Ecclesiastes interpretation: two views

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Ecclesiastes interpretation: two views

Post  DavidTSD on Sat Oct 24, 2009 7:12 am

Hi guys. I was wondering if you can help me out with a friendly debate I am having with my fundamentalist friend about the book of Ecclesiastes. I have read the book and came up with the following interpretation:

1) Life is unfair and useless. Bad things happen to good people; good things happen to bad people. Happiness, power, and fame are fleeting. There is no afterlife. The best we can do is to try to enjoy this life (“eat, drink, and be merry”).

However, there seems to be another interpretation held by Christians.

2) Life apart from god is useless. The pessimism of interpretation number 1 is missing the point that only a life without God is to be pessimistic.

Christians give two reasons for this view. One is the concluding advice (12:13) to obey God’s law. This however, I find a bit peculiar considering the author repeatedly denies any kind of afterlife (or at least the knowledge of one). It seems more like general advice to obey the Commandments. The second reason is the phrase “under the sun” first seen in chapter 1 verse 3. “Under the sun” is found a total of 29 times throughout the book. Christians claim the life “under the sun” implies a life without god (“above the sun” would be with God). Therefore, to the Christians, this phrase is the key to unlocking all the negativity about life found throughout the book.

Yet, it seems to me that “under the sun” was merely a more poetic way of saying “everything” or “life in general” and was not intended to be a metaphor for a metaphysical distinction. I think argument number 2 is the Christians trying to take their worldview and make it fit to this pessimistic book by claiming a metaphor for “under the sun.” Certainly throughout the book, there is no explicit support for argument number 2.

Please give me your thoughts, advice, and comments. Does my assesment of the Christian arguement have merit? And does anybody know what the Hebrew for “under the sun” is or what it meant?

By the way, the book of Ecclesiastes is a relatively short book and a good read for atheists.


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Re: Ecclesiastes interpretation: two views

Post  Sosa on Sat Oct 24, 2009 1:49 pm

I don't think there is any evidence that shows that "under the sun" means life without God. Ask him if anywhere else in the bible the phrase "under the sun" refers to life without God, or "over the sun" referring to life with God. What is the original word used for "under the sun"?

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Re: Ecclesiastes interpretation: two views

Post  Nicholas on Sun Oct 25, 2009 10:26 pm

Yeah, I think you may be wasting your time arguing with a fundamentalist. They're gonna read whatever they want to out of that book. You're an outsider trying to tell them what their holy book says. In my experiences, it's not gonna lead anywhere except to drowning your frustrating at the bottom of a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black.


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Post  LonghWynn on Mon Oct 26, 2009 1:55 pm

search randyhelzerman on youtube, I remembered that he did a segment about this book. That may shed some insight for you. But yeah, this book is a very interesting book. Outside of Leviticus and Genesis, which atheists should read to use as tools against creationism silliness, this would be the one we should read


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Re: Ecclesiastes interpretation: two views

Post  snafu on Tue Oct 27, 2009 1:27 am

I asked a good friend who has a PHD in Religion about this, and this was his reply:

" I note that the email post was interested in the Hebrew for "under the sun". If you don't find what you're after in the articles, ask me again and I will chase up the Hebrew for you. (I've run out of time today...)

I did read the post and found the assessment to be a little shallow in part. In particular, in the post it is pointed out that Eccl. does not refer to the afterlife. Big deal, most of the OT does not talk about the afterlife either. In fact, the Jewish concept of resurrection only developed approx. 200 BCE, in connection with the rise of Hellenism and Hellenistic Judaism (i.e. it's basically a "Greek" concept). The post then went on to say that the commandments to keep God's laws are out of place considering that there is no talk of an afterlife.

It appears that the author is making an assumption, namely, that Jewish commandments are to be followed because of the promise of an afterlife. Perhaps I have misread the post? Such an assumption may hold up for Islamic faith (you know, all the virgins and so forth...), but it does not hold up for Judaism. The Torah is part of a covenant relationship with Yahweh and has little to do with an "afterlife". I suspect the author of your post is conflating 20th/21st century Christian fundamentalism (basically "turn or burn mentality) into his/her interpretation of Eccl."

Here is a link where you can obtain the best article suggested by my friend. I don't think I can post up the pdf for copyright reasons. (Apologies).
Perhaps you can access it through a university library?

I decided to post this in the interest of providing a reply to the question from an informed source (more informed than me, in any case). My friend gave the comment in good faith, and will not want to get into a raging debate with people here, having with me in the middle. So please, don't expect any replies or further dialog. Take his reply or leave it.

Best regards

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Re: Ecclesiastes interpretation: two views

Post  Stanley on Wed Oct 28, 2009 6:18 am

"Life is unfair"

Off-topic but I sometimes hear parents saying "Life isn't fair" to their kids when they say, "that isn't fair". I always* want to interject and say, "They are right you know, life isn't fair. It's isn't unfair either. It's indifferent. It simply doesn't care one way or the other as it can't." and then walk off smugly knowing I've changed the kid's life for the better.

*I've never actually wanted to and never will. I just wish someone had said it to me when I were a lad.

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Re: Ecclesiastes interpretation: two views

Post  jgrow2 on Sun Nov 01, 2009 2:14 pm

For what it's worth, I always looked at Ecclesiastes as the most Zen or Taoist sounding of all the books. The NIV "Everything is meaningless" made me giggle the first time I read it for that very reason.

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