Revisioning Qoheleth: Anna’s Voice

Allison Meyer

Text and Counter Text


Anna’s Voice

To my Daughters:

In the following writing, I have provided you with the narrative of my life. In raising you, I gave you all that I had to give. I hope that in the future, you will realize that your relationships with your husbands, children, and friends are vital to finding meaning in life and that you will choose to foster relationships as I have attempted to do. I also hope that your children will give to you that love and respect that you deserve. Although I am now without you or anyone else, I exhort you to always fear God and enjoy the time of your youth.

Regards,

Your Mother

 

Qoheleth’s Voice

I, Qoheleth, was king over Israel in Jerusalem and I applied my mind to search and investigate in wisdom all things that are done under the sun. A thankless task God has appointed for men to be busied about.

I have seen all that things that are done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a chase after the wind.

1I said in my heart, “Come, now, let me try you with pleasure and the enjoyment of good things.” But behold, this too was vanity. “ 2Of laughter I said: “Mad!” and of mirth: “What good does this do?” 3I thought of squandering my time traveling the earth, though my mind was concerned with others, and of taking up selfishness, so that I should understand what is most pleasurable for women to do under the heavens during the limited days of their life.

1I said in my heart, “Come, now let me try you with pleasure and the enjoyment of good things.” But behold, this too was vanity. 2Of laughter I said: “Mad!” and of mirth: “What good does this do?” 3I thought of beguiling my senses with wine, though my mind was concerned with wisdom, and of taking up folly, so that I should understand what is best for men to do under the heavens during the limited days of their life.

 

4 I undertook great works in my children. 5They became my garden under the sun. 6I provided them with fertile soil from which to spring forth, with the water of knowledge, and with the food of my love. 7When my daughters had their own children, they became the joy in my life. They were a reservoir into which I poured my love, my compassion, and my wisdom. 8 I fostered good relationships with others, and earned the kindness of all those around me. I took no credit for myself, only acknowledging the needs of those I called my friends. 9I was the great giver, and I gave more money and more time than all others before me; my compassion was my constant companion.

4 I undertook great works; I built myself houses and planted vineyards. 5 I made gardens and parks, and set out in them fruit trees of all sorts. 6 I constructed for myself reservoirs to water a flourishing woodland. 7 I acquired male and female slaves, and slaves were born in my house. I also had growing herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, more than all who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I amassed for myself silver and gold, and the wealth of kings and provinces. I got for myself male and female singers and all human luxuries. 9I became great, and I stored up more than all others before me in Jerusalem; my wisdom, too, stayed with me.

 

 

10Nothing that others desired did I deny them, nor did I deprive them of any attention, but rather my heart rejoiced in their successes, and my eyes wept in their disappointments. This was my crowning joy as a human.

11But when I turned to examine the individuals into which my daughters had developed, and all the ways in which my life had become empty, behold! All was futility and a chase after the wind, with no profit gained under the sun. 12For what will the children do who come after the mother? It has all been done already.

I then considered wisdom, kindness and selfishness.

 

10Nothing that my eyes desired did I deny them, nor did I deprive myself of any joy, but my heart rejoiced in the fruit of all my toil. This was my share for all my toil.

11But when I turned to all the works that my hands had wrought and to the toil at which I had taken such pains, behold! All was vanity and a chase after wind, with nothing gained under the sun. 12For what will the man do who is to come after the king? It has all already been done! I went on to the consideration of wisdom, madness, and folly.

 

13 And I saw that compassion has the advantage over selfishness as much as light has the advantage over darkness 14 “The kind man has eyes in his head, but the selfish woman walks in darkness.” Yet I knew that one lot befalls both of them. 15 So I said to myself, if the selfish woman’s lot is to befall me also, why then should I be compassionate? Where is the profit for me? And I concluded in my heart that this too is vanity. 16Neither of the kind woman nor of the selfish one will there be an abiding remembrance, for in the days to come, both will have been forgotten. How is it that the kind woman dies as well the selfish one! 17 Therefore, I loathed life, since for me, the work that is done under the sun is evil; for all is vanity and a chase after the wind.

