Nope, It Don’t Mean Vanity: Abel and the Meaning of “Hebel” in Ecclesiastes
I’m thrilled to announce that my book on reading and interpreting Ecclesiastes is set to be released on April 14! The following is an excerpt from that book, which you can order at Amazon or Hendrickson. If you’re interested in reading it and can’t afford a copy, shoot me an email.
Why This Book?
In the preface I explain why I wrote this little book on Ecclesiastes (and why I write this column at Fathom Magazine):
Hi, I’m Russ. I’m a husband, a dad of three sons, and an Old Testament professor. This book is a small part of a bigger story of how God used the Old Testament to save my faith, and to save my life. I grew up in church, and I became a Christian when I was eighteen or so—just before heading off to college. I started using drugs when I was around twelve years old, just after my grandmother died, and that way of coping with life stayed with me for a long, long time. I know a lot of people who became Christians and left behind a life of addiction, but it didn’t happen that way for me. I had periods of sobriety, some lasting longer than others, but drugs remained my primary method for alleviating the pain and anxiety that you’ll read about in this book. I’ve been drug-free for more than twelve years as of this writing, but I have no illusions about the darkness that lurks within me and still cries out to be fed from time to time.
I started to study Ecclesiastes because I thought I found in it a kindred spirit who, like me, had thrown up his hands and given up on faith and life.
This book isn’t about addiction, but I think it’s important for you to know that part of my story because that way of coping with the upside-downness of life ran for a while in parallel with my study of Ecclesiastes. All through my master’s degree, when I first started to study Ecclesiastes with a former mentor, I was high as a kite. Though God was starting to show me that Scripture offers a way of understanding suffering and seeing our way through it, I still clutched opiates to numb my heart and mind. So even though I don’t talk about that part of my life in this book, it lingers there in the background.
I started to study Ecclesiastes because I thought I found in it a kindred spirit who, like me, had thrown up his hands and given up on faith and life, who had accepted the meaninglessness of these years on planet Earth and was simply waiting out the time until death would free him. What I found instead—with the help of that former mentor I mentioned—was a path through life that doesn’t involve the bottom of a pill bottle. So, that’s what this book is about: how Ecclesiastes taught me to navigate life, with all of its confusion and frustration and suffering, in a way that pleases God. I hope I can convince you to read Ecclesiastes in the same way.
Abel in Ecclesiastes (excerpted from chapter 2)
Ecclesiastes 1:2 loudly proclaims that everything is hebel, a refrain repeated throughout the book. The first occurrence of this word in the Old Testament comes at the beginning of Genesis, in the Cain and Abel (hebel) narrative. Names often reveal some aspect of a person’s character in the Old Testament, or, like scholar Tremper Longman says, “naming captures the essential nature of a person or thing.”¹ For example, Cain was “gotten” by Eve (Gen 4:1), and Abraham is the “father of a multitude” (Gen 17:5). The same holds true for Abel—the non-metaphorical meaning of his name is “breath” or “vapor,” which is, by its nature, ephemeral and transient.² Jacques Ellul states that Abel was so named for this very reason. Even though he is the righteous character in the narrative, his life is cut short by Cain.³ Abel is thus the embodiment of transience. Joseph Blenkinsopp also argues that Abel’s name presupposes his murder at the hands of his brother, indicating that Abel is “breath,” a theme that Qohelet develops by commenting on the transience of all humans (for example, Eccl 3:19–20).⁴ This allusion continues throughout the book. By using hebel as the leitmotif of the book, Qohelet expands the theme of transience and injustice introduced in Genesis 4: everyone and everything in life is subject to the reversal of fortunes that Abel experienced.⁵
The obedient should experience tangible blessings that add value to one’s life.
However, it seems more is at work in Qohelet’s writing than simply the matter of transience. Rather than referring only to the transience of life, Ecclesiastes uses hebel also as a symbol to discuss how several situations in life mirror the experiences of Abel. Each situation that Qohelet deems hebel in some way relates to the reversal found in Abel’s story. Instead of explicitly stating his assessment of a situation, he leaves it to the reader to decide which aspect of Abel’s life he refers to: transience, the lack of congruence between his actions and rewards, the injustice he suffers, or his inability to attain lasting value, all of which are summed up in the failure of the retribution principle in Abel’s life.
