God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Why is Everything Vanity in Ecclesiastes?

From the About page comes this great question:

This may be more of a philosophical/historical question than a linguistic one, but how would you render the word usually given as “vanity” in Ecclesiastes?

Abstract nouns are notoriously difficult to track even within a language — “nobility” now is not what it was — but how would you render it given a all the time and ink in the world.

I was told recently that it should be given as either “wind” or “nothing,” but that was merely a rumour.

Hevel in Ecclesiastes

The Hebrew word is hevel, and it’s important for understanding the Book of Ecclesiastes, because that book begins: “Hevel of hevels, says Kohelet, hevel of hevels. Everything is hevel.”

On the reasonable assumption that the pattern “X of Xs” is meant to convey intensity, Ecclesiastes begins along the lines of “The utmost hevel, says Kohelet, the utmost hevel. Everything is hevel.”

Although this context lets us know how central the word is to the book of Ecclesiastes, it does nothing to narrow down what the word means. So we look elsewhere.

Hevel in Other Contexts

The poetic text of Deuteronomy 32:21 uses the word hevel in parallel with lo el, “non-god.” This doesn’t tell us exactly what the word means — the other words in parallel there mean roughly “jealous” (matching “non-god”) and “anger” (matching hevel), and those two are not synonymous — but the context does tell us that hevel is something negative, like non-god.

In I Kings 16:13 and I Kings 16:26, the word again is something that gets God angry.

In II Kings 17:15, hevel represents something unworthy of pursuit.

So far, the word could mean “vanity,” “emptiness,” “false god” (this is what the ESV thinks), but also any number of other negative things.

The word appears five times in the Book of Job, but the poetic nature of that text usually makes it hard to use the evidence there to narrow down the meaning any further. In Job 7:16, for example, we read that Job’s days are hevel — clearly not a good thing, but we don’t know any more.

Job 35:16 offers a bit of direction, again thanks to parallel structure. There we find two verb phrases, “opens his mouth” and then “speaks many words.” Describing the second is the phrase “without knowledge,” and, equivalently, hevel describes the first. So hevel may be a noun that is like “without knowledge”: “emptiness,” for example.

In Psalm 31:7 the word hevel is used in distinction to God, potentially similar to its usage in Dueteronomy and Kings.

In the context of human inconsequentiality, Psalms 39 and 62 describe every human as hevel.

And Psalm 144:4, again describing the insignificance of humans, compares a human to hevel, with the word probably in parallel with “passing shadow.”

Proverbs 13:11 is potentially helpful, because we see hevel used as the opposite of “by hand,” presumably, “by one’s own work”: “A fortune from hevel will dwindle, but by hand it grows.”

Proverbs 31:30 is perhaps the most helpful verse. There, again, we find parallel structure. This time, “charm is a lie, and beauty is hevel.” In Jeremiah 16:19, too, hevel is like a lie.

Isaiah (30:7 and 49:4) compares hevel to “emptiness.”

In Isaiah 57:13, hevel is like the wind.

Jeremiah 2:5, repeating a theme from Kings, uses hevel as something that his ancestors should not have pursued.

And Jeremiah 8:19 uses hevel as something that angers God, this time adding details: “they angered Me with their idols, with their foreign hevel.” Similarly, in Jeremiah 10:3, the “laws of other nations” are hevel.

There are a few other appearances of hevel that I don’t think add much. And we specifically avoid the details of Ecclesiastes, noting only that the point there is often “even that is hevel.”

Hevel in Ecclesiastes, Again

So where does this leave us?

We know that hevel is negative. And we know that it is like a lie, like false gods, like a passing shadow, like the wind, and like lack of knowledge.

We also know from the context of Ecclesiastes that hevel represents potentially valuable pursuits that turn out not to be worthwhile after all. The excellent Jewish Study Bible (p. 1606) explains that hevel in Ecclesiastes “concerns actions and work that do not last, or appear to lead to no lasting goal, or cannot be explained in any rational, i.e., human, way.”

So it seems that hevel (like the wind and like a shadow) is something vacuous, and (like false gods and like beauty) perhaps specifically something that is potentially alluring.

I don’t think “vanity” (as it’s used today) captures these qualities.

I think “futility” (NJB and JPS) also misses the mark, because “futility” is not potentially attractive. Similarly, “meaningless” in the NIV also seems wrong — though the NIV is correct in not limiting its search to nouns (as I discuss here).

