2013.05.08 | Stuart Weeks. Ecclesiastes and Scepticism. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 541. New York: T&T Clark, 2012. Pp. xiv+219. Hard cover. ISBN 978-0-567-25288-3.
Review by Larisa Levicheva, Wesley Seminary, Indiana Wesleyan University.
Many thanks to Bloomsbury for kindly providing us with a review copy.
This book consists of five chapters with an introduction, a chapter with concluding remarks and an appendix which presents an in-depth study of the name “Qoheleth.” The Introduction outlines the following chapters and lays down the assumptions which guide Weeks’ study. Weeks offers a different reading of the book of Ecclesiastes which presents Qoheleth’s thoughts as personal grievance over the impotence of intellectual accomplishments and over the complete lack of control of one’s material gain. While such representation of human life may be accepted with strong criticism, the readers find themselves sympathetic to Qoheleth’s conclusion (1).
Chapter 1 addresses the issues pertaining to the identity of Qoheleth. Weeks argues that Qoheleth is “a character rather than the author of the book” (2). All the attempts to find similarities between him and King Solomon have only obscured the characterization of Qoheleth and drawn significance away from his personal experiences that he narrates in the first part of the book. Chapter 2 attempts to establish connections between Qoheleth’s personal experience and his view of the world in Eccl. 1—3. Weeks argues against the tendency to see an analogy between the transience of nature which Qoheleth speaks about in the opening poem of Eccl. 1:4—8, and the transience of human life which he addresses in Eccl. 3—15. He suggests that Qoheleth offers a sharp contrast between the permanence of nature and the transience of human life. Using his life story, Qoheleth explains this contrast to show that while humans are involved in activities that are too big for them to understand, their lives are too short to comprehend a bigger picture of what God is doing in the world (76).
Chapter 3 explores Qoheleth’s thoughts on what human life should be like in this world, especially as it relates to pleasure. Weeks proposes that Qoheleth views pleasure as something that can be attained in life as opposed to the elusive material gain and lack of human understanding about the future. He believes that pleasure is a gift or a reward which God gives to humanity. While pleasure is not a substitute for an ethical behavior, it is available only to those who please God. According to Weeks, Qoheleth believes “that humans can affect God’s attitude toward them” (84). By doing what is right people can gain advantage in life and deserve God’s favor; however, acting righteously is constrained by their inability to recognize God’s favor or disfavor accordingly and by the lack of material reward.
Chapter 4 examines the meaning and the usage of the word hebel in the book of Ecclesiastes. Weeks suggests that Qoheleth “employs it as a way of characterizing not the failure of the world to meet reasonable human expectations, but the problem that humans face in their encounter with the world” (3). Everything that confronts people is hebel because they cannot grasp it and their actions and motives are hebel because of their misperception of reality. Qoheleth offers his readers a solution to the problem of hebel which is based on the authority of his exceptional intellect and wisdom and his experience of reality. According to Weeks, Qoheleth does not base his claims in the communal wisdom or experience and fails to appeal to any authority which would be convincing to his audience (131).
Assuming that Qoheleth is a skeptic, Chapter 5 looks beyond the book to find out what Qoheleth is skeptical about. Weeks explores the themes of transience of human life and the limitations placed by divine sovereignty on the human existence present in Qoheleth’s thoughts and argues that they are not particular to Qoheleth but rather are common in the ancient literature. Qoheleth is not interested in restating the same conclusion in a new way; rather he desires to steer his audience away from striving after the same unattainable material gain, he has pursued or experiencing the same disappointment over the brevity of human life that has caused him to hate his own existence.
In Concluding Remarks Weeks offers several observations on how the book of Ecclesiastes might have been read. As a character, Qoheleth does not share the ideas and beliefs of the author of the book. However, the existence of Qoheleth’s character suggests while the readers may not agree with his conclusion, they should be willing to engage with his ideas. Qoheleth’s materialism and disillusionment should provoke the audience to rethink and re-evaluate their priorities.
Weeks presents Qoheleth’s message as complex and multifaceted. He does the book of Ecclesiastes justice by suggesting that Qoheleth’s carpe diem passages and his hebel passages should not be understood as opposing each other. Rather Qoheleth sees the experience of pleasure as the only one available to human beings. The constrains of human knowledge and the lack of control over the activities in this world make material gain illusory and transient. Unfortunately, Weeks does not offer a new reading of the book of Ecclesiastes. Seeing Qoheleth as skeptic necessitates understanding the epilogue as a significant correction to the sage’s message. Weeks fails to take into account God’s active role in Qoheleth’s view of the world and his reverence toward God. Such one-sided picture of the sage and his words considerably limits the message of the book and its impact on faith and praxis. Another weakness of Weeks’ work is that he puts valuable scholarly evidence in the footnotes in the Introduction. This book would have benefited from including it into the body of the text.
This notwithstanding, this book is a valued addition to the works on Ecclesiastes with its focus on skepticism in Qoheleth’s thought. Weeks also provides a very thorough study of the word “Qoheleth” in the appendix, which is a valuable resource to any student of the book of Ecclesiastes.
Wesley Seminary, Indiana Wesleyan University
larisa.levicheva [ at ] indwes.edu