13And I saw that wisdom has the advantage over folly as much \as light has the advantage over darkness 14“The wise man has eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.” Yet I knew that one lot befalls both of them. 15So I said to myself, if the fool’s lot is to befall me also, why then should I be wise? Where is the profit for me? And I concluded in my heart that this too is vanity. 16Neither of the wise man nor of the fool will there be an abiding remembrance for, in days to come, both will have been forgotten. How is it that the wise man dies as well as the fool! 17Therefore, I loathed life, since for me, the work that is done under the sun is evil; for all is vanity and a chase after the wind.

 

18 And I detested all the children whom I had raised under the sun, because they have become entranced by their endeavors of the world, instead of concern for the people who surround them. 19And who knows whether they will continue to be subject to those worldly desires? Yet they do not choose to be a part of my life. This is also vanity. 20 So my feelings turned to despair concerning my children. 21For here is a woman who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, and those over whom she has labored have abandoned her. This also is vanity and a great misfortune. 22For what profit comes to a woman from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which she has labored under the sun? 23All her remaining days, sorrow and grief are her occupation; especially at night, her mind is not at rest. This also is vanity.

18 And I detested all the fruits of my labor under the sun, because I must leave them to a man who is to come after me. 19And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruits of my wise labor under the sun – this also is vanity. 20So my feelings turned to despair of all the fruits of my labor under the sun. 21For here is a man who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, and to another, who has not labored over it, he must leave his property. This also is vanity and a great misfortune. 22For what profit comes to a man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun? 23All his days, sorrow and grief are his occupation; even at night his mind is not at rest. This also is vanity.

24 There is nothing better for woman to than to eat and drink and provide herself with good things by her labors. Even this, I realized, is from the hand of God. 25For who can eat or drink apart from Him? 26For to whatever woman God sees fit, He gives wisdom and compassion and joy; but to the sinner He gives the burden of giving everything and receiving no recompense. This is also vanity and a chase after the wind.

24There is nothing better for man than to eat and drink and provide himself with good things by his labors. Even this, I realized, is from the hand of God. 25 For who can eat or drink apart from Him? 26 For to whatever man He sees fit, He gives wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner He gives the task of gathering possessions to be given to whatever man God sees fit. This is also vanity and a chase after the wind.

 

Constructing Anna

               Anna is an elderly woman who has centered her entire life around raising her children, and yet, when she grows old, she is placed in a nursing home and forgotten. She resents her family, and grows to resent her life. I attempt to capture her loneliness, her bitterness, and her frustration. Rather than Qoheleth’s musings on wisdom and foolishness, Anna writes about her struggle between selfishness and compassion, the two contrasting components that have defined her life.

In the creation of Anna, there are several defining factors: age, socioeconomic status, and especially gender. Her identity as a woman is essential for how she has lived her life. In shifting the text from a male perspective to a female one, I have removed the emphasis on business endeavors and replaced it with a concern for relationships. I have represented this change most clearly by changing the wisdom and foolishness dichotomy to a comparison of selfishness and compassion. This dichotomy is more central to the Anna’s life narrative. As a result, Anna’s counter text is about relationships, not about accomplishments. Thus, I would consider my narrative’s relationship to Qoheleth as Carol Gilligan’s morality paradigm to Lawrence Kohlberg’s model.

Furthermore, to strengthen the women orientation of Anna’s voice, I have also done the following: Where the dialectical words “foolish” and “wise” appear, I have substituted them with “selfish” and “compassionate.” Additionally, every time that the text uses “man,” I have replaced it with “woman.” Finally, I have constructed Anna as writing the letter to her daughters, creating a female narrator and a female audience.

Thus, although the text and counter-text reach the conclusion that all actions are meaningless, I have shown that there are different paths to reach that endpoint, each path appealling to a different audience. The traditional Biblical text was written in a patriarchal society, and thus aimed towards males, while the counter text is written specifically to Anna’s daughters, and generally to all women.

In the counter text, socioeconomic status and race do not play a crucial role, but they are evident in the situational context. In the United States, those who have sufficient income and retirement plans can afford to be put into nursing homes. In many other ethnic contexts or lower socio-economic statuses, the elderly would be cared for in the home by family members. But in the overall American culture, this is not common. Therefore, I have described Anna as at least middle class and probably not a minority.

Although I have changed the gender and time period of Anna, I have retained her age, but more importantly, her time perspective because, for Qoheleth and Anna, the implications of presumed age are more important. As a result of Anna’s and Qoheleth’s ages, they not only reminisce about the course of their lives but also contemplate their deaths. The key component in their time perspective is that they are more preoccupied by their impending deaths than by their present lives.

