Ecclesiastes 2:25

This is part of my expanding Bible Manipulations series.

Inspiring SourceThe End of Biblical Studies (pg 49-50) by Hector Avalos

The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes barely made it into either the canon of the Jews or Christians.  Its theology runs counter to most of the rest of the bible concerning justice, life and God’s role in the world.  The book meditates on the meaningless of life.  Thus translators have made attempts to tone down the author of Ecclesiastes.  Below is an example:

In Ecclesiastes 2:25 the writer alludes to the fact that God is irrelevant in the happiness of human beings and that one should pursue happiness for the sake of oneself, not for some god.  Here are passages that faithfully translate the passage:

“I” translations

For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I?


For who can eat, or who can have enjoyment, more than I?

Darby Bible Translation

For who can eat, or who be eager, more than I?

English Revised Version

For who can eat, or who can have enjoyment, more than I

Young’s Literal Translation
For who eateth and who hasteth out more than I?
Geneva Study Bible
For who can eat, or who else can hasten to it, more than I?

But below are translations where the translators try to clean up the writer’s ideas to homogenize the theology with other Bible canonized authors.  The word “God” does not appear in the Hebrew, nor its pronoun equivalent of “Him”:

“God” or “Him” translations
God’s Word Translation

Who can eat or enjoy themselves without God?

Revised English Bible

For without God who can eat with  enjoyment.

New Living Translation
For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him?

For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?


for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?


or apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

New American Bible

For who can eat or drink apart from him?

New Jerusalem Bible

for who would get anything to eat or drink, unless all this came from him?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

24 responses to “Ecclesiastes 2:25

  1. Last semester in my Bible: Origin and Content class our professor, Rabbi Rami, brought up an intriguing translation of the Hebrew phrase ‘hevel havalim‘ as breath or vapor instead of meaninglessness or vanity. I wrote a series of post on the wisdom of Ecclesiastes a few months back: The Dance of Ecclesiastes

    Other than the small addition at the end of the book (probably added to remind the reader that “real” wisdom is found in following God’s commandments) the book only mentions God in passing. The translation of hevel havalim to something as impermanent as breath not only speaks of the sacredness of life itself (also acting as a subtle reference to the breath of life in the Genesis story) but is far less depressing than everything being meaningless. The great wisdom which I’ve taken from Ecclesiastes is to eat, drink, have a good job, and a few good friends. Yes the universe and life is chaotic so why bother fretting over the impermanence of it all.

  2. Ian

    How about the Message version with the truly bizarre “Whether we fast or feast, its up to God.” !?!

    In context with the previous verse, I think the meaning is likely to have a God dimension though. Seems what he’s saying is something akin to:

    “You can do no better than seek pleasure, for that is also from God. Look at me (being known as a prophet or person of God), I eat with gusto!”

    Making the point that God is involved in the eating.

    enjoying-life -> having-god.

    Of course that isn’t how your bottom group translate it. They invert the whole thing to

    not having-god -> not enjoying-life

    which is valid in formal logic, but looses the writer’s sense that the God thing happens anyway, making it more homogenous an implication that you have to get the God thing sorted first.

  3. @ Eruesso
    Thanks for mentioning Eccl 1:2. where the famous phrase הבל הבלים (hevel havalim) appears.

    The Jewish Study Bible translates הבל הבלים (hevel havalim) as: “Utter futility”. The notes state that the word “hevel” is literally “air, breath” and has a sense of “fleeting”.

    Christian Bibles translate Ecc 1:2 in several ways:
    Jewish Study Bible: “Utter futility”
    KJV, ASV, ESV: “vanities of vanities”
    NLT: “Everything is meaningless”
    NIV: “Meaningless, Meaningless”

    But these all seem similar in import. So how would Rabbi Rami translate the phrase? “Vapor of Vapors”? Are their translations which honor his view? Would this really imply anything different?

    I love your concluding two sentences !!

    I found Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s website, but can you tell us where you are taking classes with him? It seems he is coming out with a book on Ecclesiastes in Sept. 2010.

  4. @ Ian
    If what you are saying is true, I see two implications:

    1) Avalos is wrong and the writer of Eccl. is not saying we should ignore gods when seeking happiness. But on this point, I realize I would need to study much more. Do you feel Eccl. contradicts other theologies in the OT and/or NT?

