Symbol and Rhetoric in Ecclesiastes: The Place of Hebel in Qohelet's Work

Symbol and Rhetoric in Ecclesiastes: The Place of Hebel in Qohelet's Work

Symbol and Rhetoric in Ecclesiastes: The Place of Hebel in Qohelet's Work

Symbol and Rhetoric in Ecclesiastes: The Place of Hebel in Qohelet's Work


Interpreters of Ecclesiastes have struggled with the word hebel (traditionally vanity" but literally "vapor"). The positions they have adopted regarding the term have influenced their interpretation of the book as a whole. This work defends a new thesis for hebel. It presents a methodology for metaphor and symbol, then demonstrates how Qohelet employs hebel in the book with referents related to "insubstantiality," "transience," and "foulness." These referents are incorporated into a single, multivalent vapor-symbol by which Qohelet represents human experience. The study provides significant substantiation for the "realist" position on Ecclesiastes: Qohelet does not declare life to be entirely meaningless or absurd, but rather says that life is filled with limitations and complications and counsels his readers how to make the most of that life. The study concludes with a proposal for the rhetoric of Ecclesiastes in light of the symbol thesis. Paperback edition is available from the Society of Biblical Literature ("


The present chapter gives a brief introduction to rhetorical criticism, the disciplinary context in which this study is conducted. It then introduces and explains the methodology employed with metaphor and symbol in the following chapters. Finally, it distinguishes among several speech types found within Ecclesiastes which enable a more careful appreciation of hebel's role within the work.


“Rhetorical criticism” is a relative newcomer to the field of Old Testament studies. Within biblical scholarship, the term itself, if not the actual methodology, was introduced in the presidential address of James Muilenburg at the Society of Biblical Literature convention, 1968.' Here he reviewed the contributions of Hermann Gunkel's form critical methodology, particularly the insight that language is genre determined. Muilenburg then called for scholars to move from an emphasis on the typical and representative, to an approach which would identify the devices and unique features of each particular pericope. He was especially concerned to explore the artistry of the biblical

Among the number of biblical scholars who were involved in stylistic study at this
time, the following are representative: Luis Alonso-Schökel and Umberto Cassuto in Europe,
Amos Wilder and Muilenburg himself in the United States. Additional strong appeals to
examine the present form of the text were given by Norbert Lohfink in his book, Das
(AnBib; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1963), and by Edwin M. Good,
Irony in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965).

He seemed to conceive this new direction as a supplement to form criticism, and so
too have others.

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