Under the Sun

Life and Reality in the Book of Kohelet

by Shamai Gelander (Author)
©2018 Monographs 152 Pages


This book presents the Book of Ecclesiastes as a single coherent work, whose ideas are consistent and collectively form a comprehensive worldview. Moreover, in contrast to the prevailing view in the research literature – it presents the Book of Ecclesiastes as a work with an essentially positive outlook: Kohelet’s fault-finding is aimed not at the world itself, or how it functions, but at the people who persist in missing out on the present, on what it has to offer, and of the ability to enjoy all that exists and is available. Contrasting with these are Koheleth’s positive perscriptions to make the most of the present. To my mind, his remonstrations are meant to «clear the way» for his positive recommendations – to clear the path, as it were, of the obstacles to accepting reality. These two aspects, the negative and the positive, come together in this investigation into Koheleth’s belief, which is founded on an acceptance of all that God has created.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Escaping from reality
  • Escape to the future
  • On the attempts at insuring against future mishaps
  • On the acquisition of skills, traits, and excellence
  • Against distinction and in praise of the average
  • The relative nature of values
  • Absolute justice versus existing world order
  • Other aspects of coming to terms with realities and limitations
  • Escaping to the past
  • Interim summary
  • Chapter 2: The positive aspect
  • Eat and drink: Between despair and faith
  • Cast Thy Bread
  • Between determinism and free will
  • Concluding observations
  • Chapter 3: Koheleth and his beliefs
  • On justice and injustice
  • Koheleth and his God
  • Interim summary
  • Chapter 4: The opening verses and coda
  • Opening verses (Eccles. 1)
  • Coda (12:1–8)
  • Conclusion
  • Epilogue: The structure of the Book of Ecclesiastes
  • Bibliography
  • Abbreviations: Translations, magazines, series and files
  • Series index

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The main purpose of this study is to present the Book of Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) as a work whose diverse elements merge to form a coherent worldview regarding a person’s lifestyle, reality and beliefs. Fundamentally, we shall see that Koheleth’s approach is governed by a set of ideas that might be thought of as a general notion of what constitutes a “righteous life”—in the name of which he castigates anything that he perceives to be an obstacle—namely, whatever he perceives to be a hallmark of a “misguided life.” His criticisms and condemnation are primarily intended to serve the “right way,” and to pave the way toward it. Thus, these two aspects—the negative and the positive—join to form a comprehensive picture, rather than a mere compilation of aphorisms that reflect a bleak outlook on life, or a compendium of occasionally contradictory statements. Observing his critical arguments in conjunction with his positive recommendations also allows us to understand Koheleth’s faith and his attitude to his God as a unified ideology. Moreover, the addition of the negative and positive clarifies the ideological meanings of the first and final chapters of the Book of Ecclesiastes, as they are revealed to provide a poetic framework for the ideological messages in the book as a whole.

Koheleth’s declaration that “a living dog is better than a dead lion” (9:4) is, I believe an extreme statement that might be viewed as the essence, or starting point, of his outlook. It means that any form of life, however humble, is preferable to any death—however honorable or noble. In other words, life is a supreme goal above all others and not a means to achieving other aims. This outlook runs counter to any faith that demands a person to be willing to dedicate—or indeed, sacrifice—themselves for its sake. It runs counter to the biblical belief—at least as exemplified in the stories of Abraham onwards—that one should not only abandon one’s past and go wherever God instructs one to go, but to follow the ways of the Lord throughout one’s life (Gen. 17:1), and even be willing to sacrifice one’s nearest and dearest to Him. Koheleth’s radical view on this topic has various ramifications, some consequential, and some leading up to and supporting it. ← 7 | 8 →

The traditional criticism of Koheleth probably springs from reservations about his rejectionist attitude. However, modern-day criticism of him is based primarily on the apparent absence of method in his writings, ideologically as well as structurally.

One dominant approach in the research literature sees the Book of Ecclesiastes as primarily a compilation of maxims, rather like the Book of Proverbs. Koheleth appears to inherit the traditional wisdom that preceded him, but then sets out to refute it based on his personal experience.1 This suggests that the Book of Ecclesiastes is not a systematic doctrine, and its various maxims do not add up to a consistent and coherent philosophy.2 It would also appear that it does not spring from a comprehensive worldview, but rather from a variety of critical approaches that he acquired over the years, in contrast to prevailing views. Moreover, since it is a compilation, it also includes various contradictory adages:3 it is customary to see the passages where Koheleth hails the positive aspects of life and the wonders of nature as problematic and exceptional, since the predominant mood in the Book of Ecclesiastes is pessimistic and gloomy,4 or he presents certain maxims in an ironic light.5 Some commentators go as far as to attribute these apparent contradictions and deviations to the authors of later addenda, most of whom appear to have sought to temper some of Koheleth’s more extreme views. ← 8 | 9 → 6

Conversely, some scholars have sought to find in the Book of Ecclesiastes a measure of coherence.7 Some have proposed that it has a single unified structure, while others have suggested that to a literary or artistic structure in certain passengers or parts of the book. Wright’s commentary, I believe, is a clear example of the former category:8 while others believe that Ecclesiastes, like the Book of Proverbs, is nothing but a disparate collection of sayings,9 and others detect an underlying consonance and even evolutionary threads within the book,10 Wright focuses exclusively on its structure, irrespective of any ideological unity. In his comprehensive review of structural analyses by others, he finds that the overwhelming majority tend to sum up or label a sequence of ideas with a succinct heading, and as such risk adopting a subjective view. For this reason, he says, he prefers a structural analysis that focuses on the morphological features rather than the ideological content, to ensure “Objective methodology.”11 To that end, he presents the entire book as being based on a symmetrical and concentric structure. For example, he finds a key pattern in chapters 9 and 10, which he labels Man Does Not Know, and a similar pattern surrounding the phrases “who can” or “shall not find” in chapters 7 and eight. ← 9 | 10 →

