Qohelet v The Byrds

Turn! Turn! Turn! “To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose, under heaven.” 🤨 How absurd, says Qohelet, how utterly absurd. Seasons are for the birds. People who pay attention know life is fickle. This one sows, that one reaps. This one toils, that one eats. This one boils, that one sleeps. Trying to predict life and control it is like corralling the wind🌪. After a storm ⛈, just try and find the butterfly that flapped its wings 🦋. I’m going to get into the poem from Qohelet that made the Byrds richer than Solomon. But I’m going to backtrack first. One step back,🦶🏼two steps forward. 👣 Sleuthing can be like that. Stay with me.

The Book of Qohelet is not an easy case to close. Qohelet is a hard man to follow, and it’s harder to make sense of what he’s doing. You think you’re on the trail and know where he’s going, but time after time he turns a sharp corner, ducks into an alley, and slips away. Last time I explained that one reason is that Qohelet seems to say one idea then its opposite without explaining how they go together. He keeps zig-zagging like that; how are you’re supposed to keep up? 🔀 The key to superior tracking is not hiding well while someone’s going somewhere; it’s understanding which way they are heading long before they get there. But following Qohelet feels like chasing the wind.🌬🎈

Now a few sharp sleuths figured out that what Qohelet is doing is first quoting a proverb or proverbial wisdom, then giving the punchline or counterpunch that undercuts it. He’s not contradicting himself; he’s arguing with others — actually, with a whole tradition! That kind of thing is a matter of tone, first mimicking (nyah nyah nyah 😝) then zinging (ha! 🤣), and originally the Hebrew text did not have indicators for that, like “quotation marks,” italics, or !exclamation points! Heck, it didn’t even have vowels, let alone tell you where sentences and paragraphs end and the next one starts. This is why I say a Bible sleuth has to hear 📞 the text like it’s a real speaker. The logic holding two sentences together can depend entirely on the tone🎻🎷 in which they’re said. You can see how meanings can get lost, especially in translation.

This kind of double-voicing — an unmarked quote within a quote, saying something in one voice (a satirical one) and saying something else in another (an earnest one) — can create some real confusion in another way. Like any philosopher — or professor 👀 — Qohelet has his own way of talking. He likes certain words and uses them over and over, but not always in the same way. They go from being just a word to a key-word and to a key concept. In Qohelet, the word for time (et עֵת) is like this, a real slippery thing. Instead of enjoying the company of people 🏟 or doing some healthy activity 🤸🏼, a sleuth spends their extra time searching the Bible 📖, and realizing that “time” (‘et) can refer to regular and predictable things and it can also refer to the opposite, random situations, coincidence. Qohelet uses the word both ways, but this is overlooked because of the Byrds… Ok, not because of the Byrds, but because one major poem in Qohelet that has everyone’s attention has blocked out other meanings and made the other instances impossible to understand. And that poem is itself double-voiced, a parody introduced and concluded by Qohelet’s real sentiment.

First, let me give you an example about “time” (‘et). Then I’ll get to what Qohelet says before and after the poem. In one of Qohelet’s more straight-forward moments, he says that people who, by the rules of things, should always succeed at what they do, do not, because they are subject to forces they cannot control, timing and coincidence (‘et and pega’). He says this like a classic proverb, by giving a bunch of examples, but the Hebrew does not rhyme and it uses a whole bunch of prose particles over and over (“that,” “because,” “and also” [kiwe-gam]), so it reads like a pedantic list in prose. (In my translation, I can’t help converting it to verse, against Qohelet’s grain. I can be like that.😈) 

Qohelet 9:11

I saw again and again under the sun that (ki),

not to the fleetest does the race ever go,

nor does the valiant victory always know,

not to the cleverest does the money ever flow,

nor do the wise always stand in grace’s glow,

because (ki) chance (‘et) and circumstance (pega’) befall them all.

שַׁבְתִּי וְרָאֹה תַחַת־הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ כִּי

לֹא לַקַּלִּים הַמֵּרוֹץ, 

וְלֹא לַגִּבּוֹרִים הַמִּלְחָמָה,

וְגַם לֹא לַחֲכָמִים לֶחֶם,

וְגַם לֹא לַנְּבֹנִים עֹשֶׁר,

וְגַם לֹא לַיֹּדְעִים חֵן,

כִּי־עֵת וָפֶגַע יִקְרֶה אֶת־כֻּלָּם.

In what comes immediately next, Qohelet says more about the idea that circumstances overwhelm people. He compares it to fish 🐟 and birds 🦜caught in a hunter’s trap; they have no idea what is happening and how to control it. 

Qohelet 9:12

Because (ki) a human being will never know their situation (‘et), like fish that are caught in a wicked trap or like birds that are caught in a snare. Just like them are human beings ever trapped by a wicked situation (‘et) when, of a sudden, it befalls them.

