Qohelet v Poetry

You like brutal honesty and plain-speak? Showing up people who have all the answers and say them cleverly too? Qohelet is for you. What, you never heard of Qohelet? It used to go by Ecclesiastes. Now it’s Qohelet — Qohelet with a Q. All the materials I’ve dug up and gone through write it this way lately. A sleuth’s job is to track the trail of name-changes, not correct the spelling.

Qohelet is a book in which a man sometimes called “Qohelet” (קֹהֶלֶת) and sometimes “the qohelet” (הַקֹהֶלֶת) once gave a long rambling speech about how absurd, how profoundly absurd, life is. Your average Jo reads this and thinks, that was one troubled individual, depressing even. Maybe. But the book speaks to me. For a sleuth always cutting through the double-speak of poetry ✂️, it’s good for winding the machinery down. But what’s the poetry case here, that I should bring it to you, right? I’m getting there. This pitch ⚾️ needs a big wind-up, ok? 

Here’s the thing. Qohelet-the-qohelet goes on and on about poetry. He attacks specific poems, types of poems, and even the idea of poetry. Why? Because the poetry he he has in mind says over and over how ordered and predictable life is. It’s exactly the kind of poetry gathered in the Book of Proverbs, wise poems and poetic one-liners that characterize people and guarantee results. The content gives you cause and effect, action and result, what you sow and what you reap. And the form matches the content perfectly: lines of two balanced parts, one for the cause and the other for the effect. It’s a symmetry sublime between reason and rhyme. This poetry says that wise people see the patterns in life and capture them in patterned speech, a turn of phrase, poetry. Now in the Book of Qohelet, the character Qohelet-the-qohelet says this is all wrong. ❌ People forever keep making up rules about how life happens, the formulas of fate and fortune, but it’s phony and a farce. The wise are just wishful, even willfully delusional. Life forever keeps people off-balance; who knows where something begins or ends, what’s a cause and what’s an effect? Instead of poetry, there’s rambling prose; a sentence begins, no one knows where it goes. 

Now if everything always went according to plan, you’d never need a sleuth.🕵🏼 I know all about irregularities; it’s my job to use them to set the record straight. Nothing is what it seems, or what people say it is. But what’s Qohelet doing in my docket of poetry cases? 🗂 Well, as part of his attack on poetry, Qohelet mimics the poems and poetic lines of the wise and satirizes them. They turn on tone. It’s a great example that you cannot just decode a poem’s words and images like so many symbols in an arrangement; you have to hear them as speech. This is what sleuthing is about, hearing words 📻 not just seeing them 🔎📖, being attuned to the tone that gives them their meaning. 

I’ll show you what I mean, one example at a time. I’ll try to be brief, but remember, good sleuthing means patience to get through details.🔬 There’s no shortcut.

🕐Qohelet 9:18–10:1

Qohelet points the irony that, considering how much time it takes to cultivate wisdom and expertise, it doesn’t take much to foil them. The point is that one can overstate their power and value. He starts out with a typical-sounding proverb, then he one-ups the proverb, then he gives examples of his one-upping. He does this in four sentences over two lines. This has the look of a classic example of what sleuths call parallelism, by which they mean a high degree of two-fold patterning, specifically repetition of rhythm, sounds, words, and ideas. But this case turns the parallelism inside-out in more ways than one.

Line 1     Cleverness is advantageous over weapons. /

But one bungler will wreck much advantage. //

Line 2     A dead fly will rot, bubble the perfumer’s ointment / 

more precious than wisdom, than honor is but a bit of folly. //

טוֹבָה חָכְמָה מִכְּלֵי קְרָב / וְחוֹטֶא אֶחָד יְאַבֵּד טוֹבָה הַרְבֵּה //

זְבוּבֵי מָוֶת יַבְאִישׁ יַבִּיעַ שֶׁמֶן רוֹקֵחַ / יָקָר מֵחָכְמָה מִכָּבוֹד סִכְלוּת מְעָט //

(If you’re looking at the English and the Hebrew and you think you see some differences, you can find my extra case notes at the end of the file.)

In line 1, Qohelet first declares how powerful wisdom is. It overcomes armies. Now in your standard parallelism, next he would repeat this idea or elaborate it. Qohelet doesn’t do that, see? He points out how fragile and vulnerable wisdom is, one little misstep foils it. Which implies, it is not so powerful after all, is it? So line 1 has a thought and a counter-thought.

