Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review

Dell, Katherine J., Interpreting Ecclesiastes: Readers Old and New (Critical Studies in the Hebrew Bible, 3; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns). Pp. vii + 107. Paperback. US$24.95. ISBN 978-1-57506-281-5.

Katherine Dell is well-known for her work on the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible, and this volume serves to demonstrate again her expertise both in the field and in communicating with readers through lucid writing. In just over 100 pages, Dell takes the reader on a historical journey that chronicles how ancient and modern readers have read and understood the book of Ecclesiastes. In short, this quick read pays back significant dividends on the time invested to read it.

Interpreting Ecclesiastes is divided into two parts: ancient interpretation and modern interpretation. In the first part Dell takes up the question of how and why early interpreters viewed Ecclesiastes as wisdom as well as how early interpreters understood the meaning of הבל. In these two chapters Dell argues clearly, concisely, and with a well-defined and aptly applied methodology. In my opinion, these two chapters are the strongest of the book, for they demonstrate how various interpretive streams in ancient times viewed the text of Ecclesiastes and how modern interpreters implicitly rely on their forebears. Furthermore, her examination of how ancient readers understood הבל represents an excellent model of one can engage in retelling the history of interpretation with a view toward gaining new insight into the text.

In Part 2 Dell engages various modern readings of Ecclesiastes, including an ecological reading, a discussion of animal theology, a resistant reading, and a feminist reading. The strength of each of these chapters, regardless of whether one agrees with Dell's conclusions, is that they demonstrate clearly how one could apply each of these methodologies to a biblical text. However, whereas Part 1 of the book clearly demonstrated the history of interpretation of the two issues addressed, Part 2 is not as thorough in this regard. This is perhaps due to the fact that the modern history of interpretation of a particular methodology is by nature briefer. Dell certainly interacts with and engages the relative literature in these chapters, but not to the extent one would expect after working through the section on ancient interpretation of Ecclesiastes.

Dell's discussion of feminist interpretations of Eccl 7:23–29 was particularly illuminating. Here, she set out to demonstrate three primary ways of interpreting this text: 1) “to reject the author as a misogynist…,” 2) to “put such misogyny down to his cultural context, removing the blame explicitly from him,” or 3) “to retrieve the passage by either retranslation or reinterpretation” (p. 84). Dell then goes on to demonstrate how various readers have come to each of these interpretations. Ultimately, Dell makes a convincing argument that Qohelet is in fact not misogynistic. Instead, she argues that the passage should be understood in the context of the “Woman Wisdom/Woman Folly” (p. 94) theme that is found in Proverbs.

In sum, Dell's short book on interpretive strategies in Ecclesiastes provides readers with an excellent model for how to tell the story of a text's history of interpretation. It also demonstrates how newer methodologies can be profitably applied to the biblical text. In addition to briefly defining the various methodologies she engages, she also shows how these methodologies work in practice. Furthermore, her thorough footnotes could easily serve as guides to investigating both modern and ancient reading practices. Thus, the book would be a good supplemental text in courses on wisdom literature as well as courses in hermeneutics.

Russell L. Meek, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary