S. Weeks, Ecclesiastes and Scepticism

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Weeks, Stuart, Ecclesiastes and Scepticism (LHBOTS, 541; New York: T & T Clark, 2012). Pp. 240. Hardcover. US$130.00. ISBN 978-0-567-25288-3.

Ecclesiastes and Scepticism is an impressive book, in which Stuart Weeks engages with a broad range of literature on Ecclesiastes, across a wide timeframe, and in numerous languages. Weeks makes repeated reference to the ancient versions and uses them effectively in his text-critical discussion. He also draws into his discussion wisdom literature from elsewhere in the ancient Near East, making useful comparisons that demonstrate the many ways in which Ecclesiastes is similar to such ancient material, but also explaining the ways in which the book is without known parallel. He demonstrates a thorough grasp of this wealth of material and establishes a solid foundation upon which to build numerous suggestions for minor new translations and major new interpretations of passages in Ecclesiastes and, indeed, of the book as a whole. He does, though, accept that “Nothing in the study of Ecclesiastes is straightforward” and admits that “in offering a new interpretation of the book...I do so with the rather humbling expectation that no other interpreter will agree with it” (p. 1). As it turns out, the writer of this review is one such interpreter.

Weeks firstly considers Qohelet (whose monologue constitutes the bulk of the book of Ecclesiastes), arguing that “Qohelet's character and experience, as they are presented to us, must be the starting-point for any assessment of what he believes” (p. 43). He asserts that “important aspects of his characterization have been overshadowed by attempts to identify him with King Solomon” (p. 2); where almost all commentators explain the ways in which chapters 1 and 2 relate to Solomon, Weeks highlights instead the discrepancies, maintaining that “Qohelet's identity as Solomon, although implied by 1:1 in combination with 1:12, is essentially confined to those verses” (p. 32). Weeks argues instead that Qohelet is portrayed as a successful businessman who considers life in terms of profit and loss. Indeed, this understanding of Qohelet significantly informs Weeks's understanding of the book, affecting his translation of certain words as well as his interpretation of numerous passages. Thus, for example, he repeatedly translates the important word ʿāmāl (“work” or “toil”) at the end of chapter two as “business,” so that the focus of that passage is narrowed down to what is achieved in business. He argues that Qohelet demands a profit out of life (1:3), but concludes that “what humans achieve is hebel, and that it constitutes not a profit, but an incalculable loss” (p. 58). Weeks devotes an appendix to consideration of the name/title Qohelet, its grammatical form, and what it might mean, but in the end he fails to offer a satisfactory explanation for the fact that in the book of Ecclesiastes as we have it, the enigmatic name “Qohelet” and also the title “the qohelet” are given to the speaker of the monologue, while in addition an obvious—if allusive—connection is made with Solomon.

Weeks next examines “Qohelet's World,” drawing primarily on 1:4–3:15. The prologue (1:4–11) sets the scene by portraying not “circularity” in nature and in the human realm (as most commentators understand), but rather a “sharp contrast between the transience of humans and the permanence of the world in which they live” (p. 2). Following Weeks's interpretation, it is against this background that Qohelet then describes—in his “memoir” (1:12–2:26)—how he used his great wisdom to seek out “profit and purpose in human life.” As a businessman Qohelet built up a successful business (which is how Weeks reads 2:4–8), only to come to the “devastating realization” that his business would pass on to someone else after his death and was therefore not really his. He concluded that “the pleasure that he had achieved in his work” was the only thing that was really his and suggested that “the enjoyment of such pleasure is the best that humans can hope to achieve for themselves” (p. 2). Indeed, “we might even say that the need to take pleasure in life is the principal conclusion which Qohelet draws from his discussion as a whole” (p. 79). In addition, though, the purpose of 3:1–15 is to show that human activity is part of God's greater purposes which are beyond human comprehension—thus people do not really understand what they are doing. This correlates with Weeks's understanding of the meaning of hebel in Ecclesiastes—“what hebel seems principally to represent for Qohelet is bound up with a mis-apprehension of the world, and their place in it, by humans: they invest effort for things they cannot gain, or for reasons which are false, and fail to pursue or to accomplish the only truly beneficial option which is open to them—pleasure in their activities” (p. 119). After considering various other proposals for the meaning of hebel, Weeks offers the words “illusion” and “delusion,” explaining that, “What confronts humans is hebel because it is misleading or illusory, but what they typically do in response to it is also hebel because it is misguided or deluded” (p. 119). He argues that this captures the sense of the word both in Ecclesiastes and in many of the other places where it is used in the Hebrew Bible. My response would be that, as is the case with various other scholarly translations of hebel, this fits well with how Weeks interprets the book as a whole, but it fails to acknowledge other ways in which the word might legitimately be understood.

It is only in the final chapter (before the “Concluding Remarks”) that Weeks really tackles the topic raised by the title, “Ecclesiastes and Scepticism”; to some extent, the reader may wonder if the title is not in fact somewhat misleading. A key part of this chapter is Weeks's argument (which I do find persuasive) that rather than presenting something “shockingly new and radical to the original readers of the book ... Qohelet's monologue seems to be a re-working of existing ideas and materials, which sets them in the context of Qohelet's over-arching themes and narrative” (pp. 140–1). Weeks concludes that Qohelet's ideas are not sceptical, but rather are driven by the sense that “humans are missing the point.” In this regard, Qohelet seeks “to steer others away from the false expectations and disappointment which he experienced himself, by opening their eyes to the reality of their situation” (p. 169). However, Weeks argues that “the author has given us a character [in Qohelet] who is not supposed to command assent at every turn from his readers, but whose situation drives him to a provocative, poetic, and sometimes very personal re-evaluation of the world and of human priorities” (p. 179). Readers are “supposed to engage with Qohelet's ideas, not necessarily to identify with his priorities and concerns” (p. 4). I suspect Weeks is probably correct that this was what the author of Ecclesiastes intended. Yet, whether that was the case or not, I think it ought to be the strategy adopted by readers today.

I found Weeks's book very stimulating and was prompted to think again about many of my own conclusions regarding Ecclesiastes, its translation, and interpretation. It is—in my view—undoubtedly well-informed, carefully argued, and highly “readable” (apart, perhaps, from the many un-translated foreign language quotes). However I did not find myself persuaded by most of Weeks's main theses. It is my view that Weeks has done what many before him have done—namely, he has interpreted the book in light of a particular thesis about its meaning and found the material within Ecclesiastes to support that thesis. However, Ecclesiastes could be read in different ways and Weeks has (of course) to make interpretative decisions which support his thesis, when other decisions might justifiably (and at times—in my opinion at least—more persuasively) have been made. In this regard, one may regret that Weeks does not engage more thoroughly with the range of interpretations of Ecclesiastes as a whole, and that he does not offer any reflection on why the book has received such diverse treatment in the scholarly literature.

Doug Ingram, Nottingham