Translating Ecclesiastes 3:11 again

hebrewtextWhat does Ecclesiastes 3:11 mean? What does it even say? This is the verse that I get the name of this blog from, but there are a variety of questions about what it might mean and how we should understand it!

This is an update of an earlier blogpost. As I wrote then: “I don’t think I’ll be doing many of these sorts of posts; my Hebrew is nowhere near good enough to do this, but, as I’ve taken the name of my blog from a word in it I thought that I’d better start with a discussion about it.” I think that all still stands!

First of all, a selection of the major Biblical translations of Ecclesiastes 3:11:

NRSV: “He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end”

NIV (2010)/TNIV: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

NJB: “All that he does is apt for its time; but although he has given us an awareness of the passage of time, we can grasp neither the beginning nor the end of what God does.”

These translations all seem fairly similar at first glance, but contain some fairly significant differences. One of the problems with translating Ecclesiastes is that the author uses words that are rather ambiguous. Therefore translators have to make decisions about whether they think that the book as a whole is essentially negative or positive or holds the two in tension (I think the latter). What they think then determines what choices they make about how they translate certain words…

The word יפה (‘yapeh’) describing what God has made everything is one of the first problems! Has God made everything beautiful? (NIV) Or suitable or apt? (NRSV/NJB). Both Bartholomew (Baker Commentary 2009:159) and Seow (Anchor Bible commentary vol.24A 1997:162) argue that ‘beautiful’ is incorrect as it is not aesthetics that the writer is interested in, but rather that things are ‘right, proper, appropriate, good’. The same word is used in 5:17 where the NIV does translate it as ‘appropriate’.

The word עלם (‘olam’) describing what God placed in human hearts (NRSV ‘minds’ – which is probably a better translation as it’s about what we think rather than what we feel) is disputed (cf. NRSV ‘a sense of past and future’; NIV ‘eternity’). I discuss the word more in my post on the name of this blog, but ‘eternity’ or similar is probably the best translation.

In his book on Biblical Words for Time Barr (1969:123f) concludes that olam can refer to the ‘remotest time’ or to ‘perpetuity’ or ‘forever’. Therefore he proposes translating this verse “He has done everything well in its time; also he has set perpetuity in their heart”. This, he suggests, is better than importing modern notions of ‘eternity’ (a world beyond this one). Perhaps, although he doesn’t say this, whilst also giving a sense of transcending time, which therefore contrasts with the poem of 3:1-8, which is one of the things that the author seems to be doing. Barr also says that this would give “a rather unusual context for a well-known meaning”, which is one of the things that Ecclesiates is good at doing!

The phrase describing the consequence of God’s action מבלי אשׁר לא (NRSV ‘yet they cannot find out’) is unique, and could either be negative or positive. This is shown by two academic translations, with Murphy (Word commentary vol.23A 1992:29) suggesting: “he has also placed a sense of duration in their hearts, so that they cannot find out, from beginning to end, the work which God has done”, while Shields (The end of wisdom 2006:139) suggests: “He has also placed eternity in their hearts, without which people could not discover the work that God has done from beginning to end”.

A footnote to the NIV (2010) suggests that ‘eternity’ could be replaced with ‘ignorance’, so that it reads: “also placed ignorance in the human heart, so that no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” However, Seow (1997:163) argues that this is highly unlikely.

But, whatever it exactly means, it suggests that “God has placed within us something which encourages us to look beyond life under the sun” as Doug Ingram says in his interesting Grove booklet on Ecclesiastes. Doug argues that Ecclesiastes is intentionally ambiguous, which I’m not sure is the whole story. David Firth argues, rather, that Ecclesiastes was written to challenge and destabilise, using language that is ambiguous at first reading, but that nonetheless draws you to a definite conclusion. Ecclesiastes encourages, I think, humility and a reliance on God, but not despair. This verse has also encouraged scientific enquiry and has also been used as evidence to argue that Ecclesiastes can be compared to a scientific experiment!

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