הבל as Metaphor

Something John Hobbins said in a recent post resonated with something I have been pondering recently.

Metaphors are semantically porous. They breathe in contextual meaning to an extent purely denotative terms do not. That being the case, the definition of κεφαλή as that which plays a leading role is a mere point of departure for an understanding of its meaning-in-context in 1 Cor 11 and Eph 1,4, and 5.

I have turned my thoughts again to the book of Ecclesiastes; it looks like my term paper in my Old Testament World class is going to interact with the literary/conceptual world of which this book is a part (Gilgamesh, The Oblinging Slave, etc.). One of the aspects I find most fascinating regarding Qohelet’s monologue is the way he makes use of the word הבל. We all know what הבל is. We see it every day in our own lives and in the lives of friends, family, and just about anyone we come in contact with. It is that thing that makes us declare (among other things) “That’s not fair!” or “That’s not right!”

What I find most peculiar is that so familiar a concept to us is so difficult to capture in our language; it is “imprehensible” as Seow would say.* Most translations recognize that this word is significant to Qohelet and should be translated consistently. The problem is, no English word stands a chance at doing justice to the word, something commentators frequently lament. The semantic fingerprint of הבל in Ecclesiastes is unparalleled in English. But I doubt that even the הבל denotes precisely all the semantic significance Qohelet would have it. And that is why I so appreciated what John had to say.  Again, “Metaphors are semantically porous. They breathe in contextual meaning to an extent purely denotative terms do not.” Thus, the word’s literal meaning–breath, wind, vapor–serves for Qohelet as a “mere point of departure for an understanding of its meaning-in-context in” Ecclesiastes. In other words, as often as Qohelet uses the word הבל to define particular situations, he can just as often be seen using situations to (re)define הבל.

I have come to hold the opinion that translators should abandon the quest to translate הבל and opt instead to transliterate it, baptizing it into English (much like the word baptism!).** In as much as Qohelet was using context to inform the meaning of this word, I think our translations should honor what Qohelet has done and allow us to learn the meaning of the word as any ancient reader would have—by seeing the word in action. A translation that fully captures the concept of which Qohelet speaks (were this even to be possible) has done more than Qohelet himself did in choosing to use the word הבל.

* “Throughout Ecclesiastes, then, one finds a picture of a world that is in every sense imprehensible—not apprehensible and/or not comprehensible. Nothing that human beings accomplish or possess or try to grapple with is ultimately within mortal grasp.” C. L. Seow, “Beyond Mortal Grasp: The Usage of Hebel in Ecclesiastes,” Australian Biblical Review 48 (2000): 15.

** A footnote should indicate the literal meanings of the word. The plural “meanings” precludes a parallel use of a literal English translation.

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One thought on “הבל as Metaphor

  1. Maybe it means “BS” in the general sense. “Crap of craps, everything is BS.” “Everything man has accomplished is a bunch of BS, like chasing after the wind!” “I thought to myself,
    “Come now, I will try self-indulgent pleasure to see if it is worthwhile.”
    But I found that it also is BS.” “Absolute BS!” laments the Qohelet,
    “All of these things are BS!”

    We have words for a lot of things that nobody ever thinks about using for translation.

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