procrastination, heresy, and navel-gazing.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Ecclesiastes Structure in Brief

For those who've been following along, here is where I'm up to in terms of the structure of the book as a whole. It will be interesting to look back in three years to see if this changes dramatically or stays much the same! For the next three years, studying a master's part time, I hope to be thinking more about this, and in particular how the different genres (poetry, observation, wisdom collections) speak uniquely and progress the argument about the search meaning amongst the vain mundanity that permeates all things under the sun.

A 1.1 Frame narrator
      B 1.2 Theme summary: All is vanity
            C 1.3-11 A poem on man's place in the universe
                  D 1.12-2.26 1st person observation (I saw)
            C' 3.1-15 A poem on time
                  D' 3.16-4.16 1st person observation (I saw)
                        E 4.17-5.11 (5.1-12 Eng) Wisdom collection on ethics
                  D'' 5.12-6.12 (5.13-6.12 Eng) 1st person observation (I saw)
                        E' 7.1-14 Wisdom collection on character
                  D''' 7.15-9.13 1st person observation (I saw)
                        E'' 9.14-11.10 Wisdom collection on wisdom and folly
            C'' 12.1-7 A poem on nearing death
      B' 12.8 Theme summary: All is vanity
A' 12.9-14 Frame Narrator

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ecclesiastes 12.8-14

At long last we reach the end of the book, although there are some sections I haven't been able to get to. But I'm sure over the next three years of studies I'll have plenty of time to fill in the gaps.

Structure of 12.8-12
The big picture structure of the book is:
1.1 introduction
      1.2 'all is vanity'
            1.3-12.7 finding meaning amongst vanity
      12.8 'all is vanity'
12.9-14 epilogue
One of the most interesting things I've read on this was from almost twenty years ago: Andrew G. Shead, “Reading Ecclesiastes ‘Epilogically’.” Tyndale Bulletin 48 (1997): 90. Apart from showing the consistency of the message and vocabulary of the epilogue with the rest of the book, he also points to the interaction between 12.8 ('all is vanity') with the message of 12.13-14: fear God the judge of all.

What I've seen as I've looked more closely at this passage is how 12.8 fits really tightly with 12.9-12 as follows:
It was really the 'in addition' that made this stand out to me; the word with the root יתר (ytr) is translated variously throughout the book, but mostly it is translated as gain or advantage (see Eccl 1.3; 2.11, 13,15; 3.9,19; 5.8,15; 6.8,11; 7.11,12,16; 10.10-11), so if you think about money left over after you've paid your bills, you have something that is both 'in addition', 'beyond' (HCSB translation of 12.9,12 respectively), but is also 'gain' and 'advantage' (see ‏Brown, Driver, Briggs, 451).

So we then have, in between the vanity of the rest of the book and the ironic vanity of writing it all down and studying it as both he and we have done, an explanation of the purpose of the book. These were 'delightful' sayings, but they were also 'goads' and 'nails'. They were good in a way that hurts, or they hurt in a way that is good (I guess it depends on whether you're an optimist or a pessimist!).

Ending with 12.13-14
The final two verses have three pointers that tell us this is the end of the book:
  1. it literally is the end!
  2. 12.13 begins with the word 'end' (סוף)
  3. the word 'all' (כל) appears four times
They are also tightly structured and terse, with the word count pattern of:
4 4 2
4 2 2
In English we might reflect this with a minimum of fudging (don't count my equals sign!) as:
Matter's end, all's heard
Fear God, commands keep
this = man
God judges all works
all secrets
Taken as a whole these last two verses of the epilogue give us one last word to restrain the extremes of nihilism or licentiousness that may have been the result of reflecting on life under the sun with Qohelet as our guide. Entrusting ourselves, our efforts and our results to a fair God is ultimately all we can do. Seeking to live faithfully under God (which we do in reverent fear and obedience) is what it is to be a creature rightly responding to our creator.

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The long read: Same Sex Marriage

To plebiscite or not to plebiscite?

