BOOK REVIEW Published in Volume 54, 2006
MARTIN A. SHIELDS, The End of Wisdom: A Reappraisal of the Historical and Canonical Function of Ecclesiastes (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2006). Pp. xiii+250. $US39.50.
The presence of a book in the Bible, whose main theme is that everything is utterly senseless, is an enigma. Ecclesiastes (or Qohelet, in Hebrew), is a difficult book to interpret, eliciting a wide range of views, from claims of orthodoxy to accusations of heterodoxy. Qohelet presents a pessimistic view on life, which might seem to invalidate the overall message of biblical literature.
Martin Shields, whose background as an artist is reflected in the book’s attractive presentation, examines Ecclesiastes in the light of the bigger picture shown by the backdrop of the remainder of the Bible. The author meticulously elaborates his theory, beginning with an overview of attitudes to wisdom in the Bible itself to demonstrate the existence of an identifiable group of sages in ancient Israel. He concludes that divine wisdom, which originates with God, is seen favourably, whereas human wisdom, which rests solely in the application of human intellect to life, is almost always presented in a negative light in the biblical texts. The next step is to provide a detailed study of the epilogue (Ecc 12:9–14), which Shields believes is the key to the book and the redeeming feature of a work which otherwise would seem out of place in the biblical canon.
He concludes, on page 109, that the writer of the epilogue (who is not Qohelet) has used Qohelet’s words to reveal the true state of the wisdom movement, and to shock the audience. The epilogist offers an alternative way of the sages by pointing the readers back to the commands of God and warning that all will have to account for their deeds. The reminder of the book from page 110 to page 235 examines each verse of the twelve chapters. The author’s justification is that the ultimate test for the interpretation expounded in the epilogue lies in the actual words of Qohelet.
A key word that occurs frequently in the book is ‘hevel,’ which has been translated variously as ‘vanity,’ ‘fleeting,’ ‘senseless,’ ‘incomprehensible,’ ‘mystery’ or ‘enigma,’ ‘meaningless’ or ‘absurd.’ To further illuminate its meaning, the author examines parallel phrases. These are ‘ra’ot r’uah’ (plan for [the] wind) (Ecc 1:14; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4; 6:9), ‘ain yitron tahat hashemesh’ (there is no gain under the sun) (Ecc 2:11), ‘r‘ah rabba’ (a great evil) (Ecc 2:21), ‘inyan r‘a hou’ (an evil task) (Ecc 4:8), ‘Holei r‘a hou’ (a sickening evil) (Ecc 6:2), and he concludes that Qohelet uses ‘hevel’ to describe circumstances that invert his sense of what is right and undermine the traditional expectation in wisdom circles that there is a discernible order to the universe. The one irrefutable aspect of Qohelet’s use of the term ‘hevel’ is its clearly negative attribution-the phrase “‘utterly senseless,’ says Qohelet, ‘Utterly senseless, everything is senseless,’” framing Qohelet’s work in the beginning in 1:2 and 12:8 at the end, just prior to the epilogue, itself the work of another hand.
Shields concludes that Qohelet’s negative assessment of wisdom represents an honest report of his conclusions on the wisdom movement, and is not meant to be an attack on the movement itself. The epilogist takes Qohelet’s comments on the inadequacies of wisdom and turns them into a warning against the wisdom movement. In Shield’s view, this understanding accounts for the most difficult aspects of the book: first, the lack of a readily identifiable structure, which reflects the epilogist’s intention of presenting a broad picture of Qohelet’s wisdom and thus the true nature of the wisdom movements. Second, it provides an interpretation of Ecclesiastes that coheres with the dominant negative attitude towards human wisdom, found in the rest of the Bible. Third, this understanding answers the perplexing question as to its presence in the canon, that is, to warn prospective students of the wisdom movement against the way of wisdom that Qohelet had followed, and calls them back to a theological wisdom grounded in the fear of God and obedience to his commandments. He concludes that there is a lack of external historical or archaeological evidence to verify these conclusions, but also insufficient evidence to refute it.
Shields has demonstrated his thesis well, but there are weaknesses. Occasionally in demonstrating a point, he vacillates, making comments as in the case of dating the book—that dating could be either pre-exilic or post-exilic—and citing that others have found linguistic evidence to be ambiguous. Thus, he fails to take real notice of linguistic evidence such as Persian loan words. Again there is some repetition, and the book’s step by step analysis becomes tedious to the reader. Overall, however, the text, which is a difficult one, is well handled.
Marianne Dacy NDS
Archive of Australian Judaica, University of Sydney
Sydney NSW 2000, Australia