11 Aug 2011

Dust in the Wind: Ecc 1.13

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Christian hope, Ecclesiastes, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible


I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men!” (NIV).

The above translation offered by the NIV is just adequate to leave us hanging. I propose to make a short analysis of the Hebrew text and offer a tentative translation.

After introducing himself in v.12, Qohelet (the Preacher) records his exhaustive search and his “depressing” conclusion on the matter.

Outline of Text:

I. First Reflection vv. 13-15

A. Statement of “absurdity” of pursuing wisdom vv. 13-14

B. A proverb quoted, ironically, to support the absurdity v. 15

II. Second Reflection vv. 16-18

A. Statement of the “absurdity” of pursuing wisdom vv. 16-17

B. A proverb quoted, ironically, to support the position v. 18

A Note on translating “Hebel”

The word “hebel” occurs like a dripping water faucet throughout the text of Ecc. (32x in the Hebrew text). It is not simply “vanity” or “meaningless” in its various meanings for Qohelet. Rather “hebel” like “absurd” for Camus is oppressive and tragic [1]. In other texts in the Hebrew Bible the term is parallel with such words as kazab, seqer, awen, and ma’al which are usually translated as “deceit” or “lie” (cf. Zechariah 10.2; Psalm 62.10 and Job 21.34 as examples). Because the actions of people “under the sun” and the results of those actions are often so divorced in terms of outcome — “hebel” is itself an injustice. I think the English word “absurd” captures Qohelet’s meaning far more than the NIV’s “meaningless.”

With that background look at 1.13. This is how I render the verse:

“I devoted myself to search and to explore wisely [2] all that is done under heaven. It is an evil task that God has given to the human race to keep them occupied.

At the beginning of the unit (vv. 13-18, see outline) the Preacher informs us of his task, as given by God — and his negative evaluation on it. The scope of his wise explorations was extensive — “all that is done under heaven.”

What is, perhaps, missed in the English versions is Qohelet’s negative evaluation here in v. 13 that anticipates his conclusion in v. 17 that “wisdom” is nothing but “re ‘ut ruah” — “chasing after the wind.” The Teacher uses the noun “inyan” (“task” or “burden”) which only occurs in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible. The mood of this negative word is retained elsewhere in the book (cf. 3.10). “inyan” is modified by the word adjective “ra” usually has moral overtones in the Hebrew Bible and is frequently translated as “evil.” God’s task given to Qohelet is seen as “evil” because of what he has learned — it is all “absurd.” Including wisdom.

In his conclusion to this teaching we see the Preacher’s post exploration attitude — not the beginning. It is only after he has exhaustively and wisely explored that he decides that the task was “inyan ra” an evil task.

Here we see some of the diversity in the Biblical canon. In Proverbs Wisdom brings joy and life. Qohelet begs, kindly, to differ. Wisdom rather than solving the issue of justice simply has allowed the Preacher to see it. Wisdom has brought frustration, pain and absurdity because the world is unjust. At the end of the journey of exploration Qohelet places “wisdom” and “folly” squarely on the same foot in sharp contrast with Proverbs. (read through Ecc with an eye on the issue of fairness and justice — the theme is frequent).

It has occured to me in the last few days while reading Ecclesiastes through a couple of times that it provides a nice commentary on the world described by Paul in Romans 8.18-21. Though there is no direct quote of Ecc in this text, it is noteworthy that Paul uses the term “mataiotes” (“frustration,” 8.20) which is the exact word the LXX (Septuagint) uses to translate “hebel” in Qohelet. In all his wisdom the Preacher sees the world as it really is in the present age — UNREDEEMED!!

I hope to explore this “insight” somewhat further — later. Again these are my “thoughts” generated by sustained reflection and study of the book but they are not set in stone by any means.


[1] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, provides many interesting points of dialogue with Qohelet. There are many differences between these two but there are remarkable parallels as well.

[2] Bruce Waltke and M. O’Conner, Biblical Hebrew Syntax, pp. 196-97 describes the preposition “beth” as a “beth comitantiae-mental.” That simply means the prep is to be rendered as an adverb.

One Response to “Dust in the Wind: Ecc 1.13”

  1. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Good post, Bobby. Very provocative (in the good sense of that word).

    Regarding hebel, maybe the biggest mistake is the practice of picking just one English word and using it, or a form of it, throughout the book. I think there are nuances that the Hebrew reader would have understood and that those nuances should show up in any translation. For example, in 11:10, where the young man is told to get on with enjoying life because youth and energy are hebel, I think the meaning there is “fleeting.”

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