The Bible in and as History: Ecclesiastes

To everything there is a season… thus goes the song by the Byrds, which quotes liberally from Ecclesiastes.  Here we have a bit of an odd duck in the bible.  Or at least a bit odd compared to what surrounds it.

Ecclesiastes is a bit of an autobiography, detailing the life and understanding of one ‘Koheleth’, styled ‘The Teacher’.  The content of the chapter is a tad difficult to summarize, but it consists of some poems, his investigations of life, his conclusions and than other poems.  I said this work was odd compared to other elements of the Old Testament up to this point, and here you can immediately see why.  All the Old testament to this point had been ‘third person’ in a way.  While there will be other texts that have a hint of first person(the later prophets), this one is no prophecy, but relating a tale in the wisdom tradition we have discussed before in previous posts.

This is also where Ecclesiastes differs from elements of the other text; the central ‘theme’ of the bible to this point is basically ‘obey God, through his writings and priests, and good things will happen, don’t and bad stuff will happen’.  While Job, for example, reconciles this philosophy with the world as lived, Ecclesiastes seems to construct a message of how to live in the world, without reference to that underlying theme.  There certainly is an element of it near the end, but the pulse of the book is mostly ‘Enjoy the little things, cause you can’t figure out what you should be doing in the grand scheme, so why bother trying’.  It has some vague similarities to other philosophies in this regard; Taoism most notably, but in a far more subdued way.

As with Job, and the other books within the bible that speak to the Wisdom tradition, the truth, or historicity of what is discussed in the work is less important than it’s ‘message’ and how that message was taken. While the Rabbinical tradition references the work as being that of Solomon in his later years, biblical scholarship seems to place it sometime after the Exile.  The text itself stands among many other examples where-in a king or religious figure relates the events of their life, and uses those events as stories to relay a theme or message.  This can be seen in many ancient traditions; The Greek philosophers, Persian historical and literary texts, and many others.  As outlined above, the message of this particular text seems one about living with today.  An appeal for religion moderation perhaps?  A concession to secular authorities?  Or perhaps a rejoinder against those who would devote themselves completely to religious contemplation away from the ‘regular’ facets of life such as home, family, work and friendship.

Ecclesiastes place in ancient times may be a bit obscure, it’s effects later are of a more literary nature.  Besides the song by the Byrds, there are frequent other usages of the text in quotable form.  This might be because of it’s structure, it’s use of the personal, but also because rather than reflecting the more general ‘narrow’ theme of the ‘Old Testament’, that of fear before a powerful and demanding god, it speaks to a more holistic tradition, and thus suggests themes more in touch with those of modern English novelists and artists.  I did observe that the ‘theme’ of Ecclesiastes is very much debated by theologians.  Is it optimistic? Pessimistic?  Does it speak to a counter-tradition from the Orthodox?  Acts as a refutation of that counter-tradition?  The translation of the text into English obviously employed some poetic measure, though perhaps the ambiguity here lets it be used in that many more ways than the more ‘straight-forward’ parts of the Bible.

I have obviously gotten a great deal behind on these posts, so I will be trying to ‘catch up’ as it were, though it seems unlikely I’ll complete them in my original time-line(by the end of the year).  I will endeavour to get done the Old Testament quickly enough that I’m into the first Gospels before, perhaps fittingly, Christmas, and than try and wrap up in a month or two.  Though I may also take the time to go through the Apocrypha.

Next Time: It’s time to sing with Song…

 

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