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Spring 2004 · Vol. 33 No. 1 · pp. 110–111 

Book Review

Symbol and Rhetoric in Ecclesiastes: The Place of Hebel in Qohelet’s Work

Douglas B. Miller. Academia Biblica 2; Atlanta, GA and Leiden: Society of Biblical Literature; E. J. Brill, 2002. 238 pages.

Reviewed by Elmer A. Martens

This book explores the meaning of the Hebrew hebel in the book of Ecclesiastes, a term which many Bible translations render as “vanity.” Douglas Miller, however, renders hebel with the literal “vapor,” and shows that it has three distinct metaphorical nuances: insubstantiality, transience, and foulness. Miller, a Bible professor at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas, and editor of the journal Direction, holds a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary where the book had its origin as a doctoral dissertation with C. L. Seow as advisor.

Miller’s distinctive contribution is to highlight the nuance of foulness as a meaning of hebel. He makes his case for “foulness” by noting such usages outside of Ecclesiastes in rabbinic material, and, most telling of all, that the term “bad” (ra’) serves as a “guarding” term within Ecclesiastes, much like “chasing after the wind” belongs to the overtone of “insubstantiality” in other contexts. For example, the observation that the righteous are not always rewarded and the wicked seem to {111} prosper is summarized as “vapor” and qualified in the discussion as “bad” (Eccl. 8:10-15; 9:1-3). In colloquial usage, “The thing stinks.”

Miller proposes that Ecclesiastes has two major sections. The first (1:1–6:9) primarily treats the subject of toil, the result of which is often less than satisfactory or fulfilling, thus not substantial and sometimes transient. The second half of the book (6:10–12:13) is most consistently an examination of human understanding and what can be known. Here one claim is that some things are not right, even odious. Miller proposes that in the inclusio “vapor of vapors; all is a vapor” (1:2; 12:8), the term “vapor” (hebel) is omnivalent: all three senses are represented. That is, “In sum, we learn that not everything is hebel in the same way; yet all is hebel in one way or another, and sometimes in more than one way” (154). Such an understanding of the term is more compelling than that given by Michael Fox, a wisdom specialist, who regards hebel as meaning “absurd.” Throughout, Miller interacts extensively with other scholars including European writers.

The book ends up being much more than a linguistic exercise in definition. In the process Miller has a most helpful discussion of metaphor and symbol, explores ancient occurrences of hebel outside the Bible, examines some thirty-five biblical texts other than Ecclesiastes which employ the word, and provides a walk-through of Ecclesiastes in which he examines nearly every unit of the book, sorting out the meaning(s) of “vapor” (hebel), and enabling the reader to get a good sense of the book’s message.

Miller’s work is intended for the academic reader; the Hebrew (but also the German) is not always translated. However, even without knowledge of these languages, the book is so organized that the thesis and its documentation are not hard to follow. Some pertinent material, such as outlines, often appears in the extensive footnotes. One wonders why such material was not included in the body of the book.

The book serves in many ways to unlock Ecclesiastes. Bible readers are in debt to an author whose research is thorough, whose thesis is clear, and whose work is focused and enlightening.

Elmer A. Martens
Professor Emeritus of Old Testament
Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California

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