J. Barbour, The Story of Israel in the Book of Qohelet: Ecclesiastes as Cultural Memory

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

Barbour, Jennie, The Story of Israel in the Book of Qohelet: Ecclesiastes as Cultural Memory (Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). Pp. 272. Hardcover. GB£70.00. ISBN 978-0-19-965782-7. ISBN 978-3-11-020528-2.

The study of cultural memory in literature has flourished in the last decade, and Biblical Studies has not been left out. In The Story of Israel in the Book of Qohelet: Ecclesiastes as Cultural Memory, Jennie Barbour, Visiting Associate Professor of Religion at Amherst College, examines the words of Qohelet in order to identify examples of cultural memory within the book, and to scrutinize the manner in which the audience who shared those memories would have been impacted by the words chosen. The book is a revised version of her doctoral dissertation supervised by Hugh Williamson at the University of Oxford.

Although there has been a long tradition of finding history behind the biblical wisdom literature, the reminiscences associated with cultural memories are somewhat more subtle, as is explained on page 3:

Instead of a piece-by-piece decoding which finds history embedded as a cryptogram in the book, I will suggest that history haunts Ecclesiastes with a very different mode of presence. Rather than deliberate veiled reference to real events, the book instead bears a more ghostly impression—more pervasive, but also more muted—of Israel's account to itself of its past, that textual and traditional version of history that formed the climate of thought in which Qohelet and his contemporaries reflected on everything. It is the pressure of this historical habit of imagination that I hope to detect in the book, and its imprint on the texture of the book's discourse is felt in many more ways than simply deliberate exegesis. Israel's historical traditions push to the surface in Ecclesiastes in a variety of ways: as citations, as ironic retellings of old stories, as fragmentary and jumbled snippets of memory, as turns of phrase with a traditional resonance, and by many other means. The presence of the past in Ecclesiastes is often shadowy and perhaps only half-conscious, a function of the mark that history has left on the resources of the language itself and on the book's reading communities as much as on the mind of this particular author. All these ways of recalling history, though, testify to the present-ness of the past at Qohelet's particular moment in post-exilic Jewish thought.

Such a reading of Qohelet is somewhat ironic. Qohelet repeatedly speaks about the past as forgotten—how the words, deeds, and lives of past generations are soon forgotten. Yet within his words, Barbour insists, are to be found echoes of a past that is thus not forgotten.

As is apparent from the quotation above, Barbour follows many scholars in opting for a late post-exilic (3rd century b.c.e.) date for Qohelet, citing evidence of the impact of Greek thought on Qohelet (pp. 8–9). Although this view has widespread support, there may also be reasons to question it on linguistic grounds (following on from the work of Ian Young, Robert Rezetko and Martin Ehrensvärd),[1] generic grounds (in light of Qohelet's use of the Royal Autobiography genre which is not represented in Greek literature), [2] and exegetical grounds (why does Qohelet offer advice on behaviour in the royal court when no such court existed in Jerusalem in post-exilic times?). This presents a significant difficulty for any analysis of cultural memory which necessarily depends on the ability to sort texts chronologically. In light of this, the issue deserves more attention than Barbour has allocated it. As a result there is a danger that, by placing Qohelet in a specific historical context, one will tend to find links to that context and overlook links to other possible contexts.

Barbour proceeds by examining a number of aspects of Qohelet: the identity of Qohelet himself; historical allusions in the poem of times (Qoh 3:1–15); the tale of the old foolish king and his successors (Qoh 4:13–16) and the material immediately following (Qoh 4:17–5:6); echoes of the exile in Qoh 5:12–6:6; the tale of a city rescued from destruction (Qoh 9:14–15); and the closing poem and the material immediately preceding it (Qoh 11:1–12:8).

There are both strengths and weaknesses in Barbour's analysis. In general, her approach is measured and avoids the exegetical gymnastics of those who claim to have discovered historical referents for some of Qohelet's words. Barbour consistently presents a thorough analysis of the language and, on the whole, a convincing argument in support of her claims. Her study does not present novel interpretations so much as highlight the manner in which Qohelet's author has used language with significant connections to historical events in order to heighten the pathos of his message.

