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Ecclesiastes 3:3

I think perhaps I should post the entire poem each time I look at one of the verses so that we can look at each time within the context of the 28. So:

3:1 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
3:2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3:3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
3:4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
3:5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
3:6 A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
3:7 A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
3:8 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

This time I’m looking at 3:3: A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up.

Transliterating:

ayt laharoag/v’ayt lir’po/ayt lif’ro/v’ayt liv’noat

Words:

  1. hrg, to kill. Or to slay. Used for war and battle, but also for individual premeditated murder (Cain and Abel, f’r’ex,or for Esau’s intent to Jacob, etc) but not in the Ten Commandments, where rtzkh is used.
  2. rf’, to heal. Evidently from the action of sewing a wound—the connotation here is, I think, healing from wound rather than recovery from sickness. On the other hand, we have taken the word to mean healing more generally, as in the phrase refuah shlemah, complete healing, such as we pray for in the mi shebeirech.
  3. prtz, to break. This is one of those words with multiple meanings; in addition to various forms of break (break up, break down, break through), the KJV translates it as increase and also compel. Pretty clearly here it’s break, and it’s used for breaking down walls and fortifications and such.
  4. bnh, to build. Mostly used with cities, altars and houses, as well as families, that is, households.

Those four are all pretty straightforward. They are also simple solid words, by the way, what we in English might think of as good old Anglo-Saxon words, not flowery poetic metaphor. From what I can tell. Kohelet is here aiming for the poetry of simplicity. Very different in feel from the first chapter’s careful and tricksy wordplay.

Thinking about this verse and the last one, does it seem odd that these verbs are shorn of their objects? I mean, how different would this read if he had written a time to break down walls and a time to build up walls? Does it lose some of its metaphoric power? I’m not sure it does. True that in our present vernacular a time to kill men and a time to heal men’s wounds provokes a response about masculinity and whatnot, but that’s a translation problem; Kohelet’s original audience would have understood it to be universal. This comes to mind particularly because there is an object at the end of 3:2 (to pluck up that which is planted) that I think could have been shorn off to maintain parallelism without losing intelligibility. Only four of the twenty-eight pieces have more than one word following time (in the Hebrew). Is that a failure to keep strictly to eight-word verses? Or could we have done with a few more words? Or is there something else going on?

As for the content, this connects, in my mind, to war and peace—surely that is the time for killing and breaking down walls. On the other hand, the time for healing wounds and building up walls is also wartime, not so much peacetime, when one hopes there is less need for either triage or security. Well, well. Nor do any of these really strike me as kheifetz, things desired, either by Kohelet or the Divine Creator. I wonder… what if the poem ended here, with only two verses and four pairs? Times for being born, for dying, for planting, for uprooting; for killing, for healing, for breaking down, for building up. All of those are about creation and destruction right? Ends and beginnings. The next few are not that: weep and laugh, get and lose, rend and mend, speak and keep silence… these are middles. The order is odd, then, that verse two isn’t the last verse, making a first-and-last pair of firsts-and-lasts. I wonder if there is anything to be found in the choice not to do that.

No answers to anything, yet. Still just chewing on the words.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

I wonder if our modern sense of wars as lasting for years is anachronistically affecting the reading of Kohelet here. If we think of wars as being more like battles--there is a conflict, and then it's over--then healing would indeed take place in a time after war, as would the re-building of walls knocked down in battle. Also in this period, any town or city would have had a wall: they weren't optional, and, as Kohelet says, knowing that there is a time of war and a time of peace, one must act in peacetime with an awareness that war may come: when the attacking army arrives, it is too late to build a protective wall.


This is an excellent point, and of course even within a larger conflict with several battles, there could be said to be a time to kill (during battle) and a time to heal (between battles). But it's true that I have a sense of 'wartime' and 'peacetime' being actual things, which is not historically common.

Thanks,
-V.


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