Criswell Theological Review 2.2 (1988) 309-21

                     Copyright © 1988 by Criswell College, cited with permission.

 

                 ECCLESIASTES 7:25-29 AND

             THE FEMINIST HERMENEUTIC

 

 

                                          DUANE A. GARRETT

                            Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary,

                                           Memphis, TN 38104

 

The origins of feminist hermeneutics are not difficult to ascertain.

Apart from the Zeitgeist of the late 20th century, that is, the larger

Social context of secular feminism and the expanding job market for

women in academia and industry, modem Christian women are dis-

'tressed by what appears to be misogyny in the male-dominated

church. Propelled with a zeal to correct what they believe to be

centuries of injustice, feminist interpreters have radically challenged

traditional views in the role of women. They therefore reject the

interpretations which assert that the husband is to rule in the home

And that only men can serve as pastors.

The reasons for the conservative reaction to feminism, moreover,

are equally clear. While it is certainly true that, as many feminists

claim, some Christian men reject the assertions of feminism because

of their insecurity, traditionalism and latent misogyny, this is by no

means true in all or even in a majority of cases. Something else must

account for the wide unwillingness of conservative Christians (both

male and female) to embrace the claims of feminism. That factor is

the fear of entering into disobedience to what appears to be plain

teachings of the Bible (e.g., 1 Cor 14:34; Eph 5:22). Therefore, while

the conservative would admit that a great deal which has entered our

view of the roles of men and women is more traditional than based on

the teachings of the Word of God, in certain fundamental areas the

distinctions between the roles must be maintained because they were

 ordained in divine creation and reaffirmed with divine commands.

 

Criswell Theological Review 2.2 (1988) 309-321



310                 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

For the conservative, therefore, the issue focuses at the point of

obedience to God and conformity to creation.

Feminists respond to this in two ways. Conservative Christian

Feminism agrees that the teachings of the Bible are absolutely authori-

tative but assert that traditional interpretations of the relevant texts

Are incorrect. A variety of lexical and historical arguments that are

brought are arrayed with a view towards asserting, for example, that.

"head" in Eph 5:22 has nothing to do with authority or leadership but

indicates to the contrary the role of sustainer and companion. Hence 

these feminists assert that the Bible is authoritative but that, rightly

interpreted, it does not support traditionally held concepts of male

authority in home and church.2

Radical Christian feminists, on the contrary, assert that the re-

Alities of the historical situation of the Bible indicate the need for an

entirely new hermeneutic. The Bible, they assert, itself reflects and is

thoroughly permeated by the patriarchal misogynist viewpoint of the

world from which it came. Far from trying to save the Bible from the

accusation of misogyny, these feminists are the Bible's foremost pro-

secutors. Numerous biblical passages are cited in evidence of biblical

misogyny (e.g., Rev 14:4). The only solution, they assert, is to trans-

form the Bible by passing it through the grid of feminism (i.e., "a

feminist reading"). Anything, which reflects biblical patriarchalism, is

to be rejected or transformed.3 In this approach, God is often referred

to by the pronoun "she" and Jesus' use of the term "Father" for God is

not taken as proof that we should speak of God in the masculine

gender.4

E. S. Fiorenza, a major spokeswoman for the movement, says, "A

feminist theological hermeneutics of the Bible that has as its canon the

liberation of, women from sexist texts, structures, institutes, and in-

ternalized male values maintains that solely those traditions and texts

of the Bible that transcend their patriarchal culture and time have the

theological authority of revelation if the Bible should not continue to

be a tool for the patriarchal oppression of women."5 In developing

 

1 See S. T. Foh, Women and the Word of God: A Response to Biblical Feminism

(Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979) and J. B. Hurley, Men and Women in

Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981).

2 See P. Gundry, Woman be Free! (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972) and E.

Storkey, What's Right with Feminism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985).

3 Literature in this area is growing rapidly, but two useful collections of essays are

L. M. Russell, ed., Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster,

1985) and R. R. Ruether, Religion and Sexism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974).

