Archaeology

Ecclesiastes

The Harper Songs From the Tomb of Neferhotep

ECCLESIASTES 1 Dating from the late fourteenth through the early thirteenth centuries B.C., three funerary banquet songs have been discovered on the walls of a tomb near Thebes, Egypt.The tomb belonged to a certain Neferhotep, the deceased whom the songs honor.Two of them offer somewhat contradictory attitudes regarding death and the afterlife. In Song I the harpist sings of the passing generations in which children are born, breathe life and begin moving inexorably toward the grave. The sun deity rises and sets continuously, but death is inevitable. The singer urges Neferhotep to forget the evil past and to remember only joyous occasions, for death is the great equalizer—indiscriminately claiming those with full granaries and those with nothing.

Song III has a more positive tone. Although it, too, declares that death is inescapable, it asserts that people are not equal after this event. Neferhotep's devotion to the Egyptian gods will be rewarded in the afterlife; he will be remembered both by his god and by people for his religiosity. Because of his piety, Neferhotep's enemies will be eternally defeated and his soul declared justified. In fact, he will be happier in the after-life than he ever was on Earth.

Parallels for both songs can be found in Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes 1:4-5 speaks of generations corning and going and of the continual cycle of the rising and setting of the sun. Surely death is inevitable and over-takes us all (2:14,16; 9:2-3). Indeed, it equalizes humanity, since no one can take his or her achievements into the afterlife, but must leave them to the next generation (cf.2:18 — 19). In his summary statement, however, the Teacher concludes that a person should honor God and obey his commandments, because every action will be judged by him (12:13 —14). Unlike Neferhotep's Song III,the Teacher does not suggest that outward religiosity and cultic piety will be rewarded:God sees the hidden things as well as the obvious, and living a life of true wisdom begins with a proper understanding and fear of the Lord (cf. Pr 1:7).

Tell El-Kheleifeh

ECCLESIASTES 2 Tell el-Kheleifeh was once thought to have been the site of Ezion Geber, a port city of Solomon. The site is located atop a small hillock in Jordan, approximately 547 yards (500 m) from the northern shore of the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea. But scholars now recognize a lack of conclusive evidence for identifying Tell el-Kheleifeh with Ezion Geber. Early assumptions that a large-scale smelting operation took place there during Solomon's reign can no longer be sustained. If Tell el-Kheleifeh was unoccupied during Solomon's time it could not have been Ezion Geber. Although some pottery fragments at the site attest to occupation as far back as the eighth century B.c., little evidence exists for an earlier occupation.

The earliest level at Tell el-Kheleifeh includes a four-room house measuring 40 square feet (12 sq m), surrounded by a mud-brick casemate wall measuring 135 square feet (41 sq m). The structure may have served a variety of functions, possibly including use as a storehouse and as a citadel.A later phase expanded the site; it included a wall spanning 180 feet (54.9 m) on all sides, along with a four-chambered gate in the southern wall.While further excavation at this site may uncover a clearer picture of its age, identity and function, the current dearth of archaeological evidence severely limits firm conclusions. It is important to recognize that the identification of Tell el-Kheleifeh with Ezion Geber has not been disproved; in fact, some archaeologists believe that such an equation is still possible. But there is no extant evidence that Tell el-Kheleifeh was occupied in Solomon's time.

Although Solomon was a capable builder, many of his works seem nowhere to be found. Some sites once thought to be Solomonic have proved not to be so. The grand works alluded to in Ecclesiastes 2 have, for the most part, simply been lost. Perhaps we do well to look on this as a metaphor reflecting that they were indeed—at least in some sense—"meaningless"!

