Women and the Bible: Notes on Ecclesiastes 7:23-29

The NRSV reads (my two translation adjustments are in brackets):

All this I have tested by wisdom; I said, “I will be wise,” but [she] was far from me. 24 That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out? 25 I turned my mind to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the sum of things, and to know that wickedness is folly and that foolishness is madness. 26 I found more bitter than death the woman who is a trap, whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are fetters; one who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. 27 See, this is what I found, says the Teacher, adding one thing to another to find the sum, 28 which my mind has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. 29 See, this alone I found, that God made human beings [upright], but they have devised many schemes.

This text has been used as an example of the Bible’s (or, at least, this particular author’s) misogyny. While some suggest that we should not be surprised that the “Teacher” would hold pessimistic and/or misguided views of humanity, I think a misogynistic reading is a misunderstanding of what the Qoheleth is doing in this critical juncture in the book’s argument.

This is a significant moment in the book where an unfulfilled search is emphasized (“I did not find what I was looking for but only found something more bitter than death itself”) as well as the inability of human beings to know much of anything that has enduring significance by their own wisdom.

“I have tested” (7:23) recalls Qoheleth’s quest that begun earlier in the book (2:1). That testing followed folly, not wisdom. The conclusion is that wisdom [she] is inaccessible (“far off”) and unfathomable (“deep, very deep”). No human being can discover it.

The search (“turning my heart toward”) itself is traumatic and fraught with dangers. The search seems like a good idea, that is, to “know, search out and seek wisdom and significance” (7:25).  The Hebrew term behind “scheme” or device is attested only in 7:25, 7:27, and 9:10. A cognate appears in 7:29 often translated “plans, schemes, or inventions” (only elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible at 2 Chronicles 26:15). The point seems to be something like generating meaning or significance with the embedded idea of self-creation perhaps.  Perhaps the point is something like this: when we cannot discover authentic meaning, we create our own (or, as the existentialist Sartre said, we create essence out of our existence).

What does one find out (or discover)? The Hebrew term translated “find” is used eight times. The movement of the text is something like this:  I wanted to find X, but instead I found Y; finding X is harder than finding one human being in a 1000 (or, “finding a needle in a haystack”) since I was unable to find X (wisdom personified as a woman). What I did find is Y, which is folly (personified as a woman).

“Dame Folly” and “Lady Wisdom,” prominent in Proverbs 1-9 (especially 9), form a wisdom backdrop for this section.  “Dame Folly” is a snare, a trap, much like an adulterous seductress (Proverbs 5-6). “Lady Wisdom” (Proverbs 8) is the embodiment of the wisdom that arises out of the fear of the Lord. Qoheleth did not find “Lady Wisdom” but discovered “Dame Folly.” Bartholomew’s commentary on Ecclesiastes puts it this way (p. 275): “Human autonomy is so ingrained in modern culture, even though it has been challenged but not abandoned under the guise of postmodernism, that it is difficult for us to see the radicality of the ironization of an autonomous epistemology here in 7:23-29…[it] demonstrates that starting with an autonomous epistemology is not wisdom but folly and will lead one not to truth but right into the arms of Dame Folly.”

While 7:28 is sometimes read as misogynous (women are less virtuous, or they are inferior intellectually, etc.), it is probably better to see it as either hyperbole as in there is no one who is upright, male or female (taking the cue from 7:29, and consistent with 7:20), or proverbial as in it is easier to find a needle in a haystack than it is to find “Lady Wisdom” (taking the cue from 7:25-26). In other words, finding Lady Wisdom is more difficult than finding one man in a thousand. He did not find wisdom; rather, he discovered folly. And this is consistent with humanity in general: though they were made upright, human beings devise many foolish schemes.

Qoheleth has a moral compass—the one who pleases God (e.g., “good before the face of God”) and the sinner (cf. Ecc. 2:26; 5:5; 8:12). Though Qoheleth did not find “Lady Wisdom” but did find something—“this alone I found”—“that God made ‘adam upright, but they have sought out many schemes.” God created humanity with dignity, identity, and vocation, but humanity created their own paths (folly).

Theologically, the creation narrative lies behind this reflection in Qoheleth. God made ‘adam (human being; cf. 3:11, 14; 7:14; 11:5; 12:1). The Solomon persona in 2:5-6, 11 contrasts with God’s own creative work. While God created something good, Solomon seeks some that satisfies his own interests. The “Fall” narrative is part of this context as well: “they” (human beings) have created their own meaning and wisdom through their various schemes.

Qoheleth’s search, personified by Solomon, is rooted in the human ego or autonomy; it is the process of self-discovery. Qoheleth did not employ traditional wisdom (which begins with the fear of the Lord) but rather employed a version of Hellenistic wisdom where humanity is the measure of all things. Qoheleth adopts the dominant cultural worldview in order to examine “vanity” (hebel, used 37 times in Ecclesiastes) and discover “wisdom.” It did not work. He did not find authentic wisdom but only folly.

Traditional Hebrew wisdom actually lies in the backdrop of Qoheleth’s thinking. Qoheleth pursued an alternative but it was a dead-end and ultimately returns to what is “known” (what is confessed; cf. 3:12, 14; 8:12) and the fear of the Lord (5:7 is an imperative; cf. 3:14; 8:12-13). “Dame Folly” and “Lady Wisdom” form a backdrop throughout the book as well.

Theologically, Qoheleth’s search is about the nature of epistemology (autonomous?) and the fundamental resource of wisdom, which arises out of the fear of God. Postmodern readers resonate with the dead-end nature of autonomous human discovery, which attempts to discern a metanarrative to give meaning to human life.  Job 28 also shares this. The question is “who narrates the world?” Qoheleth probes the meaningfulness of Israel’s narrative for a Hellenistic setting and provides a theological resource for probing that narrative in the postmodern setting. This is part of its canonical function.

Theologically, Qoheleth lives with both the “vanity” (hebel) of life and the goodness of creation (“rejoice” of 11:9 and the imperatives of 9:7-9). The text ultimately orients us toward a humble, though frustrating, fear of God in the face of death.

Christologically, one may not only see the eschatological response to death but also the embodiment of the goodness of life in the midst of death in the ministry of Jesus. “Vanity” (hebel) is not denied; indeed, it is shared with humanity. At the same time, it is redeemed in the context of an “already, but not yet” eschatology.

Helpful resources:

Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Baker Exegetical, 2014)

Choon-Leong Seow, Ecclesiastes (Anchor Bible, 1997)

Michael Fox, Qohelet and His Contradictions (Sheffield Academic Press, 1989).

2 Responses to “Women and the Bible: Notes on Ecclesiastes 7:23-29”

  1.   Michael McFarland Says:

    John Mark, while reading your book about active participation of women in the assembly, I ran into an interesting situation in a military context. As the Chaplain offered the benediction, he indicated the male service members should put “their covering on” (their hat) and bow their head. This practice seems to illustrate a cultural context where piety is being reflected by male head coverings.

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