4 E. S. Fiorenza, "Luke 2:41-52," Int 36 (1982) 403.

5 E. S. Fiorenza, "Feminist Theology and New Testament Interpretation," JSOT

22 (1982) 43.



Garrett: THE FEMINIST HERMENEUTIC                                    311

 

her paradigm for biblical interpretation, Fiorenza asserts that, first,

the need for evaluation of biblical teaching and tradition by the

standard of the rule of faith and the teaching of the church has always

been recognized Second, she says that the norm for interpreting the

Bible cannot be found in the Bible itself but only in and through the

struggle for the liberation of women and all oppressed people."7

Third, she says that "the insight that the Bible is not only a source of

truth and revelation but also a source of violence and domination is

basic for liberation theologies."8 Therefore her model of biblical

interpretation is not that it is eternal archetype but ever in process of

being improved prototype.9 M. A. Tolbert similarly asserts, "Feminist

hermeneutics stands over against patriarchal hermeneutics, an advo-

cacy for the male-oriented, hierarchically established present cultural

power system.”10

 The purpose of this paper is to deal with a text which, at a casual

reading, appears to be perhaps the most misogynous passage of all,

Eccl 7:25-29. I deal with this text in order to challenge the feminist

assertion that the Bible is by nature misogynist and therefore mis-

guided. I will not in this paper address the arguments of conservative

feminists. While I have not found many of their arguments persuasive,

acknowledge their respect for biblical authority and do not consider

their works to constitute a threat to the hermeneutics of biblical

Christianity. The case is different, however, with the hermeneutics of

radical feminism. The notion that the Bible has absorbed the cultural

norms of its world to the degree that Christians of later generations

may radically revise its teachings has chaotic consequences for any

semblance of biblical authority. Indeed, my real purpose here is not

to combat feminism (although I believe it obtains a number of

serious problems) but to uphold the Bible's authority.

At this point we must turn to the offending text:

 

25"So I turned in my heart to know and seek and search out wisdom and

reckoning, and to understand the evil of folly and the foolish behavior

that is madness. 26And I discover that more bitter than death is the

woman who is a trap and whose heart is nets and whose hands are

bonds; he who fears God escapes her but the sinner is trapped in her.

 

6 E. S. Fiorenra, "Toward a Feminist Biblical Hermeneutics: Biblical Interpre-

tation and Liberatim Theology," A Guide to Contemporary Hermeneutics (ed. D.

Mckim; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986) 377.

7 Ibid., 378.

8 Ibid., 379.

9 Ibid., 379-80

10 M. A. Tolbfft, "Defining the Problem: The Bible and Feminist Hermeneutics,"

Semeia 28 (1983) 113.



312                             CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

27Listen, this is what I have found, says Qoheleth, by adding one thing to

the other to discover understanding: 28What my soul seeks I have not,

found. I have found one man among a thousand, but a woman among all

these I have not found. 29But this I have found: God made humanity

upright, but they have sought out many schemes.

 

The source of feminist irritation is not hard to find: Women appear to

be described as human traps whose only goal is to ensnare men and

make them miserable. More than that, their innate depravity seems

worse than that which besets men. At least Qoheleth found one in a

thousand men, but not a single woman. The feminist L. Swidler

therefore asserts this passage to be "especially vitriolic and bitter."11

He adds, "This would seem to fulfill the definition of misogynism, of

woman-hating. The author then raises misogynism to the level of

religious virtue: 'He who is pleasing to God eludes her, but the sinner

is her captive' (Eccles 7:26)."12 In the view of Qoheleth, Swindler

asserts, "all women have been reduced to essential evil."13

Examination of the Hebrew text in no way lessens the impact of

the verses. The dreadful woman of v 26 is said to be Mydvcm ("traps,

from dvc, "to hunt") and MymrH," ("nets," which were used by both

hunters and fishermen). Indeed, the woman here is compared un-

favorably to the black, insatiable tvm ("death"). One important con-

sideration does arise from the Hebrew text, however, in v 29. As

R. Gordis explains, the verse clearly does not mean that God made

men upright but that women have sought out many devices, as if

Qoheleth were saying that men are straightforward but women are

cunning. Besides the fact that this interpretation contradicts v 28, the

word Mdxh in v 29 means "humanity" and not "men."14

Scholars have dealt with this text in a variety of ways. W. C.

