Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Annette Schellenberg, Erkenntnis als Problem: Qohelet und die alttestamentliche Diskussion um das menschliche Erkennen (Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 188; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2002). Pp. xii + 333.   Cloth, €82,00.  ISBN 3-525-53045-5.

            This is the first study to focus entirely on what may well come to be seen as Qohelet’s major theme: the problem of knowledge. Preceded in this regard by important insights by James L. Crenshaw and especially Michael V. Fox, Schellenberg brings this topic center stage and, thanks to its impressive scope and subtle analyses, this book will be required reading for anyone interested in Qohelet’s epistemology. Although this subject has been popular for some time as attempts to determine to what extent Qohelet is a skeptic and/or empiricist, such approaches are judged to be reductive in their wish to find what they are already looking for. Rather, Schellenberg’s sympathetic method of close readings and contextual analysis of the text itself will prove more productive.

            Qohelet’s explicit references to knowledge are here reduced to three, all focused on what limits human knowing: death, the future, and “God’s doing” (p. 194). The first seems of little consequence, for, unless thinking is expected to go on after death, why even bring it up?  Here an opening is missed to introduce the importance of a scientific community and an ever-expanding shared knowledge—didn’t Qohelet give the textual hint: “generations are born and die, but the human race remains” (1:4)?  The second topic—the future—is equally suspicious, since it seems to Qohelet that we know the future as little as we know the past: “Everything is forgotten” (2:16), and what we do come to know are binary patterns such as live and die, mourn and rejoice. As for what has been the pet peeve of generations of critics, God’s doing (How could God put humans in such a situation?!) has energized the ongoing fixation on Qohelet’s pessimism but hardly—until the present study—an appreciation of human ignorance as a positive factor.

            Although these three limits to human knowledge do not in themselves make the case for its centrality in Qohelet, they are supplemented by indirect allusions to the sources of knowledge throughout the book. The main category here is personal experience (Erfahrung): living is the prime source of knowledge. Schellenberg’s case for knowledge could be made even stronger by relating Qohelet’s experiential “I” to his scientific or experimental “I,” both senses being captured by the French “expérience” but perhaps also by Qohelet’s own use of nsh (2:1; 7:23). Again, Schellenberg’s reversal of perspective transforms these limitations into both positive knowledge and useful human control. To take but one example, ignorance of past and future (pp. 199-200) frees humans for both enjoyment and energetic action in the only time that is really ours: the present moment.

            Ultimately, Schellenberg finds Qohelet’s method of greater import than the message; or, rather, the method is itself the message. Thus, Qohelet “does not present a closed teaching in which all problems are solved but rather a critical and reflective discussion of such problems from different perspectives” (p. 42). This perspectivism comes to the fore not only in the central part of this book—the study of Qohelet—but also in five additional studies of Hebrew Scripture that greatly expand the historical interest of epistemological inquiry: Job, “Theologized Wisdom” (Proverbs 1-9, Sirach, The Wisdom of Solomon), Genesis 2-3 and related texts, and excerpts from prophetical and apocalyptical literature (Isaiah and Daniel). The Hebrew Bible is thus viewed as the locus of dialogue in which recurrent epistemological questions of substance are explored. Thus, we are invited to consider critical thinking and discussion, both grounded in personal experience, as constitutive of the religious life.

            This book marks an advance over the gloom that continues to plague Qohelet criticism. For example, while King Qohelet admits “that he cannot reach the goal of his research” (p. 132), this conclusion is accepted as itself an important discovery. For if the real goal is Thoreau’s, which is only and always to seek the truth of what is, then even Qohelet’s motto that all is hebel (perhaps “transience” rather than the popular “vanity”), repeated from start to finish, has all the markings of progressive knowledge. The remaining goal of research is one of interpretation, seeing whether transience is so negative as we have all been taught, or whether, as I suspect, it forms the basis of a new spirituality. This project, long overdue, will turn from theologically-based world-hatred and presuppositions about the deficient or angry or all-controlling God of the Old Testament; it will seek to explain why Jews read Qohelet liturgically at the “time of our joy.” Promising younger scholars are leading the way: Rami Shapiro, Marie Maussion, Ethan Dor-Shav. This book is a reliable prolegomenon to this interpretative desideratum.

T. A. Perry
University of Connecticut