Andrew Kuiper on Jewish Liturgy & Deeper Christian Exegesis
The book of Ecclesiastes has always been something of a ghost at the banquet of Sacred Scripture. The central theme of hebel or "vanity," understood in the sense of futility, seems to encroach not just on the goodness of creation and the significance of the imago Dei but even on Wisdom herself. All plans for the future are subject to determined times. But those times (unlike Pete Seeger's folksy rendition of Qoheleth's refrain in "Turn! Turn! Turn!") are impossible for man to know and subsequently stymie all his actions. They are in the hands of an obscure God. The divine name of YHWH is not known in the book, only the more general Elohim.
True, Qoheleth says that it is better to be wise than to be a fool, but that seems to border on an aesthetic judgment. The fruits of wisdom and those of folly hardly differ, and all flesh returns to dust without the hope of a final judgment. This evaluation is a far cry from the rest of the Wisdom literature and especially from the quasi-divine status of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8, who plays and sings joyfully with the children of men.
This contradiction was first noticed not by contemporary biblical scholars (or even early modern precursors like Spinoza and Herder) but by the self-reflection of the people of God. Like the Song of Songs, another book of supposed Solomonic provenance, Ecclesiastes was almost culled from the Jewish canon at Jamnia. The disciples of Shammai opposed its inclusion on what we must concede are intuitive grounds. An unfortunate Epicureanism seems to shade the entire work, the tone of which is only weakly emended by the epilogue in chapter 12. The scribal injunction to fear God and keep his commandments hovers over the rest of the text without any solid anchor-point to justify it.
The Shammaites were, however, unsuccessful and soon dissipated along with their objections after Jamnia. The question then became for the Hebrew people (and those Christian communities that inherited this canonical collection) how to glean religious significance from this bare fact of inclusion.
Ecclesiastes & Sukkoth
The attraction of this book was so powerful that not only was it kept, but it was also accorded a public function in one of the most prominent liturgical feasts. In a development that was more significant than any particular interpretation could be, Ecclesiastes became an official reading for Sukkoth (the feast of Tabernacles), which celebrated both the autumn harvest of grapes and wheat and the providential oversight of God as the Hebrew people pitched their tents in the wilderness. The juxtaposition of that harvest, rich with wine, with Qoheleth's preaching concerning the futility of all toil seems like an unusual choice.
Nor was it ignored by the subtle minds of the great Jewish commentators. Rashi, arguably the greatest rabbinic exegete of the Middle Ages, perceived a hermeneutic principle for this difficult book in the refrain everything under the sun. By identifying the "sun" with the light of the Torah (as expressed in Proverbs 6:23), futility applies to all those activities that are not contemplation of the holy fire of the divine commandments. Rashi also notes that the elaboration of seven "vanities" in the prologue should suggest to us the seven-fold structure of the creation of the world. He uses this to qualify Qoheleth's statement that there is nothing new, which he says applies only to those activities corresponding to the first six days. The seventh day corresponds to the contemplation of the Torah, and this is, according to its divine nature, a site of inexhaustible exegetical fertility.
The difficulty apparent in this kind of spiritual reading is that it strains our modern credulity. It is embarrassing for us as an inappropriate display of emotion. We often lack the spiritual vision and affective fortitude to perceive and embrace these sorts of readings as real. As a consequence, the inheritance of patristic and rabbinic exegesis becomes at best a private devotional tool and at worst an absurd historical oddity. This attitude dismisses the handiwork of the most spiritually earnest and intellectually gifted of our forebears as fundamentally unserious.
Alternatively, we see spiritual readings undercut in a more subtle way, by hermetically sealing them off from historical-critical considerations. If giants like Origen and Rashi were concerned with the tiniest of grammatical details and syntactic valences, why would we keep their exegesis in a separate compartment from the wealth of research and material we have on many textual and historical issues?
The most persistent harm in modern man's stance toward the Bible is that these spiritual readings are regarded as a mere trick of the light, so insubstantial that the smallest movement will cause them to dissipate like an iridescent mist over a waterfall. But the spiritual masters did not intend their readings as a shimmering surface gloss destined to fade in the cold light of day. Their understanding of the Scriptures was born of an insight into the fundamentally opalescent character of revelation. We can only do justice to the venerable exegetes of our religious traditions by opening up all modern avenues of enquiry to their vision. While the believing and practicing community itself requires dogmatic and liturgical unity, this does not have to be naively retrojected into the canon of Scripture itself. The task of a truly spiritual interpretation is to take up the text and its material history—with all of its vagaries and contradictions—into a theological whole.
