In the book of Ecclesiastes we read about a wise man who goes on an intellectual journey to discover the meaning of the mysteries of life through wisdom. He said: “I applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 1:13). He believed that wisdom would lead him to understand some of the mysteries found in creation.
In the end the wise man discovered that there was a limit to what wisdom could reveal about the divine secrets. He said: “wisdom was beyond my grasp whatever has happened lies beyond our grasp, deep down, deeper than man can fathom” (Ecclesiastes 7:24 NEB).
One of the most difficult passages in the book is Ecclesiastes 7:26-28 where Qoheleth mentions some of his discoveries. In this post I will use the word Ecclesiastes to refer to the book, the word Qoheleth to refer to the wise man, and the word editor to refer to the one who compiled the words of Qoheleth.
Qoheleth said that he turned his mind “to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the sum of things” (7:25). In order to do so, Qoheleth embarked on a thorough and comprehensive search of the evidence before him. He reports his findings in 7:26-28, a text that is difficult to translate and whose meaning has baffled the translators.
Translating Ecclesiastes 7:27-28
In dealing with the ambiguities found in Ecclesiastes 7:27-28, Ingram (2013: 232-237) notes that these two verses are filled with ambiguities which make translation and interpretation of the text very difficult. This is clearly seen when one compares English translations of these verses and the way commentaries seek to explain what Qoheleth was trying to communicate to his readers.
For instance, what is Qoheleth referring to when he mentions “this” in v. 27? In verse 28 is he referring to one woman or to all women? Is the woman a literal woman or a figurative woman? These problems limit our understanding of Qoheleth’s message and create problems in communicating his message in ways that people today can understand.
Some of the problems of the text can be seen in the translation of the NIV. The NIV seeks to make the Hebrew text clearer to the reader by adding a few words to the text, but in the process the NIV changes what Qoheleth was trying to communicate to his readers. According to the NIV, Qoheleth did not find “one upright woman” (Ecclesiastes 7:28 NIV), but this translation does not reflect the Hebrew text, as I will explain below.
Many commentators accuse Qoheleth of being sexist and a misogynist. In her study of Qoheleth, Koose (2006: 77-78) wrote: “Qoheleth 7:26-28 is a misogynistic passage in the Hebrew Bible. There have been other negative portrayals of women in the Hebrew Bible, especially of women in the Wisdom traditions. However, this is the only statement that categorically condemns all women.” Koose says “that any argument that declares that this passage is not misogynistic smacks to apologetic.”
Tremper Longman III, in his commentary on Ecclesiastes has accused Qoheleth of being a misogynist. Longman (1998: 207) wrote: “The conclusion of our study then is that Qoheleth indeed expresses himself here as a misogynist.” Longman believes that Qoheleth was “a confused wise man.” In an upcoming post I will discuss the problem of misogynism is the book of Ecclesiastes.
In order to understand the problems of translating this passage and, in my opinion, how these translations fail to convey the correct meaning of the text, I offer five different translations of Ecclesiastes 7:27-28 and then make some observations on the way these translations deal with the Hebrew text. What follows are the five different translations of Ecclesiastes 7:27-28.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): “See, this is what I found, says the Teacher, adding one thing to another to find the sum, which my mind has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found.”
New International Version (NIV): “‘Look,’ says the Teacher, ‘this is what I have discovered: ‘Adding one thing to another to discover the scheme of things– while I was still searching but not finding– I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them all.”
New Jerusalem Bible (NJB): “This is what I think, says Qoheleth, having examined one thing after another to draw some conclusion, which I am still looking for, although unsuccessfully: one man in a thousand, I may find, but a woman better than other women-never.”
New English Bible (NEB): “‘See,’ says the Speaker, ‘this is what I have found, reasoning things out one by one, after searching long without success: I have found one man in a thousand worth the name, but I have not found one woman among them all.”
Revised English Bible (REB): “‘See,’ says the Speaker, ‘this is what I have found, reasoning things out one by one, after searching long without success: I have found one man in a thousand worthy to be called upright, but I have not found one woman among them all.”
Explanation of the Text
In seeking to understand the problems with these translations of verse 28, let us begin by reading again what these translations have to say about the woman:
NRSV: “One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found.”
NIV: “I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them all.”
NJB: “One man in a thousand, I may find, but a woman better than other women-never.”
NEB: “I have found one man in a thousand worth the name, but I have not found one woman among them all.”
REB: “I have found one man in a thousand worthy to be called upright, but I have not found one woman among them all.”
What do all these translations have in common? Why was Qoheleth unable to find one upright woman among a thousand men? The answer is because they were all men. Look at the NRSV: “One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these [men] I have not found.”
The problem with what Qoheleth has to say about the woman is that the versions mistranslate verse 28 and in the process all five translations mentioned above seem to say that among a thousand men Qoheleth could not find a single women. Of course, he could not find a woman among a thousand men because all of them were men.
Another problem is that these versions add words to the text that are not in the Hebrew. The NIV adds the word upright in italics, but the word “upright” is not in the Hebrew text. The NEB speaks about one man worth the name, but the expression “worth the name” is not in the Hebrew text. The NJB says that Qoheleth never found “a woman better than other women-never,” but the expression “a woman better than other women-never” is not in the Hebrew text. The NEB says that Qoheleth found “one man in a thousand worth the name,” but the expression “worth the name” is not in the Hebrew text. The REB says that Qoheleth found “one man in a thousand worthy to be called upright,” but the expression “worthy to be called upright” is not in the Hebrew text.
All these translations add words to the Hebrew text in order to explain to readers what Qoheleth was trying to say in verse 28, but in doing so, these translations disparage women and introduce a misogynistic statement which, I think, it is not found in this verse.
It is the NIV that says that Qoheleth did not find one upright woman; it was not Qoheleth. It is the NJB that says that Qoheleth did not find a woman worth the name; it was not Qoheleth. It was the NJB that says that Qoheleth never found a woman better than other women; it was not Qoheleth.
Although these translations add words to the text to help today’s readers gain a better understanding of what the biblical writer was trying to communicate to his readers, these additions introduce a foreign meaning to the text and, in the case of Ecclesiastes 7:28, these additions introduce a misogynistic understanding to the words of Qoheleth that denigrates women. Qoheleth is not disparaging women; these translations are misogynistic, they belittle and malign women. These translations need to be corrected in order to properly convey what Qoheleth was saying.
In my next post on Ecclesiastes 7:28 I will propose a rereading of the text, a rereading that will look at the Hebrew text and propose a new translation of Ecclesiastes 7:28. I will also try to show that Qoheleth is not a misogynist.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Other Posts on Ecclesiastes 7:28
Ingram,Doug. “Riddled with Ambiguity’: Ecclesiastes 7:23-81 as an Example.” In The Words of the Wise Are Like Goads: Engaging Qoheleth in the 21st Century, ed. Mark J. Boda, Tremper Longman III, and Christian G. Rata. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2013.
Koose, Jennifer L. (Per)mutations of Qoheleth: Reading the Body in the Book. New York: T & T Clark, 2006.
Longman III, Tremper. The Book of Ecclesiastes. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.