Kaiser prefers to see the woman who is in view here not as a reference

to women in general but as the "strange woman" of Proverbs 5-7, the

antipathy of the personified Lady Wisdom of Proverbs 9.15 But it is

hard to escape the conclusion that Qoheleth has real women in mind

here. H. C. Leupold, more boldly, asserts that the woman described

here is a symbol for "heathen philosophy."16 This interpretation

is absolutely out of the question. M. A. Eaton is nearer the truth in

 

11 Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Woman (Philadelphia: Westminster,

1979) 128. Swindler identifies himself as a feminist on p. 11.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 R. Gordis, Koheleth, The Man and his World: A Study in Ecclesiastes (New

York: Schocken, 1968) 285.

15 W. C. Kaiser, Jr., Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Chicago: Moody, 1979) 88.

16 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1952) 173-75.

 


Garrett: THE FEMINIST HERMENEUTIC                                    313

 

his assertion that Qoheleth is talking --about a particular kind of

woman,"17 but this does not solve the problem entirely. Qoheleth

after all, seem to indicate that at least a tiny chance exists for

finding a good man, but no chance exists for finding a decent woman

(v 28). Several commentators have noted that Qoheleth's attitude

toward women is considerably better in 9:9,18 but this too does not

entirely solve the problem here. G. A. Barton says that --Qoheleth is

inveighing against bad women in the vein of Prov 5:4, 22-23; 7:22-23;

22:14."19 But in all those texts the evil woman mentioned is an adul-

teress or prostitute. In Ecclesiastes 7 nothing indicates that adultery or

prostitution is in view; indeed, the woman whose heart is a trap to a

man can very well be his wife. J. A. Loader simply asserts that

Qoheleth is taking up the typical wisdom theme of the dangerous

woman.20

I should note, however, that none of the commentaries or inter-

pretations I found regarded this passage as evidence of the moral or

intellectual superiority of men. Even R. Wardlaw, a conservative

Scotch scholar of the early 19th century, in no way uses this text to

prove that women are innately more wicked or foolish than men.21

The importance of this observation is that it throws into doubt the

contention of fern inists that the reason men have held on to these texts

is that they enable them to suppress and feel superior to women. If no

such bias is found in traditional Christian hermeneutics, it begs the

question of whether a--feminist (or any other) reading" is not ad hoc

and innately construed to skew the natural meaning of a text.

The question of how this text is to be interpreted, however,

remains to be addressed. Several factors emerge as probable control

elements. First, one must note that Ecclesiastes often reflects an aware-

ness of and dependence on the early chapters of Genesis. Eaton,

building on the work of C. C. Forman and W. Zimmerli, details the

evidence behind this assertion.22 Evidence that Qoheleth builds his

reflections on the early chapters of Genesis is conspicuous. Qoheleth's

preoccupation with death (e.g., 3:18-22; 9:1-6) reflects more than his

 

17 M. A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary (Downer's Grove,

IL: InterVarsity, 1983) 116.

18 E.g., Gordis, Koheleth, 282.

19 G. A. Barton, The Book of Ecclesiastes (ICC; Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark,

1912), 147.

20 J. A. Loader, Polar Structures in the Book of Qohelet (Berlin: de Gruyter,

1979) 51.

21 R. Wardlaw, Exposition of Ecclesiastes (1868; reprint ed.; Minneapolis: Klock

and Klock, 1982) 244.,60.

