Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Biblical Dissent: Job and Ecclesiastes, Part I: Koheleth (26 July 2013)

"[…] the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes 
is the fine hammered steel of woe." — Herman Melville, 
Moby Dick, ch. 96, "The Try-Works"

            I wrote a while back on my favorite Biblical anti-hero, Jonah, and now I'd like to turn to more upbeat subjects, in a sense, starting with "the fine hammered steel of woe" of the Book of Ecclesiastes and, later, dealing with the more explicit heroism of dissent in the Book of Job.

            In "The Try-Works" chapter of Moby Dick, Melville follows the quotation above with "'All is vanity.' ALL" and "This wilful [sic] world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon’s wisdom yet."

            And now I have to do the first of a whole series of clarifications.

            The Book of Ecclesiastes is by Koheleth, which is more of a description than a name: "the Preacher" in some translations, or "the Assembler" (of an audience and/or of sayings), and Koheleth in the opening of the book takes on the persona of King Solomon. It's a useful persona; if King Solomon tells you that wealth and power and pleasure and sex are "vanity" (ch. 2) — "emptiness and a striving after wind" — then the words carry more weight than if spoken by your average poor, powerless, and laid-a-whole-lot-less-than-Solomon human being, or even a major philosopher, who, compared to Solomon, is still pretty poor, powerless, unentertained, and horny.

            "[U]nchristian Solomon's wisdom" is important for believers as a challenge to faith, especially, I think, if we put Koheleth in dialog with the (probably earlier) Book of Job. Indeed, when I taught Ecclesiastes to the college students in BASIC ("Brothers and Sisters in Christ"), their minister lost patience with them for their complacence. They had a one-word answer to Koheleth —"Christ" — and their minister chided them for not sympathizing with the plight of someone who didn't have that/the Word, and not appreciating just what their salvation had saved them from. The minister felt that some dark-night-of-the-souling was necessary for faith.

            Koheleth is also important for secularists, leading the way (if you have the courage to follow) to the most direct human implications of a cold-eyed view of a materialist universe.

            "I have seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with," Koheleth says. God "has put eternity into man's mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done […]. I said in my heart with regard to the sons of men that God is testing them to show them that they are but beasts. For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same lifebreath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity.  All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.  Who knows whether the lifebreath of man goes upward and that of the beast goes down to the earth?" (3.10-21, combining translations [RSV/NJPS]).

            Koheleth does believe in Sheol as a possibility for an afterlife (Sheol is either the grave or something like Greek Hades, with fewer visitors); still, basically, as an individual conscious being, when you're dead you're dead.

            Popular at funerals is Koheleth's great poem, "To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven," either read or, maybe more often for my generation, sung as "Turn, Turn, Turn" by Pete Seeger, by way of The Byrds. Less popular are Koheleth's lines on mortality. Even if you believe in a "lifebreath" (spiritus, anima), there's no reason to believe the human is any better than those of other animated creatures.

            And secularists ought not to believe in a lifebreath, nor, by one definition of "secularist," believe in a God who lays down rules for life, which would have true significance. Think of it this way: Is it any big deal if I throw that old lady under a bus?

            Diana Vriend, a friend of a friend of mine, passed on a song from kid-culture responding to the enforced joy of being made to sing "If You're Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands"; it nicely summarizes part of the world view of Koheleth and a famous retort by John Maynard Keynes to boot: "A hundred years from now we'll all be dead! / A hundred years from now we'll all be dead! / No matter what is done and no matter what is said, A hundred years from now we'll all be dead!" Much shorter than a hundred years from now, the old lady will be dead. And, eventually — maybe soon if you live in Texas — you who threw her under the bus will be dead, and your whole generation will be dead: "One generation goes, another comes, / But the earth remains the same forever" (1.1), or, in the modern-view, capital "E" Earth evolves, but in ways that don't concern humans, except insofar as we evolve with it.

            Or we go extinct.

            In any event, in a way pre-figured in Koheleth but way beyond anything he could imagine, species come and species go; indeed, genera come and genera go and almost whole biospheres, but it seems only the Archaea and bacteria and such go on "forever."

