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ELSA TAMEZ Professor of Bible and Hermeneutics Universidad Biblica Latino america San Jose, Costa Rica

Qoheleth speaks most profoundly to men and women most disillusioned with a world governed by efficiency, technology, and profit. To them, the sage offers both an affirmation of faith and a call to value the concrete and the sensuous.

K i ^ J cclesiastes is a book to be read in times of profound disillusionment. This affirI mation seems paradoxical, because logic would dictate that preference go to maLimm readings that cheer us. Qoheleth reveals a deep frustration with his reality. Glimpses of hope are scarce in a book that begins and ends with the phrase "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity." Nevertheless, a disappointed soul can find solace in reading this work of a frustrated narrator. When we find ourselves in a no-exit situation and a book like Ecclesiastes comes into our hands, we find solidarity in our discontent. Moreover, there comes a moment when a sorrowful reader devours the discourse in order to find places of hope, those small "oases" that can refresh the soul and strengthen her or him to dwell in a hostile desert.1 The book of Ecclesiastes is not an easy read; it is full of contradiction and exhibits a structure that can be found only after juggling all its parts. For this reason, the work opens itself to diverse interpretations, ranging from extreme pessimism to optimism. Hence, the fundamental problem in a book like Ecclesiastes is that of interpretation. In a certain sense, it is the critic or scholar, determined by his or her reality, who decides the ultimate meaning

lr This has happened to me various times after giving a sermon, teaching a Bible study, or conducting a course on Ecclesiastes.


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the book offers in the moment of reading.2 But in order to arrive at this last step, the text must be allowed to speak and, thereby, manifest its contradictions with freedom, to let it be hopping mad, even blasphemous! The interpretation offered here is based on a threefold context: the context of Hellenism of the 3rd century B.C.E., the context of the text itself, and the context of this century, dominated by the globalization of the free market. The first two contexts are mutually related, and the last, of which we will only speak a little, is nevertheless dominantfor it is out of this context that we turn to the biblical sources. The reader, conditioned by his or her actual context, enters into dialogue with the text. And because there is a certain similarity between today's globalization and the Ptolemaic Empire, contemporary readers sometimes feel that we are in dialogue with a postmodernist who actually lived long before modernity.

THERE IS NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN: QOHELETH The frustration Qoheleth experiences in his narrated world is poignant. Everything he sees is "vanity." Almost nothing escapes his negative judgment: work, the political and economic situation, inter-human relations, even possible revolutions (4:15-16). Because of this, the Hebrew word heb el, which occurs thirty-eight times in Ecclesiastes, cannot be translated as "vanity," as was done in the Latin Vulgate followed by a wide array of other versions. The literal sense of the term (to sigh, to blow, to breeze) is impossible to translate. As Michael Fox says, it must be assigned a transferable significance.31 agree with Fox's claim that the transferred significance falls squarely within the semantic scope of the word "absurd" in its oppressive or tragic sense.4 The evaluation Qoheleth makes of his situation stems from disillusionment.5 In everyday life, there are more trivial or less elegant words, such as "garbage" and "shit," that better express the malaise produced by a situation of impotence before a crushing reality. I do not know of any language that lacks this last word to express the frustration that comes from the pit of the stomach.6 But what is this disillusionment of which the narrator speaks ad nauseam*. It is primarily a disillusionment over the inability to intervene in historyparticularly unjust history and change its course. We could give the first poem (1:4-11) a modern title: "When the Machine Prevents Interference." The text (1:1-4) invites the reader to stop time, as it were, and reflect on the purpose

2 This affirmation does not place the interpreter outside of research. It is known that all research is conditioned, and the more conscious one is of his or her own cultural and social conditioning, the greater is the possibility of objectivity in the study. 3 M. V. Fox, Qoheletand his Contradictions, JSOT Sup 71 (Sheffield: Almond, 1987; repr. 1989) 29-37. 4 Ibid., 33. 5 For R. Pautrel, the significance is not in the image but in the sense of deception the image connotes (L'Ecclesiaste [Pans: Cerf, 1953]). 6 See E. Tamez, When Horizons Close Rereading Ecclesiastes (New York: Orbis, 2000) 21.

