Review by Israel Drazin
The Man and his world
A Study of Ecclesiastes
By Robert Gordis
Schocken Books, 1968, 421 pages
Paperback Cost: $5.00
This is a readable translation by a highly respected scholar of the biblical book Ecclesiastes, called Kohelet in Hebrew, with comprehensive explanations and extensive notes. Both names mean “collector” or collection.” It is a difficult book, usually misunderstood, often purposely. Dr. Gordis tells readers that “there is scarcely one aspect of the 222 verses [in the book], whether of dates, authorship or interpretation, that has not been the subject of wide differences of opinion.” Yet the book was extremely popular. No less than 122 out of the 222 verses in the book are quoted in rabbinic Talmudic and Midrashic sources, in whole or in part.
The “Jewish Midrashim and the Aramaic Targum [authoritative translation] saw in it the penitent reflections of a [King] Solomon grown worldly-wise and sorrowful in the evening of life.” In contrast, Church Fathers, also enamored by the book, “found in the book definite teachings of the Trinity and the Atonement.
Gordis and most scholars are certain that Solomon was not the author of this book and “Koheleth [its author] may have lived between 500 BCE and 100 CE – no less a span than six centuries.”
True, the book begins by saying “the words of Koheleth the son of David, king in Jerusalem [but] the view that Solomon is the author has been universally abandoned today.” Scholars contend that the introductory sentence was attached to the book by a later editor who wanted to give this heterodox volume an aura of prestige and sanctity. This is also why this editor, or another editor like him, added a conclusion to the book saying, “In sum, having heard everything, fear God, and keep His commandments for that is man’s whole duty. For God will bring every deed to judgment, even everything hidden, whether it is good or evil.” This added ending is a non-sequetor, for the body of the book has an altogether different skeptical, non-traditional, hedonistic thrust.
We know little about Koheleth. In the last six verses of the book (12:9-14), the editor added that Koheleth was a wisdom teacher and a collector and composer of wisdom literature. He was from his earliest youth endowed with intellectual and emotional faculties that were exceptionally keen. He had a passionate love of life, and enjoyed the tang of living. He enthralled in the sight of the sun, the breath of the wind, and the good things available in this world. He loved material comfort, beauty, and women. He wrote: “Enjoy life with the woman you love” (9:9). Yet he pours out vials of bitterness against them, proof that he had loved and lost them or that he was a confirmed bachelor, for he wrote “I find woman more bitter than death, for her heart is full of traps and snares” (7:26). His yearning for justice and wisdom brought him sorrow and disillusion. Since justice and wisdom are unattainable, he concludes, contrary to the added end and contrary to the current Orthodox belief of life after death, that striving for happiness is the only reasonable goal of life. “For if a man live many years, let him rejoice in them all, and remember that the days of darkness will be many, and that everything thereafter is nothingness” (11:8).
Gordis tells readers that “The idea of a future life is passed over in silence in [the biblical book] Proverbs, probably because of the early date of its material [written before the idea of an after-life entered Judaism]. It is explicitly negated in Ben Sira, Job, and Koheleth.”
Many expressions in Koheleth are misunderstood or overlooked. For example: “Everything has its appointed time…A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them” (3:5) is a phrase having a sexual connotation. God has “placed the love of the world in men’s hearts…. I know that there is no other good in life but to be happy while one lives. Indeed, every man who eats, drinks, and enjoys happiness in his work – that is the gift of God” (3: 11-13) and “the fate of men and the fate of beasts is the same” (3:19) are overlooked because of misplaced pious reasons.
Koheleth’s work opens and closes with his judgment of life, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (1:2 and 12:8). The petty strivings of people are folly. God endowed people with the desire for happiness, failure to enjoy God’s gift is ungrateful egregious rebellion.