Qohelet states in Ecclesiastes 1:14 that he has seen all the works done under the sun and that they are all hebel and a pursuit of wind. By making hebel parallel with pursuing wind, Qohelet points to the inability of all people, like Abel, to grasp anything with lasting value. The obedient should experience tangible blessings that add value to one’s life. For Qohelet, however, the one-to-one correspondence between actions and rewards has disappeared, so now the attainment of lasting value through our actions is like attempting to grasp wind. In Ecclesiastes 2:15 Qohelet laments that the wise and foolish are alike in their end—death. No one escapes Abel’s fate, the culmination of the curses that God pronounced after the fall.⁶ This also resembles Abel in that the relationship between one’s actions and one’s rewards is incomprehensible. Fool or wise, both are subject to the same fate.
Qohelet states in Ecclesiastes 3:19 that “man has no advantage over the beasts, for all are hebel.” This passage outlines the similarity between humans and animals, namely that they share the same breath and the same fate—death. In this way, Qohelet elaborates on the theme of transience introduced in Genesis 4. As Abel was transient, so is everything else—human and animal alike. Similarly, the “Royal Experiment”⁷ of Ecclesiastes 2 finds that everything in life is ephemeral, lacking any lasting value, and that humanity’s only recourse is to enjoy the gifts of God—eating, drinking, a spouse, and pleasurable toil, which are themselves also transient (Eccl 2:24–25).
As in the Cain and Abel narrative, so in the rest of life—sometimes the disobedient receive blessing while the obedient receive curses.
Another aspect of Abel’s life that Qohelet discusses is the disconnect between hard work and the fruits of one’s labor. For example, he states in 4:4, “And I myself saw all the toil and all the skill of work, that this is from the envy of a man of his fellow. This also is hebel, and a pursuit of wind.” Qohelet indicates that labor and work—the effort to acquire—result from envy of others. Instead of obedience to the Lord that results in blessing, people rely on their own ingenuity and hard work, thus reversing the order of the world. Blessing appears to come from one’s own hand, not God’s.⁸
Qohelet goes on to discuss the fact that the person who has no children in 4:8 resembles the life of Abel: “And for whom am I laboring and depriving myself from the good? This also is hebel and an evil task.” Qohelet works tirelessly to establish wealth and honor, yet he does not receive the blessing of descendants to inherit his wealth. This is a situation that should not exist, for wealth itself represents blessing from Yahweh, a “normal reward for righteous living.”⁹ However, Yahweh has withheld from him the further blessing of progeny, even though the person who has obtained the blessing of wealth should also experience the blessing of children. The former without the latter is an “evil” thing.
Finally, Qohelet states in 8:14 that “there is hebel that is done upon the earth: that there are righteous to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is hebel.” This passage is Ecclesiastes’s most explicit reference to the reversal of the expected order of life. As in the Cain and Abel narrative, so in the rest of life—sometimes the disobedient receive blessing while the obedient receive curses.¹ᴼ Life often lacks congruency between actions and results, which is perhaps what Qohelet asks his readers to remember when he says “Abel of Abels, everything is Abel.”
It’s a book that guides readers—ancient and modern alike—through the vagaries of life in the post-fall world.
As I mentioned at the outset of this chapter, the linguistic overlap between the use of hebel in Ecclesiastes and its use in Genesis is only one term. However, hebel is a rare word in the Old Testament, occurring only eighty-six times, with thirty-eight of those occurrences in Ecclesiastes and eight of them in Genesis 4. The clustering of the term in Ecclesiastes indicates its prominence for the book as a whole, and its use in Gen 4, where it names one of the narrative’s main characters, indicates its prominence there. The bulk of the evidence for Qohelet’s use of hebel as an intentional allusion to Genesis 4 rests on Qohelet’s overall use of Genesis and the thematic correspondences between Genesis 4 and Ecclesiastes.
All that said, if we read hebel in Ecclesiastes as a reference to some aspect of Abel’s life, then the implications for how we understand “the Bible’s strangest book” are enormous.¹¹ First, reading the book as an examination of the “Abelness” of life—those situations in life when the relationship between actions and their expected results is broken—helps us to see the book not as the rumblings of a discontented sage but rather as the wrestlings of a faithful follower of God. Second, and related, if Ecclesiastes is using hebel as a symbol to refer to Abel’s life—and all that goes wrong in it—then the book also becomes about much more than the “meaninglessness” or “vanity” of life. Rather, it’s a book that guides readers—ancient and modern alike—through the vagaries of life in the post-fall world and offers solutions for how to navigate such a dark and twisted world—faithful obedience to God and enjoyment of his gifts. Taken together, these two implications mean that this ancient book is particularly relevant for not only our current cultural moment but for all times in which humans struggle to figure out what it means to follow God in a world turned upside down, which is what we’ll talk about next.