Qohelet and the Redaction of Mesopotamian Vanity Literature
The Book of Qohelet is unique within the Biblical environment in many ways. Most prominently, its main ideas about life are boldly exceptional: Qohelet teaches us that all is vanity, and that the only valuable action is enjoying momentary pleasures (e.g. 2:24; 3:24). This attitude is very uncommon in other parts of the Bible, which usually promotes the idea that life has a meaning, which is to be found in the realm of religious action, emotion and thought.
When examined against the broader context of Ancient Near Eastern literature, however, Qohelet is not exceptional. Archaeological findings from Egypt and Mesopotamia, which came to light during the last two centuries, include texts discussing the problem of life’s vanity. These texts, which have their roots in different places and periods of time, are usually classified as “wisdom literature”; more specifically, they may be labeled “vanity literature.”Below are three examples from Mesopotamia.
1. The Sumerian Essay “Everything is Worthless”
“Everything is Worthless” (Sumerian: niĝ2-nam nu-kal) is a short essay on the futility of life, composed in the Sumerian language at the beginning of the second millennium BCE, and known to us in several versions. One of them follows:
[Everything is worthless], but life is good.
When a man does not have wealth ‒ [he] has [wealth]!…
Even the tallest one cannot reach heaven; even the widest one cannot cover the underworld;
Even the strongest one cannot stretch himself over the earth.
Life should be rescued by happiness and joy!
Let the “race” (=life) be spent in joy!
A man’s good house ‒ let him live in his house!
The thesis suggested by this text may paraphrased as follows: While everything is worthless, life is still good. One should enjoy life rather than attempt to discover its value. Property is useless and therefore there is no difference between having it and lacking it. Wisdom is useless because no one can access the extremities of the universe, that is, no one can understand the cosmos in full. Therefore, one should concentrate on enjoying the good life of the moment, sparing one’s life from unnecessary philosophical inquiries, and spending life merrily while still on earth (=“his good house”).
2. The Poem of Early Rulers
By enumerating glorious dead rulers of the past, whose grandeur is now forgotten, this poem elaborates on the idea of vanity. It concludes that because no one can escape death and oblivion, one should concentrate on enjoying the present. To date, this text is known in Sumerian and Akkadian versions dating to the second millennium BCE. Here is a translation of one of these versions:
Since days of yore there are (only) these things:…
Those (came) after those, and others (came) after others…
All life is but a swivel of an eye,
Life of mankind cannot last forever,
*(At this point comes a list of past heroes who are now dead.)
Where are the great kings of which (the like) from then to now
are not (anymore) engendered, are not born?…
Young man, let me teach you truly what is your god’s (nature):
Repel, drive away sorrow, scorn silence!
In exchange for this single day of happiness, let pass a time of
silence (=death) lasting 36,000 years.
May Siraš (=the beer goddess) rejoice over you as if over (her) son!
This is the fate of humanity.
The “Poem of Early Rulers” presents the thesis that all is vanity clearly: man’s days are numbered and transient. Even renowned heroes of the past were not granted eternal life, despite their glorious deeds. The poet, therefore, goads us to focus on enjoying the present and on rejecting sorrow while it is still possible. The mention of the Beer Goddess at the end fits well into the overall hedonist tone.
3. “A Dialogue between a Master and his Slave”
“A Dialogue between a Master and his Slave” was composed in Akkadian during the eighth or seventh century BCE. The humorous dialogue is made up of short stanzas, each addressing an allegedly valuable or profitable action, such as dining, living as a nomad, marrying a woman, leading a revolution, etc.
In each stanza, the master suggests pursuing the relevant action, and the slave initially responds by urging the master to take this action, providing good reasons for each. The master then abruptly changes his mind, proclaiming that he will not take the action under consideration, and the slave immediately agrees, suggesting good rationales for the new decision.
This stanza, for example, discusses the merits and problems of sacrifice:
– Slave, obey me!
– Yes, master, yes!
– Quickly! Fetch me water for my hands and give it to me, so that I can sacrifice to my god.
– Sacrifice, master, sacrifice! The man who sacrifices to his god is satisfied at heart. He accumulates benefit after benefit.
– No, slave, I will not sacrifice to my god!
– Do not sacrifice, master, do not sacrifice! If you accustom the god (to offerings), he will run after you like a dog. He will ask of you rites, or Lātarāk (=an icon of a protecting deity) or anything else!
The work’s final stanza concludes that the only valuable action is committing suicide, but even there the master and slave cannot agree on who should kill himself first:
– Slave, obey me!
– Yes, master, yes!
– What then is good?
– To have my neck and your neck broken, or to be thrown into the river, is good…
– No, slave, I will kill you and send you ahead of me!
– But my master would certainly not outlive me, not even for three days!
Qohelet and ANE Vanity Literature: Parallels without Obvious Conduits of Transmission
What can vanity literature contribute to our understanding of the biblical Book of Qohelet? Due to the historical and geographical distance between Qohelet and the relevant Ancient Near Eastern materials, it is difficult to assume a direct genealogical relationship, i.e., that the author of Qohelet was familiar with these texts.
