Determinism in the Book of Ecclesiastes

By Sneed, Mark | Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Determinism in the Book of Ecclesiastes


Sneed, Mark, Journal of Biblical Literature


Determinism in the Book of Ecclesiastes, by Dominic Rudman. JSOTSup 316. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001. Pp. 226. $85.00.

Rudman's thesis is to demonstrate that Qohelet was a determinist in the vein of the Stoic tradition. In fact, Rudman argues that Stoic thinking has influenced Qohelet. Rudman finds the deterministic teaching of the early Stoics, especially Cleanthes, most compatible with Qohelet's thinking. Generally, they held that human thought (including emotions) and activity are completely controlled by the divine, except for freedom to use authority granted by God in certain human relationships. Rudman sees the book of Qohelet as representing a distinctive theodicy strategy in the Hebrew Bible. Apparently there were Jews who were blaming God for their wicked nature in that he determines everything. Qohelet counters by offering a stoic perspective that admits determinism while at the same time allowing for some human freedom regarding sin. Thus, God cannot be blamed for humans abusing this limited freedom.

Rudman focuses on texts such as 1:3-8; 3:1-15; 7:23-29; 8:17a; and 9:9. He adeptly counters the recent attempt to date the book of Qohelet in the Persian period (Choon-Leong Seow, "Linguistic Evidence and the Dating of Qohelet,"JBL 115 [1996]: 643-66) (ch. 7). Rudman briefly examines the sociohistorical setting of the book (ch. 1). He also does a comparative study of the book's ideas within the context of ancient Near Eastern and Greek literature (ch. 1). He conducts word studies of concepts in the book that reflect possible deterministic thinking (ch. 2). He explores the relationship between divine determinism and human freedom in the book (ch. 7), and he investigates the notion of determinism versus free will in Jewish and Hellenistic literature (chs. 8 and 9).

Parts of chs. 2, 6, and 7 contain material that has been published elsewhere. The book constitutes a revised dissertation completed under the direction of Robert Salters at the University of St. Andrews (1997).

Rudman's method is very traditional. It can be characterized as historical-critical with a heavy linguistic component. Rudman is a true linguist with competency in both Semitic languages and the classics. His research involves a great deal of textual criticism and lexical semantics. His polemic with Seow's Persian dating demonstrates Rudman's knack for historical semantics. His linguistic prowess is evident in proposing better ways to understand the sense of certain words in Qohelet. For example, against understanding (foreign text omitted) in 9:11 in the sense of chance, he argues for predetermined occurrence (pp. 37-40).

Rudman's argument, though well presented, is ultimately not convincing. Basically, he reads stoic concepts and preoccupations back into the text of Qohelet. For example, he equates Qohelet's "sum" (foreign text omitted) with the Heraclitean/Stoic logos (pp. 183-94). Also, the Greeks were troubled with the problem of free will versus determinism, and Rudman has Qohelet solve this dilemma essentially in the same way as did Cleanthes (ch. 9).

This leads to the most basic flaw of his argument: assuming that divine determinism versus free will was ever problematic for Qohelet. Without demonstration of this, the whole question of stoic influence becomes moot. Qohelet clearly blames humans for their sin in 7:20, and he sees no clash with divine determinism. Rudman seems to assume that God, in Qohelet, almost never reacts to human behavior or holds it accountable, the exception being the misuse of limited authority granted to certain persons by him. Rather, God determines almost all human behavior, thought, and actions and allots weal and woe seemingly indiscriminately (pp. 44, 123, 150-59, 169). Free will and its corollary, accountability, then become moot.

The pivotal key to Rudman's argument stems from his connecting 8:16-17, which speaks of the inability of humans to fathom the "work which is done under the sun," with 9:1, which speaks of the "works" of the wise and righteous being in God's power (p. …

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