maandag 11 februari 2013

Review of: Michael V. Fox, Ecclesiastes (The JPS Bible Commentary), The Jewish Publication Society, 2004; in: Intepretation

Michael V. Fox, Ecclesiastes (The JPS Bible Commentary), The Jewish Publication Society, 2004.

Review in: Interpretation 2005 59: 192
Review door: James L. Crenshaw
Gevonden op:

Ecclesiastes: The JPS Bible Commentary
by Michael V. Fox
The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2004.
87 pp. $34.95 (cloth). ISBN 0-8276-0742-3.

LIKE OTHERS IN THIS SERIES, the commentary by Michael V. Fox is written for the general public. It consists of a brief introduction, both to the biblical book and to some of its "major" interpreters, the commentary, and explanatory notes. Christian readers will be especially interested in the succinct characterizations of traditional Jewish commentaries by Abraham ibn Ezra, RASHBAM (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir), Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon, Moses Alsheikh, Moses Mendelssohn, and SHADAL (Samuel David Luzzatto). They may be somewhat puzzled by the choice of "contemporary" interpretations (Barton, Ginsberg, Hengel, Murphy, Seow, and Fox). Surely, Robert Gordis has earned at least honorable mention in this list, to name only one prominent interpreter. Perhaps, however, Fox merely intends to comment on a variety of interpretations. The rationale for the selection is by no means obvious, in any event.

Anyone familiar with modern scholarship on Qoheleth knows that Michael Fox has made a substantial contribution, first with his emphasis on the contradictions within the biblical sage's teachings, and second with his innovative hypothesis that a narrator has framed Qoheleth's teachings as that of another subject from whom he distances himself in the end. Moreover, Fox has rigorously insisted that Qoheleth's teaching is radically empirical, that is, grounded in personal experience rather than revelation or tradition. A consequence of such empiricism, Fox argues, is inconsistency, specifically contradictory views within the book, for life seldom resolves the incongruities we encounter.

Every interpreter of Qoheleth, Fox writes, must give an answer to three questions: what is he negating or complaining about, what does he affirm or recommend, and what are his underlying reasons for each? Qohelth's primary complaint, according to Fox, is the irrationality of the universe; his chief recommendation is to have pleasure insofar as possible; and his reason seems to be that death renders null and void every effort to achieve profit, making the present moment crucial.

Qoheleth's investigative procedure resembles philosophy, according to Fox, specifically the use of reason alone to arrive at truth. Accepting no external rules, Qoheleth appeals to no tradition as binding, and refers to no insight that derives from revelation. Instead, he bases his conclusions on personal experience and his own skill at synthesis. I have elsewhere expressed reservations about this emphasis on empirical truth, for Qoheleth says much about God that has no foundation in daily experience ("Qoheleth's Understanding of Intellectual Inquiry," pp. 205-24 in Qohelet in the Context of Wisdom, ed. A. Schoors [Leuven: University Press, 1998]). At most, one can say that Qoheleth deduced all kinds of things about a deity from reality itself.

Perhaps that deductive process explains Fox's insistence that Qoheleth believed in divine justice in spite of contravening evidence in daily life. Ever opposed to designating any outright contradictory statement as a pious correction of unorthodox views, Fox is left with opposing assertions and denials side by side. Still, one must surely ask: Is it likely that anyone would leave such a conflicting message? Over time, and in discrete contexts, probably, but it is highly unlikely that Qoheleth uttered such contradictions in one and the same breath. A better solution, in my judgment, is to posit an orthodox gloss. Given the clear presence of such glosses in other canonical texts, and the controversial nature of Qoheleth's teachings, this hypothesis has a high degree of probability. That claim stands even if one accepts Fox's theory about the framing narrator, which is itself problematized by two epilogues.

Although denying that an orthodox glossator has touched up Qoheleth's teaching, Fox does not hesitate when it comes to emending the text. He proposes changes in nine instances. Astonishingly, he views 2:3 "and to grasp folly" as a possible pious interpolation. The difficult h'lm (eternity) in 3:11 is rendered h'ml (toil). In 7:19 "ten" becomes "wealth," and in 7:28 'ä&r ("who") is altered to *i$â ("woman"); in 8:8 relet ("wickedness") becomes "oser ("wealth"), and in 8:12 meat ("hundred") is changed to mVaz ("from of old"). The change in 9:2 of hakkôl to hebel and a different division of verses is definitely an improvement over traditional readings, as many critics have observed.

Qoheleth's understanding of God has already been hinted at above. Fox writes that Qoheleth describes the deity as powerful, unpredictable, autocratic, dangerous, distant, cold but not hostile, even if at times perverse (3:10-11; 6:2; 7:14). Nevertheless, Fox believes, Qoheleth ascribes justice to God in the face of its many failures, projecting that justice into the future (3:17; 11:9b). That claim in no way accords with Fox's insistence on an empirical basis for Qoheleth's views, for what experience would confirm such theological dogma?

Not only did Qoheleth reflect on the deity; he was also remarkably self-reflective. Fox detects an emerging self-consciousness, one in which Qoheleth initially recoils from his discoveries and hates life but over time reconciles himself to disappointments to the point that he commends pleasure. The latter advice is offered, even though Qoheleth conceded that distractions did not work for him (6:19). Fox even thinks that Qoheleth engaged in self-directed irony when posing the rhetorical question, "who knows what is good for a person... ?" (6:12) and when reflecting on woman as a threat in 7:29, indicating that his calculations have failed miserably. Similarly, Fox lists 8:17 as self-directed irony, although that text is usually taken as criticism of sapiential optimism. Above all, Fox contends, Qoheleth exhibits a unity of consciousness unlike any other sage. It could be argued that Ben Sira rivals Qoheleth in this regard, for his ego surfaces again and again in his teachings.

The similarities between Qoheleth's teachings and Stoic philosophy have been noted before, and Fox joins those who see close resemblances here. He writes: "the only realm of freedom and control is the human heart—the realm of emotions, thoughts, and attitudes. We are to enjoy whatever pleasures that God makes possible and avoid whatever sorrow we can look away from. This, we may note, is Stoic doctrine" (p. xxxi). He does not link the catalogue of times in 3:1-8 with Stoicism (cf. Joseph Blenkinsopp, "Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, Another Interpretation," JSOT 66 [1995]: 55-64). In discussing the catalogue, Fox inadvertently misconstrues the Hebrew word hèpes for ma'aseh in 3:1, a rare mistake for such a meticulous scholar.

Does Qoheleth offer positive counsel? Fox thinks he does, and he considers the admonition to find pleasure the heart of Qoheleth's advice. Whoever coined the inclusion in 1:8 and 12:8 did not think so, nor do the addenda to the exhortations, which stress life's transitory nature and absurdity, confirm Fox's claim. I doubt, too, that Qoheleth thought the wise knew when to act, which requires a rational universe. In point of fact, he decried the unpredictability of all things, even though warning against outright offense of the deity.

These minor disagreements with Fox's conclusions pale when compared with our agreements, even on controversial matters: that hokmâ ("wisdom") is not inherently ethical; that 'nh in 3:10 probably means afflict; that wisdom's success brings chagrin; that some things are worthwhile even without yielding permanent profit; that the book has no discernible structure; that it dates from the third century; that its vocabulary and syntax are idiosyncratic; that nitenû in 12:11 means "affixed"; and that there remain some unresolved issues, among which are 4:17, "they do not know to do wrong" and 5:8, "and the advantage of a land in all (regards?) is a king for a cultivated field."

To sum up, Fox has put his own stellar insights about Qoheleth into the hands of the general public. In him, they have an able guide.

James L. Crenshaw

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