Hevel, Vanity, and The Perplexing Nature of Ecclesiastes

I have said it here, and in other mediums, that the Qohelet is a book that many have struggled with through the history of the church.  There are times that it seems contradictory and perplexing if one is not in tune to the overall message of the book.  The key to Qohelet is hevel, or hebel in English, as it appears 38 times in the book and also appears very early in 1:2 [1].  Is there a uniform meaning to this word or are there several meaning based on the context.  In most of our English translation such as the KJV, ASV, ESV, NKJV, RSV, and the NRSV render the translation of hevel as vanity.  Other translations, such as the NIV for example, render the same word as meaningless.  The actual translation for הֶבֶל, or hevel, is “vapor or breath” [2].  This masculine noun does take on different forms in various Old Testament texts.  Perhaps that is why this issue with the translation of hevel is so perplexing.  It definitely does not help that the Targum for Qohelet uses the Aramaic term for vanity [3]. 

Hevel and Abel

In researching this key word I came across something very interesting that may lend a clue to its meaning within Qohelet.  What I discovered is that hevel is the name of Abel from Genesis 4:1-8 fame.  Some say that Qoheleth is obsessed with death and the meaning of life, and ancient Jewish readers would have been quick to make the connection [4]. 

Image result for hevel

Abel was the first person to ever die, but he was also the first person to make an offering that was acceptable to God.  We will all die, today may be the day, and make sure you are right with God when that time comes.  In the case of Abel, he not only accepts his offering, but in a way he delivers him home [5].  

Rabbinic Tradition

Another clue to the meaning of hevel in Qohelet can bee seen in the tradition of the Jewish rabbis.  One example is from the Jewish Midrash which also translates hevel to mean something that is without substance [6].  The description given is quite interesting.  It mentions that this word is like a man that stacks seven pots on top of each other over a fire.  The steam that eventually emerges has no substance and such is a life with God.  Similarly the Zohar translates the term as breath, but does so in an allegorical manner.  Such as there is no breathe of life in one who does not study the Torah [7].  

Image result for zohar

Early Church And Hevel

The LXX and the Latin Vulgate render the meaning as vanity with ματαιότης and vanitas respectively [8].  Early Jewish tradition used the word in a more metaphorical way, while early church father such as Gregory of Nyssa, took a more negative approach and applied the word “futility” [9].  Others, such as Ambrose, applied it to anything that led away from God.

So what is the proper translation of hevel?  Is it something that is uniform or are there different meaning?  I welcome all feedback on this, because the fact of the matter it I am not completely sold either way.  However I am inclined to say that it is a uniform meaning when the meaning of the early Jewish scholars is integrated with that of early Christian scholarship.  It is here that an analogy may be in order.  Imagine that the meaning of life is contained in steam or vapor.  You grab and grab and yet you are not able to grasp the vapor.  At best your hands get wet, but that is not vapor.  Soon you give up because the endeavor is futile because one is not physically able to grab a gas. 

This attempt is fleeting, meaningless, and even transient.  Does that mean that the vapor is meaningless or transient?  Not all all, but that is the outcome, or judgment we make, based on out interaction with it.  Ecclesiastes 2:11 states, “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (ESV).  I love the ESV-CE and use it daily, but perhaps this is an example of how some words do not translate well.  When you look up the definition of vapor, one of the definitions is fleeting.  With that in mind I looked up the term in a Bible dictionary and it led back to Abel, specifically it alludes to the shortness of life [10].

In Conclusion

In the end we all live and die.  Our lives are like vapor and are fleeting as they are here one moment and gone the next.  So enjoy your family, have some fun, tell those around you that they are loved, and make sure you are ready to go at any moment.  Though these are fleeting they are good, but in the end what matters is living for God and keeping his commandments (Ecc. 12:13).  Having that ancient Jewish meaning mixed with the explanation of early church scholarship has me leaning toward a more uniform meaning.

Works Cited

1.  Dell, Katherine J.  Exploring Old Testament Wisdom:  Literature and Themes. “Reading Ecclesiastes With The Scholars”. (London:  Apollos, 2016), 90.

2.  Brown, Francis, et al.  A Hebrew English Lexicon of the Old Testament.  (Nashville:  Hendrickson, 1994), 73.

3.  Meek, Russell L. “Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Readings of Hebel (הֶבֶל) in Ecclesiastes.” Currents in Biblical Research 14, no. 3 (June 2016): 279–97.

4.  Dor-Shav, Ethan. “Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and Timeless Part I.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 36, no. 4 (October 2008): 211–21.

5.  Ibid, 216.

6.  Meek, Russell L. “Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Readings of Hebel (הֶבֶל) in Ecclesiastes.” Currents in Biblical Research 14, no. 3 (June 2016): 279–97.

7.  Quick word of clarification on the Zohar.  Though it is used as a sacred text in some Kabbalist communities, it is meant to be a commentary on the Pentateuch.

8.  Murphy, Roland E.. Ecclesiastes, Volume 23A. (Grand Rapids: HarperCollins Christian Publishing, 2015), 88.

9.  Meek, Russell L. Currents in Biblical Research 14, no. 3 (June 2016): 279–97.

10.  Holman Bible Editorial Staff. Ultimate Bible Dictionary : A Quick and Concise Guide to the People, Places, Objects, and Events in the Bible. (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2019), v.

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