Ecclesiastes: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation

Ecclesiastes: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation

Ecclesiastes: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation

Ecclesiastes: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation

Synopsis

The Book of Ecclesiastes is part of the "wisdom literature" of the Bible. It concerns itself with universal philosophical questions rather than events in the history of Israel and in the Hebrews' covenant with God. Koheleth, the speaker in this book, ruminates on what--if anything--has lasting value, and how--if at all--God interacts with humankind. Koheleth expresses bewilderment and frustration at life's absurdities and injustices. He grapples with the inequities that pervade the world and the frailty and limitations of human wisdom and righteousness. His awareness of these discomfiting facts coexists with a firm belief in God's rule and God's fundamental justice, and he looks for ways to define a meaningful life in a world where so much is senseless. Ecclesiastes is traditionally read on the Jewish holiday Sukkot, the harvest festival.

Excerpt

Ecclesiastes is a strange and disquieting book. It gives voice to an experience not usually thought of as religious: the pain and frustration engendered by an unblinking gaze at life’s absurdities and injustices. The man speaking in Ecclesiastes, “Koheleth,” sees things that are distressing to observe: the distortions and inequities that pervade the world; the ineffectuality of human deeds; the frailty and limitations of human wisdom and righteousness. This awareness coexists with a firm belief in God—whose power, justice, and unpredictability are sovereign.

Koheleth is not a methodical thinker who has worked out a systematic world view and now presents it in organized fashion. There is much irregularity and repetition in the way he develops his thought, and much tension among his observations and beliefs. Some of his ideas pull in opposite directions, and many run counter to familiar religious principles. But Koheleth is not alone in his frustration and disillusionment at life’s injustices and human failures. This is a facet of human experience, and especially Jewish experience—one that weighs heavy after the atrocities of the mid–twentieth century, which was surely a time when “man’s calamity overwhelms him” (8:6b).

Koheleth faces life’s inequities and absurdities—and refuses to impose pat and reassuring “meanings” on them. Yet he maintains a faith in God’s rule and fundamental justness, and he looks for ways to create a meaningful life in a world where so much is senseless. The presence of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the canon of sacred scripture brings this type of thought into the compass of authentic Jewish religious reflection.

Koheleth has some unusual things to say, and his views should not be forced to fit presuppositions of what a biblical book must say. One need not grant the truth of all his opinions; the other biblical authors would not have. Koheleth’s hard and lonely theology is only one man’s view of the world and his glimpse of the Infinite. All truths are partial, all thinkers inadequate. Koheleth’s teachings are one motif—a poignant and significant discord—in the larger symphony of the biblical canon.

Title and Author

The title of the book in Hebrew is Koheleth (or Qohelet) after the name of the character who speaks in it. The English title—taken from the ancient Greek rendering of “Koheleth”—is “Ecclesiastes,” meaning “member of the assembly.” The book is sometimes called “the Preacher,” based on an interpretation of “Koheleth” as one who preaches to the assembly (kahal). The name “Koheleth” probably means one who . . .

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