[b-hebrew] Ecclesiastes 3:11

Martin Shields enkidu at bigpond.net.au
Thu Nov 1 20:09:17 EDT 2007

Hello Bryant,

> My question is, "What is your take on the phrase in the second half  
> of the
> verse, "et-olam natan bilbam milbam asher lo-yimtza hadom et-hammaaseh
> asher-asah...?

There are a couple of issues in this verse (aren't there always), the  
meaning of ‏העלם and the meaning of ‏מבלי אשר לא.  
Taking the second first, we have a double negative which is  
universally understood as either indicating a negative purpose ("so  
that not") or else a simple negative ("yet [he] cannot"). The problem  
is that the parallels frequently cited to justify these translations  
do not include אשר between the negatives so that the second negative  
is effectively in a separate clause. If you look for examples where  
this does happen, the double negatives in those instances never lose  
their individual negativity (if you follow my meaning).

Hence I render the expression "without which [he] cannot find..." I'll  
admit that I'm on my own here, but I think that it both makes sense in  
context (see below) and also makes sense of the Hebrew.

As a result of the usual understanding of this clause, some propose  
reading העלם as "darkness" so that the "darkness" God has placed in  
our hearts functions to inhibit any ability to find our what God has  
done from the beginning to the end. With my reading I think taking  
העלם as a temporal term (so "eternity" in most translations) makes  
sense: God has placed "eternity" (some sort of awareness which extends  
beyond the present moment) in our "hearts" without which we could not  
find what God has done from start to finish.

How does this make sense in context? The fact that Qohelet proceeds to  
make assertions about what God has done and will do (cf. especially  
Qoh 3:14-15) immediately demonstrates that Qohelet has some awareness  
of what God has done and will do (at least he thinks he does!). It is  
obvious that Qohelet isn't claiming omniscience nor comprehensive  
knowledge of what God has and will do, but he has some awareness and  
that seems to be sufficient to justify his observation.

I hope that helps!


Martin Shields,
Sydney, Australia.

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