the next. When the language really starts changing, in the Roman period, during a time of enormous changes and dangers, a time that a lot of leaders felt was the endtime, I suspect that there was a lot of talk about ha'olam ha'ba, the next world, and that its opposite was shortened to ha'olam, this world. And thus ha'olam became the world.

Is this linguistically plausible? I have no idea. Lots of things that are less plausible are still true, after all. Whether that's how it worked or no, it is the case that at the time of Ecclesiastes, olam did not yet have the meaning world, but meant forever.


The one really great thing about Scripture existing in eschatological time, for Your Humble Blogger, is that it was written for me, and my understanding, in my world. Which means that if it feels to me that there is a connotation of this world in l'olam, then I can decide that it was meant to connote that, even if the time doesn't work out properly, because time is a hidden thing.

The hidden nature of time is what the whole verse is about, isn't it? l'olam is forever, b'shek'var, already, ha-yameem ha-ba'im, the days to come. Zik'ron, remembrance, nish'kakh, forgetting—it surely is memory that reveals time to us or hides it. If you read for the evocation, not the p'shat, here, it is powerful stuff: for no remembrance | the wise man | against the fool | forever | already | days to come | all | forgetting. The past and the future seem to be mixed up here, as we are already forgotten in the future, or will be.

To me this is not simply about how our lives, my life and yours, will someday be forgotten, but about we (and all people) also have forgotten other people, who also have no memory of still others. We can't hold it all. We can't even remember the past, much less the future. That is, we cannot, humans that we are, the wise and the fool who die like each other. The Divine that does not die, though… are we not all held in the memory of the Divine, not to be forgotten? It is people who, with their limited understanding and capacity, cannot remember all the wise folk and fools in the days to come. That forgetting is an inability to remember that is peculiar to this world, l'olam, this ball of time. The Divine exists both in this world and in l'olam ha-ba, the coming forever, the other kind of time, in which there is no forgetting and no remembering, no time to come or days gone by. And it is from that viewpoint that there is indeed a different between the wise and the fool—they are both mortal, which is the fundamental sameness, but the difference between them, forgotten by mortals by virtue of being mortals, is known to the Divine.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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