The Dignity of Work: Reading Ecclesiastes in Harmony with Genesis

by the Maronite Seminarian
Peter Zogbi

Presented as a partial fulfillment of Theology and Religious Studies 604: Wisdom Literature at the Catholic Univesity of America – April 27, 2018

The book of Ecclesiastes is accused of being the most pessimistic book of the Bible about as often as it is commended for being one of the most optimistic books in the Bible. Scholars find it difficult to tell whether the book is trying to say that the world is ultimately meaningless, or if the author is simply trying to wean its reader off of false hopes and ground him in deeper sources of happiness. One of the topics where this issue comes to the forefront is on the meaning of labor. Some scholars have come to the conclusion that labor is ultimately meaningless for Qoheleth, while others believe he sees it as full of meaning. What this paper seeks to show is that how one sees labor in Ecclesiastes depends a great deal on how one interprets the curse on labor in Genesis. Scholars who have a more thorough understanding of the significance of work in Genesis will find Qoheleth’s view on labor meaningful and uplifting.

We must first ask whether any one is justified in looking to Genesis as a guide to understanding Ecclesiastes. There is general consensus among scholars that Genesis provides an important context for this wisdom book.[1] To solidify their claims, Seufert gives five convincing reasons to believe that understanding Genesis is necessary to understanding Ecclesiastes. First, he points to the fact that Ecclesiastes begins and ends with references to creation.[2] This shows not only that Qoheleth reflected on Genesis, but it also implies that he expected his reader to interpret his work in light of themes from this first book of the Bible. Seufert goes on to demonstrate that there are verses in Ecclesiastes which clearly depend on verses from Genesis, that there are shared vocabulary words, allusions to Genesis, and common themes.[3] Seufert effectively shows not only that Genesis provides important context to Ecclesiastes, but, in particular, that it is the first three chapters of Genesis which are mostly alluded to. This is important for our purposes, because those are the chapters which develop a theology of labor.

While Seufert successfully argues that Genesis provides an important context for the book of Ecclesiastes, his negative view of labor in Genesis leads him to see labor as meaningless in Qoheleth. Seufert sees that work was cursed in Genesis, but then goes too far and assumes that work itself is a curse.[4] In his view, the punishment that the human race received for Adam’s sin was more than just excessive toil in labor. That toil renders labor futile so that the actual punishment is that work has become meaningless. Indeed, the world has become meaningless. In Seufert’s own words, “God cursed him [Adam] and his posterity, and subjected the world to futility.”[5] It is in this light that Seufert understands the theology of work in Ecclesiastes.

Mitchell and Perdue also see work as meaningless in Ecclesiastes. Mitchell rules out the possibility of gleaning any form of transcendent happiness from the text.[6] In his view of labor in Ecclesiastes, the greatest happiness to be found comes from balancing the toil of work with the outcome of work, but that is all there is.[7] It is important to note that he does not seem to take any note of the fact that Ecclesiastes is alluding to Genesis. Instead, he looks at the book separate from the canon and tries to find a coherent philosophy in the book alone. The text itself objects to this approach since it alludes to Genesis quite often. It is no wonder that Mitchell had to identify interpolations and errors in the text in order to find a coherent philosophy in Ecclesiastes. Likewise, Perdue, though he thoroughly researches the influence of Hellenistic and Egyptian thought on the book, fails to take account of how much the book of Genesis influenced the text.[8] Now that we have discussed three interpreters of the book who see work has hopelessly cursed, let us turn to Genesis to see if their interpretations can really stand.