I have chosen to represent Anna as an individual in a nursing home because of my personal experiences. Both my grandmother and my grandfather have lived their last years in the Alzheimer’s unit of a nursing home, while suffering from dementia. While my family visited my grandparents frequently, we came to notice that the majority of patients never had visitors. It was both pitiful and anger-inducing to see so many individuals who had became isolated in their later years. Through my conversation with the patients, they shared stories about their children, hobbies, and former occupations. The two images of the single person, the elderly one that I saw and the younger one I imagined, were so disparate that it was difficult to imagine the same person. Although the patients did not often express their frustration, I can imagine that they might be angry and perhaps disappointed. I have tapped into their feelings about what they might perceive as abandonment and, thus, fashioned Anna’s context from these images and reshaped Qoheleth’s writings from her perspective.

Connections between Anna and Qoheleth

Structure

The structure of the texts lends insight into the overall themes. Therefore, I have separated the narratives into six distinct sections, based on content and style. These divisions help to maintain rhythm, and to slow the pace in order to focus more intently on the voices of the narrators.

Verses 1-3 describe the period of the characters’ lives when they were pursuing pleasure: Qoheleth was “beguiling” himself with wine and Anna was traveling the world. Although they were pursuing worldly things, wisdom and compassion respectively were still in their consciousness. Qoheleth conveys this idea when he writes, “though my mind was concerned with wisdom” and Anna conveys it through the words, “though my mind was concerned with other”.

Verses 4-9 describe their earthly toils. Anna poured her energy into raising her children and to providing for others while Qoheleth attempted to find fulfillment in the collection of wealth and real estate. They describe how they were unusual in all that they had accomplished compared to all those before them.

Verses 10-12 describe their affective responses to their works. They both describe their lack of fulfilment and denounce of their previous works. Anna writes, “11But when I turned to examine the individuals into which my daughters had developed, and all the ways in which my life had become empty, behold!” Qoheleth writes similarly of the “works that my hands had wrought.”

In verses 13-17, the characters describe their unhappiness with their ultimate lot, death, and that even beyond death, in eternal memory, the righteous (wise/compassionate) person will not triumph over the unrighteous (foolish/selfish) one.

Verses 18-23 strike at the heart of the characters’ despair. They use words such as “despair,” “detest,” “grief,” and “sorrow.” They also express their absolute inability to comprehend why individuals who live different lives must both face death.              

The final set of verses, 24-27, are an upturn in mood from the previous section. The characters seem to conclude that, if one cannot change the immutable force of death, it is best to live one’s days enjoying life and fearing God. These verses represent a coping mechanism; if they cannot change one set of circumstances, then they will learn to cope with the present one and advise the younger generation to do the same.

Relationships

The central paradox of Anna is that she becomes selfish as a result of her former constant compassion and care for others. She is now so consumed by her belief that an injustice has been done against her that she is unable to find meaning in any relationships and renounces all her struggles as meaningless. She seems to have forgotten the reasons that she felt such compassion for others in her young age. Instead of continuing to look outwards in an attempt to help others, she only considers her own thoughts and feelings. Or perhaps, Anna has given everything she had to give to others, and now must turn to self-care. But, I believe that even if caring for others must turn to self-care, it does not require the denunciation of all relationships as meaningless. While Anna accomplished great things during her younger years, her bitterness leads her to a startling conclusion.

The difference in their perspectives on relationships with others is one of the key differences that I have created between Anna and Qoheleth. Qoheleth advises his readers to embrace relationships with others, with his declaration in Chapter 4 of “Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up.” By contrast, Anna has lived the vast majority of her life according to the principle of seeking out relationships with others. However, in the end she finds that these relationships also have become meaningless. She has expressed this idea most clearly with the lines:

10Nothing that others desired did I deny them, nor did I deprive them of any attention, but rather my heart rejoiced in their successes, and my eyes wept in their disappointments. This was my crowning joy as a human.11But when I turned to examine the individuals into which my daughters had developed, and all the ways in which my life had become empty, behold! All was futility and a chase after the wind, with no profit gained under the sun.

