Ecclesiastes’ use of הֶבֶל?

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.

20 Responses to “Ecclesiastes’ use of הֶבֶל?”

  1. Alex the Less Says:

    You probably should not use “haze” or “hazy.” “Haze” is a long-standing reference to a Cannabis variety: “Original Haze”, “Nevil’s Haze”, “Super Silver Haze”, “Mango Haze”, etc.

    You may not be aware of the reference, just a heads’ up.


  2. David Reimer Says:

    Reminds me of a post John Hobbins made a while back. (= I’ve used a URL shortener since there is a bunch of unicode in the raw URL, and I lack confidence in its ability to survive a comment box!)

    I made a comment in the thread below that post referring to a character in a Trollope novel. It was a tongue-in-cheek suggestion but with a serious purpose (i.e., that הבל was more a “placeholder” than a “semantic” word), and the Trollope reference was there to give one humorous (I supposed) analogy.

    Re-reading it, in the light of this post, I’m not so sure. There likely is more to the semantic freight (wispy as it may be) than I was thinking in 2012. I also wish I could remember what Stuart Weeks said about it (seminar paper), but alas – gone with the wind (as it were).

    Meanwhile, I’m not sure that “haze” is a major improvement on “vapour”, which has been used for הבל in the past. I wouldn’t immediately connect “haze” with “hazy” in a metaphorical sense, or at least no more readily than simply thinking of “vapour” as metaphor. How would “haze” work in הבל הבלים, I wonder?

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      David, always good and useful to hear from you.
      John Hobbins worked his “crock” translation into his article in the Fox FS (2005). It’s too anachronistic for my taste. I’d like something that would have fit in Qoh’s world as well as ours. Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but I’m going to continue looking.
      הבל הבלים — “a total haze” (if we take the first commenter’s warning, we would want to avoid “purple haze” I guess).

  3. Alex Kirk Says:

    “It’s a complete haze,” said Qohelet, “a complete haze. The whole thing is a haze.”

    It does make for a striking second verse that communicates in contemporary idiom and sticks close to the sense of the Hebrew etymology. One of the biggest things for me in learning a little Hebrew was getting a sense for the earthiness of the language—how rich in abstracted concepts drawn from concrete metaphors the whole language is, therefore, I would vote for something like “haze” or perhaps “fog” over something like “absurd,” which, in my opinion is too abstracted and looses the imagery of הבל. (Another interesting option might be something in the semantic range of “blur”?) I am scanning all occurrences of הבל in the HB and it seems, at a very cursory glance, that the occurrences in the wisdom books could mostly be translated with “haze” to yield some powerful images (e.g, Job 35:16; Prov 31:30; Eccl 2:11), it is when one gets to the adjectival uses of הבל with various words for idol that it gets really hard to keep it concrete—a “hazy idol” does sound a little stoned, and would therefore be pretty worthless…

  4. robertholmstedt Says:

    Alex, I thought of fog, also. Blur is interesting. Let’s avoid sounding stoned, though.

  5. matthaiti Says:

    Thanks for this. I think you’re spot on that Camus’ “absurd” is anachronistic and shoud be avoided. Personally, I don’t think “haze” captures it; it doesn’t quite resonate. Here in Haiti, the sense is “deceiving”. For anglophones, “deceive” has a personal connotation, that I don’t believe הבל has. But in Haiti when something seems as if it would be satisfying, or of substance but isn’t, it’s deceptive…I don’t know if that helps. Just a thought.

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Very interesting on deceptive.
      Why doesn’t haze cut it for you?

      • matthaiti Says:

        I THINK partly because of the weed connotations, but also because when I think of haze, it resonates more as something that blinds, or prevents clarity of vision, and that’s not what I sense is at the heart of what Qohelet experiences. I sense that his hope for substance and satisfaction that have been dashed against the rocks and the result is frustration. He thought he found a delicious, hot meal that will fill and satisfy, but he’s left hungry and weak aftewards, just like all the other meals…he’s been “deceived” again. Does that make sense?

