procrastination, heresy, and navel-gazing.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Ecclesiastes 3.16-4.16

Even though there is much from the poem of 3.1-8 that is repeated in the rest of chapter 3, the regularity and use of ראיתי (I saw) makes this a clear section, with the move to the first collection of wisdom sayings in chapter 5 delineating the end.

In this second section of extended first-person reflection (cf 1.12-2.26) the verb ראה is again used as a structural marker; in this case the 6 times it appears it seems to bookend three sections:
3.16-22 (ראה at 3.16,22)
4.1-4   (ראה at 4.1,4)
   4.5-6    wisdom interlude
4.7-15  (ראה at 4.7,15)
This leaves the questions of (1) the relation of the sections to one another and (2) the purpose of 4.5-6.

The sections
The first section (3.16-22) tries to understand the where and when of justice in the context of death. The conclusion is another carpe diem, as we can't know what will happen after death. Justice is in God's hands, so we can't be overly concerned with justice because with death always around the corner we can't let fighting for justice consume the few days we have.

The second section (4.1-4) shifts slightly to oppression, with the problem here that power is with the oppressor. His conclusion is that to gain power requires jealousy, which is vanity and chasing after wind. The despair of seeing this state of affairs causes Qohelet to suggest non-existence as a viable preference.

Finally (4.7-16) comes the longest section and the one with the most translation issues. The structure seems to be:
7-8 I saw the vanity of being a workaholic with no resultant goodness
   9-12 goodness of companionship compared to aloneness
   13-14 goodness of humble wisdom compared to foolishness with position
15-16 I saw the vanity of following someone who will be forgotten
As such, the section breaks into two halves, despite being grouped together by the 'I saw vanity' bookends. 9-12 gives the solution to 7-8, as does 13-14 for 15.16.

The hardest thing here is working out the referents in 13-16. It helps to break it down into the people discussed. 4.14 seems to be making us read it as one story about one character; that there was someone born poor in the kingdom, who was even imprisoned at some stage, who was a poor but wise youth, who rose to the rank of king. But as king he became foolish and no longer paid attention to warnings. This seems to mirror the frustration of 4.8 where you can work really hard only to have no rest and no contentment; here in 4.13-14 the wise man is rewarded despite his socio-economic status but falls into the same trap as so many before him.

Our English translations betray us a little in 4.15 as the idea of a youth 'who succeeds him' is an odd translation at best, and misleading at worst. It literally says 'who stands up under it/him'. Given the first stitch closes with 'under the sun', the most natural antecedent would be the sun. This, along with 'under the pot' (7.6) would be the only exceptions out of 34 occurrences in the book to 'under' referring exclusively to either the sun or the heavens. Thus in 15a we hear of a throng of people milling about under the sun, but in 15b there is a second youth (or young companion, if we are to be consistent with translating 'two' as 'companion' in the passage) - who stands up under the sun, and it is him they follow. Perhaps this is referring obliquely to Saul or even an anti-Saul, one who does stand up (rather than hide among the baggage) and who is followed - perhaps he is even the wise youth from 13-14 - but foolish or not, he will be forgotten.

Together then these three sections bookended with 'I saw' provide us with a discussion on justice. Where is justice under the sun? Because it is vanity and a chasing after the wind, while we don't ignore justice or act unjustly, we find our meaning in the things we can hold on to: God being in charge of securing justice, working with rest, companionship and humble standing.

The purpose of 4.5-6
The last piece of the puzzle is to work out where this fits. One option for this section is to read it as a quote Qohelet critiques, much as with some questionable things Paul says - is he telling us to be a fool or what?! But if you get mathematical and try to graph this section, it makes a bit more sense and connects very clearly with the sections before and after.

Who Work Food Rest Zone
Fool None None Lots Starvation
Wise Some Some Some Wisdom
Workaholic Lots Lots None Vanity
4.1-4 concluded that not being born is better than being dead, which is better than being alive AND YET we are alive. How then shall we live? 4.5 is one option, but that leads to starvation. 4.6a is the second option, which is consistent with earlier advice about moderation and the carpe diem sections. 4.6b is the last option, the option of workaholism, which links to the explanation in 4.7-8 that seeking meaning from too much work with no rest is not the answer.