There are, however, times when Barbour allows her desire to find historical antecedents to control her reading of the text. One example is the account of the old and foolish king and his successors in Qoh 4:13–16. Here Barbour wisely avoids specifics but argues that “the haziness and fragmentary feel of Qohelet's tale suggest that any biblical antecedent is present to Qohelet and his readers not as a single instance but as a repeated pattern…” (p. 86). She proceeds to highlight parallels between Qohelet's tale and the biblical accounts of Solomon and Jeroboam, Saul and David, and David and his sons. However, the tale in Qoh 4:13–16 is best understood as a sequence of three generations: (1) a foolish old king, (2) a wise young king who rose from poverty, and (3) a second youth whose wisdom is not specified but who is popular with the masses.[3] The details in Qohelet's tale would seem to undermine any vague historical allusion to the repeated pattern of kingly succession. Barbour is aware of the problem and so has to backpedal in the final paragraph of page 85 in order to set the stage for the historical allusions she subsequently proposes.

Barbour's discussion of the echoes of exilic language in the fourth chapter is the highlight of the book. The analysis exhibits her commendable caution, noting for example that “these passages in Ecclesiastes are [not] ‘about’ the Exile or the defeats of 597 and 586, but rather that as Qohelet's consideration of human misery intensifies, he reaches for terms that are coloured by those defining experiences of human misery” (p. 109) and in her conclusion to the discussion that “[a]ll these literary relationships are vestigial and probably subconscious, rather than deliberately exegetical” (p. 119). Barbour's apprehension of the emotive power of Qohelet's words in these passages is insightful (see, for example, p. 111)—her analysis of the linguistic background which brings out the connotations through the tacit recollection of national tragedy helps to highlight the depth of Qohelet's feelings on this matter. Qohelet's use of language, motifs, and ideas here involves his audience through reference to the shared events in their common memory. Here Barbour makes a significant contribution to the reading of Qohelet's words.

The final chapter demonstrates the connections between Qohelet's closing poem and city laments found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, particularly in Lamentations. Barbour's analysis contains numerous insights which make the link compelling, although her conclusion that “the burden of the poem is not that individual death is a token of the end of humanity, but that individual death is a reminder of the end of the nation” (p. 166) goes beyond the evidence she musters. It is not clear why the reverse is not more probable: the poem which speaks about the decay of a city is a reminder of individual death as the fate of all people—particularly in light of Qohelet's persistent and emphatic focus on the death of the individual which renders life הבל. To argue the reverse is to give priority to the historical aspect of Qohelet's language, which is all too frequently operating at a subconscious level at best.

Perhaps the weakest part of the book is the conclusion. Throughout the book, Barbour has been careful not to claim too strong a link between Qohelet's words and history, yet the manner of argument in the conclusion presents a far more emphatic historical element in Qohelet's supposed thought patterns. Thus her claim that “I have shown, throughout the book, Qohelet at work reading earlier traditions—narratives especially—in the searching light of his wisdom…” (p. 171) trades a justifiably tentative reading for a great deal more certitude than is warranted by the preceding material. Curiously, a large part of the conclusion is occupied by a summary of early Christian readings of Ecclesiastes with particular emphasis on Jerome (pp. 173–9) which bears very little connection to the bulk of the book.

The shortcomings of Barbour's work do not invalidate the contribution it makes to Qohelet studies, and many of the insights into Qohelet's use of language demonstrate the value in her careful investigation. Her study adds new depth to our understanding of Qohelet's language and the way his words spoke to his primary audience. The book itself is attractively packaged and well edited; if I have one quibble about its presentation it is with the choice of typeface for the Hebrew in the book which is stylistically incongruent with the English typeface.

Martin A. Shields, University of Sydney

[1] Ian Young, Robert Rezetko and Martin Ehrensvärd, Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts Volume 2: A Survey of Scholarship, a New Synthesis and a Comprehensive Bibliography (Bible World; Equinox, London, 2008). reference

[2] See M. A. Shields, “Qohelet and Royal Autobiography,” in Mark Boda, Tremper Longman, and Cristian Rata (eds.), The Words of the Wise Are like Goads: Engaging Qohelet in the Twenty-First Century (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 117–36. reference

[3] M. A. Shields, The End of Wisdom: A Reappraisal of the Historical and Canonical Function of Ecclesiastes (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2006), 154–7. reference