Before you continue, read Ecclesiastes 7:28: Was Qoheleth a Misogynist? – Part 1
The Woman in Ecclesiastes 7:28
In his quest to discover the whole of human experience, Qoheleth said: “I turned my mind to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the sum of things” (Ecclesiastes 7:25). The expression, “the sum of things” (Hebrew: ḥešbôn), a word that appears four times in the book, implies that Qoheleth set out to find a reason or an explanation for everything.
At the end of his quest, Qoheleth found several things. The expression “I found” appears seven times in Ecclesiastes 7:25-29. In Ecclesiastes 7:27, Qoheleth said: “See, this is what I found, says the Teacher, adding one thing to another to find the sum [ḥešbôn].” In this verse, the editor of the book says that Qoheleth added one thing to another to discover ḥešbôn, the sum of all things.
But the editor of the book is not very clear in explaining what Qoheleth found. Does the “this” in v. 27 point back to v. 26 or forward to v. 28? What did Qoheleth not find in the statement found in 28b? Fox and Porten (1978: 31) say that the “this” in verse 27 refers to the conclusion that Qoheleth arrived at in verse 26. They wrote: “He [Qoheleth] is saying, ‘See what my painstaking search led me to: just this—that woman is a menace!’”
Thus, it is the view that Qoheleth is saying that “a woman is more bitter than death,” that “woman is a menace,” or that Qoheleth is talking about “the weakness of women” that leads many people to believe that Qoheleth was a misogynist. But, as Whybray said, Ecclesiastes 7:28 “is also capable of other interpretations.”
Interpreting Ecclesiastes 7:28
The negative view about women in verse 28 derives in part from verse 26 where Qoheleth speaks about the woman who snares. One way of understanding what Qoheleth is saying about women is to ascertain what the “this” is verse 27 refer to. Qoheleth said: “this I found.” But what did he find? What follows are some interpretations of Ecclesiastes 7:28 that seek to demonstrate that Qoheleth was not a misogynist.
Women in the Army
In his article, “Women and War in Qohelet 7:23-8:1a,” Klaus Baltzer says that there is a contradiction between Qoheleth’s apparently misogyny and his view that life is a gift from God. Baltzer believes that the proper understanding of Qoheleth’s view about women in Ecclesiastes 7:28 lies in the meaning of the word “thousand” (‘elep).
The Hebrew word ‘elep is a cardinal number meaning “one thousand,” but in some places, ‘elep is also a technical word used in a military context to designate a unit of Israel’s army, a brigade. Samuel told the people of Israel that the new king “will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties” (1 Samuel 8:12). The “thousands of Israel” is a reference to Israel’s army. Baltzer (1987: 131) wrote:
Accordingly, Qoh 7:28 can be rendered “One man only” or “Men alone” (´ādām ´eḥād)) “have I found among the brigades (‘thousands’), but a woman among all these I have not found.” That is, there are no women in the army; it is a male affair. It is men, not women, who are responsible for war.
Baltzer’s view has been rejected by most scholars. Although the word ‘elep is used to designate a military unit in the army of Israel, I believe Baltzer’s argument is not very strong.
A Marginal Gloss
Seow (1997: 274) believes that the reference to a woman in 7:28b is a marginal gloss because it does not fit with Qoheleth’s argument in the passage. He wrote:
Exegetically, however, the remark in 28b is acutely problematic because it seems intrusive in this passage. In the first place, the passage is not about women in general. Neither is it about certain types of women, nor a particular woman. . . . . We conclude, therefore, that v. 28b was a marginal gloss that had been inadvertently incorporated into the body of the text.
The view that the statement in 7:28b is a marginal gloss would absolve Qoheleth of misogyny. However, there is no manuscript evidence to indicate that the statement in 7:28b was inserted by a scribe or by the editor of the book.
A few scholars have proposed that the word “a thousand” in 7:28 is a reference to the thousand wives and concubines in Solomon’s harem. Crenshaw (1987: 148) says that the allusion to Solomon is possible. He wrote: “But allusion to Solomon’s harem is perhaps apropos here, an ironic suggestion that the king’s addition of one to one until he reached one thousand did not introduce him to a good wife (Prov. 31:10).”
Although Qoheleth writes under the name of Solomon, the view that Ecclesiastes 7:28 is a reference to Solomon’s thousand wives is not a good interpretation. Such interpretation is not supported by the text.
The Hebrew word translated “woman” in 7:28 is ´iššâh, a word that is also translated as “wife.” Carol Fontaine (1998: 162), in her commentary on Ecclesiastes, said that the expression “find a woman” in Hebrew, means “to take a wife.” The writer of Proverbs wrote: “Who can find a capable wife?” (Proverbs 31:10). Thus, according to Fontaine, it is possible that Qoheleth was alluding to his inability to find a suitable wife for himself.
