Ecclesiastes 01 – Breath, Qohelet, and Joy

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”
(Read the rest of the chapter here.)

 

An Introduction

Today, shelter-in-place and similar mandates begin rolling back in many states, but even with these relaxations we are no where near “normal” yet, and this virus is not under control.  I wanted to share Ecclesiastes with you all now because it is a book that does not ignore the hardships of the world, but it always cycles back to focus upon joy.  I think that is a mindset we are all in right now: For many, quarantine has been a welcome break, a chance for us to refocus on family, to rest, to realize all the things we actually can live without.  But it is also a time of economic hardship, anxiety, and having to take on roles we never needed to before, such as the role of teacher to our now home-schooled children.  Many of the themes mentioned in Ecclesiastes are ones that can be applied broadly to today: the oppressed and grieving not being comforted, the frustration we all face at some point with not being able to find meaning in our work, the unfairness of a wicked man prospering while a righteous one suffers.  I’m glad this text doesn’t ignore that suffering.  But if you read it with an open heart, more than anything else Ecclesiastes counsels us in the ways of acceptance and joy, and that’s the kind of thing we could all use a little more of in these unusual times.

I honestly was shocked to hear that for much of history Ecclesiastes has been regarded as a pessimistic book (downer opening verses aside).  It has been viewed, more often than not, a weird outlier in the Bible that defies classification, something that needs to be explained away or ignored.  Having parents that grew up in the ’60s , vv 3:1-8 (a time to be born a time to die….made famous by the Byrds’ song Turn Turn Turn) were some of the first verses I recognized fondly as a kid.  Beyond that, it is a book about finding enjoyment and fulfillment within one’s lot in life. Verses 9:7-10, a passage that starts with “Go, eat your food with gladness…” has been one of my favorite passages since I started seriously reading the Bible for myself, and has been dog-eared for over a decade in my go-to NIV text.

Hebel

I believe part of the confusion and in-read pessimism comes from the word Hebrew word hebel. Per my NIV study notes, “this key term appears 35 times in the book and only once elsewhere (Job 27:12). The Hebrew for it originally meant ‘breath.’ ” Hebel has traditionally been translated as “meaningless,” a word with negative connotations, as seen in the opening verses above.  “Breath,” I believe, implies a more positive ephemera.  Breath is of the utmost importance – it is what gives us life, yet it is not something we can hold onto.  We cannot amass “breath” the way we amass wealth, and, even in our age of scientific understanding, it defies our full knowledge.  Yes, CPR works to return breath sometimes, but not always.  The full mystery of “breath” yet eludes us, as does the meaning of life.

But to change v. 2 to ” ‘Breath! Breath!’ says the teacher, ‘Utter breath! Everything is breath’ ” makes the passage even weirder.  In my supportive readings on Ecclesiastes, I came across the translation of hebel as “beyond mortal grasp” from biblical scholar Choon-Leong Seow.  This translation, I believe, most fully captures the author’s meaning of this key term, repeated so often throughout the book.  Which brings me to the author himself.

Qohelet

This book is written by “the Teacher,” or Qohelet (sometimes spelled Qoheleth, too). It is a term that means “teacher” but also is related to “assembly.” I like that correlation, because it makes me think of the choir in Greek plays, and how they are often there to impart wisdom or commentary that other, individual characters might not be able to provide.

One of the things that is so charming about Ecclesiastes is the very personal nature of the writing style.  Of course, first-person pronouns help a lot towards that feeling, but even beyond that, the reader really gets the sense that Qohelet is a real person writing this book.  His original words have had thousands of years to be edited, and there are certainly some passages that sound less Qohelet-y (if I can make up that adjective), but overall there is a character, a voice, an individual behind these words that shines through.

This book is traditionally attributed to Solomon.  There is reason to believe he actually wrote it, but there is no way to be sure.  Solomon or not, Qohelet was a rich man (almost assuredly Qohelet was male, given how he speaks about women, the limitations of scholarship to rich men at the time, and his own self-designation) who was possibly a king (as he claims in v. 12 and elsewhere).  It can be assumed he is older, with a lifetime of experience under his belt, based on all that he has seen. He has spent much of his life in the study of wisdom and folly, the process and findings of which he shares with us in Ecclesiastes.  As Dominic Rudman points out in their article “Woman as Divine Agent in Ecclesiastes,” Qohelet uses “real life” examples to illustrate his search for wisdom, pointing to vignettes he has witnessed himself: the great projects he undertook for his own pleasure, the lone man who toils endlessly even though he has no heir, the tears of the oppressed flowing without a comforter.  He is a talented, lyrical writer who knows how to work a refrain (meaningless, meaningless…), bring in the finer points of rhetorical argument, and paint a visual picture for his audience.

Eat, drink, and be glad

And I will admit, the picture he paints in the first chapter is a bit pessimistic.  With passages like “all things are wearisome more than one can say,” “even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow,” and “for with much wisdom comes much sorrow,” leaves one wondering, so what’s the point?  But that point is exactly what Qohelet goes on to illustrate in the remainder of the book.  It is perhaps best explained in 8:15, but I won’t leave you in suspense until then: “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.”  And that, my friends, is the opposite of pessimism.  I can’t think of a better term than joy de vivre.   I hope you will continue reading with me, to see what else Qohelet has to say about finding happiness in your own life, your own joy de vivre, through all life’s circumstances.

Another Quarantine Update

Dear friends, due to the ever evolving “normal” that is a mother’s life (regardless of quarantine status), I’m taking a little more time off from posting, in order to really give it my all for two upcoming readings.  Only being able to snatch a little time here and there means I need a lot more overall time to do something correctly.

