In the Epic of Gilgamesh when his beastly friend Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh is faced with the apparent meaningless of all things. He is reminded of the large numbers of floating corpses in the water outside the city of Uruk’s high walls, and he is faced with the prospect that one day a grizzly fate will also fall upon him.
Much like the troubled king Gilgamesh from Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia, in the book of Ecclesiastes, or Qohelet, we find a sober king of Israel reflecting on the frivolity of birth, death, politics, seasons, and many other cyclical changes that seemingly persist without end. However, unlike Gilgamesh, Qohelet does not venture forth to seek undying life. Rather his meditation, curiously included in the biblical canon, is presented solely as an inquiry into the escape from turmoil. It is fundamentally tragic in nature, as the audience relates equally with the poet on the notion that all of life is predicated on suffering.
“What gain is there for he who does in what he toils?” (3:8) asks Qohelet, shortly after the famous introduction to formal Hebrew poetry that notices a seasonal stage for each moment in life. Much like Jesus in the book of Matthew, the author questions the fruits of labor. Why should a man work all day? Of what gain can he possibly experience if all things are flux? According to Qohelet, perhaps a diligent reader of the book of Job, he notices that cities rise and fall, possessions are fleeting, people grow old and die, money and valuables disappear. All things are in a constant state of disappearing. Every action undertaken by man is “mere breath” and like “herding the wind.” Similar to the weeping philosopher Heraclitus, Qohelet struggles to search for meaning in a fluid world, where one cannot step into the same river twice.
Ernest Hemingway once called the book of Ecclesiastes his favorite book of the bible -an appropriately existential choice for a manic depressive who experienced unrelenting suffering during his lifetime. Similarly Qohelet might have known great suffering. According to Robert Alter, the text was most probably scribed during a period of decay for the Israelites. Jerusalem’s finances were in disarray, the people were growing restless, and a powerful influence from the east was building along the silk road as new, foreign, and decadent ideas of wealth and prosperity brought new challenges to a fiercely tribal Israelite city. It is sometimes thought that Qohelet was influenced by the early thought of the Greeks and the Egyptians, perhaps planting the seeds of passive Stoicism in Israel. The idea that all living things proceeding from “dust to dust” is, after all, an idea adopted by Epicurus.
However, unlike the Greeks who found joy in providing ontological solutions or ‘ways-of-being-in-the-world’ in response the question of suffering, the theological underpinnings of the Israelites find no solace or comfort, though they desperately long for a redemption from suffering. Instead, the theologian merely points at suffering and proclaims it evil. As is stated elsewhere in Proverbs, goodness is a divine gift from god, and suffering is evil inflicted upon mankind. Here, we notice the early seeds of the notion that there is a divine gulf between ‘this world’ and the heavens -an idea later to trouble and befuddle the minds of Medieval Christian and Arabic thinkers.
Wisdom to the theologian is a somber state of being -unjoyful and its heart is in the “house of mourning” (7:4). Qohelet, like Odysseus, has seen many things under the sun. However, while Odysseus maintains an Aristotelian-like curiosity about all things, Qohelet loses his affirmation of life. It should be noted, however, that at the close of the twelfth chapter there is a much later interpolation that attempts to end the book on a hopeful note.
The wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible, or the Tanakh, best exemplify the stark distinctions that exist between Jerusalem and Athens, theology and philosophy.
For this reading I used Robert Alter’s translation.