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and meaning of life in his or her particular situation. To that end, the narrator describes the rhythm of the cosmos and human history as he perceives them. The four elements used (earth, sun, wind, and sea) seem to represent early Greek cosmogony. The abundant participles point to continuous action. In w. 4-7, we find fourteen verbs of movement. Again and again we see the verbs "turn," "return," "go," and "come." In spite of that, the final image appears fixed, like the high-velocity blades of a fan or the spokes of a bicycle traveling fast. The instability of the generations ( w. 4a, 11) is contrasted with the stability of the cosmos (v. 4b). But both are found to be wearisome and unsatisfactory (cosmos, w. 5-7; humanity, v. 8). The unstable and the static share the lack of a specific and satisfactory goal. Vigorous, uninterrupted activity does not guarantee a goal (see especially 2:1-11); the sea never fills even though the rivers flow unceasingly. Vittorio D'Alario has aptly visualized the structure of these texts as cyclical movement.7 This cyclical movement is described pejoratively for the generations as well as the cosmos. Because of his frustrating experience with history, Qoheleth perceives the cosmos as an extensive order that is impervious to interference. Implacable cosmic and historical systems undermine human subjectivity. Human beings can no longer feel the soft breeze from the sea or admire with passion the sunrise or sunset. In 1:9-10, the text speaks of historical events. The phrase "under the sun" reappears, returning to human history. It appeared for the first time in v. 3 in the main question of the discourse: "What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?" Those events under the sun are like the earth: they are fixed perennially. Present, past, and future times pass on like the generations, yet nothing changes. Qoheleth denies the possibility of anything new. In such an established order, there are neither divinely determined epochs nor feasible promises that help to reorganize the present conscience. The fundamental problem is the loss of historical memory (1:11). The generations come and go without remembering their own history. Such collective amnesia means the death of a people. Each generation has to confront its own present without historically liberating legacies and, in turn, face the prospect of committing the same errors as past generations. The connotations of the text indicate that cosmic and historical realities are marked by relentless activity, monotonous and devoid of plan or purpose. But this would not be the central message for Qoheleth's original readers. In fact, his message would have been found contentious with respect to the new Ptolemaic Empire system, as we will see. The text challenges the reader to find a way to breathe with dignity and wisdom amid these asphyxiating times. Throughout his entire discourse, Qoheleth must fight with himself to look for possible ways out of the present. Qoheleth will not be resigned to the anti-human present named hebel. The book can be divided into three parts: ( 1 ) frustration under the sun, in which the

See V. D'Alario, // Libro del Qohelet, Struttura letteraia e retorica (Bologna: Editoriale Dehoniano, 1992) 79.


Interpretation 253

poem analyzed above (1:4-11) dominates; (2) confronting the present with confidence in God's grace, starting with the faith affirmation that everything has its time and its hour; and (3) discerning ways of resistance amid frustration. Qoheleth's discontent with reality, named hebel, pervades the book. It is lived as the experience of the sage's present time. If in the beginning it is perceived in symbolic form, it is described openly within the main discourse. Sometimes his disillusionment appears in a prophetic way, against oppression, for example, as in 4:1: "Again I saw all the oppressions that are rpracticed 11 under the sun. Look, the tears of the