Interestingly, many have recourse to Genesis in order to establish the dignity of work. First and foremost, Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Laborem Exercens, supports the dignity of human work through copious references to the early chapters of Genesis. He shows that work was given to man as a gift from the beginning of creation before the fall.[9] This must be true since for work to be cursed, it had to be good in the first place. The real question at stake, then, is whether the curse that was put on labor rendered it completely futile. We will soon see that one cannot answer yes without committing a sacrilege. John Paul II points out that man’s work, the task that God assigns to him, is introduced shortly after the critical verse in Genesis where the author explains that man was created in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:27). This is to make the point that by working, man is imitating what God does.[10] John Paul II is very careful to note that it is the act of working itself, even apart from the fruit that it may or may not produce, which is a participation in God’s likeness.[11] Genesis also seems to make this point through the way it describes how God makes the world. He is depicted as a worker, since, like any worker, God rested when He finished. For that reason John Paul II sees human work as a participation in God’s act of creation in which man helps the world to blossom into its full capacity.[12] John Paul II is not the only person to see the dignity of work in these early chapters of Genesis. Miller also sees that God’s act of creation was cast in light of work and rest.[13] It is clear then that the initial dignity of work in the book of Genesis is grounded in the fact that it is one of the ways human beings are like God.

Our exploration of the theme of work in the book of Genesis was to find out whether Adam’s curse canceled out any meaning that could be derived from work. Seufert made the mistake of focusing exclusively on the curse and consequently read a meaningless understanding of work into Ecclesiastes; however, a more holistic reading of Genesis reveals that no curse could possibly be severe enough to cancel out the dignity of work. This is because the dignity of work is rooted in the dignity of God, and to say that any amount of toil cancels out that dignity is to commit a sacrilege. If God were to truly curse work to the point of rendering it meaningless, He would have to also curse Himself. That being said, we must interpret the curse of Genesis differently. It is not in competition with the dignity of work, but rather, it is in support of it. Painful toil was a carefully chosen punishment designed to refocus man’s attention from the fruits of His work to the work itself.

Now that we have a more thorough understanding of the theology of work in the book of Genesis, let us see if there is room to interpret Ecclesiastes in light of this context. Qoheleth uses the term ,הבל to describe work. This term is often translated as vanity, and is used to describe what is unsubstantial, fleeting, or without lasting significance. There are a number of reasons why work seems to be reduced to vanity in Qoheleth. Enns highlights the verses which show that work does not produce any benefit that is not ephemeral.[14] What’s more, sometimes, for reasons outside of man’s control, the fruits of his labors end up with someone who did not work for them.[15] Qoheleth heavily laments that as a result of death, all progress one makes through work ends up in the hands of another. He uses a consistent formula when he describes the world as vanity, alternating between calling situations, “vanity” and calling them, “vanity and a striving after wind.” (NRSV).[16] In 2:21 though, Qoheleth breaks from this pattern to vent his anger calling the previous scenario, “vanity and a great evil.” Clearly then, scholars are justified in seeing that Qoheleth is frustrated at how vain work can seem. The fruits of work are often not worth the toil, and even so, death assures that the fruits cannot be enjoyed forever, nor that they will be enjoyed by the man who worked for them. Lohfink describes Qoheleth’s frustrations quite succinctly. He says that there are three “limiting situations” which limit the amount of happiness one can find through the fruits of work.[17] These are death, others, and historicity.[18] Death ensures that the fruits of labor cannot be enjoyed forever.[19] “Others” refers to people who will inherit what one person started. There is no control over the “others.” They may appreciate the work and continue to bring it to completion, or they may sabotage it.[20] It only takes one person of the latter type to destroy many men’s labors. Finally, the problem of historicity is the simple fact that all fruits of one’s labor end up in the hands of another.[21] This is an injustice, because the fruits of work should belong to the person who did the working. Nevertheless, the world is not arranged in such a way to give the rewards of work to the worker. Added to these three limiting situations is the curse of toil which subtracts from the value of the fruits of labor. As a result of these four factors, Qoheleth sees working as a task that is enshrouded in הבל.

Can this possibly leave any room for the hopeful understanding of work that we found in Genesis? It can when we point out certain facts. First of all, as Ortlund points out, הבל does not mean “bad”.[22] Once again, the term refers to something that is fleeting, but not necessarily something that is inherently evil. Secondly, at this point we have only assessed instances where Qoheleth shows us where happiness is not to be found. We have not yet considered where he thinks happiness can be found. Finally, all of these criticisms concerning work have to do with the fruits of work. They do not have anything to do with the act of working itself. We must remember that in Genesis, work was meaningful in the act itself, even apart from its fruits. It is by doing work that we imitate God, even before we reap the fruits.