This election has been spruiked as a once in a lifetime election because of one issue: Same Sex Marriage (hereafter SSM). This is one issue that, if carried by parliament, will irreparably change Australian society forever more. Of the four major parties, there is a spectrum of opinions. The Liberal Party have a mixed opinion, with the member for Bennelong, John Alexander, remaining undeclared, and a mixture of supporters and dissenters among the Liberal Senate candidates. The official position of the Liberal party is that there would be a national plebiscite by the end of 2016, whereafter parliamentarians would be free to vote according to their conscience, which would mean either what they think, what their electorate thinks, or what the nation as a whole thinks. The National party, while in coalition with the Liberals, is mostly opposed to both the plebiscite as well as the idea of SSM, so would most likely vote against it in any instance. The Labor party currently have a conscience vote, although at their national conference last year, support of SSM from 2017  became a principle of membership. The member for Parramatta is listed as a supporter of SSM, and her party has pledged to bring about a parliamentary vote (with no plebiscite) within the first 100 days in office. Currently the Labor senators are mixed, but as mentioned above that will change from next year. The fourth largest party, the Greens, are not in favour of a plebiscite, but are in favour of SSM. It is worth mentioning in passing the Christian Democrats, who are unlikely to gain any members in the House of Representatives but may gain (or retain) a senator and thus be part of the cross-bench in the Senate who may be able to vote against changes in the marriage act.

Likely Vote
Mostly No
Mostly Yes

What is still unclear is what the plebiscite would ask, what action would come from it, and what rights to a conscience vote members would have in light of the outcome. This is not a constitutional matter, so the plebiscite is simply a way of indicating our preference, as there is no legal compulsion upon parliamentarians to respond in any particular way. There is, for example, nothing to stop a theoretically defeated ALP or any private member entering legislation before the plebiscite and having it passed through into law. All of this raises the question of why the plebiscite was originally agreed upon. It seems it was former PM Abbott's attempt to kick the ball out of play for a little while without having to do anything. Part of the problem is you can't vote to not vote - you can't pass legislation to say you're not allowed to revisit the marriage act down the track. There have been numerous failed attempts to introduce SSM legislation, but the momentum in the media and inside parliament has been building to the point where one of the two major parties needs to do something about it. So perhaps a plebiscite was Abbott's hope of enabling a conversation about the societal outcomes of normalising SSM. Unfortunately such hopes cannot have been based on reality, as where such debates have happened, dissent has been put down, such as in the Irish referendum where people were reported choosing to don a 'Yes' badge despite intending to vote 'No' as anyone questioning SSM is inevitably labelled a bigot and homophobe. We have been discussing SSM for years now in Australia - I don't see the debate being at all clarified. All we have is extremes from both ends with the sane middle not getting a word in.

When I talk about the sane middle (and of course I include myself in this group!) I mean those who truly see the merits of the other side. For those pro SSM, it means understanding the novelty and untestedness of this change and the strong history of traditional marriage. It also means acknowledging this isn't really a push for 'marriage equality'; I hear no one advocating polygamy/polyandry, I hear no one advocating normalising and recognising incestuous relationships nor pederasty. This is not marriage equality, this is SSM. Using the term 'equality' is simply a political decision which implies dissenters desire inequality and are thus to be equated with those who endorsed slave trading and disallowed inter-racial marriage. Being in the sane middle from the SSM side means acknowledging as much. Being in the sane middle from the traditional marriage side means having genuine sympathy for the historic and ongoing hurts of people in same-sex relationships, or indeed anyone who does not fit neatly in the heterosexual box. There is genuine discrimination, there is all too real abuse, there are higher rates of suicide and self-harm among these people. To affirm traditional marriage at the expense of SSM without recognising the genuine felt needs of people to have relationships validated when so much of their life has been attacked from all sides is a great insult and continues hurt. I think this means there will be some who disagree with SSM who will nonetheless decide to vote Yes for the sake of their suffering neighbour; so too will there be those who vote No even though they themselves have suffered. People unable to recognise this will be forced to continue the yelling match from the poles, but hopefully there will be a more rational and generous debate in the centre.