Resist wisely in the face of absurdity. This

will be the most important message of his

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oppressedwith no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppres discourse: how to survive with dignity in a sors there was powerwith no one ' dehumanizing and annihilating reality. to comfort them." Sometimes it appears in an ironic way, such as in 5:8,8 where he describes institutional oppression: "If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter; for a high official is being watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them." Sometimes it is found in a simple popular saying that describes the impossibility of free expression: "Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts, or curse the rich, even in your bedroom; for a bird of the air may carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter" (10:20). The fundamental problem is the inversion of society (3:16). The good and the just do not prosper, but the wicked prosper quite well (2:15; 8:10-14). The wicked take the blessing of the just: they live long lives, have many children, are rich, and die with honor. Qoheleth is a book that, like Job, reflects the crisis of wisdom: the principle of retribution does not conform to reality. Apart from the expressed discourse and the clarity of disillusionment with a topsy turvy world, the narrator sometimes shows his feelings as one who exudes unbearable rage against this grievous present. This is seen not only in the use of the word hebel but in the modes of expressions. In some texts, we do not encounter the classic rhetoric of sapiential discourse, that is, a few prudent, serene words. In situations of hopelessness, there is no room for serenity. I am referring to those texts that speak of enslaving work or toil {'amai)? in which Qoheleth pronounces his hatred of life and work (2:17-23). The reasons given are manifold: he does not obtain benefit from his work, toil turns life into suffering, disturbing his sleep at night, the product of his work is taken away, and the striving to accumulate

In Hebrew 5:7. For subsequent citations from chapter 5, the English versification is used. This term is attested frequently in Ecclesiastes. Of thefifty-seventimes that it appears in the First Testament, it is used thirty-five times by Qoheleth.



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riches so dominates human beings that some people work tirelessly without even having someone with whom to share what they produce (4:8). "Chasing after wind" is a phrase that is used many times by the narrator when he analyzes his present reality. The phrase usually appears beside hebel, and the sense points to the futility of effort that results in frustration. The Vulgate translates r't rah as "affliction of spirit," based on the other senses of the word rah. Even though this is not thought to be entirely correct by many scholars, there is some truth in transferring the meaning to the feelings of a person. The inverted reality not only produces rage, it gives "a stabbing pain in the chest" or produces a "hollow in the stomach" that oppresses the soul. A narrated world is never created out of a vacuum. The material reality of that world is indispensible in the shaping of literary discourse. Even more, this realitythe economic, political, cultural, social, and religious contextis lived in a certain way by the author of the work. That is what both engenders the narrated world's conception and conditions its configuration. It is for this reason that a text cannot be analyzed without looking at the context that produced it.

ALL IS NEW UNDER THE SUN: THE PTOLEMAIC EMPIRE A consideration of the book's context provides an important key to understanding Ecclesiastes. Only in this way can we observe that Qoheleth was not just a bored individual or a nihilistic philosopher who mused about his loathing of human history. Many scholars propose that the book was produced at the beginning of the third century B.C.E., during the reign of the Ptolemaic kings who governed from Alexandria, Egypt, ruling over all their provinces, including Palestine, for about one hundred years. It was an age of surprising innovations. Martin Hengel speaks of unprecedented structural changes. The geographical and economic structure of Egypt under the Ptolemies required a directed, centralized, and organized administration. The so-called Papyrus of Zenon,10 discovered at the beginning of the twentieth century, gives details of the economic and fiscal administration carried out by the Ptolemaic government: oppressive agrarian bureaucracy, monetary problems, the manner in which functionaries lived, the function of commerce, and a host of domestic matters. Apolonio was the dioiketesy or administrator, under Ptolemaic Philadelphia, and it was to him that Zenon, a functionary sent to the provinces, reported everything related to economic production. The government's efficient exploitation can be observed in the way it dominated the provinces. Each province was visited by two functionaries: an economist (oikonomos) for the administration of finances and commerce, and a military official (strategos). Under them were numerous subordinate officials and a vast bureaucracy.

'See C. Orrieux, Les papyrs de Zenon; L'horizon d'un grec en Egypte au III sicle avant J.C. (Paris: Macula, 1983).