Hebel in New Testament Dress
We must add to these considerations the further difficulty of conducting specifically Christian exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures. Much of the last century has (rightly) been recovering what supersessionist tendencies had occluded. We are now more aware than ever of the hollowness of invoking the Jesus ex machina as a solution for any or every difficulty we find in the Old Testament. The long shadow of Marcion is still with us. How can an approach that makes Christ the whole of the Law and the Prophets also recognize that not a jot or tittle shall pass away?
There are many excellent studies of Wisdom literature that take a fruitfully holistic view with respect to other Old Testament books. These include Gerhard von Rad's Wisdom in Israel and Roland Murphy's Tree of Life. And of course there is Gary A. Anderson's excellent and freshly printed collection of articles, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament, but this takes as its scope the development of particular dogmas, not the continued significance of particular Old Testament books in the New Testament and in Christian practice. One slim volume that does take up this challenge is Barry Webb's study of five theologically troublesome books, Five Festal Garments. Some of his reflections on Ecclesiastes are worth repeating and expanding on here.
Most importantly, Webb denies that the New Testament removes the verdict of futility, and he points in this regard to Pauline resonances, especially in Romans 8:19–24:
The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility (mataiotēs), not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pangs of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?
For Webb, St. Paul's mataiotēs is "Qoheleth's hebel in New Testament dress." The hope present from the beginning of the subjection (Gen. 3:1) discovers its inner depths through the "revealing of the sons of God." This revealing is particularly linked to our divine adoption and glorification through the Holy Spirit.
Going further than Webb does, we could say Qoheleth's judgment is empirically validated in the groaning of the cosmos, which is felt most keenly in our own bodies. But the Pauline interpretation of our sorrow in the flesh is that this groaning is simultaneously a longing. The wedding of heaven and earth through the Church is only at the beginning of its work; the travails of human existence are now intensified through our knowledge of the final destiny of mankind and creation and our distance from that destiny. However, this understanding of the whole also reconfigures our experience of futility and toil from a perpetual cycle without end into a teleological process. The phenomena remain the same, but their scope and significance are radically transfigured.
By reading Ecclesiastes when the natural cycle of growth and harvest was coming to a close, the Jewish liturgy distanced itself from other religions, which found solace in the perpetual cycle of cosmic order. For Qoheleth, everything is apportioned into times and seasons that God has fixed in his own divine obscurity. This frightening depth is partially revoked by the historical character of Sukkoth and the ritual building of temporary shelters each year as a practice of remembrance. The Hebrew people refused to let go of either the unassailable counsel of God or their covenantal and liturgical understanding of salvation history as God for them.
This question of the mystery of preordained times grows to occupy a central place in the New Testament. Not only does Christ often speak of it not yet being his time (in reference to the Passion), but there are also numerous passages in the epistles that align the whole mystery of Christ with the completion of all times. The phrase "the fullness of time" occurs in both the letter to the Galatians (4:4) and the letter to the Ephesians (1:10) and is synonymous with the will of the Father to recapitulate the entire cosmos in Christ through the Church.
A Christological insight can also revivify the particular historical situation that Sukkoth commemorates. That the children of Israel lived in tabernacles is harmonically related to remembering the tabernacle where the divine kabod dwelt in their midst. John the Evangelist gathered up the elements of Hebrew liturgy into the figure of Christ in his prologue, when he wrote that the Logos became flesh and pitched his tent or tabernacled among us and we have seen his glory. If these tabernacles were once associated with the harvest, they are now also seen as harbingers of the first-fruits which are polyvalently understood as the converted (James 1:18), the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:23), and Christ himself (1 Cor. 15:23).
This Christological understanding should be continually pressured both from historical-critical research and from Jewish exegesis. Again, if we are serious in resisting Marcion and insisting that not a jot or a tittle will pass away, we must continually be on our guard against simplification. The letter may kill the spirit, but the spirit should never attempt a similar retaliation. Qoheleth the Skeptic should never be annihilated, just as Rashi's identification of the Torah as the sun should not be suppressed. Instead, we should labor to uphold these multiple readings in as fruitful a way as possible.
In the case of Rashi, we might say that the Word of God, the Eternal Torah, has placed himself kenotically under the sun. The seventh day of creation has entered into the previous six, or, to use the patristic idiom, has become the eighth day of the New Creation. If Qoheleth the Skeptic reminded the people of God of their dusty origins and the futility of their toil, that can now be seen as the growing pains for generations of the adopted sons of God, and for the deification of the entire cosmos.
Andrew Kuiper received a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion from Hillsdale in 2012 and then taught elementary school in the Great Hearts Charter School system in Phoenix, Arizona. His articles have appeared in The Regensburg Forum and The Imaginative Conservative, and he contributes to the blog at Ex Fontibus (exfontibus.com). He now lives in South Bend, Indiana, with his wife and two boys.