The question is, will a plebiscite enable such debate between the sane middle, or will it be drowned out by the shouting from the sidelines?

One issue or several?
As I began, the push from several Christian groups has been to maximise this issue without reference to the other issues. This issue is a once in a lifetime vote, or votes, as it will mean voting first for the LNP and then voting No in a plebiscite. The thing that troubles me is the issues which generally determine my vote are not reflected at all by the LNP. I am in favour of supporting Medicare (the Liberals have said they will freeze indexation of rebates). I am in favour of treating refugees humanely (neither LNP nor ALP are willing to depart from the boat turnback, indefinite detention, offshore detention policy in place since Abbott). I am in favour of real action on climate change (LNP and ALP continue to support coal mining and penalising protesters). I believe in generous foreign aid (the LNP has both cut this aid and spitefully reappropriated funds into our punitive detention centres for refugees). I think electoral funding needs reform (silence from the two major parties). As I look through the advertising in our letterbox, as I scroll through policies, I can see maybe a tenth of the LNP policies I support, two fifths of ALP, one tenth of CDP, but four fifths of the Greens. What do I do with this? Of course, not all issues are equal. Is the possibility of a marriage plebiscite (the very plebiscite, let alone the result, being dependent on passing both houses of parliament!) enough to force me to vote against my love of neighbour and pursuit of justice with mercy on the other nine tenths? Or does the vehemence with which I disagree with the one fifth of Greens policies mean I should not vote for the four fifths of things I do agree with them on, where they brazenly stand apart from the LNP and ALP?

I could weight all the issues and work them out mathematically I suppose. I could also think about the numbers of people affected: if  say 3% of the population is same-sex attracted, of that work out how many are in long-term stable relationships and then how many both approve of the institution at all (hello, Marxists!) and also desire to be married? We are left with quite a small number, but then again, this will normalise adoption rights and there will be children without access to a traditional family - although, unless a surrogate baby - they would be without any parents as is. And then I balance that with the number of people being subjected to physical, sexual, medical and psychological abuse at our hands in offshore detention centres, those who are preferring self-immolation to further hopeless waiting. To that I could add the short-term thinking of fossil fuel extraction for surprisingly small gains and devastatingly long-term consequences. I think for me these two are of at least equal value with the marriage plebiscite. 

Of course I could complicate things with the NBN and foreign aid and safe schools and electoral funding etc etc etc. But those are my three: refugees, climate and marriage, and I think they are all worthy of consideration in my vote. For you, you need to do your own maths. Work out what are your biggest issues and how important they are and who best represents your concern. And then vote. But don't just vote, advocate. Tell your local member who you voted for why you did and/or why you didn't. Try to find out their views and speak sympathetically to that where you differ. If they agree with you encourage  them, and if they disagree explain why you do with respect. 

Because even if SSM does become legalised in Australia, what follows will in part depend on how we uphold ourselves now. If vitriol and hyperbole and apocalyptic language becomes our norm, then who could blame anyone for wanting to even the scores when they're in the ascendancy. We can remain part of the conversation or be fringe outsiders. Now, that day may of course come, but while we have the possibility of speaking truth with grace and love I think we should continue to do so.

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Ecclesiastes Structure

I know the task of finding a structure of Ecclesiastes is the very definition of vanity, a chasing after the wind. Nonetheless this is what I'm working with and has been updated with links to individual posts as the series has gone on.

