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Ecclesiastes: 2:21

It has been a while since I blogged about Ecclesiastes, hasn’t it? Well, and if I’m going to do the whole book, I suppose I’d better push on with verse 21:

For there is a man whose labour [is] in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it [for] his portion. This also [is] vanity and a great evil.

Let’s see. Kohelet is explaining the previous verse, saying that his despair was because there is a man whose amal (and remember I am tracking which kind of labour is amal and which is asah, in a possibly misguided notion that amal denotes alienated labour and asah unalienated labour, or at least that there is a difference between them) comes from wisdom (chachmah), knowledge (da’at) and equity (kishrown), and that it will be given as an inheritance to a man who did not labour (amal, again). All this is futile and a great evil, ra’ah rabah.

I’ll start with our new word: kishrown, which the KJV translates as equity but Strong’s calls success and the RSV calls skill. And yeah, this is one of those words that only Kohelet uses in all of Scripture—in this case, both kishrown and the root verb kashayr, although the verb does appear once in Esther. If the Book of Esther even counts. Anyway, I’m not sure what to do with it here, although we could legitimately just say that it is obviously some Good Thing that goes along with chachmah and da’at, which are pretty well settled. I could just say that equity seems odd and that it perhaps runs along the lines of rightness or correctness, even perhaps accuracy, given its pairing with da’at. On the other hand, Kohelet does use what must have been fairly modern language at the time denoting what I think of as modern(ish) notions of money. That is, I think the metaphors are that of a money-based economy, much as we would think of them, rather than an agrarian or agricultural society, and that the choice of metaphors is significant to the tone of the entire thing. So perhaps the KJV is just throwing in an extra banking word when, as I say, it isn’t clear and perhaps doesn’t much matter what exact sort of Good Thing we’re talking about in this verse.

I also want to point out, just in the poetry of it, that gam-zeh hevel (all this is futile) is repeated from verse 19. In that one I suggested that this referred back to the labour; I don’t know if there is a specific this for this to refer to here.

I have difficulty with this, in terms of its simple meaning—inheritance is a great evil? I mean, there are economic problems associated with it, but ra’ah rabah? That seems excessive. Nor can I easily find a better meaning through the use of contrasts, as I have done with other verses: if this labour (in wisdom, knowledge and rightness) being left to a man who has not laboured constitutes a great evil, then what does not constitute a great evil? What labour apportioned to what man?

Focusing on amal as alienated labor, or labor under the sun, what does it mean in the case where such labor is in wisdom, knowledge and rightness? Perhaps, to stretch our frame further, I think, than truly appropriate, we could say that earthly (or profit-seeking) wisdom in the sense of knowledge and accuracy is futile, as it will be transmitted to those followers who don’t put in the effort to maintain it. It is only when the followers correct and update such wisdom over the years that it retains khakhma uv’da-at, knowledge and accuracy. That for it not to be maintained is a loss and a futility and a great evil?

Meh, I don’t buy it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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