The Harper Song From the Tomb of King Intef

ECCLESIASTES 3 A song carved on the tomb of Intef, an Egyptian pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom (c.2106-1963 B.c.), has been preserved in two later copies:a papyrus manuscript and an inscription on a tomb contemporary with Amenhotep IV. Harper Songs' were most likely sung at funerary banquets honoring the dead and praising the afterlife, but the Intef Song is notable for its skeptical attitude toward seeking immortality. It begins by lamenting the cycle of passing generations and grieving over the silence of the graves of long-dead nobles (ct Ecc 1:4,11).2 The song recommends rejoicing while one is still alive, wearing fine linen and anointing oneself with oil (cf. 9:7 — 10). Since no one can escape death or take along earthly possessions into the afterlife, the author advocates that a person can do no better than to follow his or her heart's inclinations while here on Earth.

It is conceivable that the author of Ecclesiastes was familiar with the Intef Song.The kingdom of Solomon had strong contacts with Egypt, and the wise men of that day would have known and studied the masterpieces of Egyptian literature anything, this similarity reinforces the credibility of the Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes (see 1:1), since no other time in Israelite history was so notable for its strong interest in wisdom and close ties to Egypt. At the same time,a1- though certain phrases and concepts of this song reflect sentiments similar to those found in Ecclesiastes,the overall effect is different. Whereas the Intef Song endorses pleasure for its own sake,the author of Ecclesiastes approved of enjoying life as an expression of gratitude for God's gifts (3:13; 9:7). Also, in Ecclesiastes, the manner in which his people celebrate is subject to God's judgment (11:7-12:1,13-14).

The Authorship of Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs

ECCLESIASTES 5 Few topics related to Biblical archaeology have generated more scholarly debate than that of the authorship of Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. This is largely due to the unusual nature of the Hebrew used in these books.The two employ similar vocabulary, suggesting a common author. Further, a number of Biblical Hebrew words occur only in these two books,and others appear in higher frequency in these books than in others. Neither uses God's personal name, Yahweh, as is so common in other books.

Although Ecclesiastes does not name Solomon, its description of the author as "a son of David, king in Jerusalem" (1:1; cf. 1:12) leaves little room for other conclusions. The association with Solomon is strengthened by 12:9, which describes the author as a wise man who "pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs" (cf. 1Ki 4:32).

Ironically, the claim in Ecclesiastes 1:12,"1, the Teacher, was king over Israel," has been taken as evidence against Solomonic authorship due to the verb's past tense. But this can be regarded as a retrospective statement and translated as"I have been king over Israel."The declaration in 1:16,1 have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me," is meaningful when we remember that Jebusite kings had ruled over Jerusalem since ancient times.

Other objections to Solomonic authorship have been raised on the basis of Ianguage.The high number of Aramaic words in Ecclesiastes has been considered evidence of a postexilic date of writing. It is now recognized, however, that Aramaic influence on Hebrew began very early. Moreover,the vocabulary identified as Aramaic may actually have represented a northern dialect of Hebrew or a nonstandard, colloquial dialect.

Some words in both books were once alleged to have been borrowed long after Solomon's death from Persian or Greek. Examples include pardes ("park" or"orchard" in 2:5 and SS 4:13, respectively) and appiryon ("carriage" in SS 3:9). In reality, such words are of very ancient origin, some going back to Sanskrit originals. Solomon's commercial projects (see 1 Ki 5; 9:26-28; 10:22) involved numerous international contacts, a possible explanation for the international vocabulary.

The mention of numerous varieties of flora and fauna is consistent with Solomon's interest in natural history (1Ki 4:33). The Song's spectacular vocabulary for exotic spices and other vegetation, as well as for gold, alabaster and jewels, suggests that the book was written by someone familiar with these things. It is improbable that both Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs were written during the postexilic period, when Jerusalem was a poor, backwater town among the nations of the world, by no means awash in exotic spices and precious stones.

The mention of Tirzah in parallel with Jerusalem in Song of Songs 6:4 reflects a period before Tirzah's selection as the early capital of the northern kingdom (c.930 B.c.). In the tenth century B.C. Tirzah was beautiful and could easily have stood alongside Jerusalem as one of Israel's two grand cities. In the postexilic period,when many claim the Song was written,Tirzah no longer existed., Also, mention of localities in both the north and south (e.g.,Jerusalem, En Gedi, Heshbon, Carmel, Hermon and Lebanon) suggests that the Song preceded the divided kingdom.