A Popular Saying
Some scholars suggest that Qoheleth is quoting from a popular saying that in the end he discovered the saying was not true. Schoors (2013: 585) believes that in his search for wisdom, Qoheleth encountered several false views about people. One of these views is found in a popular saying which Qoheleth quoted in verse 28. Qoheleth discovered that the popular saying was not true. Schoors translates verse 28 using some parenthetical statements to clarify the meaning of the Hebrew text: “What I further have investigated with heart and soul and have not found (confirmed) is (the saying): “One (good) person among a thousand I have found, but a woman among these I have not found.”
Schoors then explains Qoheleth’s words: “That would mean that Qoheleth has investigated another anti-feminist statement, actually a very pessimistic saying about humanity: only one among a thousand is a good person, and that one is not even a woman. In his investigation, he did not find confirmation of this saying.”
Lohfink also believes that Qoheleth was quoting a popular proverb which reflected a prevalent view about women among his contemporaries. Lohfink concludes that in his search for truth, Qoheleth found that the proverb was not true. Lohfink translates verse 28 as follows: “This I sought but did not find (true): that women are worse than men” (cited by Crenshaw 1987: 147).
Murphy (1992: 75-77) believes that throughout chapter 7, Qoheleth was in dialogue with popular wisdom and their belief about human beings. Murphy believes that 7:28 was a proverbial saying. He asks: “Is the intent of v. 28 to disparage women?” Murphy concludes that Qoheleth rejects this popular saying because it was demeaning to women.
Qoheleth’s attitude toward women has been an item of debate among scholars. As mentioned above, scholars take different views of verse 28 and in the process offer contradictory conclusions. By saying that Qoheleth did not find one woman, some scholars believe that he is denigrating all women.
The truth is that Qoheleth judges men almost as negatively as he judges women. In his search for wisdom what Qoheleth discovered does not speak well of men or women. Among a thousand people, only one man had what Qoheleth was looking for. Nine hundred and ninety-nine men and women did not have what Qoheleth was looking for.
So, was Qoheleth a misogynist? I think many people misunderstand what Qoheleth was saying.
Qoheleth never said that “woman [is] more bitter than death.”
Qoheleth never said “that woman is a menace.”
Qoheleth never spoke about “the weakness of women.”
It is the NIV that says that Qoheleth did not find one upright woman; it was not Qoheleth.
It is the NEB 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.
It was the REB that says that Qoheleth did not find a woman worthy to be called upright, it was not Qoheleth.
A close reading of 7:27-28 does not reveal what Qoheleth found or did not find. What Qoheleth discovered in his search was that the reason he could not find the ideal man nor the ideal woman was because human beings, both men and women, have perverted God’s ideal for humanity by devising their own schemes: “See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29).
In his quest for wisdom, Qoheleth’s goal was to find ḥešbôn, “the sum of all things” (7:25) and the reason he did not find ḥešbôn was because human beings had devised many ḥešbônot, “many schemes.”
Qoheleth said that God had “made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), but human beings, both men and women, in their sinfulness, destroyed God’s ideal by creating their own ḥešbônot, “their own schemes.” Murphy (1992: 77) concludes that 7:29 is Qoheleth’s “considered judgment upon humankind.” The sinfulness of all human beings exonerates Qoheleth from the charge of considering women more evil than men. It also disproves Qoheleth’s misogynism because Qoheleth says that both men and women have sinned and have fallen short of God’s ideal.
Was Qoheleth a misogynist? I believe the evidence shows that Qoheleth was not a misogynist.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
NOTE: Did you like this post? Do you think other people would like to read this post? Be sure to share this post on Facebook and share a link on Twitter so that others may enjoy reading it too!
I would love to hear from you! Let me know what you thought of this post by leaving a comment below. Be sure to like my page on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and subscribe to my blog to receive each post by email.
Other Posts on Ecclesiastes 7:28
Baltzer, Klaus. “Women and War in Qohelet 7:23-8:1a,” Harvard Theological Review 80 (1987): 127-132.
Barton, George A. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary of the Book of Ecclesiastes. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909.
Crenshaw, James L. Ecclesiastes: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1987.
Fontaine, Carol. “Ecclesiastes.” Women’s Bible Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.
Fox, Michael V. and Bezalel Porten, “Unsought Discovery: Qohelet 7:23-81a,” Hebrew Studies 19 (1978): 26-38.
Lohfink, Norbert . Kohelet. Die neue Echter Bibel. Stuttgart, 1980.
Murphy, Roland. Ecclesiastes. Word Bible Commentary. Dallas: Word Books, 1992.
Schoors, Antoon . Ecclesiastes. Historical Commentary on the Old Testament. Leuven: Peeters, 2013.
Rudman, Dominic, “Woman as Divine Agent in Ecclesiastes,” Journal of Biblical Literature 116 (1997) 411-427.
Seow, C. L. Ecclesiastes. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
Whybray, R. N. Ecclesiastes. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989.