Wednesday, October 29, 2014

All good things must end

i) Scholars debate the meaning of hebel in Ecclesiastes. Popular offerings include fleeting, futile, enigmatic, and meaningless.

ii) One source of ambiguity is that we need to distinguish between appearance and reality in Ecclesiastes. Life could be "meaningless," not in the sense that it has no intrinsic purpose, but that it's ultimate is elusive. Everything happens for a reason, but we can't figure that out. In that respect, "enigmatic" is clearer than "meaningless." 

iii) Likewise, there are two senses in which it could be futile. It could be futile in the sense that trying to understand divine providence is an exercise in futility. Futility in an epistemic sense. Ecclesiastes is, in part, a frustrated quest for the meaning of life. He senses that there's more to reality than meets the eye, but providence is perplexing. 

Or it could be futile in the sense that even though we can plan for the future, even though we ought to plan for the future, life is fickle and unpredictable. Life is unfair. You can be responsible, do all the right things, yet lose the race. In addition, everything we have and do is ephemeral. Futility in a metaphysical, mundane sense. This life is futile. 

iv) Fredericks makes a strong case that hebel means fleeting. However, he admits that hebel (lit. "breath") is used metaphorically. So the question concerns the figurative connotations of the word.

v) There's also the danger of committing the word-concept fallacy, as well as the illegitimate totality transfer fallacy. The meaning of one oft-used word in Ecclesiastes isn't necessarily the interpretive key to the whole book. Moreover, whatever the word means, the concepts of life as fleeting and inscrutable are certainly pervasive in Ecclesiastes.

vi) One challenge for translators is whether to use the same English synonym throughout, or more than one synonym if they think the sense varies with the context. Using different English synonyms for the same Hebrew word will obscuring the function of the Hebrew term as a leading word. If, however, the sense varies, then it's inaccurate to settle on one synonym. 

vii) In addition, what we think hebel means (or connotes) in Ecclesiastes depends in part on how we interpret the writer's worldview. For instance, Fredericks' commentary is one of the best. But he pursues a relentlessly claustrophobic, this-worldly interpretation. That forces a simplistic consistency onto the book, as if the author's outlook must be one-dimensional. 

In this life, all good things must end. Yet death is not the end–but a new beginning. 

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