C.L. Seow points out just how intentional Qoheleth seems to be about calling his reader to happiness. He counts seven verses which command the reader to enjoy life.[23] Seven, of course, is a highly significant number in the Jewish mind. It is a number of perfection and completion. Interestingly, the world was made in seven days, so this could be the author’s way of calling our mind back once again to the book of Genesis. It seems that Qoheleth calls on us to read Genesis not only to help us see what is vain, but also to help us see where true happiness is to be found. One of these seven so-called “carpe diem” verses is an interesting case. Ecclesiastes 11:9 reads, in the NRSV translation, “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.” A great many translations give the verse a similar meaning; however, Seow points out that the term translated as the conjunction “but” in this sentence can also be translated as “and.”[24] When the conjunction is switched, the meaning of the passage is transformed. Qoheleth seems to be saying that we are held accountable for enjoying the gifts God gives us.[25] Indeed, he is calling out his readers for not enjoying the gifts that God gives. It seems then, in light of Qoheleth’s emphasis on enjoyment, that his concern for pointing out the vanities of life is only half of the story. He wants to pull his reader away from seeking fleeting pleasures so that the reader can enjoy the pleasures for which he is accountable. Here, Qoheleth has left room for the optimistic reading of Genesis to be applied to his work. We must assume that, with regard to work, the true pleasure is not from its outcome but rather from its intrinsic dignity as an imitation of God. One finds no happiness or meaning in work whatsoever, until one sees labor in relation to God. Then it becomes supremely meaningful. If we focus on the fruits of our work exclusively, we can see them as our gift to ourselves. This is futile, because there is no love in a gift we give to ourselves. On the other hand, when we see our capacity to work as a participation in God’s divinity, we realize that work is a great gift from God. In the gift of work itself, there is love and meaning. Then the fruits of work can be seen as a superabundant gift: a gift on top of a gift. Thus, focusing on the intrinsic dignity of work infuses even the fruits of our labor with meaning. As a result, Qoheleth can say merrily, “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already approved what you do.” (NRSV Eccl 9:7).

Atkinson came to a similar conclusion in his study of the text. He found that Ecclesiastes does not merely present an idea of work that is irredeemably meaningless as a result of Adam’s curse. Rather, there is also, what he calls, a “redemption of labor.”[26] This redemption takes place when one turns his attention from only the fruits of work to the work itself.[27] He lists Ecclesiastes 3:13 as the verse where this point is made most clearly, “It is God’s gift to man that every one should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil.” (NRSV).[28]

Where does this put Ecclesiastes’ understanding of labor in light of the greater wisdom tradition? Among the wisdom books, Proverbs and Sirach have the most to say about work. Proverbs seems to stand in contradiction with Ecclesiastes. There are many verses which talk about the positive effects of work, and few that talk about the intrinsic dignity of work. It is clear that one should work to avoid poverty and to gain wealth. Compared to Ecclesiastes, Proverbs can seem materialistic with regard to the significance of work, as though the author were holding a carrot in front of the audience to encourage them to labor. It is important to remember that these proverbs are not universal principles. Every proverb holds true in a certain circumstance, but few, if any, hold true in every circumstance. Additionally, Proverbs is not intended to have the depth that Ecclesiastes has. The image of a carrot is a good one, since the book is designed to teach youth about morality. Ecclesiastes has a different goal though. It is less aimed at convincing, and more aimed at stating facts. Qoheleth does not seem to care if the reader disagrees with him. He expects his reader to have the maturity to see these truths for himself. As a result, he can go deeper and does not have to bribe his reader with rewards. Qoheleth builds on Proverbs, agreeing that there are some things in the created world that are better than others, but adding that nothing severed from its relationship with God can be ultimately fulfilling.

