Re the Daily Office Readings May 31 Anno Domini 2020

Sisyphus by Titian

The Readings: Deuteronomy 16:9-12; Acts 4:18-21, 23-33; John 4:19-26

The OT Reading bumped by Pentecost: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

Since I’m focusing on Ecclesiastes over the next two weeks, today the focus is on its first 11 verses, bumped in the Lectionary for the Feast of Pentecost.

By numerous measures we’re the world’s leading nation, and we have over 100,000 coronavirus deaths, around 40 million unemployed, the House and Senate on different pages, the President and his scientific advisors only sporadically on the same page. Have we had enough futility yet? Enter Ecclesiastes, our conversation partner for the next couple weeks. Upfront, I need to remember that (1) what Ecclesiastes means by futility/vanity/absurdity is not necessarily what I (or Paul) mean, and (2) the author’s perspective and the perspective of the “I” in the book are not necessarily the same. The second point is important because it’s quite possible that the book is a sort of thought-experiment: if I assume this, where do I end up?

As for the first point, ‘futility’, ‘vanity’, ‘absurdity’ are interpretations of Hebrew hebel, which literally means “the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day and in any case immediately dissipating in the air” (Alter). It’s a metaphor, and perhaps we should let it do its work as a metaphor without tying it down to a particular meaning.

“All is mere breath” (Robert Alter’s translation). Here, and elsewhere, we might wonder: what would it take for this not to be true?

One of the book’s innovations is the use of a number of terms from the world of economics, e.g., ‘gain’ or ‘profit’ in v.3. Same question: what would gain look like? Pulling back the camera: how well does approaching life as an exercise in bookkeeping work?

Finally, something (else) notably odd: the tradition out of which the book works (“wisdom”) typically values tradition, the old, the well-tested. Anything new is likely an outlier. But here’s the speaker (complaining): “there is nothing new under the sun.” What sort of world does the speaker inhabit that makes this complaint make sense?

Perhaps this is an apt moment for reflection. Where am I particularly encountering “mere breath” now?

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