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The Politics of Pessimism in Ecclesiastes

The Politics of Pessimism in Ecclesiastes

Mark R. Sneed
  • Book Info
    The Politics of Pessimism in Ecclesiastes
    Book Description:

    Scholars attempt to resolve the problem of the book of Ecclesiastes’ heterodox character in one of two ways, either explaining away the book’s disturbing qualities or radicalizing and championing it as a precursor of modern existentialism. This volume offers an interpretation of Ecclesiastes that both acknowledges the unorthodox nature of Qoheleth’s words and accounts for its acceptance among the canonical books of the Hebrew Bible. It argues that, instead of being the most secular and modern of biblical books, Ecclesiastes is perhaps one of the most religious and primitive. Bringing a Weberian approach to Ecclesiastes, it represents a paradigm of the application of a social-science methodology.

    eISBN: 978-1-58983-635-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  2. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  3. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Biblical scholars must face reality. In terms of the canon, Qohelet is the “odd book in” as James Crenshaw describes.¹ The book is easily the strangest in the Bible.² It can aptly be described as a “frightening guest … in the canon.”³ Gerhard von Rad refers to “the farthest frontier of Jahwism where Ecclesiastes pitched his camp.”⁴ Similarly, C. L. Seow describes the book as being on “the margins of the canon.”⁵ Qohelet’s conception of God is especially troubling for most readers, past and present. Is Qohelet’s deity the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Qohelet never uses the appellation...

  5. 1 Qohelet’s Heterodox Character: Non–Social-Science Approaches
    (pp. 13-54)

    What one can call ideational approaches typically explain Qohelet’s heterodox character as a strictly mental accomplishment or natural development of ideas, without much attention to sociohistorical factors. This way of explaining Qohelet’s dissidence has certainly been the dominant one throughout the centuries. It represents the typically theological approach of an older generation of scholars, before the advent of the now popular sociological approach.¹ With the ideational perspective, the book is often depicted as a polemic against traditional wisdom (as represented by Proverbs and the friends of Job) and its unwarranted optimism and dogmatism, without considering the sociological dimensions to these...

  6. 2 Explaining Qohelet’s Heterodox Character: Social-Science Approaches
    (pp. 55-84)

    The following are more sophisticated analyses of Qohelet’s heterodox character that incorporate social theory and insights from the social sciences into the interpretation. Marxist approaches will be discussed first. As will be seen, almost all biblical scholars who have taken a Marxist approach to Qohelet are rather “vulgar,” seeing his worldview as merely a direct reflection of his social position, the superstructure merely mirroring the infrastructure.

    Marxist theorists usually look to a person’s social class as the most significant influence on his/her thinking and belief structure. Thus, one’s social class, in conjunction with the general social milieu, is key to...

  7. 3 Qohelet’s Sociohistorical Context
    (pp. 85-124)

    The purpose of this chapter is to provide a brief and broad social history of Ptolemaic Judah, which will include a class analysis of the society. This necessitates analyzing the Ptolemaic political and economic system into which Judah was integrated. It is important to emphasize that primary sources are few for the period, both for Ptolemaic Egypt and Judah. Therefore, I draw on secondary sources by experts to synthesize the material and make it meaningful. Priority is given to experts on the Ptolemaic kingdom and not just Qohelet specialists. These procedures help mitigate the typical circularity that biblical scholars fall...

  8. 4 Qohelet and His Audience’s Social Location
    (pp. 125-154)

    Now that the social history of the period and class analysis of Judean society have been delineated, it is appropriate to show where Qohelet possibly alludes to this history and then where he and his audience should be located socially. With the former, there is a significant caveat. Qohelet is part of a mode of literature called wisdom literature. By its very nature, wisdom literature is resistant to such investigation.¹ That is because it is focused not on recording and interpreting events in the past but rather on the cognitive and moral development of its audience. It may refer to...

  9. 5 Synchronic (Literary) Analysis of the Book of Qohelet
    (pp. 155-176)

    A proper literary reading of Qohelet must first deal with the problem of how to translate the word הֶבֶל (hebel) in Qohelet and how this relates to the carpe diem ethic in the book. The frame narrator has supplied the reader with the leitmotif of the book: הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַבּׁל הָבֶל (“Vanity of vanities; everything is vanity”) (1:2; 12:8). In addition, הֶבֶל is used thirty-eight times in Qohelet, out of seventy-three in the entire Hebrew Bible, which reinforces this. אֶלׁהִים is used forty times in Qohelet, indicating that the relationship between the two is probably significant. Even a casual reading...

  10. 6 Qohelet, the Problem of Evil, and Cognitive Dissonance
    (pp. 177-202)

    Two concepts will be explored in this chapter. First, focus will be placed on Qohelet’s treatment of the problem of evil from a comparative-religion perspective and how best to categorize his solution. This issue has already been touched in the previous two chapters but will be fleshed out more fully now. Second, an attempt will be made to show how Qohelet’s solution fits with the theory of cognitive dissonance, a major theory of social psychology. In this way it will be possible to show the creativity and brilliance of Qohelet as an intellectual, whose job it is to produce theodicy...

  11. 7 Qohelet’s Irrational Response to the (Over-)Rationalization of Traditional Wisdom
    (pp. 203-230)

    In this chapter, I treat Qohelet’s polemic against the wisdom tradition, especially his skepticism about the doctrine of retribution, from a sociological perspective. Weber’s notion of rationalization and over-rationalization will be employed to explain Qohelet’s endeavor. This approach will provide a “big picture” perspective that will enable the modern interpreter better to understand the nature of Qohelet’s polemic and to connect it with modern developments. Thus it will provide a helpful hermeneutical perspective, as well as a sociological one.

    The concept of rationalization is perhaps the most important one that Weber utilized in his analysis of societies and religions.¹ It...

  12. 8 The Positive Power of Qohelet’s Pessimism
    (pp. 231-254)

    The purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate how being honest about Qohelet’s pessimism or, more properly, his use of the pessimistic genre does not mean a negative verdict on the book’s relevance either within the canon or for the world today.¹ In other words, this chapter will show that a respect for Qohelet’s pessimism is certainly compatible with a positive assessment of the book’s theological value and potential. Pessimism, certainly a negative emotion, does not necessarily detract from the book’s positive function within the society for which it was created or for later religious communities. In this chapter, the...

  13. 9 The Sociology of the Book of Qohelet’s Canonicity
    (pp. 255-278)

    In this chapter, the issue of the canonicity of Qohelet will be examined from a sociological perspective. Specifically, if Qohelet was so heterodox, why was the book allowed to maintain a canonical status or even admitted? This will be answered in several ways. First, it will be shown that Qohelet was not as heterodox as some have maintained. Actually, he represents a return to a more primitive form of the Israelite religion and faith. He utilizes minor elements of traditional wisdom to construct his theological position, which means that he simply reconfigures traditional wisdom. Second, it will be demonstrated that...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 279-282)

    Qohelet’s pessimism and skepticism are real and not to be explained away. The important question, then, is how the mood and cognitive disposition were used by the author to persuade his audience to adopt a particular perspective. The pessimism, which is the key element for identifying the genre of the book, serves to lower expectations of the audience about human wisdom, God, and human effort/morality. The lowering of expectations was necessary for mitigating the dissonance that had been created by the optimism of traditional wisdom and Judaism and the oppressed condition of the Jews under Ptolemaic hegemony. God appeared to...

  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 283-318)
  16. Index of Ancient Sources
    (pp. 319-325)
  17. Index of Modern Authors
    (pp. 326-336)
  18. Index of Subjects
    (pp. 337-341)