Sirach, on the other hand, lays down some themes that seem to be picked up by Ecclesiastes. Sirach 31:1-11 reads, “Wakefulness over wealth wastes away one’s flesh, and anxiety about it drives away sleep.” Here we begin to see that wealth, the fruit of labor, comes with a price. Ben Sirah points out that anxiety accompanies wealth, but does not explain why. Qoheleth steps in to explain why through his three limiting situations. As for the dignity work, Ben Sirah seems to make a connection between God’s act of creation, and human work in chapter 38. He notes that physicians help to manifest God’s glory in creation by putting His creation to use. This implies that the glory of God’s work is not fully manifested until man uses it for his work. It seems that Sirach also saw that man’s work is a participation in God’s work.

In conclusion, the book of Ecclesiastes seeks to show us the true meaning of work by redirecting our attention from the fruits of labor to the dignity of the labor itself. It assumes the reader knows Genesis and depends on Genesis’ positive understanding of labor as a participation in God’s own likeness. Authors who fail to find any meaning in Qoheleth’s theology of work fail either because they try to interpret the book apart from its relationship to Genesis, or because they have an incomplete understanding of the theology of work in the early chapters of Genesis. The act of working had tremendous dignity before, during, and after the fall. The curse was a mercy in that it helped to redirect man’s attention from the fruits of his labor to the labor itself. In light of this holistic understanding of labor in the book of Genesis, the theology of Ecclesiastes becomes coherent and fulfilling.


Bibliography

Atkinson, Tyler. Singing at the Winepress: Ecclesiastes and the Ethics of Work. New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015.

Enns, Peter. Ecclesiastes. of The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2011.

John Paul II. Laborem Exercens. Encyclical Letter. Vatican Website. September 14, 1981. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091981_laborem-exercens.html.

Lohfink, Norbert. Qoheleth. translated by Sean McEvenue. of Continental Commentaries. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003.

Miller, Douglas B., Ecclesiastes of Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottsdale: Herald Press, 2010.

Mitchell, Hinckley G. “‘Work’ in Ecclesiastes.” Journal of Biblical Literature 32, no. 2 (1913): 123-138.

Ortlund, Eric. “Laboring in Hopeless Hope: Encouragement for Christians from Ecclesiastes.” Themelios 39, no. 2 (2014): 281-289.

Perdue, Leo G. Wisdom Literature: A Theological History. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.

Seow, C. L. Ecclesiastes. of The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Seufert, Matthew. “The Presence of Genesis in Ecclesiastes.” Westminster Theological Journal 78, (2016): 75-92.


Endnotes

[1] Matthew Seufert, “The Presence of Genesis in Ecclesiastes,” Westminster Theological Journal 78, (2016): 75.

[2] Ibid., 80.

[3] Ibid., 82-88.

[4] Ibid., 91.

[5] Ibid., 92.

[6] Hinckley G. Mitchell, “‘Work’ in Ecclesiastes,” Journal of Biblical Literature 32, no. 2 (1913): 137-138.

[7] Ibid., 138.

[8] Leo G. Perdue, Wisdom Literature: A Theological History (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 161-216.

[9] John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, encyclical letter, Vatican website, September 14, 1981, http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091981_laborem-exercens.html, introduction.

[10] Ibid., 4.

[11] Ibid., 4.

[12] Ibid., 25.

[13] Douglas B. Miller, Ecclesiastes, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottsdale: Herald Press, 2010), 269.

[14] Peter Enns, Ecclesiastes, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2011), 128-129.

[15] Ibid., 129.

[16] Norbert Lohfink, Qoheleth, trans. Sean McEvenue, Continental Commentaries (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003), 53.

[17] Ibid., 56.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 55.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Eric Ortlund, “Laboring in Hopeless Hope: Encouragement for Christians from Ecclesiastes,” Themelios 39, no. 2 (2014): 284.

[23] C. L. Seow, Ecclesiastes, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 57.

[24] Ibid., 350.

[25] Ibid., 58.

[26] Tyler Atkinson, Singing at the Winepress: Ecclesiastes and the Ethics of Work (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 222.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

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