A Frame Narrator (1.1)
  B All is vanity (1.2)

First Poem What is man? 1.3-11
C Question about life under the sun (1.3)
  D paradox of people on the earth (1.4)
     E always moving sun (1.5)
        F untameable wind (1.6)
     E' always moving water (1.7)
  D' paradox of senses (1.8)
C' Statement about life under the sun (1.9-11)

Two ways to live and work 1.12-2.26
G  Introduction and presumptive conclusion (1.12-13)
  H Why be wise (1)? (1.14-18)
      I The pursuit of pleasure (2.1-11)
  H' Why be wise (2)?  (2.12-17)
      I'  The character that matters (2.18-23)
G' Conclusion: two ways to work (2.24-26)

Second Poem Understanding the time 3.1-15
J Statement about time (3.1)
    K Two extremes (3.2)
        L Four extremes (3.3-4)
        L' Four extremes (3.5-6)
    K' Two extremes (3.7)
            M' Two last extremes (3.8)
J' Question about time and what we can know (3.9-15)

Where is justice? 3.16-4.16
N I saw wickedness under the sun (3.16)
     O God will judge even the dead (3.17-21)
N' I saw that it's good to seize the day while you live (3.22)

P I saw oppression under the sun (4.1a)
     Q that power is with the oppressors makes me wish I was dead (4.1b-3)
P' I saw that working out of jealousy is vanity (4.4)

          R wisdom interlude linking sections either side (4.5-6)

S I saw vanity under the sun (4.7-8)
     T It's not good to be alone in this vain world - it's a miserable task (4.9-12)
     T' It's not good to be 'good' if you're not wise (4.13-14)
S' I saw under the sun that you shouldn't follow someone who'll be forgotten (4.16)

Wisdom Collection I 5.1-12
U Better to be obedient, therefore fulfil what you vow (5.1-4)
V Better to not vow, therefore fear God (5.5-7)
W If you see oppression, be assured that the worker can at least sleep well (5.8-12)

Finding good amongst tragedy 5.13-6.12
X I saw a sickening tragedy (5.13a)
     Y The tragedy discussed (5.13b-15)
X' The sickening tragedy (5.16-17)

Z I saw what is good (5.18a)
     a The good discussed (5.18b-19c)
Z' This is a gift (5.19d-20)

b I saw a tragedy upon humanity (6.1)
     c The tragedy and opportunity for good discussed (6.2-11b)
b' Three questions for humanity (6.11c-12)

Wisdom Collection II 7.1-14
d What is good in the midst of death (7.1-6)
e What is good in the midst of fools (7.7-12)
     f  Seeing what God has made will teach us to live wisely (7.13-14)

I've seen it all 7.15-9.13
ghg  I've seen it all (7.15-28)
iji  I saw that God made people upright; they pursued many schemes (7.29-8.9)
klk  I saw the wicked confused with the righteous (8.10-16)
mnm  I saw how hard it is for people to understand God (8.17-9.10)
     opo  I saw there is wisdom in understanding the limits of human perception (9.11-13)

Wisdom Collection III 9.14-11.10

Third Poem Approaching Death 12.1-7
! Statement about the Creator when death is near (12.1)
  @ when the eyes fail (12.2)
     # when the face degrades (12.3)
        $ when the hearing stops working (12.4)
     #' when the stomach degrades (12.5)
  @' when the frame fails (12.6)
!' Conclusion about God when death has come (12.7)

Closing 12.8-14
  B' All is vanity (12.8)
A' Frame Narrator (12.9-14)

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Ecclesiastes 12.1-7

The penultimate section of Ecclesiastes is also the third poem of the book, and with a very similar structure.

1.3-11 3.1-9(-15) 12.1-7
5 examples
14 pairs of examples
5 examples
Question & conclusion

The biggest question surrounding this section is the way to read it. If one were to read it literally, then it might well be describing the scene of a town perhaps in the aftermath of a plague. Many have died, this is yet another funeral procession, those looking on know their death is also nigh - the signs are there. 

Another way to look at it is to see past the literal to the metaphorical and ask: what do these signs represent? As such, what we see in 12.1-7 is the description of the effects of old age on the body. This follows on from the discussion in 11.7-10 highlighting the good of youth, yet always with reference to old age being ominously near. 

a Statement about the Creator when death is near (12.1)
  b when the eyes fail (12.2)
     c when the face degrades (12.3)
        d when the hearing stops working (12.4)
     c' when the stomach degrades (12.5)
  b' when the frame fails (12.6)
a' Conclusion about God when death has come (12.7)

To be clear, the language of this section is quite difficult, with words appearing here and here only in the whole Bible, and there are some questions remaining, but overall this appears to be the flow. 