Finally, literary parallels and allusions in both Ecclesiastes and the Song suggest an earlier rather than a later date for their com-position. Ecclesiastes 9:7-9, for example, strongly resembles Tablet 10, section 3, of the Epic of Gilgamesh,6 where the hero is urged to enjoy life, wear clean clothing and enjoy his wife's love. In addition, the love poetry of the Song is similar to Egyptian poetry of this genre that flourished in the late second millennium B.c.7 It is likely that Solomon, at the height of Israel's power, would have known this literature, but quite unlikely that obscure post-exilic writers would have been familiar with it or expected their readers to appreciate it.

Given the internal indicators that point to Solomonic authorship and the lack of satisfactory evidence to the contrary, it is appropriate to read Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs as literary products of the last king of the united monarchy.

The Sage

ECCLESIASTES 7 The epilogue of Ecclesiastes identifies the writer as a sage or wise man (12:9). His teachings are viewed as part of "the words of the wise," which are like goads.Those who master these teachings are said to be firmly embedded nails (12:11). Such ideas represent the outlook of Biblical Wisdom Literature. Although the theme of wisdom is present throughout the Bible, most scholars consider Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes to be Biblical Wisdom Literature in the strictest sense. Outside the Bible, in both Jewish and pagan writings, there are many other texts that could be called wisdom literature,a genre that can be recognized both by how it speaks and by what it says.

    • Wisdom texts frequently assume the posture of a parent addressing a child. The reader is thus often addressed as "my son" (cf. Pr 1:8,10,15; 2:1; 3:1; 5:1; Ecc 12:12).

    • Wisdom literature uses proverbial sayings and parables, as well as mnemonic (intended or arranged to assist the memory) or numerical lists (e.g., Pr 1:1; 10:1; 30:15 — 16,18 — 19,21-23,29-31; Ecc 12:9).

    • Wisdom literature concentrates on ethical themes within wisdom texts, even to the extent of addressing the conduct of God him-self (as is done several times in Job).

    • The figure of the sage is at the center of the wisdom tradition. Sometimes "wise" is simply an adjective to connote that an individual was thoughtful, intelligent, skilled or devout (Dt 1:13; 1Ki 2:9). In other instances, however, a wise person was assumed to have been a member of a social class of sages, whose functions included those of teacher, government counselor or scribe.

The sage was the embodiment of wisdom,the master of tradition and the teacher of all who craved instruction. The sage was the opposite of the fool (Pr 3:35; 10:1; 14:1; Ecc 10:12).

The Bible attests to the presence of sages in a technical sense in Egypt (Ge 41:8), Babylon (Da 2:12-18), Persia (Est 1:13) and Israel itself (Pr 1:6; 13:20; Ecc 12:11).

Significant examples of wisdom literature have been discovered throughout the ancient Near East. Egyptian examples can be seen in The Instruction of Ptahhotep and The Instruction of Anii. Mesopotamian examples are found in texts such as The Wisdom of Ahiqar, The Babylonian Theodicy and even aspects of The Epic of Gilgamesh.4 Many of these texts contain ideas and terms that are similar to what is seen in Biblical wisdom traditions., For some scholars the contact between the Bible and other ancient Near Eastern literature seems closest in this area.

Wisdom literature continued in the Jewish literature of the post-Biblical period.Texts in the Apocrypha such as The Wisdom of Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus) and The Wisdom of Solomon attest to the vibrancy of the tradition.6 After the destruction of Herod's temple in A.D. 70, the Judaism of the rabbinic sages was constructed around wisdom's central call that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge" (Pr 1:7; 22:4; Ecc 12:13). The voluminous Jewish literary production of Mishnah, Midrash and Talmud has been affectionately deemed the "literature of the sages."

