Monday, March 14, 2011

Ecclesiastes and Agnostic Destinies

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath (רוּחַ); so that man hath no pre-eminence above a beast; for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all return to dust. Who knoweth the spirit (רוּחַ) of man whether it goeth upward, and the spirit (רוּחַ) of the beast whether it goeth downward to the earth? Wherefore I perceived that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his works; for that is his portion; for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him? (Ecclesiastes 3:19-22)

The above passage is rich in reflective material.

Unlike other passages in the Bible that delineate a body-soul dualism in which the soul, the animus, survives death in a disembodied state (see Revelation 6:9; Luke 16:22; et. al.), this passage softens or even eliminates dualism. It does this by comparing the mortality of humanity to that of beasts—placing humanity on a similar footing with the rest of the animal kingdom.

It is worth noting the bias in most English translations at this point. The same Hebrew word translated “breath” and “spirit” is the Hebrew word רוּחַ transliterated as ruakh. This word carries the meanings of breath, air, spirit, etc. Because English readers tend to anthropomorphize “spirit” to refer to the disembodied soul, the immaterial “true you” that survives death, it is uncommon for most English translations to translate ruakh as “spirit” with reference to non-human animals. Hence, “spirit” is generally reserved as the translation for ruakh only when it refers to humanity or God. Notice in the first occurrence of ruakh above the translators used the word breath, and it is only when the ruakh is described leaving the body that it is applied in parallel to non-human animals and humans. Hence, it is worth noting that “they all have one breath” in verse 19 is actually referring to the spirit/ruakh shared between metabolic biological life on Earth.

After meditating on the “one spirit” that equalizes humanity with the rest of the animal kingdom, we learn that we all have the same fate. The mortality of the beast is comparable to the mortality of the person. This passage might suggest a dualism with the upward mobility of the human ruakh contrasted with the downward, “to the earth,” direction of the non-human ruakh, but this is posed as a question. The author is actually presenting himself as agnostic on this matter—unsure of whether there is a difference between the destiny of humanity and animals. Rather than despairing of hope and purpose in the absence of existence or awareness beyond the grave, the author concludes that “there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his works; for that is his portion…”

Naturally, most fundamentalist scholars and apologists will neutralize this passage’s message. They will posit progressive revelation so that the author was unable to know about the promise of the resurrection. Or, they might state that this was written in despair and with appropriate genre consideration, that this passage is not authoritative. In making these hermeneutical maneuvers they may maintain the integrity of their dogma and belief systems, but they lose the texture of the Bible and they mute biblical authors who disagree with their status quo. This passage is incredibly agnostic about human purpose and destiny. It does not hold out the hope of eternal life which is no surprise considering that a maturely articulated life-after-death schema was not present in the religion of Israel until during and after the Babylonian Exile (see Daniel 12:2 for an example of a passage heavily influenced by Zoastrainism).

However, as a non-theist who does not believe our purpose is contingent on the dictates of gods or other such external authorities nor on the eternal destinies that our minds fancy, I find a lot in common with this passage. I realize that there is futility, a vanity that permeates my existence. Yet, I enjoy life. I work hard; I enjoy the fruits of my labors. According to the Preacher (the author of Ecclesiastes, see 1:1), I am participating in the best of life. Do I agree with this conclusion? I do in part, but enough has been said for this post.


Fizlowski said...

However literalists may interpret the passage, the fact is that they are interpreting, which means they aren't really as literal in their interpretations as they claim.

Peter said...

Yes, one of their 'exegetical' laws is that of allowing the clear to interpret the unclear. However, the clear simply is that which seems to communicate what they already hold to be true. And so they abuse the Bible by allowing their pet readings, which they believe support their status quo, to trump and silence the readings which would otherwise challenge their status quo understandings.

Truly, I know of no group more excited about the Bible that is also so eager to abuse and silence it than the "Bible-alone" believer.

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