Ecclesiastes and the Meaning of Life in the Ancient World
- ISBN: 9781009100250
- Published By: Cambridge University Press
- Published: April 2022
Inquiries about the meaning of life often do not lead to determinate answers. Are life’s purposes self-evident? What does life signify? Is life inherently meaningful? For what reasons, or under what set of circumstances, might life lose (or seem to lose) its meaning? The Preacher/Teacher of the biblical book often known as Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) challenges his audience to grapple with the multi-faceted complexities of existence and the unique interplay between suffering and meaning.
In Ecclesiastes and the Meaning of Life in the Ancient World, Arthur Jane Keefer draws on Scripture and recent psychological research, as well as ancient textual material from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece, to argue (see pages 2-3) several things: (1) Ecclesiastes addresses the meaning of life from a threefold perspective, namely (a) coherence (order and sense-making), (b) purpose (an over-arching goal and/or direction), and (c) significance (intrinsic value and/or worth); (2) Ecclesiastes identifies conditions for what makes life meaningful and meaningless; and (3) the exploration of these ideas relates intimately to human suffering, not least Qohelet’s.
For the sake of clarity, Keefer refers to the biblical text itself as “Ecclesiastes,” as distinct from “Qohelet,” whether this is understood as a narrator, persona, or implied author (3). Additionally, while the sum of Keefer’s argument may inform certain diachronic approaches to Ecclesiastes, he treats the book in its “final form” (5). Thus, matters of authorship, redaction, and editing are treated to some degree in the notes, but do not influence his ultimate argument (5).
Concerning the Hebrew term hebel (often rendered as “meaningless,” “vanity,” “futile,” “absurd,” and the like within most English translations), Keefer maintains that this lexeme (hebel):
includes senses of breath and brevity, and something of no consequence, substance or worth . . . No single connotation needs to apply in each circumstance, and demanding a meaning more than “breath” or “vapor” has caused interpreters unnecessary trouble. The lexeme, though functioning metaphorically, is drained of its significance when pressured in this way, so I leave it untranslated, allowing the metaphor to function as I think it was intended (90).
While some might quibble with Keefer’s decision, leaving the word untranslated had no marring effect upon the book.
Within biblical studies, the maxim “the method is often the magic” is perhaps especially applicable in biblical studies, where (regrettably) an unusual glut of research is encased in so-called “echo chambers,” often creating a dismal “silo” effect. “Biblical study only gets so far when speaking its own language and drawing on its own resources,” as Keefer contends (8). For this reason, Keefer astutely chooses to leverage not only some traditional methods of exegesis (more on this later), but also modern psychological resources. He maintains that this method not only makes his book “distinct,” but also “better placed than any other to deal with questions about Ecclesiastes and the meaning of life” (8). While Keefer may be overstating his case would that more Bible scholars followed suit in doing interdisciplinary research.
With respect to the process of exegesis itself, I was pleased to see sufficient (but not copious) engagement with many of the standard reference grammars. While the conspicuous absence of HALOT and DCH (appearing now in its revised, second edition) is difficult to explain (they are, after all, the crème de la crème of Hebrew dictionaries), I was, nonetheless, quite pleased to see not a few references to many other notable Hebrew lexicons. That said, there were several instances (90, 93, 95, 101, 159) where the author’s engagement with the text would have been particularly bolstered by including more direct reference(s) to any of the above texts or some other resources (see below).
More pointedly, I was disappointed that the unparalleled Handbook on the Hebrew Text for Qoheleth (Baylor Handbooks on the Hebrew Bible) by Robert D. Holmstedt, et al. (Baylor University Press, 2017) was not consistently leveraged. I was also quite surprised Biblia Hebraica Quinta: Megilloth (Editorial Verbo Divino, 2017) failed to appear at all in the book. Given the not insignificant import lexicography and syntax alike bear on effective interpretation, is not a close (but not atomistic!) reading of the text (grammar, text criticism, etc.) always the surest foundation for deriving one’s theology?
Assyrian Royal Autobiography, Babylonian Skeptical Literature, and the most pertinent Greek/Egyptian works are all treated with extreme circumspection and care. Keefer’s handling of continental works was also superb. Almost inconvertibly, one would be hard pressed to find a more through, up-to-date bibliography (217–28). The clear index of sources and authors/topics is another boon to all serious researchers while the inclusion of key Hebrew words (in both transliteration and original characters) was a nice touch.
Even when handling exceptionally difficult and intricate matters of extreme nuance, Keefer’s writing is extremely lucid and clear and his usage of precise nomenclature throughout the text is exemplary (see, e.g., page 7). One other small potential drawback to the book is the lack of any sort of graphs/tables/charts and images/graphics to help “round out” some of the dense prose. The fact that all Hebrew characters are unpointed might also hinder some readers.
In conclusion, many readers (and not only biblical scholars and theologians) will find Ecclesiastes and the Meaning of Life in the Ancient World a helpful resource on multiple levels, particularly those interested in the author’s interdisciplinary blend of psychology, Scripture, and ancient Near East texts. I highly recommend it!
Dustin Burlet is a faculty member at Millar College of the Bible in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.Dustin BurletDate Of Review:November 4, 2023