Friday, February 19, 2010

The Dance of Ecclesiastes: Part 1- Everything is Breath

Ecclesiastes 1:2-4 (ESV)

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
4A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.

[Ecclesiastes by Gustave Doré. 1866.]

Last week in our The Bible: Origin and Content class we began reading through Ecclesiastes, and I was quickly reminded of the importance of scriptural translation and transmission. From the get go, Ecclesiastes, one of the wisdom books, sounds incredibly depressing when read from my NIV.

Meaningless, meaningless! Everything is Meaningless!

What's the wisdom of everything being meaningless? This book reads more like a teenage Jewish goth's diary entry than an inspired book of the Bible (I wonder if there are Jewish goths?).
Even those who question the existence of a Grand Designer can safely say that not everything is meaningless. Sure, I could go along with the basic Christian interpretation that every work of man is vain except for fearing God and keeping his commandments (Ecclesiastes 12: 13-14). Yet these verses seem almost tacked on by an outside commentator and this simple and literal interpretation comes across as cold, unconvincing, and contradictory to the message of Kohelet, the Assembler. Yet if the message isn't about fearing God and keeping his commandments, then this book would be very troubling to the religious/political system.

How then do we read this highly problematic text? Rabbi Rami enlightened the class, while simultaneously disturbing a few of my classmates by the look of their faces, by going over the various translation of verse two, which he argues is the key to unlocking the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. Take a look at my chicken-scratch notes.

The literal translation of the Hebrew word Hevel is "breath, vapor, or dew" which carries a connotation of emptiness or something insubstantial. It can be translated as "vanity, meaningless(ness), or futility" but when you take the the second phrase into consideration Ryut Ruach, "vexing of the breath", translated in my NIV as "chasing after wind", the text is cracked open like a window in a stagnant house. The writer uses the imagery of breath to explain the impermanence of life. This turns the entire text upside down, so instead of everything being

vanity of vanities! All is vanity!

The text now reads

breath of breath! Everything is breath!

Life, through the eyes of the Assembler, kohelet, is constant motion, turning, in and out, up and down, impermanence. Everything is constantly shifting. The sun rises AND sets, the wind blows north AND south, and water flows down stream only to end up in the sea, evaporate and rain down again on the land. Everything is cycling, turning, breathing not only in nature but in our lives. You can work hard your whole life building vast wealth only to pass it on to your children who may or may not squander it. You may live on in your writings only as long as people continue to read your work. There is nothing that can be done to secure a safe, comfortable, happy life eternally. We attempt to secure happiness by any means necessary even if it negatively impacts are fellow man either directly or indirectly. We always want to be content, happy, and have a full stomach but this is not always the case. The rich can become poor, the young will become old, and the loved can become heartbroken. Life is a chaotic wave and struggling will only cause a vexing of the breath.

Interpreted in this manner this book becomes contradictory to the message in the rest of the Bible. Is God not in control, or is God not all powerful? Do we pray in vain? Does God not bless the righteous and punish the wicked? Kohelet, doesn't focus on the afterlife and mentions God only in passing. His message is on the chaotic nature of existence. There is no foundation, nothing firm to hold onto, we're on a roller coaster ride and there are no seat belts.

So what does this mean? If nothing in life is permanent what can we do? It means there is a natural flow, a cosmic dance, which if we understood the rhythm and allowed ourselves to dance in unison with it we would enjoy the dance itself and not look towards the applause at the end. We may trip and fall but if we are fluid with the rhythm it would appear as part of the dance itself! Yet we shouldn't cling to repeating the same dance steps over and over again. By embracing the unknown we are thrust into the realm of continuous creativity. Even though fear is ever present, delving into the new and undiscovered realms of reality and chance outweigh that fear, at least for me. Ecclesiastes reads more as a book of celebration and liberation than one of utter hopelessness and misery. We just have to learn how to dance, and to dance properly we have to learn how to breathe.

1 comment:

Doug B said...

I certainly enjoyed reading this post. Ecclesiastes is hands-down my favorite book of the Bible. I have to say that I prefer "meaninglessness" and the face value interpretation which does, as you point out, contradict "the message in the rest of the Bible." That isn't a problem for me, understanding as I do that the Bible was composed over a long period of time, by numerous hands, and amid much interaction with surrounding national religious traditions. I also believe there were some interpolations "tacked on," and that seemed to be for the purpose of bringing it closer in line to the other writings. Just my opinion, of course.

Post a Comment