I will be reading Ecclesiastes for the month of May, a book full of passages that have been on my mind often during quarantine.  I’m hoping with a week-ish of reading and writing under my belt before the month actually starts, I’ll be able to do the book justice and get through all twelve chapters during May.  I highly suggest you read it if you are looking for something pertinent to the times that doesn’t smack of apocalyptic doom.

In June I’m excited to start sharing what I have learned from some brief, self-led studies in Womanism, and will also be publishing some guest-posts by some talented women in my life whose voices I’m eager to share.  This also takes time and planning, so say a little prayer that the girls don’t wake up too early, I’m not overly exhausted in the evenings, and that Chris has some time (like today) that he can spend an hour with them out in the field occasionally.  I look forward to sharing more with you soon!  Stay well, everyone.

1 Corinthians 15 – The Coming Resurrection

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39 Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

The Bard Card

Happy Easter, everyone. I’ve stumbled across yet another beautiful passage in the Bible that makes me think of Shakespeare.  1 Corinthians is another letter from the apostle Paul (whom we discussed at length earlier this year, starting with this post.) This chapter is the climax of the letter, and Paul is at his best: he manages an epic humble-brag that even Polonius would envy at the beginning. He then lays out an almost courtroom argument to refute anyone who doubts the resurrection. Finally he goes on to describe in lyrical detail the wondrous miracle of our coming resurrection.  His euphemism for death of people being asleep in Christ is gentle and beautiful, and sounds Shakespearian in and of itself.  I also love the imagery of the seed being planted as and analogy for the transformation that will take place at the resurrection. But the part that really got me thinking about The Bard was vv. 51-52, which reads (per the Geneva Bible, the translation Shakespeare probably used): “Behold, I show you a secret thing,  we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall blow, and the dead shall be raised up incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”  Perhaps “our bones of coral made” and “pearls that were our eyes” won’t be part of our new, resurrected bodies, as is the supposed fate of Ferdinand’s father in The Tempest, but the following lines “Nothing of him doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change” sounds like it could be inspired by this very chapter.

What will resurrection look like?

Easter is the day of Jesus’ resurrection.  As Paul says in v. 20, Jesus is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep,” and the rest of “those that belong to him” will follow after Jesus destroys “the last enemy,” aka Death.  This is what Christianity is all about: our hope and faith in Jesus Christ (and the power of his own faith) that allows us to beat death and enter into a glorious future as the children of God.  This chapter, particularly the passages about resurrection, are so beautiful that I want to take today to really meditate on them.

So, will the resurrection look exactly like Paul describes it?  There’s no way to answer that question.  But, looking at the Bible passages that describe resurrection, it seems that our resurrected selves will indeed be physical (not just spiritual), that we will retain those things that make us individuals, we’ll have metaphysical powers (like being able to walk through walls), and that we’ll glow.  More than anything else there is talk about the “luminosity” of the resurrected in the books of Matthew, Luke, Corinthians, Revelations, even way back in Exodus and Daniel.  I love how Paul describes it, likening our differing and individual degrees of luminous resurrection glowing to the heavenly bodies: “The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.”  I personally like the idea of glowing like a star.

Physical and Spiritual Resurrection

I do want to point out the one part of this chapter I take a slight issue with, and to do so we need to start with a little context.  In its formative days, newborn Christianity was developing alongside Greco-roman philosophies that often emphasized a division between body and spirit, or emphasized the spirit as being “truer” than flesh.  Some of that made it’s way into the teachings of this new Christianity, and has been coloring the religion ever since.  If you look critically at the Old Testament you can see how this division is just not there.  The Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) may be an elaborate metaphor for God and his Church, but it is a salaciously sexy metaphor.  I’ve talked at length about Hosea giving Gomer an orgasm in the desert.  The body (and saving the body from physical ailment) is a major theme in the Psalms.  Paul was “afflicted” in some way we don’t know.  Some suggest lingering vision issues, others lameness, but in some way he was weak, physically, in a broader society that (while emphasizing the separation of body and soul) was also one obsessed with golden ratios and perfect physical specimens.  Perhaps in part because of this perceived shortcoming, as well as being well-versed in predominant philosophy, Paul was a major proponent of this division between body and soul.

Now I’m not disagreeing with Paul that our new, resurrected bodies will be different, and perhaps even that there will be a larger spiritual aspect to them. But I do flat out disagree with Paul when he says in v. 50 “I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”  It goes directly against his point that our physical bodies will be resurrected.  Again, yes, they will be different – we’ll go through a metamorphosis like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, but that flesh will still be physical flesh of this world.  I firmly believe so, because Jesus came back in the flesh to appear to his followers, not just as some holy apparition.  He showed his fleshly wounds to Thomas to prove that he was indeed Jesus. Don’t you think that evidence of harm inflicted on the body would be the first thing to disappear if these bodies of flesh were also to disappear? I do. But they were there for Thomas to see and even feel.

Kintsugi is a Japanese method of repairing fine pottery with gold, and I’ve seen it used as an analogy for the healing of major trauma: The scars are still there, visible, but made beautiful.  I think it may also be an excellent analogy for the physical nature of these resurrected bodies to come.  We will be the same, but different, put together by God in a new way that makes us whole but acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of our past life.  This analogy probably wasn’t available to Paul, but as someone who suffered from some sort of physical impairment himself, perhaps it would have made him receptive to the idea of a more earthy resurrection.

In Closing

All of this is conjecture.  Perhaps I’m totally wrong, and perhaps Paul is too.  We do not know what the resurrection will look like, though it is fun to hypothesize.  Today we celebrate Jesus’ defeat of death and resurrection to life so that we may live as well, in whatever glorious form that will take.  I’ll close once again with Paul’s words: “thanks be to God! He gave us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” Amen, Paul, and Happy Easter.  Christ is risen. Hallelujah.

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