When I first began blogging, I hinted that I might explore the significance behind the title of my blog (pronounced kol-ha-adam for those less familiar with Hebrew). I figure I am long overdue for an explanation, so here it is. But before I begin, let me correct a simple homophonic mistake. My blog is entitled כל־האדם, (roughly) “all of man” or “every man,” not קל־האדם, the “voice of Adam.” The latter name I admit is much cooler, which is probably why I did not think of it when creating this blog. Kudos to Jim West who pointed this out to me at SBL.
The phrase כל־האדם occurs 12 times in 11 verses of the Hebrew Bible. Some of these function in a narrative context similar to our English word “everyone” (e.g. Exod 9:19; Num 16:32; Jos 11:14; Zech 8:10). Other uses tend to speak more abstractly about humanity. Take for example, the Psalmists assertion כל־האדם כזב “All mankind are liars” (116:11). The verses that employ the phrase in this way are the ones that have captured my attention and led me to deep reflection. What can be said that that can apply to כל־האדם? The psalmist would say “falsehood.” This is an assertion that I doubt the biblical sage Qohelet would have challenged, as he is not shy when it comes to identifying the moral failings of “everyone” (c.f. Eccl 7:20, 29). Interestingly enough Qohelet does make use of this phrase, though it is not in places where his speech is characteristically negative of humanity. Rather, Qohelet uses the phrase constructively:
ידעתי כי אין טוב בם כי אם־לשׁמוח ולעשׂות טוב בחייו׃
וגם כל־האדם שׁיאצל ושׁתה וראה טוב בכל־עמלו מתת אלהים היא׃
I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and do good in their life;
moreover, that everyone should eat, drink, and find good in all their toil–this is a divine gift! (Eccl 3:12-13)
הנה אשׁר־ראיתי אני טוב אשׁר־יפה לאצול־ולשׁתות ולראות טובה בכל־עמלו שׁיעמל תחת־השׁמשׁ מספר ימי־חיו אשׁר־נתן־לו האלהים כצי־הוא חלקו׃
גם כל־האדם אשׁר נתן־לו האלהים עשׁר ונכסים והשׁליטו לאצל ממנו ולשׂאת את־חלקו ולשׂמח בעמלו זה מתת אלהים היא ׃
See! This I have seen is good and beautiful—to eat, drink, and to see good in all one’s toil which he toils under the sun during the days which God gives to him. This is his dividend. Moreover, all to whom God has given wealth and possessions and to whom he grants the opportunity to enjoy them, and to accept their dividend and to enjoy their toil– this is the gift of God. (Eccl 5:18-19 [Heb 17-18])
טוב ללצת אל־הית־אבל מלכת אל־בית משׁתה באשׁר הוא סוף כל־האדם והחי יתן אל־לבו ׃
It is better to go attend the house of mourning than to attend the house of feasting, for this is the end of every man and the living will take this to heart. (Eccl 7:2)
It is significant to Qohelet that death, above all, will ultimately interrupt and foil our attempts to produce an enduring significance (יתרון) from the toil of our lives, and as the latter verse suggests, Qohelet believes this is something that should be grappled with (c.f. Num 16:39; Jer 31:30). Instead of our toil producing enduring significance, we must be satisfied with our portion (חלק)–eating, drinking, actually enjoying our work–all of which he identifies as a divine gift. As those familiar with the ancient Near East might expect, this is not actually unique to Qohelet. Take for example the advice of Šiduri the alewife to Gilgameš:
You, Gilgameš, let your belly be full,
keep enjoying yourself, day and night!
Every day make merry,
dance and play day and night!
Let your clothes be clean!
Let you head be washed, may you be bathed in water!
Gaze on the little one who holds your hand!
Let a wife enjoy your repeated embrace!
Such is the destiny [of mortal men,]
(Gilg. OB BA+BM iii, 6-14)
This advice reflects the kind of advice that Qohelet offers throughout the book of Ecclesiastes (2:24-26; 3:12-13; 3:22; 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7-9; 11:8-10). In particular, I find the final line to reflect the use of כל־האדם in the book of Ecclesiastes. Šiduri’s advice is, at least in her mind, what constitutes the כל־האדם. But too much has been made of the correspondence between the Epic of Gilgameš and the book of Ecclesiastes (I may address this in a future post). This type of advice can be found throughout the ancient Near East. Take for example the Poem of Early Rulers as recorded in a text from Emar:
How is life without joy superior to death?
Man, I will truly . . . let you know your god.
Overthrow and drive out grief! Despise gloom!
As a substitute for a single day’s happiness can one pass 36,000 years in days of silence?
Like a . . . young man, Siraš is your pride and pleasure!
This is the true rule of mankind. (Lambert, 39-40)
Notice again the emphasis in the final line echoing the כל־האדם motif. The advice in this text relates to drinking (Siraš is a beer deity), advice that is not uncommon to Qohelet. In a Sumerian version of the Poem of Early Rulers, the parallel with Qohelet’s reflections about death is most striking:
Though one may seek life like (!) [Zi’usudra, death] is the lot of mankind. (Lambert, 40)
All of this is very interesting and should bear significantly on our understanding of Qohelet as an ancient Near Easter sage. But it is not Qohelet’s use of this after which the title of my blog is named. If anything, it is named after the challenge that the book of Ecclesiastes presents to people of faith in ascertaining what truly constitutes the כל־האדם. The epilogist, in spite of the fact that he finds Qohelet to be “wise” and to have written “uprightly, words of truth” (Eccl 12:9-10), reflects on Qohelet’s instruction and does completely agree with what Qohelet has concluded regarding this matter. He has the final word (סוף דברי), and his conclusion is thus:
את־האלהים ירא ואת־מצותיו שׁמור כי־זה כל־האדם׃
Fear God and keep his commandments. Indeed, this, is the כל־האדם. (Eccl 12:13)
(This translation comes from Peter Enns who first shaped my understanding of this concept; see reference below). What is interesting is that the Hebrew Bible does not actually provide a definitive answer as to what the כל־האדם ultimately is. Many interpreters, like myself, will be inclined to lean heavily toward the epilogist. For some, the epilogist completely trumps Qohelet’s message (i.e. Longman, 1997). But canonically this is not the case. While the epilogist is given pride of place, Qohelet is given greater space. Moreover, the way in which the wisdom of Israel (and certainly other traditions as well) appropriates wisdom (and other material) from the ancient Near East makes me hesitant to reject the idea that Qohelet’s more characteristically ancient Near Eastern wisdom could not be God’s wisdom revealed to nations outside of Israel. Ultimately, the canonical witness is variegated, and I believe it can be healthy for us to allow this tension to continue to exist. Both Qohelet and the epilogist encourage us to reflect on the significance of human existence, and each provides a challenging yet constructive path forward.
If I have learned anything in my studies thus far, it is that challenging questions are often more valuable than simple answers, and that is the legacy of Ecclesiastes. It challenges me to think deeply about one of the most significant questions humanity faces. What is the כל־האדם? And it is here, in part, where I explore the answers to this question.
Enns, Peter. “כל־האדם and the Evaluation of Qohelet’s Wisdom in Qoh 12:13 or The ‘A is so, and What’s More, B’ Theology of Ecclesiastes.” In In The Idea of Biblical Interpretation: Essays in Honor of James L. Kugel, edited by Hindy Najman and Judith H. Newman, 125-37. Boston: Brill, 2004.
Lambert, W. T. “Some New Babylonian Wisdom Literature.” In Wisdom in Ancient Israel: Essays in Honour of J. A. Emerton, edited by John Day, Robert P. Gordon, and H. G. M. Williamson, 30-42. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Longman, Tremper. The Book of Ecclesiastes NICOT, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997