Symbol and Rhetoric in Ecclesiastes

The Place of Hebel in Qohelet’s Work


Interpreters of Ecclesiastes have struggled with the word hebel (traditionally "vanity" but literally "vapor"). The positions they have adopted regarding the term have influenced their interpretation of the book as a whole. This work defends a new thesis for hebel. It presents a methodology for metaphor and symbol, then demonstrates how Qohelet employs hebel in the book with referents related to "insubstantiality," "transience," and "foulness." These referents are incorporated into a single, multivalent vapor-symbol by which Qohelet represents human experience. The study provides significant substantiation for the "realist" position on Ecclesiastes: Qohelet does not declare life to be entirely meaningless or absurd, but rather says that life is filled with limitations and complications and counsels his readers how to make the most of that life. The study concludes with a proposal for the rhetoric of Ecclesiastes in light of the symbol thesis.

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Douglas B. Miller, Ph.D. (1996), Princeton Theological Seminary, is Associate Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas, USA.