Despite, their differing perspectives on relationships, both Qoheleth and Anna have come to the same conclusion, “that life is meaningless.” Perhaps, this is the result of their experiences, Anna’s relationships and Qoheleth’s business endeavors. In reading psychological research, I have found that an individual’s experience of a trauma often shatters worlds views such as “The world is just” or “The world is safe.” Anna has not suffered a serious trauma but rather has experienced a series of relationships in which she has not been paid proper attention. I would hypothesize that Qoheleth, too, has experienced some sort of trauma or a lifetime where he has not felt fulfilled in any of his activities, and that has caused him to deny meaning in the world. In either case, the result is the same: a bitterness at life and a lack of a desire to experience anything else worldly. The lack of interest in the world strikes me as a type of depression. Neither Anna or Qoheleth express desire to live any longer, as expressed in the despairing words, “Therefore I loathed life, since for me the work that is done under the sun is evil; for all is vanity and a chase after the wind.” My grandmother’s words, “I just want the Lord to take me” echo this despair.

Impending Death

The characters not only look backwards on their experiences and guiding philosophy of meaninglessness, but both also look forwards concerning their impending deaths. In Chapter 2:14. Qoheleth writes, “Yet I knew that one lot befalls both of them,” in reference to the wise man and to the fool. While I, as a young person am certainly cognizant that I will eventually die, whether it be tomorrow or half a century from now, death does not loom large in front of me, nor does it define my philosophy of life. While I would expect that a person diagnosed with a fatal disease might become resentful, I would also expect that such a person would have an epiphany about the meaning of life and try to embrace the remaining time. Thus, the relationship between the time lived and the time left to live is essential in forming a person’s philosophy on life.

Qoheleth, Anna and the Biblical Canon

After analyzing the various themes of Qoheleth and Anna, including life experiences and goals, despair, and death, a question lingers: Why has Qoheleth remained part of the Biblical canon? The book infrequently mentions God, only to say that we should fear Him. It in no specific way encourages us to follow Jewish practices or to cultivate our relationship with God. Thus, Qoheleth is very atypical within the context of other biblical literature such as Psalms, Deuteronomy, or Isaiah. However, its message has continued to resonate with generations.

Many interpretations twist the words to find hope and joy in the book, while many others just read it as the perspective a bitter, old, cynical man. In my interpretation, it is neither; rather it contains elements of both. I think that Qoheleth is included in the canon because it advises on experiences that every individual has: despair, death, relationships, and accomplishments. Qoheleth provides a refuge for those who have given up hope. Any other person who has failed to find meaning in worldly relationships or endeavors is like Qoheleth or Anna. Qoheleth sees his relationship with God as a reserved one, as exemplified in the caution “God is in heaven and you are on earth; therefore let your words be few (5:1).” God, however, is the one element of life about which Qoheleth stay consistently positive. God is the one theme which stands out from the jumbled stream-of-consciousness form that his writing takes. Despairing people may, thus, turn to Qoheleth as a source of comfort during difficult times because Qoheleth is a book that can provide that reminds them that they are not alone in their despair. For this element alone, I find the book to be beautiful.

Conclusion

To conclude, I have presented the original text of chapter two of Qoheleth, along with a counter text, which contains the same conclusions of Qoheleth, but is written by a woman. Both Qoheleth and my character, Anna, confirm that they detest life, express their bitterness at being unable to find ultimate meaning in their lives, and ask why the wise/compassionate person and the foolish/selfish person must face the same lot in life, that is, death. Although in reading Qoheleth I could not always understand his perspectives and reasoning, I find it astonishing that I was able to plausibly create a modern character with the same ideas. This speaks to the universality of the original text.

I have argued that their age, gender, and socioeconomic status are vital to understanding their perspectives. I have also compared the structures of the two texts and the characters’ perspectives on relationships, impdending death, and despair. Finally, I have suggested that the original book, Qoheleth, is included in both the Jewish and the Christian canon as a refuge for those who are feeling despair.

Although Qoheleth and Anna do not present a positive image about what is to come later in life, I feel that a younger person can still gain insights about life. They remind us not to seek extremes in either direction, or we may come to similar perspectives. Anna went too far in fostering relationships, and Qoheleth in his business endeavours, and neither one of them found fulfilmment. Nonetheless, in chapter 3, we are advised, “There is a time and place for every affair under the heavens.”