22 Eaton, Ecclesiastes, 46.



314                             CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

own gloominess and pessimism; it is derived from Gen 2:17 and the

story of the fall in Genesis 3. In addition, Qoheleth is dismayed at

how much of life is consumed by vexing labor and hardship (e.g.,

2:18-23; 5:15-17). This surely reflects an awareness of the curse on

man in Gen 3:17-19. Forman notes that Eccl l:5-8 calls to mind the

descriptions of the seasons in Gen 8:21f.23 It often alludes to the

inaccessibility of knowledge (e.g., 1:15-17; 8:16-17), an idea which

builds upon both the forbidden nature of the fruit of the tree of

knowledge of good and evil and on the expulsion of Adam and Eve

from the presence of God. Indeed, the hiddenness of God is a major

theme of Ecclesiastes (see 3:11; 8:17-9:1; 11:5). Eccl 3:19-20 all but

directly quotes Gen 3:19c in referring to the idea that all are dust and

all return to dust (see also Eccl 12:7). Compare also Gen 6:5-6 to Eccl

7:29; 8:11 and 9:3. Even the frequently repeated lbh ("vanity")

appears to be a play on the name of Adam and Eve's lost son, lbh

("Abel").24 This preoccupation with Genesis emerges in 7:261ff as well.

 Another important consideration is that Ecclesiastes is intensely

autobiographical and confessional. Throughout the book, Qoheleth

repeatedly asserts his advice to be an out-growth of prolonged ob-

serving, searching, and investigating (e.g., Eccl l:13, 16-17; 2:1; 3:16;

4.1; 4.7; 5.18; 6.1; 7.23-25; 8.9; 9.1;10.5; 10.9-10). He often describes

his personal history in great detail (e.g., chap. 2), and is brutally frank

in describing his feelings in his observations of life (e.g., 4:2-3).25

Finally, we must note that Ecclesiastes was written from a man's

perspective in the man's world (as it was in that day) of the courtly

circle in which the two most important activities were the pursuit of

wisdom and the exercise of political power. The wealth, power, and

preoccupation with intellectual exploration evidenced in 1:12-18; 2:1-

23; 5:8-17; 8:1-6; 10:1-7; and 12:9-12 all indicate a Sitz im Leben

which, in the ancient world, would have excluded most (if not all)

women. This may seem to prove that indeed the perspective of

Ecclesiastes must be patriarchal and misogynist but a close inspection

of the text reveals that this is not the case.

 

23C. C. Forman, "Qoheleth's Use of Genesis," JSS 5 (1960) 256-57.

24Ibid., 257-58.

25The question of the date and authorship of Ecclesiastes is obviously significant

here. I consider the traditional view that Solomon is the author to be considered

stronger than has recently been recognized. If the book is Solomonic, his personal

history could have bearing on the interpretation of this passage. But to avoid the ap-

pearance of having prejudiced the issue and in order to demonstrate that the interpreta-

tion here proposed is not dependent on Solomonic authorship, I speak of the author

only as Qoheleth and rely only on internal evidence to support the points made

concerning the Sitz im Leben of this text.



Garrett: THE FEMINIST HERMENEUTIC                                    315

 

With this background in mind we can proceed to the interpreta-

tion of the text itself. In v 25 Qoheleth says that he was involved in a

quest to understand the difference between wisdom and folly. This

assertion is similar to those noted above and gives the reader no new

information except that it reinforces the autobiographical nature of

what follows. In v 26 he asserts, "And I discover (xcvmv) that more

bitter than death is the woman whose heart is traps. ..." The assertion

that what he here describes is a "discovery" again indicates that he

is speaking of his own experience and that of the group of men in his

circle. He has discovered that either for himself or for his associates

(probably both) women have been bitter traps and snares and sources

of much grief and sorrow. In short, he has seen that for many men

nothing gives them so much trouble and misery as the women with

whom they associate. In this context no grounds exist for thinking that

the women he has in mind are all prostitutes and adulteresses. The

most natural assumption is that the women who have given these men

the most trouble are those with whom they most frequently associate—

their wives. He adds that he has observed that certain godly men have

escaped this misery (but this does not necessarily mean that these men

who "feared God" were not married!).

