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Qoheleth: Continental Commentaries

Author: 
Norbert Lohfink (Author) Sean McEvenue (Translator)
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Description

This new addition to the successful Continental Commentary series is a significant and fresh treatment of Qoheleth (or Ecclesiastes). A famed professor presents a startlingly new translation of this often perplexing book of the Old Testament. Lohfink also argues for a rather different interpretation of the book than one finds elsewhere. Rather than reading the book's perspective as depressing, lost, or cynical, he highlights the elements of joy and balance. The volume includes introduction, new translation, commentary, parallel passages, bibliography, and indexes.
ISBN: 
9780800696047
Price: 
$23.00
Release date: 
February 19, 2003
Pages: 
176
Width: 
7
Height: 
9

Excerpts

Excerpt from the Introduction

In synagogues the Book of Qoheleth is read during the celebration of the Feast of Booths, no doubt because of its invitation to rejoice. Thomas a Kempis took the first sentence in the book — vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas — as an invitation to despise all earthly things and to desire only the otherworldly. And he was not alone in this. Christian piety has heard mostly this message in the book for over a thousand years. For many modern agnostics this book is the last bridge to the Bible. And there are Christians today who find in Qoheleth a kind of back door — at once sinister and highly esteemed — through which their minds can admit those skeptical and melancholy sentiments which would be refused entry at portals where cultivation of virtue and belief in the after life are inscribed on the lintel.

What is the real message of this book? It presents itself as a teacher's text, and so classifies itself as "wisdom literature." Even the few apparent references to what is contemporary to the author do not obscure the clear basic intent to pronounce timeless truth. From the beginning, its inquiry is about humankind in general. Israel as a nation is put into the background. Moreover the book is systematically structured.

Survey of the Contents
Qoheleth — for that is the name given to the voice that fills almost the whole book — begins, after a few introductory sentences, by sketching a cosmology (1:4-11). The solid earth is the eternal stage upon which the equally eternal other elements of the world gloriously repeat their performance without using themselves up. Only humans come and go. And humans, of course, are the ones who elevate the world to its highest estate by giving it meaning, through their senses, their language and the accumulating power of their memory. But humans have never kept up with its overwhelming multiplicity. Each generation must rebuild its store of knowledge, because each death wipes it out.

Quite logically there follows an anthropology, with a theological ending (1:12—3:15). Qoheleth tells a tale presenting himself at the peak of human aspiration. He is a highly educated, technically all-competent, shaker and mover, master of life's pleasures. He tries everything: all prosperity is within the power of mankind. From this perspective he asks about the meaning of all he achieves. And there death shows its face — awaiting each person. In its shadow, every ability and every success is seen to be a "puff of breath." This leads only to "despair." In like manner the unpredictability of human decisions, and of the many other factors which determine situations and outcomes, leads to the same conclusion. In theological terms this means that prosperity too is itself given to humans as a gift from God, and is not an assured product of their efforts. Everything that happens is an act of God, and for that reason it is something "perfect." However, humans do not perceive this, because the sum total of the world is hidden from their eyes. So the human lot is to accept in the "fear of God" whatever God gives.

This grasp of the human condition, drawn as it is from the heights of human achievements, is then shown to be all the more true in a social critique section, in which the world is seen as it really is (3:16—6:10). Corruption in the practice of justice, exploitation of the lower classes, unbridled rivalry among the wealthy, isolation of the powerful, unstable popular opinion, self-entangled bureaucracies, bankruptcies, enslavement of formerly propertied persons — in this, the anthropology of "puff of breath" and of "fear of God" is repeatedly validated.

Conversely, those views of the world that had been widely held in former times are now shown to be false. This is the burden of the subsequent section of deconstruction, which can be designated as a refutatio in the categories of classical rhetoric (6:11—9:6). In ten carefully selected citations the major themes of classical wisdom teaching are proposed and in each case refuted. At the end, it is all about the most basic worldview of classical wisdom: good behavior leads to fortune and long life; bad behavior to misfortune and early death. In so far as any one fully understands this principle, they could get a handle on their future through their own behavior, and make everything turn out precisely to their benefit. Qoheleth argues: the facts don't bear this out. So humankind is reduced to living each moment and accepting good and evil from God's hand, until death occurs to end it all. After death there is nothing further. So we should sometimes observe the traditional rules for living, and sometimes we should not. Only the "fear of God" can guide us well in making decisions. And this will lead to joy as well, when God chooses to give us this gift, in which case we must embrace joy with all our being.

In the face of death, the enjoyment of life is the framing advice of the final section of the book, which can be designated as ethic, or, in terms of classical rhetoric, applicatio (9:7—12:7). An inner frame, linked to the enjoyment theme, calls to energetic action as long as one has strength. How this is possible is the burden of what is indicated within these frames. In this, naturally, only selected aspects of reality are addressed, those which classical wisdom treated either falsely or not at all: the role of a well educated person in a political power-structure which recruits people on criteria other than objective competence, and stewardship over one's property in an economic system which extends beyond one's horizons, and whose distant center no longer takes care of individuals. Apart from this ethic section, there is a separate series of admonitions regarding religious behavior. It is like a special supplement that one might name Qoheleth's religious critique, inserted in the middle of the social critique (4:17—5:6). In it are criticized some forms of a busy, but frivolous, religiosity. These are contrasted with real "fear of God."

The book as a whole does not present itself as written by Qoheleth. In the frame (1:1-2 and 12:8), and in one place within the book in one of the more difficult passages (7:27), is heard the voice of an otherwise anonymous author, who presents to readers the texts of Qoheleth which then form the contents of the book. This voice — in a synchronic reading — stands out at the end of the book. It formulates two epilogues which defend Qoheleth's often bizarre ideas, (at least for many readers), and interpret them in the direction of a legalistic orthodoxy. Historically these were, no doubt, added subsequently, in order to lend the book some support. ...

Table of Contents

Preface
Translator's Note
Abbreviations

Introduction
Survey of the Contents
History of Interpretation
Era and Circumstances of Writing
A Model of Enculturation
Linguistic Form
Structure
The Israelite Content
Authorship
The Book and the Canon
Literary Genre
Qoheleth's Philosophy
Theological Challenge of Qoheleth

Translation and Commentary
1:1-11 Title, Frame, Cosmology
1:12—3:15 Anthropology
3:16—4:16 Social critique I
4:17—5:6 Religious Critique
5:7—6:10 Social critique II
6:11—9:6 Deconstruction
9:7—12:14 Ethic

Bibliography
Index of Names and Subjects
Index of Hebrew and Greek words