Monday, September 7, 2009

How Did This Get In? Ecclesiastes 9

That the book of Ecclesiastes stands up rather well as a piece of ancient wisdom is, in itself, unsurprising; that such a book should have passed into the Christian canon is something of a mystery. This passage from chapter 9, for example, strikes me as well short of the Bible's typical standards of cruelty, incoherence, pointlessness, and audacious falsehood:

For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.

For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.

Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.

Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.

Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment.

Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.
A living dog better than a dead lion? Even if the lion whispered just the right sequence of sweet nothings about Jesus into a priest's ear just before death? And this business about everything coming to a halt once one enters the grave? It's enough to make a Pope crap his jewel-encrusted dress or send a protestant preacher into the comforting arms of his favorite hooker/meth dealer.

Oh well, Christian thinkers have always found their way out of discomfiting passages like this by means of obfuscating hermeneutics, which is to say, convenient redactions. No doubt the passage really means, when subjected to just exactly the right amount of squinting and context-shopping,
something something the Bible is the word of god something something the authority of scripture, but something something Jesus reshuffled the deck by getting tortured to death and therefore, the believing Christian should read this passage to say something something Jesus something something and therefore John 3:16, WWJD, and please tithe generously.
Or words to that effect. It makes perfect sense to me, but then again, I've spent a lot of years getting to know the genre and its conventions.

1 comment:

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

You've actually gotten me to go crack a Bible. This is something that religionists do not compel me to do, so what beautiful irony.

I have a NRSV editon - New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (though I feel quite estranged from the Mother Church, in as much as I feel religious desire I feel it in the Catholic way … and will until some other "pastor" preaches death on Obama) and opened it to Ecclesiates 9

Ecclesiastes is one of those wonderfully brief books of the Bible, and in the NRSV translation wonderfully accessable. It might be helpful to point out that the verses you quoted were verses 4-10. Reading the intro and outro to chaper 9, though, I got a real cosmic laugh. Connecting the end of the aforementioned with the coda to the chapter, verses 11 and 12 run (in NRSV) thus:

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them

Or, reduced perhaps to an absurdity, Life ain't fair. Shit happens.

The whole message of Ecclesiastes 9 seems to be enjoy the life you have. It doesn't get better than this. And the rain falls on the just and unjust a like, so you may as well enjoy yourself as you can.

Another ironic point; the captcha on this comment is precis. Wierd.