However, closer examination raises casts doubts on this interpretation: the pattern Man Does Not Know appears in chapters 9 and 10 only three times in contexts that match Wright’s description (9:10, 12; 10:15), but also appears in other contexts (e.g. 11:2, 5, 6). Similarly, the phrases who can and shall not find also appear in chapters 7 and 8 only three times (7:13, 14; 7:28–29). Although these expressions might be seen as an ideological essence of their wider context—in that they center on man’s limited ability to foresee the expected in a bid to control his future—these chapters contain not only rejectionist statements but also positive and prescriptive statements such as 7:1–5, 13. Hence, classifying patterns simply by ideological themes also suffers from the same problem that Wright found in his predecessors’ interpretations: while there is no disputing that eight passages in the book end with the words “Vanity and vexation of spirit,” it is doubtful that each one of these passages is also a discrete literary unit in its own right. Generally, defining any given unit by its opening or concluding verse is too simplistic: it might equally suit another unit, or involve a certain constraint. Thus, for example, Wright labels the first part of the book, after the opening, under the heading Koheleth’s Examination of Life: this is too generic, as it might equally apply to other parts of the book, since pronouncements about the meaning of life may be found throughout, as I shall demonstrate in the course of this inquiry. His heading for the second half of this first part (6:10–11:6)—Koheleth’s Conclusions on Various Issues—is also questionable, since throughout the book, many of the declarations that appear in the form of declarative statements are in fact conclusions that he has drawn from his own experience. The same is true, for example, for the labeling of one of the secondary sections under the heading I Should Leave it Unto the Man that Shall Be After Me (2:18–26). In my view, Koheleth’s negative attitude to the suggestion that a person must dedicate their life to the future is evident in the book in his rejectionist declarations as much as in his declarative statements and in his prescriptive advice (e.g., 11:1–6). Therefore, although Wright does much to contribute to our understanding of the links between the central ideas in Ecclesiastes, his attempts to find the key to Koheleth’s ideology by detecting a schematic structure do not work well.

Wright’s approach to the issue of structure is even more extreme when he reverts to numerology. For example, he notes that the Hebrew word הבל hevel (“vanity”), has a value of 37 in gematria, and appears 37 times in the book, while the word דברי divrei (“words of”) has a gematrial value of ← 10 | 11 → 216—like the number of the verses in the book, etc. As Seow rightly points out, numerology is a poor basis for deciding structure, since the counting is inconsistent (Wright concatenates certain verses and combinations with different ideological meanings, resulting in an arbitrary count)—and besides, in ancient times the verses were not numbered.12 However, Seow also does not believe that Ecclesiastes is merely a random collection of sayings. Like Beckhaus, he proposes a fairly symmetrical structure of two halves of roughly equivalent size (the dividing point being 6:16): the first half, from 1:2–6:9—with two subsections that he labels Everything is Fleeting and Meaningless and Morality Means Dealing with Everything that is in Doubt)—and the second (headed Everything is Elusive) from 6:10–12:8. The former is made up of two subsections—one headed Everything is Fleeting and Meaningless, which in turn subdivides into Introduction (1:2–11); Nothing Lasts for Long (1:12–26); Everything is in God’s hands (3:1–22); and Relative “Good” is Not Really Good (4:1–16)—and the other Morality Means Dealing with Everything that is in Doubt, which consists of The author’s Attitude to God (5:1–7), and Pleasure, Not Greed (5:8–6:9). The second half—Everything is Elusive—is subdivided into No One Knows What is Good (6:10–7:14); The Elusiveness of Justice and Wisdom (7:15–29); The world as an Arbitrary Entity (8:7). The section Morality Means Dealing with Everything that is in Doubt contains the sections Carpe Diem (9:1–10); The World is Full of Risks (9:11–10:15); Living with Risks (10:16–11:16); and Summary (11:7–12:8).

In my view, this division, too, is somewhat willful, since quite a few passages in the book could fall under the same headings, and the definitions themselves are a matter of debate. Thus, for example, the notion of making the most of the present and of the world around oneself, appears several times in various guises throughout the book. The schematic division into a pessimistic half and an optimistic one also does not hold up to scrutiny, as we shall see later.

Sheppard adopts a more measured approach.13 In his view, the continuity in the Book of Ecclesiastes is compelling than in the Book of Proverbs, and its coda (especially 12:13–14) offers a religious ideology that is identical to that of Ben Sira. ← 11 | 12 →


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (September)
Book of Ecclesiastes Kohelet
Bern, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 149 pp.

Biographical notes

Shamai Gelander (Author)

Shamai Gelander (*1931) is a graduate of the Hebrew University and the University of Tel Aviv and holds a PhD in biblical studies. He served as a senior lecturer of biblical studies at the Haifa University and of jewish studies at the University of Tel Aviv. He was a visiting professor in Oxford and served as chairman of the department of biblical studies and as academic director (rector) of the college «Oranim».


Title: Under the Sun