      • robertholmstedt Says:

        Yes, that does make sense. But actually, my reading of the book is that he is still very much a typical sage and is working out how to live successfully. The underlying problem to this is, I think he says, that humans do lack a clarity of vision — we cannot see the deep patterns of the ordered creation so we can’t be sure that specific actions will lewd to specific results. I’ve come to a reading of the book that is less about frustration, pessimism, etc., and more about pragmatism.

      • matthaiti Says:

        Makes perfect sense. I suppose, then, that the conversation is more concerned with the overall theme book…once that gets nailed down then the gloss should reveal itself (hence the parts playing in the whole and the whole back into the parts). At the same time, maybe it’s possible that the book is intentionally dodgy on its theme to reflect the very point (in a sort of onomatopoeiatic sense)?

      • robertholmstedt Says:

        That could be. I will mull that over. Thanks.

  6. bobmacdonald Says:

    Haze doesn’t work for me – consider what would need to be done in Psalm 62.

    Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie: to be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity.
    Trust not in oppression, and become not vain in robbery: if riches increase, set not your heart upon them.

    For this word, I have used futile throughout my work so far (with the exception of weightless below and when הבל is used as a name) – and I am aware of how utterly limited my background and perspective is – but it’s my life and I must live it and grow if indeed that is not futile in itself.

    Surely the children of humanity are futility (), a lie, the children – each.
    To ascend in the balance they are altogether weightless.
    Do not trust in oppression or in robbery. Do not become futile.
    if wealth profits do not set your heart on it.

    The music for Qohelet might lend a clue. An utter futility, touts Qohelet, an utter futility, total futility.

    The notes are e C qad,B z-q,f g# f e. It has no rest. The pattern of accents occurs 5 times: here and in 1 Chronicles 6:6, 23:21, 25:30-31 – just a few lists of names… could sounds futile to me but maybe they were real children and grandchildren. :)

    John’s crock doesn’t work for me either. It is curious that futile has increased in its usage over the last 100 years.

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      The use in Eccl doesn’t have to be right for other biblical passages, since unlike other places, Eccl uses it metaphorically throughout and as leitmotif. Futility has been tried before, but that’s a very negative take on the book’s argument (and it doesn’t work in all cases anyway).

      • bobmacdonald Says:

        OK – we can leave the concordance impossibility out of this – but.

        The translator of Eccl is not excused by metaphor. Yes this is Q’s favorite word. And in some sense Q defines the word for the rest of its usage in Scripture. I find the nihilistic aspect of futility very attractive in the current age. The sound is different from hevel but the tone is a child of our time. The metaphor of futility is lost to us but its sense is not. The frequent parallel of shepherding the wind gives a lightness to the futile gloss that is adequate for me. Much play of sound is lost in translation of course – everywhere.

      • Alex Kirk Says:

        Mulling this over as I begin a slow read through of Eccl., I think there simply is not an English word that holds together both the more literal (breath, vapor) and more metaphorical meanings of הֶבֶל (futile, empty) therefore, it would be impossible to bring out its nuances with one word across the whole HB. This is, of course, precisely the problem.

        Funny story, I once took a class on Proverbs with Dr. Waltke where we ended up batting aground the meaning of הֶבֶל. After the break when the lecture resumed, he whipped out a cigar, lit it, took a couple of puffs, then blew a big cloud of smoke overhead and simply said, “that’s הֶבֶל.”

      • robertholmstedt Says:

        So, “smokey” or “a smokescreen”?

  7. bobmacdonald Says:

    Here is a comment from my Hebrew coach: Bob, Your question is opportune, since I’m in the midst of translating Shamai Gelander’s book on Qohelet.

    The literal meaning is “utterance” or “breath” (as that grammarian points out). In the borrowed sense, it means “pointless waffle”. It certainly doesn’t mean “haze” or “hazy”, as the grammarian suggests.

    “Vanity”, as you say, is no longer a suitable word—unless it is understood to mean “in vain”.

    If it were me, I would translate it “for nought”.
    יונתן אור-סתיו–

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Sorry, I think “for nought” is quite wrong. And “pointless waffle”? Oh dear.

      • bobmacdonald Says:

        You are quoting Piglet in Winnie the Pooh, I trust. In any case, the word is attached to the name of the first murdered human. I suppose we should be careful to avoid similar actions ourselves. Perhaps that is a part of my conclusion about Qohelet.

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