Qoheleth's understanding of this sad situation is determined not

only by personal experience, however, but also by his reflection on

the Genesis narrative. In the story of the fall the deceived woman

gave the fruit to her husband and induced him to fall. Hence some see

in Eve a pattern of woman as a trap and a source of deception.26 With

regard to the broken relationship between man and woman, however,

the critical point in the Genesis narrative is not Eve's temptation of

Adam. Indeed it is hardly correct to say that Eve tempted Adam. Gen

3:6 only says that she gave some of the fruit to her husband and he ate

it. Even Adam, in blaming Eve for his fall and excusing himself, does

not assert that he was deceived or tempted by her (v 12). Far more

important with regard to the questions posed by Eccl 7:26 is the curse

on the woman in Gen 3:16b: "Your desire shall be for your husband

and he shall rule over you." .

This verse has been greatly misunderstood and abused in tradi-

tional theology.27 First, "desire" here does not mean to desire sexually,

 

26The Targum on 7:29 refers to Eve's "seduction" of Adam. See E. Levine, The

Aramaic Version of Qohelet (New York: Sepher-Hermon, 1978) 40.

27For a good survey of interpreters' attempts to deal with this verse, see C.

Westermann, Genesis 1:11: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1974)

261-63. See also J. Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on

Genesis (ICC; Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1910) 83.



316                             CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

as if the meaning were that woman is man's sexual slave.28 The word

translated "desire" (hqvwt) is used three times in the OT. In Cant 7:11

it does refer to sexual desire, that of a bridegroom for his bride, but

there the word is in a context of joy and love, not in a context of sin

and judgment.29 As A. P. Ross has observed, a far more likely parallel

to the use of the word in Gen 3:16 is in Gen 4:7, where the word refers

to sin's desire to capture Cain. There, sin is pictured as crouching like

a hunter prepared to spring upon its prey. The "desire" is a desire to

master and consume.30 Besides the fact that this use of the word is

separated from Gen 3:16 by a mere 15 verses, the verbal parallel

between the two occurrences is very strong.

                                      3:16b

   "To your husband will be your desire, but he will rule you."

           jb lwmy xvhv jtqvwt jwyx lxv

                                            4:7b

                "To you is its desire, but you must rule it."

           Vb lwmt htxv vtqvwt jylxv

With this unmistakable parallel, it is clear that the desire is not a

sexual desire of love or devotion, but is desire to seize and control or

consume. Note especially how in Gen 4:7 sin is "crouching at the

door"; that is, it does not directly confront and do battle but has

assumed a posture that reflects cunning and treachery. In the same

way, the woman of Eccl 7:26 is a "net" or a "trap." Similarly, the

"ruling" (lwm) described in the two Genesis verses is not benevolent

leadership but absolute domination without concern for the well-

being for the one ruled (Cain is clearly not urged to become a

benevolent lord over sin).

Therefore the meaning of the curse is clear. The woman is told

that because of sin domestic life would become a center of conflict

and struggle. Woman's situation will ever be one of trying to capture,

manipulate, and consume her husband. Instead of being at one with

him, she shall be at war with him. But it is a war which in the majority

of cases she will lose. The curse indicates that she generally will be in

a place of forced subordination and servitude. Her life will be made

bitter and sorrowful. From human history, moreover, we can see that

this curse has been tragically fulfilled. With the exception of a few

 

28Cf. the translation in E. A. Speiser, Genesis (AB; New York: Doubleday, 1964)

22: "your urge shall be for your husband."

29 V. P. Hamilton, "hqvwt," TWOT 2.913.

30 A. P. Ross, "The Daughters of Lot and the Daughter-in-Law of Judah: Hubris or

Faith in the Struggle for Women's Rights" (paper delivered at the 1986 annual meeting

of the Evangelical Theological Society) 10, n.2.



