In response to the recent events, someone quoted Qohelet 3 (AKA: Ecclesiastes) to me. You know the one, there’s a popular song from the Sixties about it. I took an excellent class with Stephen Garfinkel centered around Qohelet; he argued that the book was optimistic in effect, if not in tone. I’ve been thinking about the first lines of the book, which translate (roughly) into “Air, air, it’s all air.” (We could have an entire dissertation-length conversation about why I translated hevel as “air” and if you’d like to, please email me, but the accompanying beer/coffee/tea will be on you.) I vacillate between descending into nihilism and desperately wanting to assert that there’s more to our existence than can be measured upon our passing. Instead of re-inventing the wheel in this post, I’ve decided to attach the piece I wrote on Qohelet 3 for Dr. Garfinkel’s class. Please excuse the Hebrew, but it doesn’t translate cleanly (and it would make the post ten times longer). If you’d like a translation, please contact me.
Without further ado…
The poet’s concern, throughout Qohelet, is with the futility of life in the face of human impotence and mortality. The lines following the poem reassert, “את הכל עשה יפה בעתו גם את העולם נתן בלבם מכל אשר לא ימצא האדם את המעשה אשר עשה האלהים מראש ועד סוף.” (3:11) Although God “העולם נתן בלבם,” providing men with delusions of eternity and control, God is the only one who controls that which comes to pass. To this end, the context of “את הכל עשה יפה בעתו” clarifies the first line, “לכל זמן ועת לכל חפץ.” Both זמן and עת translate to a suitable or appointed time (cf. Psalm 119:126, Ne 2:6), indicating not that everything will occur at some time in general, but that God controls when events will occur. The poem that follows enunciates חפץ-כל that God positioned in its proper time.
In this context, the poem of 3:1-8 yields several layers of meaning, all reinforcing Qohelet’s overarching thesis for this chapter: God controls everything. On the broadest level, the poem is about life and death. Not only is its first opposing pair ללדת-למות, but the poem closes with מלחמה-שלום, creating a satisfying inclusio that brackets the entire poem. Each of the couplets, therefore, serve as metaphors for life and death as well as demonstrate the totality of that which God controls. The poem is constructed from paralleled couplets, with each line containing a pair of antonyms. The second line of each couplet adds another dimension of meaning to the first line. For example, the first antonym pair ללדת-למות is paralleled with לטעת-לעקור נטוע. The root נטע yields both the literal meaning of planting vineyards and trees as well as the metaphorical meaning of establishing nations. Often, נטע is used in contradistinction with synonyms for destruction (e.g., לנתטץת, לחרס, להאביד; ref: Je 1:10, 18:9, and 31:28). The second half of this pair, לעקור נטוע, maintains this dual meaning, as עקר means both barrenness of fields and women, as well as uprooting Israel’s enemies (Zp 2:4). God controls sets the time of birth and death for all levels of life: nature, nations, and people.
Similarly, in the second couplet, לפרוץ-לבנות, metaphorically expands on להרוג-לרפוא. In Isaiah 5:5, God destroys God’s vineyard, including פרץ גדרו, as an act of vengeance against Israel. The image is placed in opposition with God planting the vineyard (יטעהו) in verse 2. Isaiah uses the same verb as Qohelet for planting (נטע) and breaking down (פרץ) as acts of God in response to Israel’s wickedness. Likewise, as the first couplet invoked Jeremiah, who distinguishes לנתטץת, לחרס, ולהאביד from לבנות ולנטוע, the second couplet incorporates לבנות, recalling the imagery of לנטוע. Thus, לפרוץ-לבנות are parallel in meaning to להרוג-לרפוא, but bring the concept of killing and healing to a metaphorical level, allowing the words to be applied to nature and nations, which are not ordinarily killed or healed. Until the last line, the couplets repeat this pattern of placing literal pairs parallel to more metaphorical pairs, with the intertextual references providing the multiple interpretations of the second pair.
Qohelet repeats only one verb in the poem (not counting לטעת- נטוע as a repetition of a root in noun and verb form), להשלוך. On first reading, the fifth verse (fourth couplet) appears to have inverted the parallelism, making it chiastic. In this case, להשלוך אבניםparallels לרחק מחבק and אבנים כנוס parallels לחהוק. On closer reading, however, this line means “to discard stones,” not “to throw stones.” The distinction derives from two sources. First, Qohelet uses להשלוך to mean discard, in opposition to לשמור in the second half of verse 6. Second, אבנים often refers to stones used in judicial stoning (for example, Lv 20:2, 24:23; Nu 14:10, 15:35-36; Jos 7:25). If להשלוך refers to discarding stones that would be used for stoning (or for other negative purposes, as in Isaiah 8:14, II K 3:19 and 25, Is 34:11, and Jos 7:26), then it effectively parallels לחהוק because to discard stones that would be used in violence is to embrace one’s fellow man, to choose life instead of death.
Throughout the poem, Qohelet intersperses terms used in mourning contrasted with life. As human beings and nations, we kill and break down (3:3), lose and discard (3:6). In response, we heal and build (3:3), seek and preserve (3:6). In mourning, we cry and lament (3:4), rend our garments and are silent (3:7). In the joy of life, we laugh and skip gaily (3:4), sew together garments and speak (3:7). All of these matters of life are subsumed in the final couplet, which is structurally chiastic, for emphasis, “עת לאהב ועת לשנא, עת מלחמה ועת שלום.” The couplet reduces life, as established by God, to four conditions: חפץ-כל is either love or hate, war or peace.
Basically, to the extent that we can, we chose life or death (life through love/peace and death through hate/war), but in structuring the poem in parallel, Qohelet simultaneously asserts that we cannot have one without the other, that the choice is a false choice. We are condemned forever to straddle the lines and juggle these competing forces without allowing them to tear us asunder.
The Queen of Words said it best, when she threw up her hands, turned up to the heavens and said: "Well, if that's how you're going to play it..."