In line 2, Qohelet gives two examples of how easily fine things are undone. ☝️ After all the work that goes into preparing the finest ointment, with its rare ingredients and its complicated process, all it takes to wreck it is for one fly to drop into it at some point and get stuck. (The perfumer may not even notice until it’s too late.) ✌️ It takes hard work and much time to cultivate wisdom and to earn honor, but only one foolish move, one moment of weakness, to undo it all. Why two examples? The first example shows outside forces that we cannot control, a fly dropping in unannounced, like too many family members, neighbors, and sleuths-in-training, when your day was totally planned, God bless ’em all, how I love ’em each and every one.❤️ The second example is about the instincts inside us; we cannot even control ourselves.

Just like in line 1, also in line 2 too the parallelism is foiled. This time, it’s not in the content, because the core idea is repeated and elaborated really well. The foiling is in the form. Both halves of the line are jarring in the same way: in each half, a pair of things does not have the conjunction “and” between them (Hebrew ו־). The dead fly rots, bubbles the ointment; rots or bubbles or both — which is it? A bit of folly ruins wisdom, honor; wisdom or honor or both — which is it? The effect is like the line is not fully formed; like the person making it is debating options. It’s awkward, clunky. Your boss ever chew you out for wasting their time about what you still don’t know? Not me, never, I just heard about that happening to other people. Anyway, see how little it takes to wreck the fine work of parallelism? Just skip a lowly “and,” a meager Hebrew ו־, and it’s like the fly in the ointment 🧫 and the blunder that ruins a life’s reputation.🙈 The form itself illustrates the content. Brilliant.

The character Qohelet-the-qohelet is drawn as someone who has mastered the art of poetic wisdom so profoundly, that he can turn it against itself. Two lines, four sentences, in parallel form that is made deliberately irregular; statements about how life is in your control if you just plan and think cleverly — and actually how it isn’t. 

Let me get you another example.

🕑Qohelet 8:5–7

In line 1, Qohelet-the-qohelet gives the life-principle that following rules keeps one safe. In line 2, he counters with the opposite idea that the wise are those who know how to improvise. They figure out what to do in the moment, when something irregular happens — not with prescribed rules, but with their wits. So it’s a proverb in one line followed by a punchline — or a counterpunch. Then he follows the counterpunch with a combination that becomes less poetic and more prose-like with every punch: every matter depends on timing, on understanding circumstances and quick thinking, and people generally have no clue at all why anything is happening, what is a result of what cause and how to control the situation. Knockout. 🥊

1     Who does as told / misfortune will not know //

2     But timing and course of action / the astute mind discerns //

3     Because for every endeavor / there is timing and course of action, //

4     Because a person’s misfortune overwhelms them,

5     Because they don’t know what will be,

6     Because when what will be comes, who will tell them?

שׁוֹמֵר מִצְוָה / לֹא יֵדַע דָּבָר רָע //

וְעֵת וּמִשְׁפָּט / יֵדַע לֵב חָכָם //

כִּי לְכָל־חֵפֶץ / יֵשׁ עֵת וּמִשְׁפָּט //

כִּי־רָעַת הָאָדָם רַבָּה עָלָיו

כִּי־אֵינֶנּוּ יֹדֵעַ מַה־שֶּׁיִּהְיֶה

כִּי כַּאֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה מִי יַגִּיד לוֹ

Line 1 has rhythm (a sense of two halves) and rhyme (at the end of each). This sound-pattern sets up the content so that the cause in the first half (obedience) and the effect in the second (protection) are in balance. The idea in this line — follow the rules and all will go well — shows up all over Proverbs, in a whole bunch of variations, like the one-liners at 4:4; 19:16 and the poetic speeches making up chs. 1–9. By contrast, line 2 has no internal rhyme; it has an off-beat rhythm; it gives the opposite of cause and effect, just a characteristic, a definition — the wise are those who think quickly and creatively — and its idea shows up in Proverbs not at all. This is exactly what a punchline 🎤 is like: just a bit shorter than the set-up, has a unique take, and is sharp.🔪 Actually, it’s more like a counterpunch, because it counters the line before it, and to do that it needs to follow the timing of the first line and then throw it just a bit off. The proverb that regularity is security gives a path to everyone. The counterpunch that the wise improvise is a statement about kinds of people that just are: actually, it says, there is no path. You cannot be taught this kind of thing. You either have it or you’re hopeless. Bam!💥

The counterpunch is followed up by a combination. Don’t go thinking, says Qohelet-the-qohelet, that the proverb is true generally and the punchline is just another level on top of the proverb, like he’s saying that following the rules guarantees results, but the super-wise are good at improvising too. Because, he says in Line 3, every endeavor requires a sense of timing and improvisation.💥💥 Then, in Lines 4–6, Qohelet describes what people in general are like: absolutely clueless.😱 They are overwhelmed by the misfortune that happens to them, the unanticipated things or the things they tried to prevent but couldn’t. They cannot tell what result will come from what they are doing now, and when something happens, they don’t know if it is a result of something or just something new. And no one knows enough to help each other. Everyone is alone in this. It is because people are totally ignorant of causes and effects and unable to control them that improvisation is prized. People who roll with the punches are the only ones able to do anything at all, because they are not trapped in the illusion of routine causes and effects. Life routinely slips the routines. To go toe-to-toe with life, a person has to be nimble.💥💥💥

If you followed this case, great. Qohelet mimics a proverb, counters it with the real truth, then elaborates on the real truth. That’s the main idea. Now, I’m going to add a few extra details that show you how I lose myself in a case, how my thinking goes.

