The book of Ecclesiastes describes the quest of a teacher, whom the editor of the book calls Qoheleth, who set out to seek wisdom and the sum of all things (Ecclesiastes 7:25). At the beginning of the book, Qoheleth speaks of his almost impossible quest: “I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 1:13).
The comprehensive nature of his quest to understand the sum of everything, the whole of human experience, was to be done through study and exploration. The problem with his quest was that he was planning to achieve his goal by wisdom, that is, by human endeavor. After all his study and all his exploration, Qoheleth had to acknowledge that he had failed in his task. He said: “All this I tested by wisdom. I thought I could fathom it, but it eludes me” (Ecclesiastes 7:23 TNK).
One issue that has provoked much discussion among scholars is Qoheleth’s views about women. Many commentators say that Qoheleth was a misogynist because of what he said about women in 7:26 and 7:28. The purpose of this post is to ascertain whether Qoheleth was a misogynist. In his commentary on Ecclesiastes, Crenshaw (1987: 147) said that the Ancient Near East literature had a very unflattering view of women and that “Qoheleth added his voice to the choir that sang about the weakness of women.”
As I mentioned in my first post on this series of study, I believe that a misogynistic interpretation of the book of Ecclesiastes and of Qoheleth himself is based on the way some translations translate Ecclesiastes 7:28 and in the way some scholars interpret what Qoheleth found in his quest.
Some scholars take a different approach in interpreting Ecclesiastes 7:28. For instance, Whybray does not believe that Qoheleth was a misogynist. He wrote:
It has also been alleged, on very flimsy evidence, that Qohelet was that very rare phenomenon among the Jews of the Old Testament period, a bachelor, and even a misogynist. This notion is based mainly on a single very obscure passage, 7,23-29, which is certainly capable of being interpreted as expressing contempt or hatred of women in general, but is also capable of other interpretations (Whybray 1989: 22).
Whybray says that the view that Qoheleth was a misogynist is based “on very flimsy evidence” and that the passage in question “is also capable of other interpretation.” According to Whybray, “whatever the saying means it may in fact not be specifically directed at women.” Rudman (1997: 414) said that those who seek “to mitigate the harshness of modern accusations of misogyny by suggesting that Qoheleth refers only to a ‘certain type of woman’” are a small minority.
Since those who defend Qoheleth from this modern accusation of misogyny is a small minority, it is important to review these other interpretations that deny the view that Qoheleth was a misogynist.
Women in the Book of Ecclesiastes
The word ´iššâh (“woman) appears three times in the book of Ecclesiastes: 7:26, 7:28, and 9:9. In 7:26 Qoheleth speaks about “the woman who is a trap.” In 9:9 Qoheleth speaks positively about women when he talks about the joy of marital love and the pleasures and the satisfaction of life when one lives with a woman whom one loves: “Enjoy happiness with a woman you love.” Although the word ´iššâh is translated “woman” by the TNK, Qoheleth is speaking about the bliss of marriage life, as the NRSV correctly translates: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love.”
According to many scholars, Qoheleth’s unflattering view of women is reflected in his statement in 7:26, but even here scholars misunderstand what Qoheleth was trying to communicate to his readers. Take, for instance, the translation of The Jewish Publication Society (TNK): “Now, I find woman more bitter than death” (Ecclesiastes 7:26 TNK).
I find this translation very misleading. As it is written, this translation seems to imply that all women are more bitter than death. Even the explanation that the TNK provides, “she is all traps, her hands are fetters and her heart is snares,” cannot hide the fact that this translation, as it stands, is misogynistic in its message: “a woman is more bitter than death.”
This interpretation by the TNK contradicts Qoheleth’s advice in 9:9, “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love” (Ecclesiastes 9:9). Qoheleth’s words indicate that women play an important part in men’s lives because women are a source of support and companionship. She is the companion that God gave to man. This is the reason Qoheleth urges his male readers to escape the traps of the woman mentioned in 7:26 because she does not provide the love and emotional support that man needs in life.
The NRSV has a better translation of the Hebrew text: “I found more bitter than death the woman who is a trap, whose heart is snares and nets” (Ecclesiastes 7:26 NRSV). Qoheleth is not saying that a woman is more bitter than death. Rather, he is saying that more bitter than death is the woman who is a trap, a woman whose heart is snares and nets. The woman who is a trap may be a reference to the “strange woman” of Proverbs 5:3-5 or it may refer to the prostitute of Proverbs 23:27-28. This seems to indicate that the woman in 7:26 refers only to some women and not to all women.
However Ecclesiastes 7:26 is interpreted, Qoheleth is not referring to all women, as the TNK implies, but to a specific type of woman. As Barton (1909: 147) wrote: “Qoheleth is inveighing against bad women in the vein of Pr. 5:4. . . . He does not mean to say that all women are destructive, for in 9:10 [English 9:9] he encourages honorable marriage as a source of happiness.”
Note: The bibliography for this post will be listed at the end of Part 2
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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