Tag Archives: Ellen Davis

Ecclesiastes in Ellen F. Davis‘ “Simple Gifts” (Getting involved with God pp. 104-120)

Some of us at St Dunstan’s (Madison, Wisconsin) have been reading Ecclesiastes together. Wondering how we might sum up what we’ve encountered, I reread Davis’ essay, which prompted the following.

“From the mainstream sages of Proverbs we may learn about the nature of ‘righteousness, justice, and equity’ (Proverbs 1:3), but Kohelet teaches us about humility. This is the core of his teaching: life can never be mastered, if ‘mastery’ means shaping it in conformity with our desires. It can only be enjoyed, when pleasures great and small come our way. Or, when enjoyment is not possible, then life must be endured. What Kohelet aims to instill in his students is the ability to receive the pleasures of life as the gift they are and to recognize God as sole Giver—‘For who eats or who feels anything, apart from him?’ (2:25).

“It is often said that the message of Ecclesiastes is best summed up as carpe diem, ‘seize the day.’ But the evidence belies that. The key verb in the book is not ‘seize’ but ‘give’, which occurs twenty-eight times in these twelve chapters—and most often the one who gives is God. The essential message, then, is ‘Receive the gift.’ We practice the core religious virtue of humility by noting with pleasure, day by day, the gifts that come to us from God.”

Kohelet “specifically urges us to realize three forms of happiness in our lives: sensual pleasure (eating and drinking, sleep, sunlight), intimate relationships (friendship and conjugal love), and satisfaction in work.”

“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless” (T. S. Eliot in “East Coker II”)

Very helpful, and noticeable overlap with William Brown’s description of the “fear of God” in the book (see June 12, 2020 post).

As is often noted, Kohelet (the teacher) slams the door on speculation re the afterlife (e.g., 3:20-21). In the context of the entire biblical witness, is this a defect? The teacher might argue not: why should we expect to receive/enjoy the afterlife if we’ve not learned to receive/enjoy this life?

The sharp tension in the book between the teacher’s theology (God is active; God “will bring every deed into judgment” [12:14]) and God’s inscrutability is like the tension in the petitionary psalms and Job. But the petitionary psalms typically call on God to conform to the psalmist’s theology, and Job—loudly, repeatedly—calls on God for an explanation. Why is the teacher silent? “Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few” (5:2). To speculate: perhaps the teacher’s prayers are kept private. Perhaps the teacher regards teaching about or modeling prayer too likely to be mistaken for an attempt to wrest mastery from God.

Davis: “Kohelet has meditated long and hard on the first few chapters of Genesis,” noting hebel as also the name of Cain’s brother, and the role of death. We might also wonder about “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Kohelet (the teacher) has spent the book seeking knowledge through experience, with both negative and positive results. The negative: our ignorance is profound: the past (forgotten), the present (what God is up to), the future (the results of our actions especially). The positive: a stance or character that might be described in terms of humility, fear of God, receiving God’s gifts. The bottom line—in sharp contrast to the Genesis 3 story—“Fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13).

Re the Daily Office Readings May 24 Anno Domini

The Readings: Exodus 3:1-12; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 10:17-24

From today through Pentecost in the Old Testament readings the Lectionary offers a collage of moments in the LORD’s long project of liberation and renewal. Today, the call of Moses, which Gregory of Nyssa (4th Century) recognized as analogous to the Annunciation, pairing Moses’ “yes” with Mary’s “yes.”

The reading might suggest something about our individual vocations, captured in Bianco of Siena’s “Come down, O Love divine” (15th Century):

Come down, O Love divine,
seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn,
till earthly passions turn
to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
and let thy glorious light
shine ever on my sight,
and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

And so the yearning strong,
with which the soul will long,
shall far outpass the power of human telling;
for none can guess its grace,
till Love create a place
wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.

And the reading might suggest something about the LORD. This, from Ellen Davis’ Getting involved with God:

“If, as I suppose, God is drawn to Moses because of his capacity to be derailed for the sake of the things of God, then this also reveals something to us about God. Here I think we are close to the heart of this first revelation at Horeb (Sinai). At Sinai, God is revealed as a deity who jumps the track, a God who gets derailed for the sake of the things of humanity, for the sake of the people Israel.”

Re the Daily Office Readings May 20 Anno Domini 2020

The Readings: Leviticus 26:27-42; Ephesians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:41-46

(From today until Pentecost—except Ascension and Sunday—the Lectionary offers a largely course reading of Ephesians. Ephesus, on the west coast of modern Turkey, was the capital of the Roman province of Asia and among the largest cities in the Empire.)

In Lev. 26:34-35 the importance of the plural “sabbaths” (v.2) becomes clear, specifically the 7th year sabbath. That sabbath is not simply about human concerns, but also (equally?) about the land’s needs and integrity. Recalling the early chapters of Genesis (again!) Ellen Davis argues persuasively that the end of Gen. 2:15 (“The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” NRSV) might better translated with something like “to serve and to watch it,” explaining:

 “We must serve (ˁavad) the land, not worshipping it but showing it reverence as God’s own creation, respecting it as one whose needs take priority over our immediate desires. We must watch it and watch over it (shamar) as one who has something to teach us and yet at the same time needs our vigilant care” (Getting Involved with God).

The 7th year sabbath is a part of how Israel is to relate to her land, and it turns out to be like the canary in the coal mine. So (vv.34-35) the land also must receive its due. And today? At the national/international level, Creation Care is a useful starting-point. At the local level, the “Grounds” tab in the St. Dunstan’s (Madison, Wisconsin) website is an example of developing responses.

The final verses, vv.40-48, address what Israel should do after everything goes south. It is one of a cluster of Old Testament responses to the question, differing in the weight given to divine and human initiatives, differing in what the human initiatives should look like. As such, an opportunity to wonder about how we understand divine and human initiatives to interact. The cluster itself: the stage on which John the Baptist and Jesus chart their path, typically in contrast with the other paths on offer (the Pharisees, the Zealots, etc.). How can Israel’s exile be brought to a clear end?