Some thought-provoking ideas about Kohelet

Robert Alter is a supreme translator of the Bible in readable English and an excellent commentator of the texts. In “Wisdom Books,” his writes an introduction to, translates, and comments on Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. He tells readers that “there is little in the three biblical books that is specifically Israelite.” He notes that the wisdom books of Job and Ecclesiastes raise a “radical challenge to the doctrine of reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked, it dissents from a consensus view of biblical writers – a dissent compounded [in Job] by its equally radical rejection of the anthropocentric conception of creation that is expressed in biblical texts from Genesis onward.”

In regard to Ecclesiastes, which he calls Qohelet,[1] Alter tells us, for example, that “we are not entirely sure what Qohelet means, and whether it is a title or a name, so he chose, as many other scholars did, not to translate the term. He suggests that we think of Kohelet as a “literary persona of a radical philosopher articulating” his view of life; meaning, the author invented the character Kohelet as his spokesman. He agrees with C. L. Seow in the Anchor Bible version, based on linguistic grounds, that the book was most likely composed “a few decades before the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great in 333 BCE.”

He tells us that the author’s statements are subversive. Some seem to be “citations of traditional maxims that are challenged or undermined.” This, of course, raises the unanswerable question how a book “in such a bleak light, became part of the canon.” Many rabbis suggest that the pious tilt in the book’s epilogue, in 12:9-14, supported the conclusion to include the book in the canon. Alter writes “it is surely attributing far too much naiveté to the ancient readers to imagine that a few dozen words of piety at the end would deflect them from seeing the subversive skepticism emphatically reiterated throughout the book.  We might add that it is possible that the book was included, as was Job, because Judaism is not averse to ideas contrary to traditional ones, and the ending was added at the time when the book was included in the canon to make it acceptable to the general public.

Alter understandably dislikes, as many other do, the seventeenth century King James translation of hevel as “vanity.” He prefers “futility,” or better yet, the way he translates it “merest breath,” a “flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day and in any case immediately dissipating in the air,” for it captures the idea that life and everything connected to it are utterly insubstantial and transient.”

He understands that the book’s author uses the term elohim often as “a stand-in for the cosmic powers-that-be, for fate or the overarching dynamic of reality that is beyond human control,” in other words, the laws or powers of nature. He notes that this is also the meaning of the term frequently in other biblical books, including the Pentateuch.

His translation of this biblical book is, as is his translation of other biblical books, excellent. For example, while many translators render 1:14’s description of human activity as “pursuit of the wind,” he has “herding the wind,” which is a futile activity, it cannot be done.

His explanations are equally excellent. Verse 2:24’s “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and sate himself with good things through his toil” is not a contradiction to his view that all activities are futile, pure mist. Although “the simple pleasures of life of the senses here and now are all we have, and we might as well take advantage of them.”

The Kohelet author included good advice in his book. Verse 11: 1 is a good example: “Send out your bread upon the waters, for in the long course of time you will find it. Alter agrees with Rashi, ibn Ezra and other medieval commentators that people should “perform acts of beneficence, for you never know when you yourself may benefit from having done so.”


[1] Transliterations differ. Some scholars render the Hebrew kaf as a K, and some as a Q. Another example is the Targum which is transliterated as Onkelos and as Onqelos.

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