            Except they won't either. Koheleth's recycling universe is pretty depressing: "What has been is what will be, / and what has been done is what will be done; / and there is nothing new under the sun" (1.9). Still, secular linear cosmology has all the optimism of frozen Norsefolk telling tales of Ragnarok and the twilight of the gods: depending on the latest measures of the mass of the universe, the fashionable theory has it that we'll either peter out through entropy —  "the heat-death of the universe," an end, figuratively, in ice — or there's the big crunch and the universe goes, if not in fire, something much more spectacular, except there will be no one to watch.

            Looking at things objectively, really getting The Big Picture — realistically, don't sweat killing off the old lady, or, for that matter, the entire human species.

            If God exists and has said "You shall not murder" (perhaps not even kill, or not without special permission [Exodus 20.13]) — if God exists and forbids murder, then murdering old ladies is significant: you're giving the finger to God. No God, or a God who really doesn't give a trilobite's tit, then it would be hard to find it a big deal about anything human.

            Hell, in terms of seventeen billion years or so of cosmic history and the vastness of just this universe — there may be others, simultaneously and/or serially — then it's not so big a deal if you wiped out our galaxy.

            Thinking more positively — this essay is ultimately upbeat — thinking more positively, there's also no big deal if you save the old lady, or the human species, or the galaxy. If you're fulfilling a divine injunction, there's significance in a good deed. Otherwise, "'All is vanity.' ALL."

            Koheleth is near the beginning of the tradition of "Virtue is its own reward" (as Cicero puts it), way down on the human scale of things. Virtue is its own reward 'cause in this life that's frequently all it gets, and there are no rewards or punishments in the life to come — and that's if there is a life to come that counts for much (see above): "since one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice.  As is the good man, so is the sinner […]  (7.24; 8.14-9.2)."

            Indeed, not only does virtue often go unrewarded, so also, at least occasionally, does mere competence: "[…] the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all" (9.11). Nice guys sometimes do finish first, but sometimes last, and now and then not at all; even the fastest runner on the planet can slip on a slick spot, or get hit by a truck.

            So, what is to be done?


            Or at least that is part of the answer: "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going" (9.9).

            It's, like, Existentialist, man! Except Koheleth is a bit more positive than Albert Camus retelling "The Myth of Sisyphus," with Sisyphus endlessly pushing a rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down. (In my vision of the story, the rock rolls back down over Sisyphus, but, then, as a child I watched violent cartoons.) Anyway — hey, Sisyphus; make the rock your thing, man! Koheleth's imagery isn't of dead rocks in a kind of hell but of at least the potential for growing things, fertility: "In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good" (11.4-6).

         And Koheleth, even as a protoExistentialist, can balance advice for absurd striving for things people see as good with advice to find relationships that we feel are good, and significant: "Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life which God has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. (9.9) * * * Behold, what I have seen to be good and to be fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life which God has given him, for this is his lot" (5.18).

         Carpe diem, baby! Sisyphus's bouncing up and running after that rock is a good thing, but "two are better than one" (4.9), and there are more enjoyable acts of emptiness than rock pushing. Or at least there are things and acts most people think — or feel or imagine — are better, and Koheleth would have us pursue them with some enthusiasm.

         "The end of the matter; all has been heard," as the pious editor of Ecclesiastes starts a brief summation of the lessons here (as translated in the RSV): "Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment […]" (12.13-14).

         And that's okay as a summary and not merely a neutering into Biblical orthodoxy: iff we see a duty as duty, period, and judgment as judgment, period, without talk of rewards and punishments. "Virtue is its own reward," and duty is duty, and it's maybe more than we can ask for to have objective judgment of whether or not we're doing that duty and our deeds are, objectively — from a cosmic, God's-eye-view good or bad.

         Koheleth's own last words are, in the Tanakh translation (5746/1985), "Utter futility — said Koheleth — / All is futile!" (12.8): courageous words, courageously praised by Melville. But in the full context of The Book of Ecclesiastes, and Moby Dick as well, we should add: "To Life! — What the f*ck?! Life's what we've got for our few days under the sun."

         However we analyze them, though, we should note that Koheleth's teachings are gutsy stuff. Even today, he speaks his truth to power, or at least to piety.

         Which will bring us to Job, who confronts Power even more directly.

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