A Satire on the Chores and A Repudiation of Unqualified Traditionalism in Ecclesiastes 10:8-11

In Ecclesiastes 10:8-11, Qohelet lists a number of ordinary occupations or chores that he claims “will” result in eventual disaster (taking the yiqtols as indicatives). It is against this backdrop of inevitable calamity that he, satirizing the traditionalists (e.g. the interlocutors of Job), props up the value of applying wisdom/skill to one’s work (v. 10c). His brief exposé on labor is only a setup, though, for his main contribution to the topic when he asserts that wisdom is utterly useless in certain circumstances (v. 11). Qohelet’s claim is jarring and arguably new among the Hebrew sages, and yet his entire presentation betrays a traditional ring. Stylistically, he accomplishes the first part of his message (vv. 8-10) by mimicking two motifs known to us from Hebrew and Egyptian wisdom texts. The first is the retribution topos seen in passages like Proverbs 26:27, where one’s wicked behavior results in sure repercussion (though Qohelet parodies this by substituting amoral activities). The second pattern he adopts is the rhetorical technique “not these, but this,” known to us from the much older Egyptian Teaching of Khety and comparable texts that address the superiority of scribalism to all other professions. Qohelet borrows this form tongue-in-cheek as a means of shoring up his own satirical claim that wisdom solves all the laborer’s problems (v. 10c). Scholars have traditionally posited a link between such Egyptian texts and the later Sirach (38:24-39:11), yet Qohelet likewise lists a series of chores/professions, their consequences, and the superiority of some other thing (in his case, working wisely). Unlike the Egyptian motif and Sirach, Qohelet’s teaching is brief and a mere setup for the punchline he provides in the second part of his message (in v. 11). Situated in the center of chapter 10, which otherwise focuses on the avoidance of folly, this pericope briefly repudiates the view that wisdom makes one invincible. Furthermore, scholars’ readings of verse 11 as a critique of the snake charmer’s laziness, incompetence, or failure to act quickly enough do not provide an adequate corrective for the overstatement of wisdom’s value in the previous verse. Rather than view the snake charmer as unprepared, Qohelet sees the conjuror’s wisdom/skill as useless before a serpent that cannot be charmed in the first place (e.g., Jer. 8:17 and ṣerri la šipti in TIM 9 66:3; and others.). By this assessment, wisdom itself is shown to be inadequate rather than the worker. In sum, Qohelet assumes known literary forms from Hebrew and Egyptian wisdom texts to mock traditionalists’ absolutist dogma on retribution and the invincibility of wisdom, asserting instead that suffering is for everyone, not just the wicked/foolish, and not even wisdom can save you from it.

5 thoughts on “A Satire on the Chores and A Repudiation of Unqualified Traditionalism in Ecclesiastes 10:8-11”

  1. Good Fit, Good Contribution
    Engaging both Ecclesiastes and Sirach, Jordan’s proposed topic would fit well with the other studies (Bradley, James, Joshua), while offering a unique contribution. Having just completed his Kregel-Kerux manuscript on Ecclesiastes, I know Jordan has spent much time thinking about the theological message of this book.

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  2. Good Fit, Integrative Approach
    Even though I disagree with some of Jordan’s claims (e.g., that Eccl 10:8-11 describes “inevitable” consequences, that Qohelet’s tone is “sarcastic” and “satirizing,” that the fault is with wisdom rather than the worker), the proposal fits the session well with attention being given to thematic parallels between Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, Job, Sirach and Khety. It appears that the presenter will do a good job of drawing on multiple lines of argument to make the case that Qohelet is making a claim in this text (and elsewhere in the book) about the limitations of wisdom.

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  3. Good contribution
    The proposal combines formal, rhetorical, thematic, and comparative modes of investigation to a particular text that betrays one of Qoheleth’s fundamental convictions. This paper would be a valuable contribution to the session.

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