But what’s left?

“Falsely alluring” seems approximately right, but also approximately wrong.

Any other suggestions?

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October 28, 2010 - Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , ,

26 Comments »

  1. “Bullshit” comes to mind as a possible translation.

    Comment by Bernard | October 28, 2010 | Reply

  2. Robert Alter has “breath” in his recent translation of the Wisdom Books, as reviewed, and discussed, here:
    http://www.tabletmag.com/arts-and-culture/books/47833/counter-revelations/

    Comment by Elli | October 28, 2010 | Reply

    • I know. In this case I’m not sure Dr. Alter’s translation is successful. I don’t see “breath” as something that would be misleading in any way.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 28, 2010 | Reply

  3. The use of “shit” in capturing the significance of Ecclesiastes is something I suggested here: http://kolhaadam.wordpress.com/2009/09/22/ecclesiastes-introduction/

    I have discussed my take on the meaning of hevel here: http://kolhaadam.wordpress.com/2009/09/26/%D7%94%D7%91%D7%9C-as-metaphor/

    I think Seow’s “imprehensible” is the most precise, albeit obscure, way of capturing Qohelet’s hevel.

    Comment by Joseph | October 28, 2010 | Reply

  4. Wow, what a great post. Kudos. (And a great question, thanks also).

    I wonder if the word “disappointer” (if it is a word?!) helps any? “No-show”? “Bad investment”?

    By the way, I am happy to see you use the actual name “Kohelet” rather than the odd “Ecclesiastes.” When are we going to get rid of “Mary” and speak of “Miriam”?

    As to “shit” (or “shite” for the Brits, “mierda” for the latinos)… I think that’s pretty good too. (I might think that “bullshit” would convey more of the deceptive nature, though). Sales might dwindle, though…

    Paul uses a similar “phraseology” when he says he counts his Judaism et al as “(DZ)HMIA”:

    Php 3:8 Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but **dung**, that I may win Christ,

    This raises a question…. Did the ancient Jews have words that they considered to be unspeakable? Because the words were “bad words?”

    Well, I think that the word “curse” was one. The reason I say that is we have an example of euphemism, which you wouldn’t have if you didn’t have an objectionable word…

    Job 2:9 Then said his wife unto him, Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die.

    What the *text* says is “bless God and die” but the translation, recognizing the euphemism, has “curse.”

    So the Jews had reluctance to speak “unclean speech.” He would definitely, then, have said “crap” instead of “bullshit.”

    Getting back to the OP…

    When he said x,x all is x… he was spittin’ mad, and that should be reflected. He had tried every gadget and gizmo and none of them enhanced his life…

    Comment by WoundedEgo | October 28, 2010 | Reply

    • Re:
      “By the way, I am happy to see you use the actual name ‘Kohelet’ rather than the odd ‘Ecclesiastes.’ When are we going to get rid of ‘Mary’ and speak of ‘Miriam’?”

      When we do _that_, we’ll also have to get rid of “Abel” and speak of [brace yourself] “Hevel” — yes, the name of the first murder-victim is the same as the word we are discussing here!

      And what will _that_ do to the people who demand that the same word be translated in the same way every time?

      Comment by Kate Gladstone | February 5, 2011 | Reply

  5. The Afrikaans translations says: “Everything comes to nothing” / “All for nothing”

    Comment by Chavoux | November 1, 2010 | Reply

  6. What about “vapid”? Doesn’t that kind of capture the idea of something which seems valuable/good, but actually has nothing to it?

    Although, I really like that Afrikaans translation!

    Comment by Jason Rosenberg | November 2, 2010 | Reply

  7. Thank you so much. I’m afraid I’ve been busily away so my gratitude is tardy.

    Would ‘nonsense’ be close? “‘Utter nonsense,’ says the preacher. ‘It’s all nonsense.'”

    There does seem to be a case for taking a generically pejorative term, as with the schatalogical suggestions.

    Or “The world is a fool’s errand”?

    I also can’t help but think (unhelpfully) of Macbeth: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

    Thank you again.

    Comment by Mark Forsyth | November 7, 2010 | Reply

    • “Fool’s errand” is an interesting suggestion, and I think it expresses an important aspect of hevel.