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Monday, May 23, 2016

Ecclesiastes 3.1-15

This week is supposed to be just chapter 3, but I'm not convinced that the section extends beyond v15. The regular use of ראה (to see) from 3.16 onwards, as in 1.12-2.26, seems to be an ordering principle that works through most of Ecclesiastes, with exceptions in the blocks of poetry, as we've already seen in the opening section of the book, and as we also see in 3.1-9 (-16).

3.1-15 has a very similar structure to 1.3-11, although in reverse order:
3.1 Statement 1.9-11
3.2-8 Examples 1.4-8
3.9-15 Question 1.3
One other difference is where 1.4-8 had five examples in a chiastic structure, with the theme of wind at the centre, 3.2-8 has fourteen pairs of alternatives for how time is ordered by God. The structure is quite Shakespearean (obviously an anachronism - so perhaps the sonnet was passed down from Ecclesiastes 3!), with a concluding couplet as follows:

A +-(x2)
      B  -+ (x4)
      B'  +- (x4)
A'  -+ (x2)
            C +- -+
Pluses are desirable outcomes, minuses are undesirable outcomes, and the last couplet has a nice little chiasm to conclude.

This tightly structured poem expands on the statement of 3.1, that 'for everything there is a season, and a time for every activity under heaven', as it works through the whole of life. Although not telling us about every single activity done by people, many of the pairs, and especially the opening and closing ones, provide us with merisms to point to the entirety of human experience: from birth to death and from war to peace. Whoever and wherever and whenever we are, we will be at one pole or somewhere in the middle.

With the opening statement and the fourteen pairs of examples, there is then a question which grounds the reflections of the next few verses on the poem. 'What does the worker gain from his labour?' (3.9) This is the same question asked before the poem (2.22), but we gain some kind of answer, as there is a discussion on the task (ענין at 3.10) and on time in general (3.11).
There are three answers to the question posed in 3.9, hinging off the three asyndeton qatal verbs which begin 3.10,12,14 as follows:
     I have seen the task (10) - God makes everything beautiful in its time (11)
     I know about mankind (12) - everything is a gift (13)
     I know about God (14) - whatever will be will be and has been (15) (cf 1.9)
In this sense, the conclusions are not hugely different to those of previous sections; what is emphasised here is the divine fittingness of every situation to its time. As P. G. Ryken says, every action is a divine action before it is a human action. God is the one who determines what is suitable for its time, so as those who receive all things as a gift from the hand of God, we in turn live as is appropriate to the time and place God has placed us.

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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Ecclesiastes 1.12-2.26

The second section we're working through is from Ecclesiastes 1.12, where the book in a sense restarts, up until chapter 3, where the famous 'for everything there is a season' poem starts a new section.

The first thing that stands out is all the 'I' language. You can see from the graph (made using Accordance Bible Software) that there is a real cluster of first person singular verbs in our section. 42 of the 81 first person verbs in the whole book occur in this section, with none before it, as well as none after 10.7.

This makes sense of course as this section is where Qohelet takes us through his observations. Webb in his NSBT examination (Five Festal Garments) explains there are alternating sections of observation and instruction, and Seow in his Anchor commentary sees the book similarly, although in far fewer sections than Webb:
IA, Reflection: everything is ephemeral and unreliable (1:2–4:16);
      IB, Ethics: coping with uncertainty (5:1–6:9 [Eng]);
IIA, Reflection: everything is elusive (6:10–8:17);
     IIB, Ethics: coping with risks (9:1–12:8).

Webb has twice as many alternating sections;
Observation  Instruction
1.3-4.16        5.1-9
5.10-6.9        6.10-7.22
7.23-29         8.1-8
8.9-9.12        9.13-12.7
As has been oft repeated, the problem with Ecclesiastes is that no-one can agree on a structure. Despite similar approaches (observation//reflection; instruction//ethics) Webb and Seow end up with very different results--apart from the section we're looking at!

So to return to Ecclesiastes 1.12-2.26, here is some kind of graph (I'm sure it's got a name) looking at the first person verbs* in our section - note again there are no first person verbs before and none after until after the poem beginning chapter 3.

I've grouped the verbs according to the theme; you note there are clusters around exploring, around boasting, around doing and also around failing. You will also note the verb ראה 'to see' is scattered fairly evenly through this section, and roughly divides the passage into the key parts of the argument. [Update - It also gives the structure a (much needed) chiastic shape]:

A 1.12-13  Introduction and presumptive conclusion (no ראה)
B      1.14-18 Why be wise (1)? (ראה at 1.14)
C             2.1-11 The pursuit of pleasure (ראה at 2.1,3)
B'     2.12-17 Why be wise (2)? (ראה at 2.13)
C'               2.18-23   The character that matters (no ראה)
              (NB. שנא (hate) at end of 17 and beginning of 18)
A' 2.24-26  Conclusion: two ways to work (ראה at 2.24)
There is also (and this is the last update, I promise!**) the 'task' which frames the whole section. It may or may not be intentional, but the miserable (literally 'evil' or 'bad' - רע) task given to the sons of men in 1.13 and the 'task' God gives to sinners (2.26) both times uses the word ענין, looks very similar to the word for sin or iniquity, עון. This may be me barking up the wrong tree, but whatever the case, this word is used very negatively for work. When work is received as task (Aufgabe in German) it is indeed a miserable thing. But when it is received as gift (Gabe in German) it is something altogether different - he gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy (2.26).

* the verb in 2.1 is an imperative, but it's said to himself, hence its inclusion.
** may not be the last update

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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Single-Issue Voting

The biggest difference between Christians when it comes to elections is not necessarily what issues are important, it's what to do with that. I see regular pushes from pro-marriage groups and coalitions and individuals to vote LNP or CDP because they and only they will stand up for marriage.

Now that's fine. And good. And I too want to support traditional marriage. But when I started putting together a table of other issues that I think are important, the groups I should support perform very poorly.

Issue\Party LNP ALP Grn CDP
Marriage ? X X
Environment X ✓? X
Tax X X
Treaty X ? X
Welfare X X
Value early
& late life
Anti-Corruption X X ?
Refugees X X X

You might note I've tried to be positive here - I've said pro-marriage rather than anti-SSM, and I've said value early and late life rather than anti-abortion and euthanasia. 

Several things stand out to me:
  • The major parties are in bed with the big end of town. Big coal employ many ex LNP and ALP politicians and staffers. And as ex-PM Tony Abbott admitted what everyone already knew last week, there is give and take. As for the smaller Christian parties, they aren't in the same position, but they haven't made a stand against corruption by opposing votes which clearly benefit big coal.
  • Aboriginal issues have not been well thought through. Recognition is the only one that gets a mention, which LNP and ALP have jumped on, although this is not what many Aboriginals want. A retrospective treaty with the first inhabitants has been shown to be the one thing that would give rise to a new relationship and give hope in a way that the Recognise campaign never could. The way in which the 'intervention' was carried out is one example to show that a new way of relating is required. *since initially publishing, Bill Shorten mentioned he would be in favour of looking at a treaty. 
  • As a follower of Jesus I believe caring for the most vulnerable is our duty. Doubly so when we are a wealthy nation. So a generous welfare policy and a thoughtful approach to tax are evidence of this. 
  • Lib and Lab are virtually indistinguishable on Refugee policy. There are subtle nuances, and from talking to my local MP I understand the complexity is far greater than a simplistic answer. I am slightly more sympathetic to ALP on the possibility of a humane policy, but I'm yet to hear from either of the duopoly a commitment to treat refugees as human beings. 
  • Lastly, the profligate approach to the environment since the infamous Rudd back-down and the reckless prejudicing of big coal's interests by the LNP are a massive indictment on our governments.
  • As a late addition--NBN anyone?

Are there any others I should include on the list?

Any idea on how to weight and tally the results?

LNP = Liberal and National Party coalition
ALP = Australian Labor Party
Grn = The Greens
CDP = Christian Democratic Party