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The Greeks were aggressive and bold, working hard to reach high economic and social levels. It is notable that in this period the methods of doing business improved, banks and credit increased, and coinage became abundant.11 Hengel shows that "from the beginning, the firm administration was supplemented by strong state commerce, totally new, unknown in any other oriental state."12 This innovation was observed in all areas, not only in commerce, but also in military techniques and in the technology applied to agricultural production. The Greeks introduced new plants, increased the soil's fertility through irrigation, took advantage of the marshes, and invented the waterwheel. They also developed maps that enabled anyone who could speak koine Greek to move without difficulty throughout the provinces. This progress had negative consequences for non-Greeks. Alexandria, the capital of Egypt, was seen as the promised land for many Greeks who made up the learned aristocracy. Yet the situation for servants or slaves was anything but advantageous. Slaves were known to flee when they realized they were being taken to Egypt. There was virtually unlimited exploitation, and revolts, strikes, and protests in Egypt were invariably crushed by mercenary troops. Rostovtzeff notes that the technological advances in agriculture led to a rapid transformation in which slavery played a principal role. Primitive agricultural methods were left behind, and slave labor began displacing the independent artisans and domestic manufacturing with devastating effects. Needed for their economic productivity, the Semitic people of Palestine were the objects of exploitation, according to Hengel. Zenon's papyrus takes note of the disadvantage of the poor in Palestine. The document deals with the complaint of a peasant who had his salary retained many times and was discriminated against for not being a Greek. "They have seen that I am a Barbarian, and I do not know how to live as a Greek," testifies the papyrus. As in all empires, the Ptolemies supported the aristocracy in the provinces in order to maintain their imperial power. While enjoying religious and cultural freedom, the nobles were kept outside of economic or political power. In Palestine, the Tobiad family was a collaborator of the empire.13 The historical background of the book is, it seems, the very one rejected and classified as hebel in Qoheleth's discourse. Under the overwhelming presence of newness and efficiency, under the Ptolemaic sun, the wise eye of the narrator sees only a profiteering empire that exploits the provinces. This is not only old hat for the sage, it is hebel. He finds the hegemony so powerful and implacable that it is dehumanizing, a "machine" impervious to interference, and no escape is possible. Indeed, a life that appears to go nowhere, such as

n See M. I. Rostovtzeff, Histoire Economique et Social du monde Hellnistique (Paris: Editions Robert Laffont S.A., 1989) 227-71, 781. The Ptolemies gathered up or suspended the currencies of other independent cities and put into circulation their own gold, silver, or copper coins in sufficient quantities. See also F. Madden, History of Jewish Coinage and of Money in the Old and New Testament (New York: KTAV, 1967) 22. 12 M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974) 56-57. 13 R. Michaud, Qohlet et l'hellnisme (Paris: Les ditions du Cerf, 1987) 74-75.



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that described in 1:4-11, cannot point the way to a utopia. Qoheleth is confronted with a present that lacks any possibility of fulfillment.

TO LIVE WITH DIGNITY AND WISDOM AMID ABSURDITY Qoheleth's day was not the time for liberation, as was the case in the past when Israel was formed as a people. The Jews would soon come into struggle with the Seleucids. But Qoheleth does not announce, much less promote, the Maccabean revolt. For him, the time of revolution is not propitious. His advice takes another route: resist wisely in the face of absurdity. This is the most important message of his discourse: how to survive with dignity in a dehumanizing and annihilating reality. Time as a structure ofpossibility. Time is a central theme in Ecclesiastes. The chronological times of the past, present, and future seem to have conspired against human beings, denying them any recourse to alternatives for cultivating the good or pleasant life. Qoheleth does not even dare to affirm a better future in view of the messianic promise. There is no clarity in the past or in the future. Both times refer hopelessly to the present: a devastating present, hebel. There is no room for the liberating God of the exodus, who with a strong arm snatched God's oppressed people from the hands of Egypt's pharaoh. Neither does Qoheleth grant credibility to the announcement of liberation in Deutero-Isaiah and his Utopian visions of the new heaven and the new earth. In Eccl 7:10, we read: "Do not say, c Why were the former days better than these?'" The narrator bars the way to the past to gain new strength for transforming the world and realizing Utopian dreams. Even worse, there is no glimpse in the sage's discourse of a different future, a liberating vision to help communities withstand the dehumanizing present (6:12; 8:7,17). This is the greatest anguish of the narrator: his incapacity to decipher the future, to penetrate the mystery of the historic future and find traces of a new society. The horizons are closed. To look toward the future would be an illusion lacking in hope. There is something in this hebel that is dreadfully discouraging to those who are not deceived by all this newness (of the foreign order). Wisdom of this kind causes pain (1:18). To escape the malaise of this reality in which the chronological times preempt all human efforts to achieve fulfillment, the narrator has no alternative but to re-configure the times as a structure of possibility, to turn to a kairological vision of time. "For everything there is a season and a time" is an affirmation of faith, pure and simple. This is the sage's first advice: to believe that everything has its time and its hour. If now we live in a time of hebel, there will inevitably come a time of no-hebel. The logic of the poem, which includes all of human existence, allows us to make this affirmation. Absent in Qoheleth's world is any clear indication that affirms this change; nevertheless, he affirms it by faith. This is because the human being cannot live without utopias. Hope is intrinsic to humanity. If hope dies, human beings die. The sage does not make this affirmation with fireworks and cymbals, but almost reluctantly, because, more than anything else, a life with dignity is most important, even despite his claim that the dead are more fortunate because they have not