Late Biblical Hebrew: Dating Qohelet
Most critical modern scholars do not accept the Solomonic authorship of Qohelet. Rather, they usually date it much later, as the book’s language typifies “Late Biblical Hebrew,” namely, the Hebrew of the early Second Temple period. Although some suggest that Qohelet was written in the Persian period (5-3 centuries BCE), many scholars, correctly to my mind, see it as a Hellenistic work, from the 3-2 centuries BCE. This presents an initial, fundamental problem for any suggestion that Qohelet might have directly partaken in the ANE vanity tradition: An author working in third or second century Hellenistic Judah could not read Sumerian or Akkadian: he spoke mostly Aramaic. When exposed to foreign traditions and ideas, he was more likely to encounter with Greek rather than Mesopotamian conceptions.
Should we thus conclude that ANE vanity texts are of no use for the interpretation of the book of Qohelet, despite the obvious similarities? Comparative study of biblical and Ancient Near Eastern texts has taught us that parallels might be of significance even when an obvious historical link is nowhere to be found. Such appears to be the case with Qohelet and Ancient Near Eastern vanity literature. In what follows, I will highlight one aspect of Mesopotamian vanity tradition, which, despite the historical and geographical gap, may teach us a great deal about the book of Qohelet.
The Multiple Recensions of ANE Texts
Texts from Mesopotamia are often known to us in more than one version. Unlike biblical books, these works did not reach us in the form of finalized, canonized pieces. Different manuscripts of the same work often betray significant disparities, which may shed light on their formation and development.
Redacting “Everything is Worthless” – From Carpe Diem to Religious Piety
For example, the Sumerian essay, “Everything is Worthless,” noted above, has several versions that are characterized by expanding and reshaping of the original. One of these secondary versions reads (the supplement is in italics):
Everything is worthless, but life is good.
When a man does not have wealth ‒ [he] has wealth!
Above is his abundant house (=the house where people dwell while living), below is his eternal house (=grave)…
Whatever a man possesses is bestowed to him by his personal god as a gift.
If his god had looked favorably upon him, his ears are opened (=he gains wisdom)
His protective deities and his personal god will be present in his body,
His smoke offering will not cease…
Even the tallest one cannot rea[ch] heaven; even the widest one cannot cover the underworld.
Life should be rescued by happiness and joy!
A man’s good house ‒ let him live in his house!
This version is clearly an expansion of the version presented above. The opening and closing sections are identical, while the heart of the text provides us with a new interpretation of the original notion. Instead of carpe diem, this version promotes religious piety as a solution for the problem of life’s vanity. The transiency of wealth as presented in the opening couplet is understood by the author of this version as a sign of its divine source. One’s personal god is exclusively responsible for one’s financial state. Hence, the answer for the vanity riddle is religious devotion, or more specifically, proper cult.
The creator(s) of this version must have felt that the subversive ideas of the original vanity text clashed with their more traditional religious values. Accordingly, they attempted to change original and better adjust it to their values by inserting the ideal of religious piety.
Redacting “The Poem of the Dead Rulers” – Be a Good Person
Similar editorial trends can be found in other vanity texts as well. For example, one of the versions of “The Poem of the Dead Rulers,” adds the following lines:
Humanity does not recognize its own life-span,
Decision over its day (=life) and its night (=death) are with the gods,
None can reveal mankind’s workload (=life-span),
One should not insult others,
One should not scorn the weak,
The cripple may overtake the runner,
The rich may beg the poor,
This is the fate of the sound person.
These lines, found only in one version of this poem, are inconsistent with the work’s general message. While the other versions embrace enjoyment of the present, this version concludes that one should stick to social norms of justice, and avoid hurting the weak. After all, man’s lot is unknown: a cripple may one day overtake the runner and the rich may suddenly become poor, so being a sound person means staying on the safe side of transient human life.
This creative reinterpretation of the vanity theme seems yet again to serve as a means for reconciling the subversive ideas of the original text with the more orthodox views of traditional literature. In the previous example, the adaptation was religiously-oriented, while here the compiler is more concerned with social justice; but the conservative agenda is clear in both cases.
Qohelet as a Caring Herder: A Redactional Supplement
Can this pattern of moderating the sharp message of vanity literature be traced in Qohelet as well? As noted already by Rashbam (1085-1158), and accepted by many scholars until today, the answer is positive. The book’s epilogue (Qoh 12:9–14) is most probably a later addition. The verses read:
וְיֹתֵר שֶׁהָיָה קֹהֶלֶת חָכָם עוֹד לִמַּד דַּעַת אֶת הָעָם וְאִזֵּן וְחִקֵּר תִּקֵּן מְשָׁלִים הַרְבֵּה. י בִּקֵּשׁ קֹהֶלֶת לִמְצֹא דִּבְרֵי חֵפֶץ וְכָתוּב יֹשֶׁר דִּבְרֵי אֱמֶת. דִּבְרֵי חֲכָמִים כַּדָּרְבֹנוֹת וּכְמַשְׂמְרוֹת נְטוּעִים בַּעֲלֵי אֲסֻפּוֹת נִתְּנוּ מֵרֹעֶה אֶחָד…
In addition to being a sage, Qohelet taught the people knowledge, and he listened and investigated and composed many sayings. Qohelet sought to discover pleasing words, but (eventually) he wrote the honest words of truth. The words of the sages are like goads, and the words of the masters of collections are like implanted nails set by one Shepherd… (vv. 9-11)
סוֹף דָּבָר הַכֹּל נִשְׁמָע אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים יְרָא וְאֶת מִצְוֹתָיו שְׁמוֹר כִּי זֶה כָּל הָאָדָם. כִּי אֶת כָּל מַעֲשֶׂה הָאֱלֹהִים יָבִא בְמִשְׁפָּט עַל כָּל נֶעְלָם אִם טוֹב וְאִם רָע.
