26 I find more bitter than death
the woman who is a snare,
whose heart is a trap
and whose hands are chains.
The man who pleases God will escape her,
but the sinner she will ensnare.
27 “Look,” says the Teacher, “this is what I have discovered:
“Adding one thing to another to discover the scheme of things—
28 while I was still searching
but not finding—
I found one upright man among a thousand,
but not one upright woman among them all.
29 This only have I found:
God created mankind upright,
but they have gone in search of many schemes.”
(Read the rest of the chapter, here)
Woman as Divine Agent in Ecclesiastes
Sounds pretty condemning. One good man in a thousand is bad enough, but not a single good woman? Come on. It reeks of sexism, right? But…maybe not.
This post is basically a thought-train brought on by a very interesting article I came across in my background research entitled “Woman as Divine Agent in Ecclesiastes” (by Dominic Rudman, published in 1997 by The Journal Of Biblical Literature, available on JSTOR). Rudman argues that the “woman” discussed in vv. 7:26-29 is morally neutral, and actually an agent of God who is there to punish the wicked. Citing language patterns in and out of Ecclesiastes, Rudman describes this feminine-divine-agent “More a huntress of the masses than a temptress of the individual.” Rudman also points out that no horrible fate is awaiting the woman of 7:26 as is the whores and adultresses in other passages outside Ecclesiastes, which helps to emphasize her moral neutrality – or possibly even her moral superiority. This quote sums up the whole idea of woman as divine agent, as Rudman chooses to present her, quite nicely: “In a sense, Qoheleth’s [the author of Ecclesiastes, see Chapter One] world view is one in which Eve has ganged up with God against Adam. In short, there is no way for man to fully know a woman without falling into her divine trap, so therefore Qoheleth can never find the full ‘sum’ of knowledge.”
I’m not going to lie: As a woman, I enjoy this idea of being a divine agent of God, of maybe even being something a little “better than” man. That last quote in particular begs the question: If God is unknowable to man because of man’s inherent maleness, and inability to know woman, does that mean that woman has a fuller knowledge of God? One could argue that those with wombs would have a more intimate knowledge of creating life, which might be an argument for women being closer to God. While pro-feminist on the surface, that argument has a big problem to it, because it ties one’s inherent womanhood to her ability to reproduce – something that many women cannot do. Thus it ends up more like a patriarchal understanding of a “woman’s role in society” than a pro-female-divinity argument.
Alternatively, perhaps the unknowingness works both ways: woman cannot know the full “sum” of God just as man can’t, because she can’t fully “know” man. But this brings up another problem.
The problem of the Gender Binary
To muddy the waters even further, the above meditation presupposes a gender binary: that there is “man” and there is “woman” and each is unknowable to the other. More and more we are finding that the gender binary is simply a social construct. Of course there are people are are biologically intersex, but there are others who identify as asexual, trans, demi-girl, femme, butch, and a whole bunch of other perfectly valid qualifiers that don’t fit into a gender binary.
So, would a non-gender-binary person, somebody who identifies with both “man” and “woman” be the only ones who can fully know the “sum” of God’s wisdom that Qohelet seeks? I haven’t found any Biblical evidence to back that up, but I also haven’t come across any Biblical evidence that specifically denies that idea. In a broader historical sense a special non-binary divinity seems possible. I must admit I haven’t researched it much myself, but I’ve heard anecdotally that “two-spirit” people were often looked to as spiritual leaders in Native culture, and I’ve also come across some mention of Wiccan views on nonbinary people as closer to the divine. Certainly there are a slew of hermaphroditic gods throughout history. So who knows, perhaps collectively we’ve been tapping into this truth for some times now.
Staying true to the message of Ecclesiastes
Ecclesiastes 7:23-29 remains a confusing passage, to be sure. Generally, Qohelet is gentle with his readers. Widespread condemnation of a whole group seems unusual for him – he even has sympathy for fools and foolish behavior throughout the book, a book which is entirely devoted to wisdom, the opposite of foolishness. In truth, Qohelet has very little to say about (and nothing to say to) women. But what he does say about them is largely positive: in 9:9 he urges his listener to “enjoy life with your wife, whom you love,” and in chapter two he counts female slaves, female singers, and possibly a harem (the word is vague and the “harem” translation is by no means agreed upon) among the things that bring him pleasure. Whether or not you subscribe to Rudman’s idea of woman as divine agent, I don’t read vv. 7:23-29 as a knock to women, and it all lies in the last verse.
“This only I have found: God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes.” Gender discussions aside, I actually find this last line of the chapter to be the most fascinating. Basically it’s another admonishment to pay attention to God, do your work well, and let the rest be, because if you don’t, it might interfere with your God-given right (and responsibility) to be happy. So yes, Qohelet only found one good man (and no good woman) out of a thousand. Statistically speaking this makes sense: he probably knew a lot more men. But he also gives us the reason why so few “good people are found, regardless of gender: humankind chases after too many “schemes.”
We chase the things that bring temporary pleasure, but not deep and lasting joy. I don’t want to harp on how anyone spends their money or free time, but a lot of the screens, booze, food, drugs, and material posessions – aka the schemes – that we chase are simply bandaids over our deeper longings. I think that’s why so many people have such a yearning to get back to the land in the form of farming or hiking or homesteading: because it is a connection to something deeper and true. I think it’s why so many people like dogs: they have a joy that is simple and true and not reliant upon social standing or a new car. We want that deep, abiding, and elusive joy and connection.
If we are to do what is best for our short days under the sun, we all need to focus on what is important. That may differ a bit from person to person, but if we follow Qohelet’s lead, it centers on fulfilling work, fellowship, and seizing happiness when we can find it. Who knows what, exactly, Qohelet was talking about when he was talking about that woman, but the message of Ecclesiastes doesn’t change: whether we are man or woman or somewhere in between or not at all, we all need to be agents of joy in the lives of others while finding joy in our own.
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