Ecclesiastes 7:28: In Search of a Better Translation

In my previous post, Ecclesiastes 7:28: Not One Upright Woman?, I discussed the problem many English translations of the Bible have with Ecclesiastes 7:28. These translations mistranslate this obscure verse and, in the process, introduce a misogynistic idea into their translations which, in my opinion, is not supported by the text.

In the present post I will offer a different translation of the text, a translation that differs from the five translations cited in the previous post. In an upcoming post, I will discuss whether Ecclesiastes 7:28 shows that Qoheleth was a misogynist.

In Search of a Better Translation

Ecclesiastes 7:28 is a difficult text to translate into English. In addition, the interpretation of this verse is problematic because of the ambiguities conveyed by the text. In order to offer a better translation of the text, I will cite the Hebrew text and then use the NRSV and the NIV as representatives of several English translations of this text.

אָדָ֞ם אֶחָ֤ד מֵאֶ֙לֶף֙ מָצָ֔אתִי וְאִשָּׁ֥ה בְכָל־אֵ֖לֶּה לֹ֥א מָצָֽאתִי

“One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found” (Ecclesiastes 7:28 NRSV).

“I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them all” (Ecclesiastes 7:28 NIV).

When we compare the Hebrew text with the NRSV and the NIV several observations must be made. The NRSV is a literal translation of the Hebrew text while the NIV inserts the word upright to identifythe man Qoheleth found and the woman he did not find. The problem is that the word “upright” in the NIV is not present in the Hebrew text. As shown in the previous post, several other translations insert words into the text and these insertions change the message Qoheleth was trying to communicate to his readers. One good example, not cited in the previous post, is the translation of the New Living Bible (NLB): “Only one out of a thousand men is virtuous, but not one woman.” The problem with the NLB is that Qoheleth is not talking about virtuous men nor virtuous women. Thus, the NLB’s translation, in my view, is also not acceptable.

The second problem with both translations is that the NRSV and the NIV are translating the Hebrew word ’ādām as man. Qoheleth uses two different Hebrew words for man. The word אִ֖ישׁ (’îš) is used eight times to designate an individual. For example, in Ecclesiastes 1:8, Qoheleth is talking about an individual person: “All such things are wearisome: No man (’îš) can ever state them; The eye never has enough of seeing, Nor the ear enough of hearing” (Ecclesiastes 1:8 TNK). The word ’îš also appears in Ecclesiastes 6:2: “God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires.”

The word אָדָם (’ādām) is used 48 times in the book of Ecclesiastes. At times, Qoheleth uses ’ādām to refer to the ideal man and at times ’ādām  includes both men and women. Two examples in the Hebrew Bible will suffice to show that ’ādām includes both men and women.

In Genesis 1:27 the NIV translates ’ādām as “man,” but man includes male and female: “So God created man [’ādām] in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” However, in Genesis 1:27 the NRSV translates ’ādām as “humankind,” and humankind includes male and female: “So God created humankind [’ādām] in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

The other classical example where the word ’ādām includes both man and woman is found in Genesis 5:2: “In the day that God created man [’ādām], in the likeness of God made he him; Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created” (Genesis 5:1-2 KJV). According to Genesis 5:2, the male is called Adam and the female is called Adam: “[God] called their name Adam.”

Qoheleth uses the word ’ādām to include both men and women: “Surely there is no one [’ādām] on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning (Ecclesiastes 7:20 NRS). Or as the NIV translates: “There is not a righteous man [’ādām] on earth who does what is right and never sins.” Here Qoheleth is talking about the wickedness of both men and women, the wickedness of ’ādām.

At the end of his discussion about his findings, Qoheleth adds this statement: “See, this alone I found, that God made human beings (’ādām) straightforward, but they have devised many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29 NRSV). Qoheleth’s statement is a reference to the creation of men and women in Genesis 1. Thus, the use of the word ’ādām in verse 28 must also be related to what Qoheleth is discussing in verse 29.

In his study of Ecclesiastes 7:28 Clines (2003:302) concludes,

If there were 100,000 people in Qoheleth’s Jerusalem, that means to say, there were a hundred who met his standard; but among that hundred there was no woman. The hundred were all males, it is true, but in calling them אדם he is calling them people, since he was looking among people.

Not only is this a possible interpretation of the Qoheleth text, it is, I argue, a better interpretation, or rather, an indispensable one. For Qoheleth must have been considering the whole population of Jerusalem when he was searching for worthy persons, since if he had considered only men, he could not have been surprised that among them were no women. If he meant that he found only one male among a thousand (whether a thousand of men and women or only of men), it would be a tautology to say that among those (men) there was no woman.

It may therefore be argued not only that אדם in Qoheleth vii 28 can mean “human” but that it must mean “human” rather than “man, male”.

In light of the fact that the word ’ādām in Ecclesiastes 7:28 must include both men and women, then the translation of the The Jewish Publication Society (TNK) comes closer to the Hebrew text: “As for what I sought further but did not find, I found only one human being in a thousand, and the one I found among so many was never a woman” (Ecclesiastes 7:28 TNK).

Another translation of 7:28 that comes closer to the Hebrew text is the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB): “among a thousand people I have found one true man, but among all these I have not found a true woman.” The only problem with the HCSB is that the translation adds the word “true” which is not in the Hebrew text. The HCSB should read: “among a thousand people I have found one man, but among all these I have not found a woman.”

Conclusion

In light of the discussion above, the following translation of Ecclesiastes 7:27-28 better reflects the Hebrew text:

See, this I found, says Qoheleth, adding one thing to another to find a conclusion, which I sought continually but did not find: one person among a thousand I found but a woman among all these I did not find.

Reading what Qoheleth wrote, the question must be asked again: was Qoheleth a misogynist? The answer to this question depends of the meaning of “this” in verse 27. Qoheleth said: “this I found.” But what did he find?  He said that among one thousand people, he found a man who had “this.” He also said that among one thousand people he did not find a woman who had “this,” whatever “this” is.

Reading the text superficially, it seems that Qoheleth was indeed a misogynist. However, as Doug Ingram said (2013:219-240) this text is riddled with ambiguities, and as such, these ambiguities require a detailed study of the text in order to ascertain whether Qoheleth was a misogynist. That will be the goal of my next post as I seek to provide a better understanding of Ecclesiastes 7:28.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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Other Posts on Ecclesiastes 7:28

Ecclesiastes 7:28: Not One Upright Woman?

Ecclesiastes 7:28: In Search of a Better Translation

Ecclesiastes 7:28: Was Qoheleth a Misogynist? – Part 1

Ecclesiastes 7:28: Was Qoheleth a Misogynist? – Part 2

Bibliography

David J. A. Clines, “אדם , The Hebrew for ‘Human, Humanity’: A Response to James Barr,” Vetus Testamentum 53 (2003): 297-310.

Doug Ingram, “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.

This entry was posted in Book of Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiastes, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Misogyny, Old Testament, Translating, Translation Problems, Women and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ecclesiastes 7:28: In Search of a Better Translation

  1. Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging and commented:
    Totally appreciate your perspective Dr. M.

    Like

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