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

Norbert Lohfink, Qoheleth (A Continental Commentary; trans. Sean McEvenue; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003). Pp. xviii + 158. Cloth, US$23.00. ISBN 0-8006-9604-2.

            Although this volume is listed on the publication page as a translation of Lohfink’s Kohelet (Die neue Echter Bibel; Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 1980), it is actually based on the author’s unpublished 1990 revision of the German original.  Thus English readers are doubly blessed: not only do we finally have an English version of Lohfink’s commentary, but it is a more recent version than the German original, even if the revised version is now fifteen years old.

             In his brief Introduction, Lohfink dates the book of Qoheleth to the Ptolemaic period and envisions Qoheleth as being in dialogue with Hellenism, using Greek culture and literature against itself, while at the same time seeking to counter the injustice prevalent in Judea at the time.  To that end, the book of Qoheleth served as a schoolbook for the priestly families of Jerusalem from which Qoheleth came.  In keeping with this setting, the book contains little reference to the Law, the prophets or other Israelite wisdom because it presupposes an adult audience that was thoroughly familiar with such material.  While admittedly speculative, Lohfink’s proposed setting and purpose for the book is plausible and would explain the frequently noted lack of interaction with Israel’s religious traditions within the book of Qoheleth.

            The commentary itself follows the book’s structure, which Lohfink identifies as a mirror pattern on the basis of the content, organized as follows:

1:2-3                Frame
1:4-11                          Cosmology (poem)
1:12-3:15                                 Anthropology
3:16-4:116                                           Social Critique I
4:17-5:6                                                           Religious Critique
5:7-6:10                                               Social Critique II
6:11-9:6                                   Deconstruction (refutation of other opinions)
9:7-12:7                       Ethic (concrete application, with concluding poem)
12:8                 Frame 

Following a translation of the entire book, individual pericopes within the larger structure mentioned above are discussed.  In each case, the translation is repeated with some text-critical notes beneath the translation and cross references in the margins.  The latter include verses in Qoheleth that are directly dependent either on other parts of the book or other biblical books as well as later texts that are dependent on Qoheleth, direct parallels containing comparable wording, and other relevant texts.  The main commentary section includes observations on the structure, literary form and historical context of the book, with occasional footnotes noting material from contemporary literature.

            The volume is not a commentary per se as the term is traditionally understood.  Rather, it might be described as Lohfink’s notes on his translation of Qoheleth for the Deutsche Einheitsübersetzung (1980), and is aimed at non-specialists rather than academics.  Thus, Lohfink describes this work as a “bridge between the translation and the academic research papers” (p. vii).   As such, the commentary proper does not directly interact with contemporary scholarship; instead he refers the reader to his published articles listed in the Bibliography for detailed discussion of scholarly issues.

            This is the book’s greatest shortcoming: one is frequently left wishing for a more sustained treatment of some of Lohfink’s ideas and translations in this volume.  For instance, he offers no justification here for important matters such as his rendering of the thematic term hebel as “breath.”  Similarly, he translates 7:26 as, “Again and again I find the claim that womankind is stronger than death” and interprets what follows as a statement of her power, with v. 28 a rejection of the idea that women can overcome death.  While perhaps a more palatable interpretation in our day, this is in marked contrast to the usual understanding of the verses, namely that the woman who is a snare is “more bitter than death.”  Lohfink’s only comment is that “strong” is the correct rendering “because of the continuation” (the meaning of which is still not clear to me) rather than “its other possible meaning.”  In fact “bitter” is the primary (not just possible) meaning of the Hebrew root mrr; while the meaning “strong” has been proposed in cognate languages this is disputed for biblical Hebrew.  In any case, the only other time the word occurs with “death” in the Hebrew Bible (1 Sam 15:22) it means “bitter” and that is how Qoh 7:26 was understood by the ancient versions. 

             Thus, this volume cannot be used as a stand-alone commentary, but will need to be supplemented by other commentaries as well as Lohfink’s work published elsewhere.  Despite this limitation, this volume is worth consulting.  Apart from matters subject to scholarly debate, Sean McEvenue’s English rendering of Lohfink’s German translation of Qoheleth is generally fresh and fluid, while remaining faithful to the tone and meaning of the Hebrew.  A notable example is “Better a name esteemed than scented creams,” which conveys the paranomasia of Qoh 7:1a (ṭôb šēm miššemen ṭôb) far better than any of the standard translations and commentaries.  The marginal cross references alone are worth consulting, since they clearly demonstrate both Qoheleth’s familiarity with much of the Hebrew Bible and how later writers in turn depend on him.  Regrettably, this is not developed in the actual comments.  Nonetheless, brief as they are at points, the comments themselves are consistently full of insights too numerous to be treated here in the length they deserve.

            The combination of these features means that this commentary will repay frequent use by all those interested in the book of Qoheleth, although in conjunction with other commentaries.  It’s usefulness is further enhanced by the five Indexes: Ancient Sources (biblical and extra-biblical), Subjects, Ancient Authors and Groups, Greek Words and Phrases and Hebrew Words and phrases.

John L. McLaughlin
Faculty of Theology
University of St. Michael’s College