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The Ironic Wink

James L. Crenshaw

Publication Year: 2013

Rarely does a biblical book evoke admiration from a Nobel laureate in literature, a newspaper columnist, a prize-winning poet, and a popular songwriter. Ecclesiastes has done that, and for good reason. Its author, who called himself Qoheleth, stared death in the face and judged all human endeavors to be futile. For Qoheleth observation is the only avenue to understanding; an arbitrarily wrathful and benevolent deity created and rules over the world; and death is unpredictable, absolute, and final. His message is simple: seize the moment, for death awaits. James L. Crenshaw begins by examining the essential mysteries of the book of Ecclesiastes: the speaker’s identity, his emphasis on hidden or contradictory truths, and his argument of the insubstantiality of most things and the ultimate futility of all efforts. Moving from the ancient to the contemporary, Crenshaw again analyzes Qoheleth’s observations about the human condition, this time testing if they can stand up against rational inquiry today. In exploring Qoheleth’s identity, the foundations of his outlook, and his recommendations, Crenshaw engages modern readers in a conversation about one of the most disagreed upon biblical books. In Qoheleth, Crenshaw draws on related literature from the ancient Near East and traces the impact of Qoheleth in both Christian and Jewish traditions, summarizing a lifetime of scholarship on the book of Ecclesiastes. While exploring Ecclesiastes and its enigmatic author, Crenshaw engages scholars and modern interpreters in genuine debate over the lasting relevance of Qoheleth’s teachings and the place of Ecclesiastes in the biblical canon.

Published by: University of South Carolina Press

Series: Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament


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pp. 1-5


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pp. v-7

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Series Editor’s Preface

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pp. vii-viii

Critical study of the Bible in its ancient Near Eastern setting has stimulated interest in the individuals who shaped the course of history and whom events singled out as tragic or heroic figures. Rolf Rendtorff's Men of the Old Testament (1968) focuses on the lives of important biblical figures as a means of illuminating history, particularly...

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pp. ix-x

The book of Ecclesiastes has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. A Guggenheim Fellowship to study the depiction of old age in Ecclesiastes and in related literature from the ancient Near East and an invitation to be a fellow at St. Edmund’s House at Cambridge University in 1984–85 made it possible for me to put the finishing...

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pp. 1-8

Like the unknown author of this Greek epitaph, who had experienced a shaking of the foundations of knowledge in his or her day, the protagonist in the book of Ecclesiastes, who called himself Qoheleth (pronounced Qoh-hél-eth) had seen the assumptions of the intelligentsia and the practical guidelines of ordinary citizens...

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1 Authorial Deceit

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pp. 9-22

Ecclesiastes, the strangest book in the Bible,1 introduces a speaker who twice identifies himself as Qoheleth and is referred to in the third person as Qoheleth five times. Because the book includes a superscription in the opening verse, two inclusios or thematic refrains, in 1:2 and 12:8 that summarize Qoheleth’s views about...

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2 Veiled Truth?

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pp. 23-32

With the name Qoheleth raising more questions than it answers, a conscious rhetorical strategy of elusiveness may be at work. To be convincing, the author’s deliberate personalizing of his insights required the exposure of his identity while their unorthodox nature demanded an element of subterfuge. For this reason...

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3 Elusive Essence

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pp. 33-48

Why did Qoheleth chose to place a veil over his teachings by reaching contradictory conclusions about so many things? Despite the various answers offered by various interpreters, the real reason for the many contradictions within the book seems most likely to be Qoheleth’s decision to employ a rhetorical strategy that highlights...

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4 Ocular Deception

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pp. 49-58

In his view of reality as altogether elusive and his emphasis on the futility—even absurdity, to the point of foulness (hebel)—of the chase or the invisible food (the two meanings of re‘ut ruah) could Qoheleth’s sight have been obscured, his vision blurred, by uncontrollable factors? I shall now explore the possibility that his eyes...

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5 Surreptitious Givens

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pp. 59-69

If Qoheleth’s eyes did occasionally deceive him, his conclusions cannot always be trusted. Like everyone else, he was encased in a suit of armor that he did not choose and of which he was probably unaware. His ancestors “clothed” him with their own worldview, which as a child he put on without a moment’s thought. In a sense his...

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6 Victorious Time

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pp. 70-81

Aweary traveler, wandering alone in a dense forest, hears heavy footsteps in the distance and quickens his pace, fearing that a ferocious beast will devour him. As the frightening sounds come closer and closer, he runs frantically and falls headlong into he knows not what. Fortunately his luck has not run out yet, for his...

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7 Tasty Nectar

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pp. 82-92

The sun’s rising and setting was a daily reminder that time is sovereign, in the long run triumphing over everything. Still the sun rises and sets as usual, and the dead no longer witness its splendor or bow in subjection to time’s supremacy. In the brief span of existence under the sun, what should one do? Like many other...

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8 Flawed Genius

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pp. 93-107

If some people are unable, for whatever reason, to heed Qoheleth’s advice to enjoy life and if death threatens to cut short the pleasure others find, is there a serious flaw in his fundamental teaching? The epilogues in 12:9–14 appear to suggest exactly that. They comprise two triads of verses (12:9–11 and 12:12–14) that give important...

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pp. 108-116

We may be unable to decide whether Qoheleth’s teachings expose the weakness of intellectual pursuits or mark their finest hour, whether they signal the bankruptcy of wisdom or reveal its ultimate triumph—its power of self-criticism. Our indecision is owing to the ambiguity intrinsic to the book in which the insights...

Appendix: Intellectual Kinship

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pp. 117-118


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pp. 119-149

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 151-159

Index of Biblical and Extrabiblical Literature

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pp. 161-165

Subject Index

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pp. 167-170

E-ISBN-13: 9781611172584
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611172577

Page Count: 184
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament