Reviews on Resources for Biblical and Theological Studies


Written By: Paulson Pulikottil - Jul• 11•08

Tamez, Elsa. When the Horizons Close, Rereading Ecclesiastes. (Trans. Margaret Wilde; . Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books), 2000.

In the words of the author, this book is, “More than a classical commentary, it is a proposed way of reading the scripture for our hopeless times.” (p. vi). Thus the work under review is a rereading of the book of Ecclesiastes from a particular position regarding its date, composition, and the reader’s own particular ideological position. In the words of the author, this book is, “More than a classical commentary, it is a proposed way of reading the scripture for our hopeless times.” (p. vi). Thus the work under review is a rereading of the book of Ecclesiastes from a particular position regarding its date, composition, and the reader’s own particular ideological position. The book has an introduction and the commentary that follows is arranged in three parts in addition to a prologue and epilogue. In each section the author first comments on the whole section and each subsection by way of synthesis before making verse by verse comments. The book also contains an appendix of sayings and proverbs from Latin America that reflect the complexity of life and popular wisdom. The author says she has arranged the booked around the theme “Take it all Together.” Key to the reading the book of Ecclesiastes the way the present author does is the date of the book. Tamez dates this book around second half of third century BC against the background of the Ptolemaic empire based on Alexandria. Her reconstruction of the times of the author of the book is also important for the present reading. Tamez identifies the particular position of the biblical author by looking at “the world not narrated by Qoheleth.” The world that the Ecclesiastes describes is one of frustration, toilsome labour, etc. The biblical author denies that there is anything that is new. See, Ecclesiastes 1:9-10. Tamez discovers that behind this blatant denial is the key to the mind of the biblical author! As a reader she goes a step further and reconstructs the Ptolemaic world, its achievements, struggles and the changes it has brought in various areas. She describes the newness in the areas of military tactics, politics, agriculture, economics, etc. However, why did the biblical author refuse to admit these facts and affirm that there is no newness under the sun. Ecclesiastes questions this newness by denying it because it fails to effect human fulfilment. Tamez identifies the author with one of Palestinian aristocracy in Jerusalem. He is someone who takes a position different from that of his contemporaries who supported the “globalisation” of the Ptolemaic empire. The author of Ecclesiastes points out the futility of the “globalisation” which demands a lot of human sacrifice. He finds hard work useless if there is no enjoyment and gathering wealth meaningless while there is no security that one can keep it. The reading of this book becomes very relevant to our times if we are able to see the Ptolemaic world as Tamez has seen. She argues that the “Globalisation” of the Ptolemaic empire not only caused frustration and hopelessness in its subjects especially the group that the sage who authored Ecclesiastes represents but also this is a period when utopian hopes were crushed, and hopes of changes were not really there. Adding to the frustration is the concept of time that the Ecclesiastes holds. Tamez contrasts the world view of Ecclesiastes with that of the Apocalyptic and Prophets. Tamez suggests that the apocalyptic and prophetic literature looked at future with its horizons widening. Unlike other traditions of the Old Testament, in this book we do not see any reflection on the historical past of Israel, no eschatology as far as future is concerned and the present is considered as “meaningless.” This is why Tamez would like to call this as a vision where the horizons are closed. She observes that in Ecclesiastes view of history is in a “comatose state.” Tamez seems to assume a linear development or evolution of Israel’s theological concepts. In this linear schema she places the Book of Ecclesiastes in between the Messianism of Isaiah and the Apocalypticism. Both of them had widening horizons beyond the frustrations of present reality. In contrast, Ecclesiastes can not see anything beyond the present reality, he can not see a future with Messiah or a new age different from this present age dawning. This is why he exhorts his people to eat, drink and find enjoyment in the present. Based on this essential presuppositions Tamez offers her reading of this ancient canonical text. This makes her reading of Ecclesiastes so relevant and meaningful to her own context of Latin America particularly and the developing countries in general. Her opening remarks sums it all: “The Book of Qoheleth or Ecclesiastes has become timely again today, when horizons are closing in and the present becomes a hard master, demanding sacrifices and suppressing dreams.” (p. v). This reading thus makes sense to our days. When we are offered an utopia for our hard labour many of us would like to do hard work and sacrifice our own happiness. Creating wealth becomes of paramount importance but no one thinks of how one is going to enjoy it or whether it is secure. Many of the important aspects of life and human existence that we forget to ask is brought to focus by this biblical author and Tamez is able to relate it our times; since she sees a direct relationship between Ptolemaic empire and challenges of our own times. Tamez has not dealt with many of the critical questions that are so crucial to the particular reading. For example, the date of the book is considered to be in the Ptolemaic period, the second half of third century BC. However, though the main body of the book does not deal with such crucial questions the author is not unaware of them; she discusses them in notes. She is aware of the early Persian dating as well as the late second century dating, but concludes without any discussion that even an early Persian dating will not alter her reading of the text. But why did she chose a third century date over against the other possible dates is not explained? Does this mean that she has chosen a date that would facilitate a particular reading? If so it is sad and unfortunate. A similar lacunae is found in her conclusion that the entire work is framed by the almost identical statements found in 1:2 and 12:8. For this she has to consider that the work ends with 12:8. Though this is an important conclusion, Tamez does not seem to care to tell the reader her reasons for such a conclusion. The concluding section does offer a widened horizon, and future which is beyond the present. How did those who gave the final shape to this amazing book read reality? This is the dimension lacking from Tamez’s work. In her rereading of Ecclesiastes, Tamez takes the ideological position that the present frustrations are the result of free market economy. Unemployment, discriminations of all sorts, lack of solidarity, all these make us feel that the horizons are closed. Tamez believes that it is the ideology of capitalism that has caused the present frustration in our world. She thinks that capitalism discourage us to have hope in any other than the hope it offers. In other words, it crushes the utopian hopes. If so, does the alternative namely, socialism offer a widening horizon?. Or does frustration go away from human lives when we change our ideology? Tamez’s position would fail to answer these questions because the reason for human frustration and disappointment is elsewhere. However, this is by all means a great experiment in reading the books of the Old Testament to speak to the contemporary situations. This book is commendable not only as a new way of appropriating the message of an ancient book for our times but also as a methodological guide for our approach to Old Testament books.

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