Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Michael V. Fox, JPS Torah Commentary: Ecclesiastes (Philadelphia, PA.: Jewish Publication Society, 2004).  Pp. xxxviii + 87.  Cloth, $34.95.   ISBN 0-8276-0742-3.

This commentary, the latest in the fine JPS Commentary Series, underscores Koheleth’s peculiar place in the biblical canon by making accessible the book’s literary style, rich interpretive history, and rather subversive philosophy. Its primary contribution lies in its ability to provide a useful philosophical framework for Koheleth’s often self-contradictory and dissenting views.

Fox opens the commentary with a series of brief discussions that establish Koheleth’s literary, historical, and philosophical contexts. Here one finds brief treatments of the meaning of book’s title and the issues surrounding its authorship, Koheleth’s place in “Wisdom Literature,” and its philosophical outlook. Also treated are Koheleth’s various literary forms (proverbs, maxims, autobiography, royal testament, and narrative), its date and place in Jewish literature (in the canon and liturgy), its structure and unity, and its use of keywords.

These discussions are then followed by brief synopses of the major interpretations and interpreters that have influenced our understanding of Koheleth including: midrashic texts, Abraham ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Samuel b. Judah ibn Tibbon, Moshe Alsheikh, Moses Mendelssohn, Samuel David Luzzatto, George Barton, H. L. Ginsberg, Martin Hengel, Roland Murphy, and Choon-Leong Seow (pp. xxv-xxx). These sources, and others not discussed in the synopses, are then judiciously referenced throughout the volume. The synopses conveniently also provide readers with a context for understanding Fox’s own commentary, which is then summarized (pp. xxx-xxxiii). 

The useful synopses open a window into Koheleth’s interesting reception history, but also demonstrate, perhaps incidentally, how closely tied the process of interpretation is to the time and worldview of the interpreter. Consequently, they also place into historical relief Fox’s own interpretation, which at times brings Koheleth much closer to our “Post-Modern” world of inherent contradictions and complexities.

A life with strict correspondence between deed and consequence, virtue and reward, vice and punishment, would make sense. But Koheleth sees that this does not happen, and he is weighed down by the collapse of meaning, as revealed by the contradictions that pervade life. These are antinomies, contradictory propositions that seem equally valid. These antinomies should not be eliminated by harmonization, for they are the essence of what Koheleth observes. He is not consistent because the world is not consistent (p. xxx).

For Fox, Koheleth’s internal struggle can be ameliorated only in part by embracing the things that bring happiness. His God is transcendent, distant, dangerous, and omnipotent. His God neither comforts, nor feels compelled to respond to righteous prayers or cries for help. Nevertheless, Koheleth is not a radical skeptic in utter disregard for traditional beliefs, but a frustrated sage, a complex individual who embodies life’s many contradictions.

Of course, as Fox discusses, Koheleth’s historical context is the Ptolemaic era (p. 35), and so as one might expect, it bears the imprint of Hellenistic philosophy. This is especially apparent in the book’s perception of pleasure in Epicurean terms, its restriction of freewill, and its emphasis on fate and reason.

The boldest, most radical notion in the book is not Koheleth’s contradictions, his pessimism, or his observations of injustices. It is the belief that the individual can and should proceed toward truth by means of his own powers of perception and reasoning; and that he can in this way discover truths previously unknown. There are no external rules, no doctrines or traditions to which conclusions must conform. This is the approach of philosophy, and its appearance in Ecclesiastes probably reflects a Jewish awareness of this type of thinking among foreign intellectuals (pp. xi-xii).

This is an insightful and accessible commentary that reflects many years of deep engagement with the text. It is also surprisingly brief  (it is only eighty-seven pages in length). Effective commentaries like this one naturally leave readers wanting more information. Nevertheless, a more comprehensive treatment of some topics in appendices (as in several other JPS Commentaries) might have provided greater depth for more eager readers. For example, though Hellenistic influence on Koheleth is noted parenthetically throughout the commentary (e.g., Qoh 2:14, p. 16; 3:21, p. 26; 5:7, p. 35) and referenced in various footnotes, it is never fully discussed. Consequently, some readers will be left with questions. Were there any specific Hellenistic philosophies that influenced Koheleth? Is it impossible to know? Certainly Koheleth’s philosophy stands as rather unique among Hebrew writings prior to the Middle Ages (p. xii), but is there anything distinctive about Koheleth’s philosophical approach vis-à-vis Hellenistic philosophies?

Periodically the commentary also alludes to the existence of Phoenician parallels for certain passages (e.g., p. 14), but the significance and implications of these parallels are not spelled out. Do they tell us anything about Koheleth’s intended audience or the cultural context of his worldview? Do the literary parallels imply a sophisticated adoption or subverting of “foreign” styles, or do they represent a shared repertoire of literary tropes?

Similarly, the commentary identifies a number of keywords (pp. xvii-xxi), but does not offer a full discussion of their literary functions other than to note that they “indicate the book’s major themes and give coherence to its varied contents” (p. xvii).  Several keywords, however, may be serving additional functions. Fox shows, for example, that Koheleth’s sometimes exploits the full semantic ranges of his keywords. Thus the word hevel, might mean “vanity” in one passage, but “futile” or “incomprehensible” in another, and so on. Such a device more properly belongs to the realm of antanaclasis, and thus aims, much like Koheleth’s philosophy, to subvert expectations.

Notwithstanding these minor observations,[1] there is much in this commentary that will benefit lay readers and scholars alike. It is concise and informative, and it makes accessible a world of learning on Koheleth. Perhaps more importantly, it makes Koheleth’s dissent and contradicting statements historically and philosophically understandable.

Scott B. Noegel
University of Washington

[1] There are a few typographical errors that have crept into the manuscript and I offer them here in anticipation of further editions. On page xxxiv, nn. 17, 25, one finds the abbreviated citation C. D. Ginsburg, Coheleth, 27-245, but a full citation does not appear earlier.  Some word appears to have been dropped on p. 11 where one reads: “They all reasonable and respectable…”; and on p. 69 one also finds: “how to do do so…”