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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