Reading Ecclesiastes as parental discourse
This thesis attempts a genre-appropriate method of reading Ecclesiastes, with a specific aim of describing its normative theological contribution and didactic strategies. It focuses on its discourse setting of parental instruction, which is a key but neglected feature of wisdom literature. A preliminary study of the book of Proverbs (chapter 2) establishes the probability of a parental discourse setting on the basis of external and internal data, challenging the prevailing view that it is a textbook for scribal or courtly preparation. After a thorough articulation of a rhetorical-critical method (chapter 3), the thesis is tested inductively on the book of Ecclesiastes (chapters 4–9). These chapters defend the unity of the book and the integrity of the epilogue (chapter 4), establish the epilogist as the implied author and Qohelet as a fictional character (chapter 5), identify that the father’s rhetorical goals are to deter his son from self-reliant wisdom and to ‘goad’ him towards covenantal obedience (chapter 6), and analyse the father’s strategic rhetorical design of Qohelet’s words in three key texts: 7:23–29; 11:7– 12:7; 4:17–5:6[5:1–7] (chapters 7–9). When read as parental discourse, the central message of Ecclesiastes is that self-reliant ‘wisdom’ is in fact folly, and that covenantal obedience is the foundation of all wise living. The theological contribution of the book is thus closely related to the teaching of Proverbs (e.g. 1:7; 3:1–6), with its own distinct emphases: obedience to divine (not just parental) commands and possibly eschatological judgment. Our study of key texts highlights three didactic strategies that the father employs to instruct his son. First and most prominently, the father’s use of an ambiguous character, whose words dominate the book. While Qohelet is portrayed as a great Solomon-like king and wise scribe, his exaggerated discourse exposes him as the embodiment of self-reliant wisdom. Secondly, - 5 - Qohelet shares his reliable first-hand knowledge of the limitations and trajectory of his epistemology. Thirdly, Qohelet’s words unknowingly allude to Israel’s religious traditions. This dramatic irony provides further critique of Qohelet’s mode of wisdom and also commends the law as a superior wisdom. Reading Ecclesiastes as parental discourse provides solutions to many of the long standing problems in the interpretation of the book. It gives permission to Qohelet to have his own dissenting voice, rather than seeking to harmonise his words with the canon. It accounts for the relationship between the epilogist and Qohelet—especially their common diction but differing perspectives—as that of implied author and his character. Most significantly, it explains the uncomfortable tension between Qohelet’s heterodox views and orthodox expressions as part of the father’s strategy of allusion.
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