Ecclesiastes does not say what we think it says

The JPS Bible Commentaries are highly respected for their scholarship and for the clear and easy to read manner in which this scholarship is presented so that even readers with little knowledge of the biblical books can effortlessly understand what is being explained. Michael V. Fox’s 2004 interpretation of Ecclesiastes in the JPS series reflects this achievement; this book and its ideas are referred to in the writings of other scholars.

His book has an extensive introduction of close to 30 pages in which he discusses eleven subjects, such as the authorship of the book, dating, and its worldview and teachings. He includes a good summary of the views of major interpreters, such as Midrash Koheleth Rabbah, Abraham ibn Ezra, Moses Mendelssohn, Shadal, and many others, including modern scholars.

He tells readers that the book is disquieting. It gives voice to experiences that are not considered religious. It is a pessimistic and fatalistic book. It is an unblinking gaze at life’s absurdities and injustices, the ineffectuality of human deeds, and the limitations of human wisdom. The author is not a methodical thinker; he does not present a systematic world view. The arrangement of some parts of the book seem haphazard. Some of his ideas oppose familiar current religious principles. His writing is a significant discord in the biblical canon. He sees no meaning in life. Life is grim. “Utter futility! Said Kohelet – Utter futility! All is futile!” Fox reminds readers that even in the common era, rabbis debated whether the book is sacred (Yadayim 3:5).

Fox, as other scholars, rejects the notion that King Solomon wrote the book because the language and background assumptions indicate a postexilic setting, because 12:9 does not speak of him as a king, but a sage, and because the author blames the royal administration for social injustice in 5:7. Fox dates the book in the third century BCE.

Fox notes that the author is addressing a male audience and treats male concerns only. The author does not speak about the Torah but, instead, encourages men to use their understanding of experiences and reasoning to discover truths.

Kohelet thinks that God is transcendent, distant. God has no warmth and people can expect nothing from God. God is not open to prayer. God is not hostile, but God does not help or reward.

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