Garrett: THE FEMINIST HERMENEUTIC                                    317

 

matriarchal cultures, woman's lot throughout world history has been

one of unmitigated pain and sorrow. In addition to the frequent

pregnancy and attendant pain and risk of health and life that has been

the lot of most women (3:16a), the domestic and social life of women

in most societies has been rigidly controlled and circumscribed. Not

only has convention prevented the majority of women in human

history from engaging in a full life in and outside the home, but

domestic violence, neglect, and cruelty received from her husband

and her husband's family have demoralized and made miserable the

lives of many a woman in many cultures.

In this regard we must point out that Gen 3:16 is a curse and not a

law. While it is correct, I believe, to assert that a man should be the

moral leader of his home, this verse does not teach or prescribe a

pattern of Christian behavior. Such a pattern is better seen in creation

itself, where woman is taken from man and man has a precedence in

the family, but a precedence that can be properly maintained only in

the context of being under God and united in love with his wife. Paul

speaks of the husband as the head; in contrast to recent attempts to

deplete this term of all implication of authority, I believe the term

must be understood in its Hebraic sense (wxr), a sense that implies

leadership. But it is a leadership which is integrally concerned for the

welfare of the wife:, metaphorically described as the body. As the

head must make the needs of its body preeminent, so the husband

must make the needs of his wife preeminent (Eph 5:21-33).

But it is utterly false to treat Gen 3:16 as prescriptive law. It is a

curse and a prophecy of the effects of sin in the domestic area; it is

not a command. A woman who experiences a good pregnancy and

relatively easy childbirth is not being disobedient to God's revealed

will any more than is a man whose occupation does not take him out

into the fields to contend with weeds and brambles-but as a matter

of fact the curse of Gen 3:17-19 has been more than fulfilled in history

since most men have led lives of bitter toil in the face of a hostile

environment. Similarly, Gen 3:16 requires neither husbands to be

harsh taskmasters nor wives to be cunning shrews. On the contrary, it

condemns both as the outworkings of human sin in the domestic

relationship. But the history of our sinful race has yielded and con-

tinues to yield countless examples of how sin has perverted the

divinely decreed order with the result that women have been snares

to their husbands and men have been cruel and oppressive toward

their wives. One should no more preach Gen 3:16 as a normative rule

for the Christian home than one should preach vv 17-19 as God's

ideal for a theology of work.

In this light, Eccl 7:26ff begins to make sense. Qoheleth, working

from the theological stance of Gen 3:16, observes and with brutal



318                             CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

honesty describes what he has seen in most domestic relationships. He

has discovered that many men have their greatest pain and their most

miserable failures in the context of their marriages. To them, their

wives are cunning, human traps who leave them nothing but grief and

vexation. In his own quest for meaningful relationships he has never

found a single woman whom he did not consider to be a lurking shark

interested in only her own advantage and gain. As far as that goes,

however, he has only found one in a thousand men whom he could

consider to be a true friend who spoke with honesty and integrity.

Eccl 7:26-28, therefore, from a man's perspective, describes the

miseries of the domestic relationship.

It is, however, a picture given strictly from a man's perspective. 

This does not mean that anything he has said is wrong or incorrect; it

only means that the woman's side is not explicitly stated. A woman's

version of the text might look like this:

 

26And I find more bitter than death is the man who is an iron fist and

whose heart is arrogant and whose feet are steel boots. The woman who

fears God will escape him, but the sinner he will crush. 27Listen, this is

what I have found, says Qoheleth, by adding one thing to the other to

discover understanding: 28What my soul seeks I have not found. I have

found one woman among a thousand, but a man among all these I have

not found.

