Vanity of Vanities by Lisa M. Wolfe

The repeated word “vanity” in Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) neither refers to self-centeredness nor a mirrored piece of furniture; it translates the Hebrew word hevel, which invites us to ponder life’s conundrums.

What does the Hebrew word hevel, commonly translated “vanity,” mean in Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes)?

Traditionally, English translations of the Bible have used “vanity” for the Hebrew term hevel in Qoheleth, found thirty-eight times throughout the book. This translation originated with the Latin Vulgate (fourth century CE). For some, “vanity” conjures the illusory, fleeting nature of all things, yet for others it may suggest a stereotypical selfie-taker or even a dressing table. These diverse examples illustrate why “vanity” is a misleading translation for contemporary English speakers.

The Hebrew term hevel has a wide range of meaning. It is the name of the tragic character Abel, second born of Adam and Eve in Gen 4:2. His name foreshadows his brief story: his older brother kills him within a mere six verses of his birth. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, hevel indicates “idols” (Jer 8:19), “breath” (Isa 57:13), and “worthless” (Jer 2:5). Contemporary English translations of Qoheleth render hevel in varying ways: “futile” (NJPS); “pointless” (CEB); “meaningless” (NIV); “smoke” (Message)—these translations use the same English word for hevel throughout the book. The NET Bible enlists eight different terms to interpret hevel in Qoheleth because the word appears in such different contexts. Six of the times hevel appears in Qoheleth, the descriptive phrase “and a chasing after wind” follows it, providing additional meaning. Rather than choosing one English translation, I advocate substituting the Hebrew word hevel for NRSV’s “vanity” to let the book tell the reader what the word means.

How does hevel in Qoheleth lead us to philosophical reflection?

Qoheleth uses hevel poetically. For instance, the alliterative, superlative Hebrew phrase havel havalim hakkol havel, or “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” marks the beginning and the end of the book’s core (Eccl 1:1; Eccl 12:8). Poetry as a genre often prompts its readers to thoughtfulness about the meaning of life. We see this in Eccl 8:14, where hevel bookends the poignant lament that neither the righteous nor the wicked get what they deserve:

14There is a hevel that is done upon the earth:

there are righteous ones who are treated according to the acts of the wicked,

and there are wicked ones who are treated according to the acts of the righteous. 

I said, “this also is hevel.” (author’s translation)

 

Qoheleth’s description of this situation includes a striking reversed repetition in the middle two lines, compelling readers to reflect: “When have I seen the unjust suffering of the righteous, or the wicked implausibly rewarded?”

Thus, Qoheleth’s use of hevel prompts philosophical considerations. In 1988, Michael V. Fox argued for translating hevel in Qoheleth as “absurd/absurdity,” based on the work of the French existentialist Albert Camus. Fox explains that “absurd” captures a situation in which expectations do not align with reality, such as in Eccl 6:1-2. Though scholars still vigorously debate Fox’s translation choice, it fittingly connects Qoheleth to philosophical thought. Other scholars have compared the book to concepts in Chinese Buddhism, the Hindu concept of Karma, Taoism, Cynicism, Stoicism, Skepticism, and Postmodernism.

Additionally intriguing for philosophical reflection is the fact that hevel does not utterly dominate Qoheleth. The book also includes a sevenfold call to “seize the day” (carpe diem) by eating, drinking, and enjoying one’s life and work. The contrast between “carpe diem” and hevel (for instance in Eccl 8:15 and Eccl 8:14) poses a dilemma: Does carpe diem solve life’s absurdities such that Qoheleth ultimately advocates joy? Do these two themes provide a yin-yang balance to life? Or, are we just stress-eating when we “seize the day” in response to hevel? The best part of Qoheleth is that the answer to this quandary rests in the mind of the reader.

Lisa M. Wolfe , "Vanity of Vanities", n.p. [cited 26 Oct 2020]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/vanity-of-vanities

Contributors

wolfe-lisa

Lisa M. Wolfe
Professor of Hebrew Bible, Endowed Chair, Oklahoma City University

Lisa M. Wolfe is Professor of Hebrew Bible, Endowed Chair, at Oklahoma City University. She wrote the Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) volume in the Wisdom Commentary series. Living the Questions produced her DVD Bible Study series “Uppity Women of the Bible” in 2010, for which she wrote the companion book Ruth, Esther, Song of Songs and Judith in 2011. Lisa is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ.   

A category or type, often of literary work.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

A formal poetic category (see Psalms, Lamentations, prophets).

The Latin-language translation of the Christian Bible (mostly from Hebrew and Greek) created primarily by Jerome.

Gen 4:2

2Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.

Jer 8:19

19 Hark, the cry of my poor people
    from far and wide in the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion?
    Is her King not in her?”
(“Why have they provoked me to ange ... View more

Isa 57:13

13 When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you!
    The wind will carry them off,
    a breath will take them away.
But whoever takes refuge in m ... View more

Jer 2:5

5 Thus says the Lord:

What wrong did your ancestors find in me
    that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves ... View more

Eccl 1:1

Reflections of a Royal Philosopher
1The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Eccl 12:8

8 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.

Eccl 8:14

14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked peo ... View more

Eccl 6:1-2

The Frustration of Desires
1There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy upon humankind:2those to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and ... View more

Eccl 8:15

15So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their ... View more

Eccl 8:14

14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked peo ... View more

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.