I don’t remember when I first read the book of Ecclesiastes. I first taught it at the Catholic Stonehill College. There we were free to teach Intro to Religion however we wanted, so to follow my own intellectual curiosity I made it “God in the West”. The one thing we were required to teach was the book of Exodus, which I suspect the department had selected for an uplifting social-justice message in which God acts to free a people from slavery. But the Hebrew Bible, let alone the whole Christian Bible, has never spoken with a single voice, and I selected Ecclesiastes to teach alongside Exodus because the contrast between them is so remarkable.
Much like the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon), which it immediately precedes, Ecclesiastes is a book you don’t expect to find in the Bible. It makes you wonder: what is this book doing here? The Song of Songs bears the most obvious contrast with what we think we know about the Bible: here is a text that is obviously about a young couple having sex, seemingly celebrating it, and they don’t even appear to be married. That’s not the sort of thing that we are led to imagine would appear in the Bible. But it’s in there.
Ecclesiastes’s contrast to the rest of the Bible is a little subtler, but it’s still notable. Exodus, and other prophetic books, give you a God who acts in the world with righteousness, freeing his chosen people from slavery with terrifying wonders. Ecclesiastes gives you a God who does not.Continue reading