Any observant reader of the book of Ecclesiastes will notice a certain preoccupation with ideas about time within its pages:
Generations come and go, but the earth remains forever.
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.
Surprisingly, no scholar has published a book-length study focused on this theme until Mette Bundvad’s recently published monograph, Time in the Book of Ecclesiastes.
The opening chapter (“Can the Book of Qohelet Be Read?”) addresses the composition and structure of Qohelet, especially the book’s seemingly contradictory claims and nature. After reviewing various scholarly responses to the problem of contradictions in the book, Bundvad concludes that “it is possible to discuss Qohelet as a unified piece of work” (23) at least in regard to the narrator’s view on a given theme. Bundvad seeks to posit “time” as a theme that brings coherence to the book.
Chapter two (“Towards a Biblical Conception of Time”) introduces the reader to the broader scholarly discussion concerning the concept of time in the Bible. Over a half-century ago, several biblical scholars were advancing the thesis that the ancient Hebrew “mindset” lacked the cognitive capacity for thinking about time (as opposed to merely describing concrete events as they occur in time), since the Hebrew language itself lacked the necessary lexical stock for such reflection. But along came the influential philologist James Barr, who showed that the method of characterizing a people’s “thought patterns” on the basis of their lexical stock is entirely erroneous and betrays a naïve grasp on the relation between language and thought. While Barr was only attempting to offer a corrective, the critique landed with such weight as to virtually annihilate scholarship on time in the Bible. Bundvad, however, seeks to reinstate this work in the field, only using a different approach. With one eye on Barr’s critiques and another on Guy Deutscher’s more recent linguistic work, she avoids a lexical-based approach and posits that a better method for identifying reflective thought on time is to appeal to an author’s syntax and “habital use” of language—ways by which the author directs the reader to concentrate on certain aspects of the world—and an author’s ability to do this transcends the sum of her lexical stock.
Chapter three (“World Time and Human Time in the Framing Poems”) commences the heart of Bundvad’s argument regarding time in Qohelet. Here Bundvad analyzes the book’s pair of “framing poems” found in Eccl 1:4-11 and 12:1-7. Both poems are known for their nature imagery, and for Bundvad both depict a natural world that outflanks and outstretches the individual human’s existence. Regarding the former passage, although most researchers would see Qohelet’s description of humanity’s experience in 1:8-11 (“the eye is not satisfied with seeing, and the ear is not filled with hearing,” 1:8) as symbolized by and in continuity with the cyclicality of nature described in 1:4-7, Bundvad ultimately sees a dichotomy between the poem’s two halves: “humanity’s limited temporal existence, linearly shaped, stands in a tense relationship with the [cyclical] cosmic time-order.” Whereas nature’s oscillations reveal continuity and constancy, humanity stands in isolation, disconnected from the world and even from itself, due to ignorance of the future and the past. If the natural world is a circle, humanity represents a segmented line going nowhere. A similar contrast may be seen in 12:1-7, as “the individual’s going to his grave [happens] simultaneously with the rejuvenation of nature” (69). What is at stake in both poems is the “conflict between world time and time as lived and experienced by the human being” (73).
In chapter four (“The Present in the Book of Qohelet”), Bundvad turns to Qohelet’s notion of “the present” primarily by discussing the famous poem about the “times” (Eccl 3:2-8) within its slightly wider context (3:1-15). The most striking aspects of this chapter may simply be Bunvad’s choice of text to represent “the present.” The poem is comprised of twenty-eight verbal notions—twenty-six of which expressed as infinitives—each connected to the Hebrew word for “time,” ‘et (e.g. “there is a time to be born, a time to die…”). Thus the poem’s very abstractness might seem to mitigate against identifying it with one particular temporal mode, whether past, present, or future. But Bundvad proceeds by linking the present tense specifically with the opportunity for agency, which she regards as the poem’s main idea. She takes issue with deterministic readings of the poem (such as that of Dominic Rudman) and instead proffers that “Qohelet portrays human beings as having the real ability to act; the main problem being their inability to understand how the temporal order influences and limits their existence” (99). That is, humans can choose to act as they like, but they can never know whether their actions are “good for” anything. Moreover, this veil of ignorance is divinely adorned. Thus, while Qohelet’s God is not a deterministic one, he is the source of earthly time’s frustratingly limited temporal structure, which “isolates the human being, rather than providing illumination” (114).