This whole case turns on the Hebrew words behind “timing” (עֵת) and “course of action” (מִשְׁפָּט). Just about all sleuths out there think these words have to do with regularities and rules, not unique circumstances and quick thinking. In this approach, Lines 1 and 2 say basically the same thing, and so does Line 3: Everything has its time and its rules, the wise know them, so do what they say. (Hear the Byrds singing in the background? That’s no accident.) I have two points to make about this.☝️ If the wise are those who know regularities and routines, and knowing these keeps a person safe, then there is a contradiction with what comes next, in Lines 4–6, that people are overwhelmed by misfortune, not knowing when it happens and why, and there is no one to tell them. If the wise know exactly this stuff, why aren’t they there to tell them!? ✌️Other places in Qohelet where the Hebrew term עֵת appears, it’s the same story: it makes much better sense if it refers to irregularities, not regularities. I’m not going to give you all those cases here, but I will give you some of them next time. Let me just say this: don’t go expecting a 60s folk-rock band to get biblical Hebrew right.

Now I’m sure you noticed that in Lines 3–6 the word “because” (כִּי) takes over and doesn’t even make all that much sense. Let me explain why. Poring over biblical files,📚 sleuths have noticed that part of what separates poetic speech from prose is that prose uses a lot of logical words, connectors that help organize parts of a sentence. Poetic speech is short sentences without logic-words between them. “Because” (כִּי) is one of those logic-words. So too are “there is” (יֵשׁ), “what, that” (שֶׁ־), “when” (כַּאֲשֶׁר). Qohelet loads up on these logic-words in Lines 3–6, which makes them very unpoetic. But he uses “because” so automatically that it doesn’t really mean anything; if you’ve ever lost an argument with a pre-adult human, you know how this works. What makes it powerful here, is that Qohelet is using a word that signals causes and results just as he is saying people have no idea how to identify causes and results, and he’s using the word really loosely, which illustrates his point.

Look, I’ll just add one more thing. The first line with “because,” Line 3, has a mixed character. On the one hand, it has the rhythm of the poetic lines that come before it, and it repeats the words “time and course of action” that were just used. On the other hand, it has the prose wording (“because” כִּי and “there is” יֵשׁ) of the lines that follow. This makes it a transition from the poetic counterpunch to the all-out prose combination.

A sleuth of biblical poetry just has to love such a clever attack on it, you know? It’s asking, just what do we use language to do? Like I said, I’ll give you more examples next time, including my take on the poem in chapter 3 that you might know from The Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn!

For you who TRUST NO ONE, some case notes:

From example 1

9:18 וְחוֹטֶא אֶחַד “one misstep.” Also possible is “one bungler,” but the stronger version of the point is not that it takes just a type of person, but just a single instance. In any case, this has nothing to do with “sin;” see Judg 20:16; probably also Isa 65:20; Qoh 7:26; 2:26.

10:1 זְבוּבֵי מָוֶת “A dead fly.” Why not “killer flies?” Well, first of all, I’m not sure what kind of flies those would be. But also “killer flies” undermines the point being made: not only will killer flies rot the ointment, they’ll kill whoever wears it. It’s harmless flies that make the point. Plus, the verbs that follow are in the singular, יַבְאִישׁ יַבִּיעַ, so plural “flies” is a mismatch. All it takes to fix this is a minor emendation to זְבוּב יָמוּת “a flies that dies” (move yod from the end of one word to the beginning of the next and adjust the vowels from noun to verb). Remember, the original text would have had no vowels, and often enough one scribe’s rushed spacing led the next copyist to divide words incorrectly. 

From example 2

8:5 לֵב חָכָם “astute mind.” The ancients of Israel and Judea thought the heart is the organ of thought, feeling, and self-awareness, what we call the “mind.” I haven’t found what they thought the brain does. 

8:6 רָעַת הָאָדָם “a person’s misfortune.” Plenty of times in the Bible רָעָה doesn’t mean “evil” in the moral sense, just like מִשְׁפָּט doesn’t always mean “justice” and חט״א doesn’t always mean “sin.” These kinds of loaded terms almost always have a wider set of meanings. 

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