For structure's sake, I would've loved to see verse 2 in the centre of the structure, as sight has been so pivotal to Qohelet's observation throughout, but to frustrate me (pun intended) he leaves it as the first example of the failing body. Qohelet may also be drawing on a Sumerian proverb quoted in Bendt Alster, Studies in Sumerian Proverbs (1975), quoted in Roland E. Murphy, Ecclesiastes, Word Biblical Commentary (1992):

My grain roasting fails,
Now my youthful vigor, strength and personal god
have left my loins like an exhausted ass.
My black mountain has produced white gypsum.
My mother has brought in a man from the forest;
he gave me captivity.
My mongoose which used to eat strong smelling things
does not stretch its neck towards beer and butter.
My urine used to flow in a strong torrent.
but now you flee from my wind.
My child whom I used to feed with butter and milk,
I can no more support it.
And I have had to sell my little slave girl;
an evil demon makes me sick.

The Sumerian poem obviously uses different images although there are many similarities, in particular the happy conflation of the literal and metaphorical. 

To conclude, when we note that our poem is bookended with references to God, this is an exhortation to direct our attention to him while we still can. There will be the day (should we live long enough) when our faculties will fail us. Until that day comes we must make every effort to know God and to live the life he has given us to live. For the day will come when joys will be taken, faculties will be taken, and ultimately even our spirit will leave our bodies when the decay has taken over.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Ecclesiastes 5.13-6.12

Again, this is another passage I won't be able to preach this time through, but with 1.12-2.26 and 3.16-4.16 before it, it marks a return to first person narrative and observation with the threefold ראיתי (I saw) structuring Qohelet's observations at 5.13,18 and 6.1. This continues until the second wisdom collection beginning in chapter 7.

Section 1: 5.13-17
5.13 begins with Qohelet seeing a 'sickening tragedy' under the sun, and concludes with the 'sickening tragedy' in 5.16-17. In between  (13b-15) he tells the story of the cruel master wealth.

Section 2: 5.18-20
The bookends to this section are positive, what Qohelet sees to be 'good' (5.18a), the 'gift of God' (5.19d). In between is a description of the good life as received and enjoyed as a gift of God.

Section 3: 6.1-12
This returns to the negative of the first section, with האדם (humanity) bookending the section. The tragedy under the sun which weighs heavily on humanity (6.1) raises three questions about humanity in 11c,12a,c. The discussion in between is one we've heard before in various places, but it is interestingly punctuated by some challenges to enjoy life - to fail to do so is our own problem (6.3b,6,9).

The broader structure of the whole section is A-B-A'; negative-positive-negative. Within them they share that same structure of a-b-a'; I saw x - discussion - x.

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Thursday, June 02, 2016

Ecclesiastes 5.1-12

I'm not preaching on this passage and I don't have heaps to say on it either. Unfortunately there are more sections than there are weeks and this one and the next will have to be left by the roadside, hopefully to be picked up again another day.

5.1-12 seems to be one of the wisdom sections that punctuate the book, as do the poems. 5.1-12; 7.1-13 and 9.14-11.10 have a very different feel to the first person narrative either side of them, but do maintain thematic similarities with the rest of the book, so they have been assembled/composed and arranged meaningfully.

5.1-4 Better to x, therefore y.
5.5-7 Better to z, therefore a.
5.8-12 If you see b, be assured that c.

x = be obedient, y = fulfil what you vow.
z = not vow, a = fear God.
b = oppression, c = you can sleep well.

As a section, this is perhaps then an attestation of the truths presented earlier, 5.8-12 in 4.1-6 for instance.

The only other thing to mention is the repetition of the negating particle על, which occurs 6 times in these verses, making the positive affirmations even stronger against all the 'shalt not's.

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