Saturday, September 21, 2019

Time and Chance (2)

More often than not, the Bible teacher who tells you the thing you are reading does not mean what it says in plain English is telling you sanctified fibs. Odds are he is explaining away the text rather than explaining it.

With a few notable exceptions (by which I mean the hacks who lend their expertise to Bible versions created specifically to push ideological agendas), translators are apolitical, honest and usually quite competent.

Moreover, the number of qualified men and women who spend their lives parsing Hebrew and Greek syntax on our behalf, and the sheer size of the committees involved in debating the most appropriate way of translating each new or updated version, strongly militate against individualistic interpretation, accidental error or the intentional introduction of heresy into our Bibles. The state of Greek and Hebrew translation today is probably better than at any time in Church history. If it says something in any of the baker’s dozen of modern English versions of the Bible which are not known for wild paraphrasing in lieu of translation, 99% of the time there is a very solid lexical reason for it.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

All is Vanity

That said, there are exceptions to the general rule, and these usually involve excesses of tolerance for the sentimentality and comfort of their readers, rather than translators genuinely mistaking the intention of the author. The second verse of Ecclesiastes is a fine example of this:
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
No matter the language, over the centuries popular usage of words tends to morph, expand, dilute and occasionally even reverse their original meanings. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t need to update our dictionaries so often. Since the word “vanity” occurs five times in this verse, and since it appears a further 33 times throughout the rest of the book, we should probably stop for a moment to make sure we all agree about what Solomon meant when he wrote it down for us nearly 3,000 years ago.

It doesn’t mean what you probably think it means.

Tossing Out the First Two Entries in the Dictionary

Sorry. I HATE doing that. I try to do it as little as possible. In this case, however, there are wrong-headed but understandable reasons that have encouraged translators to allow a less accurate English word to stand for almost a century.

The single most common way we use the word “vanity” in modern English is in the sense of egocentricity, solipsism or self-occupation, as when we say a man is “terribly vain” because we regularly catch him staring at his reflection in passing store windows or checking out his recently manicured fingernails for stray hangnails.

That was not its primary meaning when the KJV was originally translated, and it was only the seventh most common way of using the word back in 1828. It is certainly not the way Solomon is using it here. The expression has nothing to do with pride or conceit. Solomon is not saying that men have a distorted sense of their own self-importance, even if that may be a perfectly legitimate complaint which is well established for us in other scriptures.

Second, “vanity” here does not refer to something pointless or intrinsically self-defeating, in the sense that we are using the word when we say, “His efforts were all in vain.” That is the second most common way we use the word today (third in 1828), and it too does not accurately reflect the underlying Hebrew, though it seemed likely enough to be the intended meaning that I never thought to look it up for more than thirty years.

A Breath on a Cold Day

Instead, step outside in late Fall and take a look at your at the mist your breathing creates for just a second in the chilly air. That quickly-disappearing gust of condensation is as close to the image Solomon is trying for as we can probably get. The Hebrew hebel means a gentle breeze or, more frequently, an exhalation of air. As Genesius puts it, hebel is used metaphorically of anything “transitory, evanescent and frail.”

So then, Solomon is not saying that understanding the purpose for which we have been created is not worth bothering about, or that the quest for meaning in life is evidence of an exaggerated sense of self-importance on the part of the seeker. Rather, he is saying that the meaning of life is ephemeral, chimerical and exceedingly difficult to pin down.

Understanding it is not an easy task.

A Difference Worth Noting

That’s a difference worth noting. Solomon will make this argument many ways throughout the book: that observation, intelligence, analysis and the use of our six senses are insufficient in the quest to find purpose and meaning. If those tools are all you are able to bring to bear on the problem, you will find your search for purpose very frustrating indeed.

That is what the “Preacher” means by saying that “all is vanity”. It’s not that the quest to find meaning in life is impossible. It’s that we need something more than the input we can gather with our eyes and ears.

This is precisely what the rest of the word of God provides to us. Solomon’s little treatise, I think, is designed to whet our taste for revelation. Whether that was Solomon’s intention when he wrote it or whether he was directed by the Spirit of God to assemble his observations, examples and sayings without fully comprehending their larger significance himself is something nobody can tell us.

A Sop to Sentimentality

So why is hebel still translated “vanity” today, despite the fact that popular usage makes it an inaccurate English reflection of the Hebrew and no high school reader could possibly be expected to understand it on its face?

Well, I suspect it’s because Ecclesiastes is poetry, and poetry is memorized and quoted in a way that historic and doctrinal passages are not. Getting Christians to give up a cherished poetic turn of phrase is like trying to steal a cub from a raging she-bear: it’s simply not worth the grief. Despite doing it regularly in more obscure portions of the word of God, translators have all but given up “refreshing” some of the most beloved and memorable passages of scripture for new generations. The bravest and most sophisticated experts in the original languages inexplicably turn into teary-eyed church ladies when faced with the task of putting the “Lord’s Prayer” or the 23rd Psalm in the vernacular of the current year.

Thus we find that the 1611 King James Version reads as follows:
“Uanitie of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanitie of vanities, all is vanitie.”
That wording has not changed in over 400 years, and it won’t change in another 400, even though it probably should, and even though Solomon’s intended meaning slips further away from each passing generation and requires us to revisit the original language to connect with it. Thankfully we have the tools to do just that, and we don’t need seminarians to help us.

So What’s the Big Deal?

A few of our readers may not unreasonably ask themselves, “So what’s the big deal? It’s a single word, and most people will eventually figure out what Solomon meant from context.”

Well, for the most part I agree with them. The nature of scripture is such that we can still get a great deal of useful spiritual help from the very occasional passage that is suboptimally translated. A reader who incorrectly concludes from the use of a single outdated expression that Solomon is arguing that the search for meaning in life is pointless does not for that reason throw down his Bible in disgust and walk away, does he? He can hardly avoid noticing that Solomon himself did not finish the sentence with the Hebrew equivalent of an exclamation point, hurl away his quill and abandon the search for meaning.

In fact, the Preacher continues his quest for another twelve chapters. So should we. It’s well worth it.

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