The conclusion of the matter: everything has been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is (the duty) of all mankind: that God shall bring every deed into judgement, including every secret deed, be it good or evil. (vv. 13-14)
These verses conclude the book on a note of discipline and piety, by locating Qohelet’s heterodox teachings within the framework of traditional theology. Qohelet is here praised as a prestigious sage who taught and composed wisdom of the highest esthetic and ethic quality. The unavoidable discomfort that might be caused to the innocent reader by Qohelet’s skeptical ideas is, according to this epilogue, nothing but a side effect of a deliberate pedagogical process.
Qohelet, says the epilogist, is simply following the sages who use harsh means for educational purposes, like a caring shepherd who treats his sheep with a goad for their own good. What may seem as chaotic, skeptical teaching, is actually a painful but efficient didactic plan, whose final goal is proper education.
A Forced Interpretation of Qohelet
It is difficult, if not impossible, to read these final verses as original to the book. Qohelet is clearly not using his unorthodox statements as a sophisticated didactic device aimed at directing a young listener to the path of righteousness. His skeptical view is essential, sincere, and extensive, and it cannot be overshadowed by the final verses of the book.
The comparison between Qohelet and the caring shepherd should therefore be taken as a creative but apologetic attempt to re-interpret Qohelet in light of conformist wisdom. The same is true for the two concluding verses: the suggestion that fear of God and fulfilling of his commandments is the final and reliable answer to Qohelet’s existential questions is clearly an afterthought, and is not an integral part of the book’s message.
The Recurring Pattern of Dialectical Intellectual Movement between Skepticism and Conservatism
These and other considerations indicate that we are dealing here with an addendum, composed by later author (or authors) who sought to re-interpret the book in light of their religious agenda. The recognition of similar patterns in other vanity texts from the ancient Near East illustrates the dynamics that gave rise to this editorial activity.
Due to its subversive nature, vanity literature involves an inherent conflict with traditional literature. This conflict triggered redactional activity focused on moderating or re-interpreting vanity texts in light of traditional values. Occurring already in the beginning of the second millennium BCE, these exegetical attempts do not reflect the work of a single individual, or even a trend of a certain period. Rather, they are a recurring pattern of dialectical intellectual movement between skepticism and conservatism, to which Qohelet is no exception.
How the Redaction Saved the Book
Qohelet’s epilogue, originally meant to reconcile the book’s exceptional ideas, in later generations played an important role in preserving these very unorthodox ideas. The Babylonian Talmud tells us about the dilemma regarding the exclusion of the Book of Qohelet from Jewish scripture (b. Shabbat 30b):
אמר רב יהודה בריה דרב שמואל בר שילת משמיה דרב: בקשו חכמים לגנוז ספר קהלת מפני שדבריו סותרין זה את זה, ומפני מה לא גנזוהו – מפני שתחילתו דברי תורה וסופו דברי תורה… סופו דברי תורה – דכתיב סוף דבר הכל נשמע את האלהים ירא ואת מצותיו שמור כי זה כל האדם.
R. Judah b. R. Samuel bar Shilat said in the name of Rab: “Sages proposed to suppress the book of Qohelet, because its words contradict one another. And how come they did not suppress it? Because it begins with teachings of Torah and it concludes with teachings of Torah…” It concludes with teachings of Torah: “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is (the duty) of all mankind.”
This famous Talmudic passage is one out of several sources reporting the rabbinic discontent with the Book of Qohelet. Here the main issue is its inherent contradictions, but Leviticus Rabbah (28:1) expresses a concern regarding its unorthodox thought.
א”ר בנימן בר לוי בקשו חכמים לגנוז ספר קהלת שמצאו בו דברים שנוטין לצד מינות.
R. Binyamin bar Levi said: “Sages proposed to suppress the book of Qohelet since they found within it words which tend towards heterodoxy.”
The easiest solution – removing Qohelet from scripture – is initially considered but then rejected, thanks to the book’s epilogue, which enables its inclusion within the Bible. Thus, it was none other than the interpretative pious epilogue that eventually rescued this extraordinary biblical book from oblivion.
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October 20, 2016
March 11, 2020
Dr. Nili Samet teaches Bible and Assyriology at the department of Bible in Bar-Ilan University. She holds a Ph.D. in Bible from Bar-Ilan University and an M.A. in Assyriology from the Hebrew University. She is the author of The Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur: A Revised Edition.
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