Thursday, September 27, 2012

Now Ecclesiastes Gets Its Turn

"Vanity of Vanities! All is Vanity! saith the Preacher."

Yes, indeed.  So the classic catch-line of Ecclesiastes rings out through churches across the land.

If you are a daily communicant, you know that Ecclesiastes is now getting its 15 minutes (or less) of fame in the daily readings.

To honor the occasion, let's talk about Ecclesiastes:

Ecclesiastes is one of the most atypical books of the Old Testament, a composition virtually unique in its genre that voices opinions seemingly contrary to the mainstream of biblical
teaching.  In it, a persona who seems to identify himself as Solomon engages in a philosophical thought-experiment about the meaning of life that leads him to the brink of despondency.  Despite the darkness of the book, however, believers through the ages have found solace and catharsis in its pages, and spiritual writers have continued to recommend meditation on it as an aid to detachment from the temporal world.
            In the Jewish tradition, Ecclesiastes is known by the Hebrew title of the primary voice of the book, Qoheleth.  “Qoheleth” is a rare and unusual word, a feminine active participle based on the root qahal, “an assembly, a congregation,” probably meaning “the leader of a congregation.”  The Greek and Latin traditions translated “Qoheleth” literally, building a participle from the Greek root ekklesia, “congregation,” thus giving us “Ecclesiastes.”  Many modern English translations render “Qoheleth” as “the Preacher” as a cultural equivalent to “congregational leader.”
            In the Jewish tradition, the Book of Qoheleth is part of the ketuvim, specifically one of the “five scrolls” (megillot) read at the great liturgical feasts.  Qoheleth is read during the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles.  While at first the reading of such a dour book seems ill-suited for the festive occasion of Tabernacles, nonetheless there is a suitability:  Tabernacles is a harvest festival that has an element similar to American Thanksgiving.  Ecclesiastes teaches a balanced view of feasting: affirming its legitimate enjoyment (“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart,” 9:7) while also urging temperance and recognition of coming death and judgment (“But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment” 11:9).
            In the Greek and Latin traditions, Ecclesiastes found a settled place after Proverbs and before Song of Songs, which three books came to be understood in the Christian spiritual tradition as representing the illuminative, purgative, and unitive ways to God, respectively. 

Literary Genre and Structure
The genre of Ecclesiastes is unique.  Like Job and Song of Songs, the book has multiple voices and could theoretically be performed as a theater piece.  However, in Ecclesiastes, the number of voices is minimal: there is only a narrator (Eccl. 1:1, or 1:1-11; and 12:9-14) and “Qoheleth” (Eccl. 1:12–12:8).  The first-person speech of Qoheleth dominates the book; therefore, the genre of Ecclesiastes may helpfully be compared to a one-man, one-act play, introduced and concluded by a narrator.  After a brief introduction, an actor calling himself “Qoheleth” and dressed like Solomon strides onto the stage to deliver a series of powerful and poetic soliloquies, at the conclusion of which the curtain falls, and the narrator’s voice summarizes the message of the “play” for the audience.  That is not to suggest that Qoheleth was composed for performance; it is a “literary drama,” written to be read and pondered rather than performed, like certain existentialist plays in modern times (e.g. Sartre’s “Waiting for Godot”).

 The Literary Structure of Ecclesiastes
Prologue: 1:1-11
                                    I. Part I: “Vanity”
A. Double Intro:   1:12-15
                                                      B. Six Units on the theme “Vanity” (2:1–6:9)
                                                                        1. 2:1-11
                                                                        2. 2:12-17
                                                                        3. 2:18-26
                                                                        4. 3:1-4:4
                                                                        5. 4:5-4:16
                                                                        6. 5:1-6:9
                                    II. Part II: “Ignorance”
A.  Introduction: 6:10-12
                                                      B.  Four Units on the theme “Can’t Find Out”
                                                                        1. 7:1-14
                                                                        2. 7:15-24
                                                                        3. 7:25-29
                                                                        4. 8:1-17
                                                      B. Four Units on the theme “Don’t know”
                                                                        1. 9:1-12
                                                                        2. 9:13-10:15
                                                                        3. 10:16-11:2
                                                                        4. 11:3-6
                                    III. Poem on Age and Youth 11:7-12:8
  Epilogue: 12:9-14
            The structure of Ecclesiastes is intentionally loose and rambling.  Qoheleth often engages in asides or digressions.  Nonetheless, careful study does reveal a basic pattern and progression in the work.  After a double introduction (1:12-15; 1:16-18), Qoheleth delivers six reflections on the theme of “vanity” (Heb. hevel) in 2:1–6:9.  In vv. 6:10-12, there is a transition and introduction to the second half of the book, where the motif of “vanity” (hevel) is less prominent, and the idea of ignorance or incomprehensibility comes to the fore.  Thus Qoheleth delivers four mediations on theme “one can’t find out” (7:1–8:17) and another four on “one doesn’t know” (9:1–11:6).  Qoheleth’s “performance” reaches its finale with the recitation of masterful poem on youth, aging, and death (11:7–12:8).  After the “curtain drop,” the voice of the narrator focuses the message of the play for the audience, lest Qoheleth’s provocative speeches be misunderstood or misapplied.

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