      Comment by Joel H. | November 8, 2010 | Reply

  8. What about pride, or arrogance? Both are detestable to God. Pride is the sin that Lucifer committed “I shall be like God”. A “self confident” (technically prideful) person can look good, but can be a pain to live with. Nobody likes a diva (someone who is prideful and arrogant of their talent or beauty). Isn’t forming a false god by your won hands a very prideful thing? I mean you would take pride in your workmanship and show it off…”Look at the god I made.”

    “We know that hevel is negative. And we know that it is like a lie, like false gods, like a passing shadow, like the wind, and like lack of knowledge.” “…hevel represents potentially valuable pursuits that turn out not to be worthwhile after all.”
    Like a lie: The most prideful/arrogant people I know shouldn’t be, if you know what I mean. It’s a lie, something they’ve built themselves up to be, whether from men’s praise or self induced.
    Like false gods: Again, it’s prideful to worship something you created. Also, Lucifer’s pride, thinking he could be like God.
    Like a passing shadow: Beauty never lasts and your only the best until someone is better. Pride never lasts, before you know it, your just like everyone else.
    Like the wind: Fleeting…here today, gone tomorrow.
    Like lack of knowledge: Stupidity is rampant in pride. Pride and arrogance make some people feel invincible and they act foolishly.
    Potentially valuable pursuits that turn out not to be worthwhile after all: How many of us have tried some “money making scheme” because a representative played up to our pride saying something that made us think that our ability to sell cleaning products, or vitamins, or makeup would make us rich and everyone would flock to our doors begging us for more (with little to no “work” involved, of course) The Lord wants us to do His plan for our lives, not mans prideful “get rich quick” schemes. (I’m not saying being rich is bad, “Pro 10:22 The blessing of Jehovah, it makes rich, and he adds no pain with it.”, I am only talking about the pride in scheming in our own power to get it)
    Yes, I think pride would work well for hevel.

    Comment by LauraB | December 14, 2010 | Reply

  9. The excellent word “meretricious” comes to mind, though not in common American use. An old British boss of mine used to talk about “meretricious opportunities” and I think that phrase captures the sense of “hevel” here nicely. I am reminded of Psalm 116 “kol ha’adam kosev” which I make, based partly on conversations with Hebrew scholars, as “Every material thing disappoints.”

    Comment by Steve Kowarsky | December 26, 2010 | Reply

  10. vapid is OK, but meretricious is really good

    Comment by AnnH | December 27, 2010 | Reply

  11. How about “hype,” as in “It’s all hype.” Or, “glitz.”

    Comment by Steve Kowarsky | December 28, 2010 | Reply

  12. “Smoke” is not bad. It’s a metaphor that we use in English – “He’s just blowing smoke.” So we might render the opening: “Pure smoke. It’s all just smoke.”

    Comment by Steve Kowarsky | December 28, 2010 | Reply

  13. I keep coming back to this. I woke up thinking about the Hindu idea of the perceived world as “maya” – illusion. I think Ecclesiastes is somewhat akin to that perspective. What about the words “illusion” and “mirage.” Sometimes you can use two different words in the target language for the same word in the source language, right? So we could begin the book: “The ultimate illusion! It’s all a mirage!”

    Comment by Steve Kowarsky | January 6, 2011 | Reply

    • “Mirage” is an interesting suggestion.

      And you are right that sometimes it takes more than one English word to capture one Hebrew one. In this case (if “mirage” and “illusion” are right), the trade-off would be between:

      a. Repeating a single word that forms the basis of the book, and preserving the powerful rhetorical structure of the text; or

      b. Capturing the meaning of the word that forms the basis of the book, and destroying the rhetorical structure.

      It’s not an easy choice.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 6, 2011 | Reply

  14. How about:
    “Fake, fake — it’s all fake!”
    ?

    Comment by Kate Gladstone | February 5, 2011 | Reply

  15. This word hebel is used in many places to refer to a wisp, a vapor, a puff of air that disappears, a mere breath (e.g. Proverbs 21:6). Indeed, pagan idols are sometimes designated as hebel because they are so insubstantial and light (e.g., Jeremiah 10:15). But whatever the denotative significance of the use of the vapor metaphor might be in any given passage, the word hebel connotes a “mist” or “vapor.” That raw image ought to be retained in our translations.

    “Vapor of vapors,” then, refers to the supreme vapor, the ultimate wisp. The world and life is a wisp. It is the dust particle drifting in the sunbeam. It escapes your efforts when you attempt to attain it. You can’t quite catch it. You can’t successfully hold onto it. It eludes your grasp. It is like that little speck of dust that floats in the sunlight. When you try to snatch and hold it, it always slips out of your hand.

