Thursday, June 03, 2004

The Bible's most improbable book, Ecclesiastes, gets a new Jewish analysis

By: RICHARD OSTLING - Associated Press

What is the Book of Ecclesiastes doing in the Bible? This astonishing little masterwork from ancient Israel struggles with concepts found elsewhere in the Scriptures.

Ecclesiastes is greatly perplexed that evil people often prosper while good ones suffer, and says that life sometimes seems to lack meaning or makes no sense. It asks, how do things fit together?

The issues are sifted, if not exactly answered, in "Ecclesiastes," the latest of the Jewish Publication Society's commentaries on biblical books. The series is excellent in quality, but pricey (this 87-page book costs $34.95).

"Ecclesiastes" provides the Hebrew text, the JPS English translation, and an introduction and verse-by-verse comments from Michael V. Fox, professor of Hebrew at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison.


As in Fox's "A Time To Tear Down and a Time To Build Up" (Eerdmans, 1999), this commentary disputes scholars from the past century who've seen Koheleth as a modern-style skeptic, pessimist or fatalist who embraces pleasure and scorns the rest of Scripture.

By that theory, the traditional beliefs in Ecclesiastes were tacked on by later rabbis to offset the bleak original, for example the book's summation: "Revere God and observe his commandments! For this applies to all mankind."

But in Fox's view, Koheleth is no nihilist. The speaker says that many things are worthwhile in life: moderate work and pleasure, love and friendship, gaining and using our limited human wisdom, seeking to be righteous, and "fearing God and hoping for divine justice."

This complex biblical book says that such things are often fleeting, limited and uncertain, but they "are enough to make life worth living," Fox says.


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