Interpretation 257

seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun (4:3). The narrator uses a beautifully crafted poem to invite the reader to rethink his or her attitude when confronted with frustrating events. The faith that everything has its time and season permits him to confront the present with maturity, confident in the grace of God. God is the subject in the change of times. The first and last phrases frame the poem (3:1, 9), which is constructed with fourteen antithetical pairs. Each contains the term "time" (Hebrew ct). Here, the meaning of time does not stamp moments with the character of temporality but alludes to situations and particular occasions, that is, the concrete structure of a given situation.14 The poem covers the totality of human existence. With fourteen pairs, the double of seven, the poem connotes totality. The phrases are impersonal: they lack both a subject that executes the action and an object that receives it. Qoheleth seems to indicate that in extreme cases, such as birth and death, there is no room for interference. The whole poem, thus, is an invitation to accept God's grace and to have faith that situations will change. Wisdom discerns good times amid evil times. When one is enduring misfortune, one not only has to have faith that the situation will change, but also has to know how to live in those times. For example, if we live in a time to pluck up what is planted, we plant anyway, even without the hope for a great harvest. And if we find ourselves in a time of hate, we love in spite of the timebut without hoping for an effusive return of love. If the times are of war, we must struggle for peace, even realizing that it will not bear much fruit. It is important not only to know with certainty that the times will change, but also to know how to discern the times in order to resist them better. In this way, we can take advantage of those moments that bring joy to life in the midst of misfortune. When we know that we are living in good times, we need to take advantage of these times and make use of them the best way we can, knowing that situations can, indeed will, change for the worse. To affirm that each event, affair, or human activity has its time implies that we do not need to become alarmed; everything is in the hands of God.15 God is the implicit subject of the actions presented in the poem. The sense of the text, including its historical context, cannot be interpreted to affirm only that humans should passively cross their arms while waiting for better times. Closer to the sense of the text is the message that we cannot let ourselves be crushed by the present or worry ourselves with insane anxiety about the future. There is no point in living disillusioned or frustrated all the time: God has control over the events under the sun. We must receive life as a gift from God and take advantage of the gratifying moments that humanize even when they seem insignificant. The affirmation of the concrete and sensuous life. Time as a structure of possibility and the affirmation of concrete real life are the narrator's two proposals to resist with dignity the indignity of hebel. The text also repeats Qoheleth's affirmation of the concrete life, six

14 J. R. Wilch, Time and Event: An Exegetical Study of the Use of'eth in the Old Testament in Comparison to Other Temporal Expressions in Clarification of the Concept of Time (leiden: Brill, 1969) 102. 15 G. Ogden, Qoheleth (Sheffield: JSOT, 1987) 52.