    But hebel is not primarily a negative evaluation of the ultimate rationality or meaningfulness of the cosmos, either in itself, or in a life lived in alienation from God. Everything is not meaningless. Rather, Solomon argues that everything eludes our grasp and defies our attempts at comprehension and control. Everything is smoke, mist, vapor. We cannot “shepherd the wind” (another phrase used by Solomon in Ecclesiastes).

    Ecclesiates is the OT book of faith par excellence. You must trust God to shepherd the wind and vapor. You can’t.

    I’ve made the argument in my commentary A Table in the Mist:

    http://www.amazon.com/Ecclesiastes-Through-New-Eyes-Table/dp/0975391445

    Check it out.

    Comment by Jeff Meyers | February 20, 2012 | Reply

  16. a vapor; brief; fleeting

    Comment by Danny Roberts | May 22, 2012 | Reply

  17. This is a really good article!! As I was reading, “numbered” came to mind as in “his days are numbered.” But then I thought of mortality and the brevity of human life. Reading your contextual analysis was really something…

    You mentioned towards the end that hevel is probably something “potentially alluring,” but I don’t really agree with that. I think what the passage was getting at was that beauty ultimately boils down to hevel. The way beauty is used against hevel in that passage makes beauty “falsely alluring,” not the other way around. So futility is a pretty good fit in my opinion. It might not work well in all cases, but it is a good base to draw synonyms from.

    On the suggestion for “smoke”:
    “Blowing smoke” is used in the sense of boasting or flattery but “smoke,” as in “smoke and mirrors,” implies deception and facade, which fits perfectly with meretricious as Steve Kowarsky suggested. It works in the example from Proverbs 31:30, however, it doesn’t quite fit the context in Ecclesiastes of the pointlessness in chasing after the wind.

    I don’t think pride works at all….I mean, pride is mainly a good thing which only becomes bad when you have too much of it (as all good things). Also, the explicit meaning of pride doesn’t really mesh. It’s only when the implicit meaning is highlighted that some sort of connection comes out.

    What Kate Gladstone said is really interesting:
    “When we do _that_, we’ll also have to get rid of “Abel” and speak of [brace yourself] “Hevel” — yes, the name of the first murder-victim is the same as the word we are discussing here!”

    What’s interesting about it is that Cain is given an explanation for his name when he is born, but Abel is not:

    Genesis 4:1-2, Hebrew Names Version
    1 The man knew Havah his wife. She conceived, and gave birth to Kayin, and said, ‘I have gotten a man with the LORD’s help.’
    2 Again she gave birth, to Kayin’s brother Hevel.”

    Seth is also given an explanation for his name in Genesis 4:25,
    “Adam knew his wife again. She gave birth to a son, and named him Shet. For, she said, ‘God has appointed me another child instead of Hevel, for Kayin killed him.'” (HNV)

    I think the reason why Abel doesn’t get an explanation is because the meaning of his name is explained in the ensuing story. He dies a premature, meaningless death at the hands of his brother, Cain. It’s like he was named posthumously or something, or perhaps the original meaning of his name is overshadowed by his untimely end. it could be that the word’s meaning is derived from this event. With that in mind, hevel would then have a ternary meaning of fleetingness, futility, and fraudulence.

    Comment by George M | August 24, 2012 | Reply

  18. How about illusory?

    Comment by Morina Rennie | June 28, 2015 | Reply

  19. And isn’t HEVEL also (in Hebrew) the nsme of Adam’s second son?

    Comment by kategladstone | August 29, 2016 | Reply

  20. I see someone else already noticed.

    Comment by kategladstone | August 29, 2016 | Reply

  21. So the concept of vapor and smoke(and mirrors) led me to figment'(of the imagination) which led me to the synonym ‘delusion’ and its root ‘delude’ which Mirriam-Webster defines as ‘to mislead the mind or judgment of’. So man deludes himself that he or any of his works are real or lasting. ‘Delusion of Delusions’ works for me. The use of ‘Vanity’ points a finger at the individual who is stuck in this universal dilemma. It also exposes the endless ‘divine inspired’ misinterpretations of KJV that are either just bad or are subversively intended to subjugate an individual’s ‘free will’ to the interpretation of the ‘authorities’ rather the seek the truth and meaning as in the New Testament calls to “Work out your own salvation”.

    Comment by Collins | December 15, 2016 | Reply


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