Chapter five (“Connecting Present to Past and Future”) brings the discussion of the temporal present into relation with the past and the future in some additional ways. Again, in Bundvad’s reading, Qohelet experiences an ongoing tension in this temporal relationship, and finds himself caught in a double bind. On the one hand, “Qohelet wants to investigate both the past and the future, and he argues that the present cannot be comprehended in isolation from these temporal horizons.” On the other hand, “because we have no real access to either past or future, reflection on them continually throws Qohelet back into the present” (115), the only realm which offers “the experience of joy” (116). Three key texts outline this chapter’s discussion: 6:1-6, 8:1-9, and 9:1-12. Bundvad’s basic proposal from these texts is that an oft-repeated pattern is discernible in Qohelet’s thought: he begins by praising the goods afforded by the present, only to follow it up by undermining or at least complicating his previous simple endorsement with an awareness of the dark shadow cast by either past or future horizons. For example, “he who is joined to all the living has hope,” Qohelet declares in 9:4, only to offer an ironic ground for such hope in the next verse, “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.” The present may be the only time for meaning and the enjoyment of life, but that does not leave this joy unscathed—surrounded by temporal oblivion in Qohelet’s “claustrophobic” present, “We are fenced in and alone” (122).
In the sixth and final chapter (“Storytelling as a Means of Protest”), Bundvad relates her theme of time to the act of storytelling. The three passages in view are 1:12-2:20, 4:13-16, and 9:13-15, and all three represent distinct narratives within the book. The former text has long been interpreted as Qohelet’s first-person “royal fiction,” in which he recounts his experiences while “king over Israel in Jerusalem” (1:12). Bundvad relates this narrative to the book’s opening poem (1:4-11) provocatively, by adding a third layer of discordance to the dichotomy already described between 1:4-7 and 1:8-11: the poem concludes by declaring the impossibility of humans to know anything about the past (“there is no remembrance of former things,” 1:11), but Qohelet begins the very next section by narrating the story of a king from Israel’s past. The implication for Bundvad is that “Qohelet is not willing to accept” the very “limitations for human cognition” he had just proposed in the opening poem (174). He knows that he cannot know the past, yet the thirst for understanding lures him back to it. This characterization of Qohelet’s royal fiction as an attempt to rebel against the world’s temporal strictures is a novel proposal. The difficulty in maintaining it, however, is immediately recognized in the fact that the royal fiction proceeds to “exemplify those very limitations which the author attempts to overcome” (175), such as when Qohelet-as-king again laments that there is “no remembrance” for the wise just as the fool (2:16). Thus, Bundvad may be adding unnecessary complexity to Qohelet’s viewpoint.
Bundvad concludes by emphasizing that “Qohelet does not present time as a neutral reality, but depicts it as intensely problematic for human attempts to fashion a meaningful existence” (187). We are left with a portrait of a sage for whom thinking about time is a necessary if uncomfortable aspect of life. The wider temporal setting into which every human life is placed does not yield a sense of meaning, but one of isolation; it does not give insight into the divine plan, “it makes blind” (187). What is worse, the “inaccessibility of past and future” not only obstructs humanity’s desire for a place within a larger temporal structure, but it even “eat[s] away at the edges of the present too, threatening the establishment of a meaningful life in our day-to-day existence” (188).
This monograph, full of well-crafted prose and clearly presented argumentation, should be regarded as an important contribution to scholarship of Qohelet and the Hebrew Bible more broadly. It turns the spotlight on one of the recurrent yet underappreciated themes in Qohelet, and raises helpful questions about the presence of “meta-reflection” within ancient Jewish literature. Time-as-concept is what Bundvad wants us to find in Qohelet, and we do. But we also find that the discussion of time is not purely abstract; we are a far cry from Augustine’s Quid est tempus? In large part Bundvad’s reading concerns the human experience of time in Qohelet’s ruminations, and in this sense leans more anthropological than philosophical. If the last few decades’ scholarly neglect of time-as-concept in the Bible owes itself to Barr’s rightful flagging of prior abuses, a work such as Bundvad’s may well reinvigorate a better-founded research agenda moving forward.
Jesse Peterson is a PhD candidate in Hebrew Bible at the University of Durham.