Ecclesiastes

Michael V. Fox Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia April 1, 2004
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Readers who are familiar with Fox’s previous work on Ecclesiastes, A Time to Tear Down and A Time to Build Up: A Rereading of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), will welcome the publication of this commentary, which reflects the exegetical skill, interpretive insight, clarity, and precision that readers have come to expect from this author. The Hebrew text and the JPS English translation are presented in parallel, with the commentary appearing beneath the parallel texts. As one might expect, there are numerous references to the Jewish interpretive tradition, including midrashic sources and commentaries from ancient, medieval, and modern times.

Fox rejects the traditional view of Solomonic authorship. On the basis of linguistic and internal evidence he prefers a date of authorship in the third century B.C. (p. xiv). Nevertheless there are echoes of Solomon in the book. According to Fox, “Koheleth is a persona—a fictional figure through whom the author speaks. This persona, at least in the first two chapters, is portrayed as a king whose lineaments are taken from the biblical image of Solomon. For purposes of the intellectual exercise that Koheleth undertakes, the author wants us to conceive of the persona’s wisdom, power, and prosperity as Solomonic in quantity and quality—at least in 1:2–2:26—without necessarily trying to make us believe that Koheleth truly was Solomon or to give the book full Solomonic authority” (p. x). Fox sees a resemblance between Koheleth and “Hellenistic popular philosophy,” particularly Stoicism. However, “these general similarities, though significant, do not demonstrate a direct knowledge of Greek philosophy. They do support the hypothesis that the author was aware of some concerns and attitudes of philosophical thinking current in the Hellenistic age” (p. xii).

In the introduction Fox includes a survey of the book’s “key words,” including, of course, lb,h,, to which he assigns the meaning “ ‘senseless’ or ‘absurd,’ not in the sense of ludicrous but in the sense of counterrational, a violation of reason” (p. xix). He adds, “Koheleth sees numerous contradictions in the world, which violate rational expectations and lead him to call everything hevel” (ibid).

With regard to 3:1–15, Fox observes, “The passage teaches that everything that happens or is done has its right time, meaning a set of circumstances in which it should happen or be performed, and God determines when this is. In everything we do, we should wait until the time is ripe rather than straining against the natural flow of events. Yet, unfairly, we cannot be certain of discovering the right time has arrived” (p. 19). Fox rejects a fatalistic interpretation of verse 2, pointing out that “a rigid fatalism is foreign to the Bible or later Jewish thought.” He suggests that there may be “the notion of a predetermined but alterable life span” here (p. 21; see also his comments on 9:1, p. 61). As for 3:11, Fox suggests emending µl;[oh;, traditionally taken to mean “eternity” here, to lm;[;h,, and reading the clause, “but he also placed toil in their hearts” (cf. vv. 9, 13; p. 23).

Fox argues that Koheleth intentionally presented contradictory viewpoints in the book in order to establish his thesis. “The contradictions noted by the earliest exegetes are an important part of his work and should be interpreted, not expunged or smoothed out by strained harmonizations. Koheleth sees a world that is full of inconsistencies and contradictions. These are what he calls hevel” (p. xvii). An example of this occurs in 7:2, where Koheleth’s “advice seems out of place in a book that emphatically advocates the enjoyment of the pleasures of eating and drinking—and recommends merriment for diverting us from sadness (5:19).” Yet Fox observes, “Koheleth is not always consistent in what he values, and conflicting counsels may be appropriate in different circumstances. Here he commends sober recognition of the universality of death” (p. 44).

Another example of the use of contradiction is in Koheleth’s negative view of women, as expressed in 7:25–8:1. Fox regards Koheleth’s words here as “clearly hyperbolic.” He explains, “If Koheleth truly believed that all women were this malign, he could not have urged the enjoyment of life ‘with the woman you love’ (9:9a), for any such enjoyment would be impossible. Perhaps he intends his remark in 7:25–8:1a as a wisecrack rather than a solemn statement. Verse 29 suggests self-directed irony, as if to say, ‘See what strange things happen when men have engaged in too much reasoning!’ Anyway, he doesn’t think too highly of men either” (p. 51).

Fox says 11:1 refers to the rewards that come to those who are charitable, rather than advice on diversifying investments. He appeals for support to parallels in Egyptian wisdom and in Ben Sira (p. 72).

After discussing the three ways in which 12:1–8 has been understood—allegorically, literally, and eschatologically, he concludes that “the poem is intended to be mysterious and ambiguous.” Yet “the obscurity of the details does not prevent us from understanding the poem,” the meaning of which is clear: “Enjoy life before you grow old and die” (p. 77).

Though the epilogue refers to Koheleth in the third person, Fox suggests that, “it may belong to the author himself” (p. xiii), who has constructed Koheleth as a “fictional figure” (p. x). Fox regards the epilogue’s advice (12:13) as being consistent with what Koheleth has said, but as making Koheleth’s point more emphatically. He states that “Koheleth would not disagree” with the epilogue’s advice to “revere God and observe his commandments” (p. 85). Fox adds, “Whatever his doubts and worries, he advocates fear of God (5:5; 7:18) and insists on divine judgment (3:17; 11:9). The epilogue, however, states the principle firmly and definitively” (ibid.).

—Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

July 1, 2007
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2007 vol. 164 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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