Ecclesiastes and the epic of Gilgamesh

ECCLESIASTES 9 The longest literary composition known from Mesopotamia is the Epic of Gilgamesh, the tale of an ancient king's failed quest for immortality. It is a very ancient work, dating to at least 2000 B.C., that follows the trials and adventures of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk.The Gilgamesh Epic has come to us in more than one version (there is an Old Babylonian and a standard Assyrian version), but the message is essentially the same. A tavern-keeper's advice to the hero, Gilgamesh, summarizes its message: In view of the impending death of all humankind, the task of mortals is to make the most of life—to eat, drink, be merry, be clean, dress radiantly, delight in one's children and provide joy for one's spouse (Old Babylonian version, 10.3).

Scholars have long noted the similarity of this admonition to that of the "Teacher" in Ecclesiastes, whose personal wrestling with life's meaning, transience and enigmas led him to conclude that people do well to seize the 41:7 day, finding satisfaction in all that — God gives (see 9:3,7-10; 11:7— 12:1). The Teacher also concluded that the accumulated works that have been accomplished under the sun are essentially "meaningless, a chasing after the wind" (1:14; 2:11,17,26; 5:10,16; 6:9). This outlook corresponds closely to one of Gilgamesh's statements: Only the gods [live] forever under the sun. As for mankind, their days are numbered; whatever they achieve is but wind!" Other parallels to Ecclesiastes found in Gilgamesh include the mention of a three-stranded cord when commenting on friendship (cf.4:9— 12) and the point that no aspect of life is permanent (1:4,11; 2:16; 3:18 — 19; 9:5 —6).

In view of these similarities, it appears that the author of Ecclesiastes, writing from Israel during the first millennium B.C.,' knew and appreciated the Gilgamesh Epic, a Mesopotamian work completed early in the second millennium B.C. Because a copied fragment of the Epic, dating to the fourteenth century B.c., was discovered in northern Israel, we know that the story of Gilgamesh was at least known in the region at an early time. It is important, however, to keep the following in mind:

  • The "teacher's"apparent use of Gilgamesh does not diminish his book's canonical status.lt is not uncommon for Biblical texts to follow the pattern of nonbiblical counterparts, even to the point of citing them directly, For example, Deuteronomy follows the pattern of an ancient Near Eastern treaty,2 and Paul cited a poet's description of Crete (Tit 1:12).

  • There is no suggestion that Ecclesiastes as a whole was modeled after Gilgamesh. There are enormous differences between the two. Ecclesiastes, for example, is not an epic poem and does not tell a story.

  • Although the call to joy in 9:7-10 finds its closest ancient parallel in the Gilgamesh Epic, the wording is not exact. No scholars suggest that Ecclesiastes simply lifted lines from Gilgamesh.

The probability that the author of Ecclesiastes was familiar with Gilgamesh actually supports the traditional view of the book's Solomonic authorship. It is doubtful that an anonymous, postexilic Jew, living in an impoverished cultural environment (the Jerusalem of this time) would have demonstrated intimate familiarity with this very ancient Akkadian text.On the other hand,the age of Solomon constituted the high-water mark of Israel's history, as well as its literary golden age. Akkadian was still widely spoken, and cuneiform was still in use in Solomon's day.

Some of the concepts found in Ecclesiastes also have strong parallels in Egyptian literature.4 This suggests that Ecclesiastes was not simply borrowing from Gilgamesh but making use of wisdom literature from the great centers of learning in the ancient world.

Ecclesiastes and the Gilgamesh Epic wrestle with the same human question: How is one to live when life appears to make no sense? Despite the literary link between the two, they are worlds apart theologically. The Epic challenges people to enjoy life but holds out no lasting source of hope. Within Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, life's enigmas and sorrows are tempered by the hope that endures when an individual remembers and fears God (see 5:7; 8:12; 12:1,13 — 14).