In our Baylor commentary (BHHB series), J. Cook, P.S. Marshall, and I currently follow Michael Fox’s (A Time to Tear Down & A Time to Build Up, 1999) rendering of הֶבֶל as “absurd”. Below I have excerpted the comment on הבל in Eccl 1:2 as it currently stands:
The denotation of the noun הבל ‘breath, vapor’. As used in Ecclesiastes, it must be a metaphor, since it makes little sense for Qohelet to assert that ‘everything’ is literally ‘vapor’. What the metaphor means, though, has long been and remains the subject of some debate. The following are those English glosses most commonly proposed: “ephemeral,” “worthless, trivial,” “empty, nothing,” “incomprehensible,” “deceit,” and “senseless, nonsense” (see Meek 2016 for an exhaustive survey). Some suggest that the word is used in more than one way in the book (see, e.g., Crenshaw 1987: 57; Miller 2002 offers a variation on this). Others disagree: Fox, for example, argues that the term must have a single dominant meaning around which the book’s argument coheres (1999: 35); he proposes that Ecclesiastes’ use of הבל parallels Camus’ idea of “absurd,” that is the “disjunction between two phenomena that are thought to be linked by a bond of harmony or causality, or that should be so linked … Absurdity arises from a contradiction of two undeniable realities” (1999: 31).
(By the way, Meek’s survey of the approaches to הבל is quite good: Russell L. Meek. 2016. Twentieth and Twenty-first-century Readings of Hebel הֶבֶל in Ecclesiastes. Currents in Biblical Research 14(3): 279-97.)
And yet I have some reservations about “absurd”. First, it feels anachronistic, though perhaps that’s simply because Fox builds on Camus rather than any other ancient source. Second, absurd is always abstract and sometimes a more concrete meaning for הֶבֶל seems to fit just fine. The question is, what less abstract meaning?, and then, is it really ok to render the word with multiple English glosses? I, too, would like to find a single gloss that fits and so signals the book’s coherence, since I agree with Fox that the author of Eccl has used the word for the argument’s leitmotif.
So, for the one or two readers out there — here’s a question: does “haze” work? It keeps a connection to the apparent etymology “vapour, breath” but connects to a metaphorical use in English (“it was hazy to me”). Does “it’s a complete haze” capture the dissonance between creation’s order and the human inability to fully discern it for the benefit of prosperous and righteous living that is at the heart of Ecclesiastes?
If so, tell me why.
If not, tell me why.