 

In transforming the text in this way we see the other side of the

domestic life of sinful humanity -woman is oppressed by a cruel and

unfeeling husband and life is drudgery and misery. In both cases, it is

clear that nothing brings out the sinfulness of humanity more thor-

oughly than the marriage relationship. Not surprisingly, pastors in-

volved in counseling often find themselves dealing with domestic

discord and broken relationships more than with any other area. Men

on the job or in the military often cluster to voice their grief over how

their wives are making them suffer. Women frequently look for a

sympathetic ear, often another wife, to whom they can pour out their

sorrow and despair. Qoheleth's assertion that he found one man but

not a single woman has been born out in the lives of many men. They

never can find a lover or spouse with whom they can be truly at ease

and pour out their souls, but if they are fortunate, they can find at

least one friend of the same sex with whom they can truly relax and

not feel that they are in a struggle. Many women have had the same

experience with respect to their inability to find a man they can trust. 

Although few people attain to joyful marriages, many are at least able

to find one true friend in life.

Some may object to describing the passage from the woman's

point of view as if that were itself feminist or somehow tampering



Garrett: THE FEMINIST HERMENEUTIC                                    319

 

with the Bible. This is no attempt to add to the Scriptures, however,

and I am not advocating that the woman's perspective be inserted

alongside the man's in the Bible. But to look at the text and the

phenomena of domestic struggles from the woman's viewpoint is no

different from what interpreters and preachers have always done. We

do not, after all, assert that it is wrong for a man to covet another

man's wife but allow a woman to covet another woman's husband on

the grounds that Exod 20:17 only prohibits the former. We do not

assert that the woman who goes to a male striptease is not sinning

since Jesus only forbade the lust of a man looking on a woman and

not that of a woman looking on a man (Matt 5:28). We would not

warn boys against seductive girls and prostitutes but think it un-

necessary to teach girls to avoid clever and lustful boys on the grounds

that Proverbs 5 says nothing in that regard. In the same way it is

absolutely essential for the Christian interpreter to show how terribly

both men and women suffer in the home as a result of sin.

One may object, of course, that if Qoheleth had intended to

describe the misery caused by sinful husbands and not just that

caused by sinful wives he would have done so, but such a protest

reveals a failure to understand both the historical situation of Qoheleth

and the distinction between strict interpretation and proper applica-

tion of a biblical text. With regard to the historical background of

Ecclesiastes, it is critical to read the book with the understanding that

it was composed from and for a circle that was almost certainly

exclusively male. While it is true that, as J. L. Crenshaw says, "Present

knowledge about education in ancient Israel is astonishingly incom-

plete,"31 every indication is that the scribes, sages, and royal advisers,

the group generally classified as "the wise," was confined only to men

and only to a select few men at that. I am inclined to Whybray's

solution that, rather than speak of a professional circle of wise men,

we should understand that the royal court included a group of ad-

visors,32 and consider it likely that these individuals were a landed

aristocracy that was both active in the giving of political counsel to

the king and had a leisure time for the more academic study of

wisdom. Ecclesiastes reflects such a Sitz im Leben.33 Nevertheless,

whether the group in question was a circle of professional wise men

or the king' s aristocratic counselors, no grounds whatsoever exist for

assuming women played a significant role. The point, therefore, is

that it is utterly unreasonable to expect Qoheleth to address a side of

 

31J. L. Crenshaw, "Education in Ancient Israel, JBL 104 (1985) 601.

32 R. N. Whybray, The Intellectual Tradition in the Old Testament (Berlin:

Walter de Gruyter, 1974),5-54.

33 On the subject I have a forthcoming article, "Qoheleth on the Use and Abuse

of Political Power," in the Trinity Journal.]



320                             CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

an issue that was not directly relevant to his audience. His message to

his aristocratic and sagacious circle is that only through the fear of

God can one escape a miserable marriage, and for those men a

miserable marriage is naturally described from the man's side. To

turn the issue around, we should not deal with a battered wife in a

crisis center by telling her how some women make their husbands

miserable.