כִּי גַּם לֹא־יֵדַע הָאָדָם אֶת־עִתּוֹ כַּדָּגִים שֶׁנֶּאֱחָזִים בִּמְצוֹדָה רָעָה וְכַצִּפֳּרִים הָאֲחֻזוֹת בַּפָּח. כָּהֵם יוּקָשִׁים בְּנֵי הָאָדָם לְעֵת רָעָה כְּשֶׁתִּפּוֹל עֲלֵיהֶם פִּתְאֹם

Again, the word for “circumstances, situation” is ‘et which means here not “(appropriate) time, season,” but “(poor) timing, coincidence.” And you can see how Qohelet loads up on prose particles, “because, like, like them, when.” What makes this expanded part another sharp barb against proverb-type poetry is that it’s common, classic even, for a proverb to use animals to illustrate human values. Qohelet uses animals to illustrate how clueless and hopeless human beings are. 

You see now what Qohelet really thinks and where “time” (‘et) fits in. Wait, what, I upset you? You find this depressing? 😕 Look, you can’t be a sleuth if you want everything working out like a Hallmark movie. Heck, you can’t even just read case-files. It’s because things don’t add up that you need sleuths, a breed of bloodhound hellbent on the truth because it’s there to be found, daring you to find it. When you get a guy like Qohelet working that angle so relentlessly and brutally, well, let’s just say that to a sleuthing type it cuts like a streetlamp through the gritty night.🎇

Anyway, now to the poem (3:1–8). It seems like Qohelet’s getting all poetic about the rhythms and regularities of life, as it swings between opposites. That’s the song Pete Seeger made out of it in 1959, which the Byrds covered for all time in 1965. Here’s that version:

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time for every purpose, under Heaven

  1. A time to be born, a time to die
  2. A time to plant, a time to reap
  3. A time to kill, a time to heal
  4. A time to laugh, a time to weep (Refrain)
  5. A time to build up, a time to break down
  6. A time to dance, a time to mourn
  7. A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together (Refrain)
  8. A time of love, a time of hate
  9. A time of war, a time of peace
  10. A time you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing (Refrain)
  11. A time to gain, a time to lose
  12. A time to rend, a time to sew

A time to love, a time to hate

A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late

First comes a principle, that everything has its time (‘et). Then comes a long illustration, a dozen pairs of opposed activities and moods, with both parts headed by “A time to” or some variation. Actually, the list creates a feeling that goes beyond the principle. Things don’t just go as they should. They have a pace and a rhythm. The opposites alternate smoothly. The form of the text (highly structured, repetitious) adds to the original idea (that life goes according to plan) another idea (that life has rhythm and balance, symmetry). Time passes like the pendulum on a grandfather clock. Now who doesn’t get warm and fuzzy at that image? Me — I never had much use for nostalgia; it fogs up my brain (see Qohelet 7:10).

Now the real facts I dug up are this: Actually, Qohelet scoffs at the whole idea of life having rhythm and symmetry. I found three clues about this, what he says before the poem, what he says right afterwards, and — ready? — how the poem actually falls apart when you get into the details. This is the most difficult case yet to explain, so ramp up the sleuthing part of your brain.

☝️Before the poem, Qohelet talks about how unpredictable life is (2:17–26). As king he had been super-successful; all the principles and proverbs worked for him. One day the light went on in his head,💡 a series realizations that stripped away all the promising layers until nothing was left but truth in the raw, and what he saw dead on — it wasn’t pretty. He realized that he can’t guarantee his heir would not be a lazy, squandering loser; or that his inheritance would even go to his son and not someone else; or, for that matter, when he would die; or that he would remain successful until that day; or that the pleasure itself he had from his goods will last. So Qohelet’s realization before the song is the opposite of it. There are no reliable patterns or “seasons” in life. One has to constantly roll with the punches🥊 and improvise.

✌️After the poem, Qohelet asks rhetorically, “What’s the advantage of laboring away!?” (3:9) It is pointless, because everything is subject to circumstance. Plus, God controls it (3:10), and he keeps us off-balance (3:11) precisely to keep us fearing him (3:14). 

So both before the poem and after it, Qohelet says the opposite of it. Life is not symmetrical and balanced. It is without rhythm and it throws us off balance. This means that the poem is not Qohelet’s idea. He quotes it without meaning it. He means the opposite. He quotes it to contradict it. One voice, then another; double-voicing. Irony.

If you got this far you are good in my book. But there’s one more piece to this puzzle, and I don’t sleep till I have the full story, so here goes.

3️⃣ Last time, I made the case that Qohelet made up the flawed proverb about the fragility of precious things in order to show that proverbs hide the truth in plain sight, and we will overlook it in order to find the symmetry (9:18–10:1). The same happens here. The poem is not a real proverbial poem. Qohelet is not quoting a source. He made up the poem to mimic what would be a proverbial poem, and it’s flawed. When you analyze it, it doesn’t actually make sense and it falls apart. Now, the popular version isn’t actually accurate. It reorders, mistranslates, and even omits. So here is the original introduction:

Everything has (its) time, and every endeavor under the sky has (its) timing

לַכֹּל זְמָן, וְעֵת לְכָל־חֵפֶץ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם

and here are the original 14 pairs, but not the complete sentences, which I’ll discuss later:

  1. being born and dying
  2. planting and uprooting
  3. killing and tending (not just healing)
  4. crying and making merry (or being joyful)
  5. smashing and building
  6. mourning and dancing
  7. discarding stones and gathering stones
  8. clasping and avoiding to clasp (yes, it’s this clunky)
  9. demanding and forfeiting
  10. preserving and discarding
  11. tearing and sewing
  12. keeping silent and speaking
  13. loving and hating
  14. war and peace
    1. עֵת לָלֶדֶת וְעֵת לָמוּת
    2. עֵת לָטַעַת וְעֵת לַעֲקוֹר נָטוּעַ
    3. עֵת לַהֲרוֹג וְעֵת לִרְפּוֹא
    4. עֵת לִפְרוֹץ וְעֵת לִבְנוֹת
    5. עֵת לִבְכּוֹת וְעֵת לִשְׂחוֹק
    6. עֵת סְפוֹד וְעֵת רְקוֹד
    7. עֵת לְהַשְׁלִיךְ אֲבָנִים וְעֵת כְּנוֹס אֲבָנִים
    8. עֵת לַחֲבוֹק וְעֵת לִרְחֹק מֵחַבֵּק
    9. עֵת לְבַקֵּשׁ וְעֵת לְאַבֵּד
    10. עֵת לִשְׁמוֹר וְעֵת לְהַשְׁלִיךְ
    11. עֵת לִקְרוֹעַ וְעֵת לִתְפּוֹר
    12. עֵת לַחֲשׁוֹת וְעֵת לְדַבֵּר
    13. עֵת לֶאֱהֹב וְעֵת לִשְׂנֹא
    14. עֵת מִלְחָמָה וְעֵת שָׁלוֹם

And here are the problems:

(a) Qohelet’s examples look like they represent what makes up a life. They feel comprehensive and organized. But sleuths have had an impossible time explaining how they cover life and what the sequence is. Many examples are too elliptical even to know what the case is. Go ahead and try.🔎 I say, there never was an explanation; it’s all an elaborate ruse. 

(b) Qohelet’s examples illustrate very different kinds of “time,” like regular periods of time anchored in a prior event (birth), an idealized period (70–80 years in Ps 90:10) that was rarely met (death), the earth’s seasons (planting), and recognizable circumstances, not periods — involving nature (uprooting), the state of material (gathering stones, sewing), and more. No one meaning of “time” covers all the cases, so the whole thought is simply muddled. In fact, some examples do not say there is a time in which something ought to happen, but the reverse: there is a time that is defined by what is already happening (mourning, dancing, gathering stones, war, peace). Now that’s an outright contradiction, exactly what a sleuth looks for.🕵️

(c) The popular version makes the examples part of one long sentence that begins back in the introduction: “To everything there is a season and (there is) a time for every purpose, under Heaven — a time to be born, a time to die…” etc. This is because in the Hebrew it looks like the same formula is being used throughout the introduction and examples. But the meaning of the formula actually changes, so that they must be separate sentences. The introduction is a statement of possession, “Everything has (its) time and every endeavor under the sky has (its) timing,” and the examples are statements of existence, “There is a time to do X” (or: “for X-ing”). Now here’s why it matters. In examples 12, 13, 15, 27 and 28 (lines 6, 7b, and 14), the formulation is not a sentence, just an item, “a time of X,” as if the entire poem has been one long sentence with a long list. In other words, when you read from the introduction forward, the examples must be separate sentences. But at points along the way and at the end, the formula acts like there’s been one long sentence all along. Another contradiction. Like a quantum thing, the text changes depending on where are you when you are looking at it. 

So we have three ways in which the poem itself falls apart: it’s one sentence and it’s many, it’s about time prompting actions and actions defining time, and the series of actions is random. What feels perfectly patterned and paced, tick tock, is actually a mess. Read it again now, and you will feel torn again between the sense of symmetry and the details that keep foiling it. The fly in the ointment. Qohelet created the proverbial poem to expose proverbial poems and laugh at them. 🎭

I see you’re hooked on this story, so one last point. Qohelet leaves the truth in plain view, knowing you’ll overlook it, not just in the examples, but also in the opening sentence itself. The compound sentence, which uses synonyms and a conjunction, seems like the same thing is said twice, “everything (כֹּל) has its time (זְמָן)” = “every endeavor (כָּל־חֵפֶץ) under the sky has its time (עֵת).” But Qohelet uses the second expression again, where the word for “time” (עֵת) does not refer to something regular, periodic, or fixed, but to a unique set of circumstances. Lamenting that courts are confused and unreliable places, exactly where you want clarity and justice but rarely get it, he leaves it to God to sort things out “because every affair has its unique circumstances (עֵת לְכָל־חֵפֶץ),” and only God sees the whole picture (3:16–17). So right at the beginning Qohelet announced his thought, “every endeavor under the sky has its timing,” but formulated it just so, so that when you got into the poem, you’d assimilate it to the impression made by the poem of repetition and symmetry and miss its point.

Like so many other artists, Qohelet buries clues to be discovered rather than come out and make his point directly. Sometimes, it takes a sleuth to track a sleuth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *