No Advantage Over the Animals? Indeed, All Is *Hebel*: Humanity’s Frustrating Finitude in Eccl 3

Ecclesiastes wrestles with theological anthropology perhaps more than any book in the canon of Scripture. However, interpreters often leave confused or frustrated with the results of engaging with Qohelet’s puzzling reflections on life. Take, for example, Eccl 3:19, where Qohelet seemingly scraps ideas of dominion in Gen 1 and Ps 8, instead declaring, “[Man and beasts] all have the same breath, and humanity has no advantage over the beasts, כִּי הַכֹּל הָ֫בֶל.” This paper seeks to accomplish two complementary goals: (1) argue for translating hebel in this passage as “fog” or “mist,” thus reconciling and retaining the objective (fleeting; enigma) and subjective (frustrating; vanity) senses of the word; and (2) defend an orthodox reading of Qohelet’s theological anthropology— namely, that the seeming lack of advantage over animals in a cursed world reaffirms rather than undermines the reality that humanity has dominion over the animals.

This paper demonstrates point one by looking at the place of Eccl 3:16–22 within the chapter. While many current structural readings see a natural break after verse 15, few see the funnel of chapter 3 moving from a poem on God’s timing (3:1–8) down to a reflection on God’s timing in general (3:9–15) and finally into a reflection on God’s timing in the particular matter of justice (3:16–22). Five elements within the latter two sections—frustration, fact, mystery, counsel, and purpose— demonstrate the parallel nature of the two sections, and common linguistic features link these two reflections to the poem on time in general. In view of the two parallel mysteries (3:11b; 3:19b–21), the hebel statement in 3:19 should be read in comparison with finite humanity’s inability to comprehend God’s timing in 3:11b. Therefore, the hebel statement in 3:19 should be understood as a frustrating enigma or puzzle. Translating this as “breath,” “fog,” or “vapor” retains the objective (incomprehensibility; fleeting) and subjective (frustration) elements of this reality.

When read in this way, point two also holds true, that Qohelet squarely fits within an orthodox reading of theological anthropology. The seeming lack of advantage for man over beasts is a frustrating enigma, one which will fade in time. This reading does not contradict humanity’s dominion over the animals but rather confirms God’s rightful ordering. Humanity truly should have dominion and advantage over the animals; so then, death seemingly equalizes what should be humanity’s advantage. This reading highlights both humanity’s glorious status as God’s image-bearers and the destruction of sin—two key elements of theological anthropology.

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