Also, as mentioned above, legitimate application can (and must)

grow out of the strict interpretation of the text. If the strict inter-

pretation of the text is that sin has made the marriage relationship into

a bed of misery for a man but that he can escape the grief caused by

an evil wife through the fear of God, surely it is a legitimate applica-

tion to assert that the same is true from the woman's perspective.

Our interpretation is also very distinct from that of the feminist

hermeneutic. Radical feminism asserts that because Qoheleth speaks

from a patriarchal and misogynist perspective, all that he says about

women being snares and traps is simply wrong and to be rejected. 

While it is true that he speaks from a man's perspective to a male

audience, his words are neither misogynist nor inaccurate. His words

are in fact absolutely true. Many men throughout history have suf-

fered terribly and been brought to ruin by the women in their lives.

Qoheleth's words, however, are not exhaustively true in that there is

another side to the story-the woman's side. Many women through-

out history have had lives empty of joy and been brought to emo-

tional (and sometimes physical) death by the men in their lives. To

look at the issue from both sides is entirely legitimate in light of the

scope of the curse of Gen 3:16. Nevertheless, the feminist hermeneutic

which asserts this passage and others like it to be both evidence of

woman-hating in the Bible and a patriarchal tool for the oppression

of women must be rejected decisively. It is one thing to say that a text

reflects the viewpoint of a given group of people; it is another thing

entirely to assert that the text shows that group to be perverted by

hatred and a desire to dominate.

Qoheleth's recognition of sin as a dominant force in the lives of

people is evident in v 29. God made humanity to be upright, good,

and glorifying to him, but instead they have turned away from both

God and righteousness. He asserts that they have sought out "many

schemes" (tvnbwH). In the parlance of Christian theology, Qoheleth,

reflecting on the story of the fall in Genesis 3, asserts no less than the

depravity of humanity. This further indicates that vv 26-28 must be

understood in the light of the sinfulness of both men and women.

Happily, however, Qoheleth's assertion about domestic troubles

does not end there. He also asserts that the one who fears God



Garrett: THE FEMINIST HERMENEUTIC                                    321

 

escapes her, the cruel woman, to which we can properly add that the

woman who fears God escapes him, the cruel man. As indicated

above, this does not mean that the truly pious escape these troubles

by avoiding marriage altogether.34 Here, Eccl 9:9 may legitimately be

called upon as an assertion by Qoheleth that marriage can be a good

and fulfilling relationship. Those who fear God escape the miseries of

a tormented marriage because, with God being sovereign over their

home and grace giving deliverance from destructive sin, they are able

to achieve a harmonious and joyful relationship of the sort typified in

the marriage of Adam and Eve prior to the fall. Sin is not eradicated

but those who fear God conquer its effects by his grace. God, in his

goodness and grace, gives to those men who fear him a wife who is a

true source of help and support and to each woman who fears him a

husband who is a true source of love and strength.

Eccl 7:25ff., when understood in the light of Gen 3:16 and the

historical context of the wisdom school, addresses directly and power-

fully the domestic warfare, misery and violence that is no less preva-

lent today than it ever has been. Christian ministers must proclaim

this passage to their congregations. They must do It both from the

woman's and the man's perspective just as they would preach on any

text that is masculine in the biblical context but applies equally to

both sexes. But the authority of the Bible must be maintained. We

must not follow the error of those who cite Gen 3:16 as a proof text for

man's freedom to do whatever he wants to his wife. The fall has not

elevated man vis-ŕ-vis his wife. On the other hand, we must not allow

feminist accusations of misogyny in the Bible to lessen our apprecia-

tion for its absolute and universal authority and we must accept its

standards whether It is describing the proper relationship between

man or woman and God or that between man and woman.

 

 

34 Also, contrary to the Targum on 7:26, Ecclesiastes does not recommend divorce

as the proper course of action for "the righteous [man] before God." See Levine,

Aramaic Version of Qohelet, 40.

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            The Criswell College

            4010 Gaston Ave.

            Dallas, TX 75246

www.criswell.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu