Monday, January 11, 2010

Ecclesiastes 7-12: More Radical Departures

The second half of Ecclesiastes is not unlike the first half, which is to say it continues laying out a philosophy of religion seemingly different than anything seen up to this point in the Bible. The Teacher continues to expound his surprising revelation that all earthly things, including wisdom and knowledge, are meaningless. His conclusion continues to be that one should, as they say, eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow ye may die. That saying, now that I mention it, might even be the King James translation of a passage from Ecclesiastes. I’ll have to look that up.

[UPDATE: According to the wiki, "The expression, 'Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die' derives from verses from the biblical books of Isaiah 22:13 and 1 Corinthians 15:32, both in a negative context illustrating a life without faith. So Ecclesiastes is apparently in conflict not just with earlier portions of the Bible, but with later portions as well.]

Twice in the back half of Ecclesiastes, there’s something new: lists of what I can only call “proverbs.” These are short, ostensibly wise declarations and admonitions from the guy who says that wisdom is meaningless. Chapter 7, and Chapters 10 and 11, are packed with these, and they are a bit of an odd lot. Some of them are unlikely to get much argument:
Extortion turns a wise man into a fool,
and a bribe corrupts the heart.
Some do not carry the expected punch line:
A feast is made for laughter,
and wine makes life merry,
but money is the answer for everything.
Some are kind of gnomic:
If the ax is dull
and its edge unsharpened,
more strength is needed
but skill will bring success.

If a snake bites before it is charmed,
there is no profit for the charmer.
And some are not only downers, but seem somewhat in tension with the whole “eat, drink, and be merry” line:
...the day of death better than the day of birth.
It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of every man;
the living should take this to heart.

Sorrow is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart.

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure
. (7:1-4)
It is a little hard to pin the Teacher down to specifics. Wisdom, he has established abundantly, is meaningless. But now we’re faced with:
Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing
and benefits those who see the sun.

Wisdom is a shelter
as money is a shelter,
but the advantage of knowledge is this:
that wisdom preserves the life of its possessor.
And the emphasis of the Book seems to shift toward a philosophy of moderation in all things:
Do not be overrighteous,
neither be overwise—
why destroy yourself?

Do not be overwicked,
and do not be a fool—
why die before your time?

....There is not a righteous man on earth
who does what is right and never sins.
(7:16-18; 20)
Counseling moderation is so safe and expected in our own cultural milieu as to be almost banal, but it’s really something of a radical departure here in the Old Testament, where God has generally demanded a very strict hard line of obedience and righteousness.

Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

Here’s another radical departure: the Teacher (who identifies himself as the author of this Book, you remember) acknowledges that good things happen to bad people and vice versa:
There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. (8:14)
That’s pretty obvious, but it also in opposition to hundreds of pages of Old Testament text that claim the opposite – that God punishes the evil and rewards the righteous, right here on Earth. In this life. The only one we have. But mind you, in taking away the idea that God punishes and rewards in the earthly sphere, the Teacher does not gesture toward any idea of an afterlife. Quite the contrary:
For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even the memory of them is forgotten.

Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun.
So what’s to be done about it? Carpe diem!
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun— all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. (9:7-10).
The Book ends, at Chapter 12, with an exhortation to both “remember your Creator” and to enjoy yourself during your youth, before you start to get old and sick and your friends and family do the same and everything gets all grim. It’s actually a fairly moving passage, if not exactly uplifting.

The Epilogue

It’s followed by a coda (12:9-14) to the effect that the Teacher was wise, and he said true things, and now people should consider all the best thinking done and lay off the books:
The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one Shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.
Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.
I don’t know how influential this specific passage was, but it certainly seems like the kind of idea that informed a lot of thinking in the Early and Middle Medieval period, not to mention the people in our own day who pretend to consider nothing true except the truth of the Bible.

The final words of Ecclesiastes are especially interesting.
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.

For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
This “conclusion of the matter” doesn’t really have much to do with the central ideas and themes of Ecclesiastes. Indeed, since the Teacher has nullified any means of reward or punishment – the good often fail, remember, and the wicked often prosper, and then everyone dies alike – it is almost ironic now for the idea of divine judgment to be brought up. Are we to understand that it is our duty to fear God and keep his Commandments, and that we are to do this simply because it is our duty, knowing that doing so brings us no benefit and failing to do so brings us no harm? It’s not an impossible interpretation, but it is a pretty extreme departure from the rest of Old Testament theology, which is all based on covenant and contract.

It seems more likely to me, from this simple reading of the text, that the coda was added to Ecclesiastes at a later date by someone not entirely comfortable with the Book’s contents. There has been much here, after all, that strays from what I’ll call the Old Testament mainstream conception of God and right behavior. It is easy to imagine a conservative priest who was, for whatever reason, obligated despite his personal preferences to include Ecclesiastes in a collection of holy texts. Trying to make the best of the situation, he writes a short epilogue in which he tries to put some spin on the document that will render it less dangerous. It’s not about eat, drink, and be merry, he insists – I picture sweat on his brow – but about fearing God and keeping his commandments! And, in hopes of avoiding similar situations in the future, he attempts to declare the library of human wisdom closed to new additions. Except it must not have worked, because I’ve still got 419 pages to go.

Next Time: The Song of Songs! I’ve been led to believe it’s about sex!

This Week’s Reading: Ecclesiastes 7-12.


Jennifer said...

It's the Edith Wharton passage (7:1-4)! Of course, in your nutty translation, it's a little harder to recognize it since they call it the "house of pleasure" instead of the "house of mirth." I never could understand why people were so bent out of shape about people enjoying the house of mirth, except that it reminded me of a "funhouse," which is kind of a scary concept (about as scary as a haunted house to me, to tell the truth). Calling it a "house of pleasure," if that's not misdirection caused by different specific cultural meanings, makes it a lot clearer.

Actually, I'm a little baffled by the contradictions throughout about pleasure (that you noted as well, of course). I get the whole "moderation" thing--my dad preached that a lot to us when we were growing up--but if everything is meaningless, why not be happy, as the author seems to say elsewhere? That is, why diss joy and say it's not as good as sadness? I tend to be annoyed by people claiming that tragedy is inherently more valuable than comedy, and this sounds like that all over again, except that I always associated the tragic preference with Aristotle, which is a totally different tradition....

So, question: is it possible to read Ecclesiastes as the author's musings over the arguments and counterarguments regarding the question of what is the best kind of life to lead, and that therefore the conclusion is just that, a conclusion, rather than a contradiction of previous claims?

UnwiseOwl said...

I've always thought that the opening and closing had a different voice to the rest of the book, but I have no idea if that's artistic writing or actually is two different authors.
Either way, neither of them is likely to be a priest, considering how old the book is and that it has been included in the Torah in pretty much exactly the same form we can guess that if there is another writer trying to moderate the ideas he operated much earlier than the birth of Christianity.

Michael5000 said...

Jennifer: It IS possible to read Ecclesiastes as musings. It's hard to, though, because the tone is very forceful and unbending.

You know, I imagine, that the plot of Eco's "Name of the Rose" proposes that Aristotle's preference for tragedy over comedy comes down simply to which of his books survived and which did not. I believe there is some evidence that this is also true in the real world.

UnWise Owl: Hmm, I didn't mean "priest" in the sense of a Christian or Catholic priest. I was imagining more of a priest in the tradition of the Levites.

Jennifer said...

Oh, right. I didn't know it came from Eco, but I'm certainly familiar with the idea that the vagaries of fortune and the comedies section not being extant led us to prefer tragedies. I think that claim can only be partially true, though. Good reminder that I need to read Name of the Rose though.

Voron X said...

I remember being very annoyed at the book when I was re-reading it in my early twenties. I think I actually made marginalia comments to the author. "There is nothing new on earth under the sun" (or something) To which I replied: "Oh yeah, what about human flight... or spaceflight?"