Ambiguity in Ecclesiastes

Doug Ingram T&T Clark, New York April 21, 2006
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In this volume, which is a revision of Ingram’s dissertation at the University of Stirling, he tackles the problem of ambiguity in Ecclesiastes. He argues that the literary ambiguity evident in the book mirrors the reality of the world. “It is precisely the ambiguous nature of life ‘under the sun’ that is captured by the ambiguity in Ecclesiastes. It has often been suggested that whatever else the author of Ecclesiastes is, that author is at least a realist, and a key element in that realism . . . is the portrayal by means of ambiguous text of a world which is itself subject to hugely varied interpretation. Just as people come to the world with different presuppositions and ‘read’ it differently, so readers come to the world of Ecclesiastes and respond to it in different ways” (p. 263).

Ingram contends that the book’s ambiguity extends to its patterns and structures. “There are undoubtedly patterns and structures in Ecclesiastes, which tempt the reader to seek the one overall pattern that explains the way the book is put together. So also life under the sun: here too there are patterns and structures that tease people into trying to find the solution that explains it all, to search for ‘grand narratives.’ One of the features of postmodernism is the realisation [sic] that no such solution is to be found; one of the features of my reading of Ecclesiastes is the claim that no such solution to the structure of Ecclesiastes is to be found” (pp. 264–65, italics his).

According to Ingram even the book’s depiction of God is ambiguous. In the book God gives, acts, and is deserving of worship (p. 268). But each of these “divine characteristics” has its ambiguities (p. 269), and it is also unclear exactly what the author means when he encourages readers to fear God (pp. 269–70).

In arguing his case Ingram focuses on the language of the book and some of its key concepts. After an introductory chapter that defines “ambiguity” and “meaning,” and outlines his method, he seeks to demonstrate that the book’s introduction (1:1–11) displays amibiguity and sets the tone for what follows. In the remaining chapters he seeks to demonstrate that several key terms are ambiguous. These include tlhq (Qoheleth), lbh (traditionally “vanity”), ˜wrty (“gain”), lm[ and hc[ (“work,” “do”), bwf (“good, benefit”; and vmvh tjt (“under the sun”). This is the longest chapter (sixty pages).

Ingram’s conclusion may be disconcerting to some, who may be tempted to dismiss it as the imposition of postmodern thinking on the ancient text. But perhaps this is unfair. Could it be that Qoheleth anticipated postmodernism? Perhaps modernity has been overly confident about its ability to analyze and understand the world. Maybe postmodernism’s pessimism about discovering truth is a more realistic and humble way to approach the world and one that opens the door to the special revelation provided by God through the Incarnation and the gospel. 

—Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

October 1, 2009
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2009 vol. 166 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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