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times, no less, in key parts of the book (2:24; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7-9). The narrator works, examines, reflects, searches, and arrives at the conclusion that in his reality of hebel there is nothing better than to affirm the real and sensuous life. Each refrain articulates Qoheleth's affirmation of life and happiness in slightly different ways. In 9:7-9, the call to life appears in its most complete form. The larger setting of this passage is the reality of death (9:1-3, 10-12). That is why the verses in 9:7-9 are cast in the imperative. A way out for Qoheleth is to reject the present by confronting it in a positive way, or, in other words, to affirm what We must receive life as a gift from God the present is incapable of offering: and take advantage of the gratifying rest, happiness, shared meals. This is moments that humanize even when they a rhythm where chronological time seem insignificant. does not matter. He speaks of the life of human beings, satisfying with joy their fundamental needs: food, drink, love, and happiness. That means eating what is available without hurrying, as if we were to live eternity within countable time, without taking time into account because the minutes cannot be counted. In Qoheleth's proposal, time is not gold, as it is for the banks, the market, the stock market, and the toil of production. What counts are the live bodies and life on the earth, before death. The rhythm of affirming life by joyfully eating bread and drinking wine with a loved one opposes the dehumanizing rhythm profiled at the beginning of the book, which makes no room for grace. Qoheleth's proposal affirms real life in opposition to the dehumanizing rhythm of the Ptolemaic system of elevating the value of production, which cast humans as objects that produced objects, not as complete persons or subjects. A joyously shared supper (9:9) is humanizing, and this humanizing act pleases God. God enjoys when God's creatures enjoy. For the narrator, food and drink are gifts of God, and it is the right of humans to be happy without guilty feelings. Qoheleth challenges those who work incessantly to accumulate riches. It is not worth it, he says. To enjoy life intensely, even if it is only for a short time, is of more worth than riches, a long life, and the blessing of many children (6:3, 6). For Qoheleth, the affirmation of faith that everything has its time and season and the affirmation of the concrete, sensuous life are two proposals that enable human beings to resist and survive with dignity in evil times, as "when one person exercises authority over another to the other's hurt" (8:9). But the advice of this old sage does not stop here. Although prudent, such counsel is not enough when one lives under the sun in an inverted society where the wicked prosper and the righteous languish. Therefore, Qoheleth devotes a large portion of his discourse to popular proverbs: wisdom practiced to discern the alternative choices encountered daily. We have to know how to choose, how to survive minute to minute. Imprudence hastens death before its time (7:15-17). Proverbs are important because they come out of everyday experience and are verified constantly. They are not dogmas, nor can they be dogmatized. On one day, the advice is useful; on another day, the


Interpretation 259

same advice is counterproductive. The sayings are practical advice to preserve life. One must be astute in difficult times so as not to self-destruct before one's time. We have to choose, as we would say today, "between the lesser of two evils or between the best of two goods." We do not know what will happen, for the horizons are opaque and do not allow us to see beyond the present. We have to visualize possible escapes and be very cautious (7:18; 11:46). Solidarity is the best option because unity makes for strength (4:9-12).

CONCLUSION The book of Qoheleth can be interpreted in various ways, and that has been true throughout the ages. Nevertheless, when we take into account the socio-economic, political, and cultural context out of which this work emerged, as well as the context of those for whom the work was written, the interpretation offered above takes on greater meaning for readers. There will be times in history when it does not contribute much at the global level, and there will be times in which it becomes profoundly pertinent. Today, at the beginning of a new millennium, after a miserable decade dominated by the globalized free market, Qoheleth has an important word to say. Faced with a world in which efficiency and technology are the norms, the sage lifts up concrete real life and humanizing values such as solidarity, sensitivity, and communion. "Save yourself if you can" is the implicit slogan of competition in which millions of persons are considered disposable by the commercialized and consumer society. It is tragic that the world's powerful ignore the terrifying data of the United Nations Program on Development concerning the impact of globalization on the poorest and on the eco-system. For most, it is more attractive to observe the latest invention in the mass media than to begin to think critically about the non-intentional effects of the globalized economy and the technological advances of market efficiency. For those of us who are disillusioned and frustrated with today's reality, the message of Qoheleth is simple and wise: Don't let yourselves become dehumanized in a dehumanizing society; affirm a real and sensuous life when you can; know that better times will come because everything has its time and season. Be prudent and cautious so as not to die before your time.16

This essay was translated by Gloria Kinsler.

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