    2) The second set of translations are, as you say, probably still misleading, if not actually incorrect.

    So, could you restate why you think the translators of the second set choose to manipulate the text the way they did? Thanx for your time, mate!

  5. Rabbi Rami Shapiro teaches several Religious Studies courses at MTSU (Murfreesboro, TN) where I’ve recently graduated. The difference with Rabbi Rami’s interpretation of Ecclesiastes is in the impermanence and chaos found within the universe. What is futile is the struggle to conquer impermanence by acquiring wealth, fame, even wisdom ( wisdom is more of a means to an end, instead of the end itself) which is akin to holding your breath. If you breathe in sync with your surroundings and just be, happiness will come naturally. It’s an interesting twist and a far more enlightening interpretation to a text which is usually interpreted as everything being meaningless. But I’m sure the Rabbi will do a far better job at explaining this interpretation than one of his former students (he was actually wrapping up his book prior to finals). He travels a lot speaking at different functions so I highly recommend hearing him speak if you ever get the chance.

  6. Temaskian

    I agree with Ian that read in context, v25 seems to be just an elaboration of v24. v26 seems to confirm.

    Unless all the parts about God were later additions! :-p

    One reason I loved examining the bible for myself was that I got such different meanings when I study it carefully than from mainstream teachings, or at least, from those teachings that I usually got from Sunday School.

    Politically-correct interpretations, loyal to the religion, abound. Correct interpretations are rare.

  7. @ Temaskian
    I really have not read up on Eccles. except for a casual reading once. But my question for you will be the same as for Ian. Why would the interpreters in the “God” group add their interpretation and change the text. What was their intent. What were they trying to avoid (as far as nuance) or correct?

    Studying is fun when you have folks like Ian, Avalos and Ehrman to jump in and help. It is great to be free to interpret without being bound by ideology. I would be surprised if this book is in-line with dominant theologies of God in the OT. But I have much to learn and am willing to be surprised.

    I too have wondered in any of the “God” stuff was added later. So much to learn! 🙂

  8. Temaskian

    Are you saying Bart Ehrman drops in on your blog as well? 😯

    You’re right; there must have been an intent on the part of some of the translators to give every verse a twist God-wards. That was indeed a valid point. Overzealousness has deprived their readers of the beauty and nuances of the passage.

  9. No! Unfortunately, Bart has not graced these pages yet. But he is here in spirit through his books on my shelf! 😆

  10. I looked up a few Christian commentaries. John Wesley and The Treasury of Scripture both use the “I” translation saying that Solomon is stating that certainly he know the high limit of man to embrace the senses. Or at least that is my reading.

  11. Dr. Hector Avalos

    I do not think Ian’s translation of Ecclesiastes 2:25 is based on any sound linguistic evidence, and he provides none. Consider the following items:

    A. The Hebrew word CHUTZ, which precedes MIMENI, usually denotes “outside” and not any sort of elative meaning that Ian’s translation suggests. Thus, it denotes exclusivity (e.g., “apart from X”; “outside of X” etc.).

    Can Ian shows us another example where any phrase with the word CHUTZ means “with gusto” or anything of the sort?

    B. I explained that some ancient Jewish readers felt Ecclesiastes was contradictory. I cited Shabbat 30b (Soncino edition): “The rabbis desired to hide the book of Ecclesiastes because its words are self-contradictory.” Thus, this shows that some ancient Jewish readers saw a problem with some of the statements found in Ecclesiastes.

  12. Thank you Dr. Avalos

    I read the Adam Clarke Commentary on this passage which states the following,

    But instead of chuts mimmenni, more than I; chuts mimmennu, without HIM, is the reading of eight of Kennicott’s and De Rossi’s MSS., as also of the Septuagint, Syriac, and Arabic.

    I wish I knew Hebrew but he seems to imply that some old documents contain “HIM” and some contain “I”. Thus translators are using different “source texts”. It really makes me wonder how edited the text was back even in the BC days.

  13. Dr. Hector Avalos

    Mr. Lantz,
    As I argue in EOBS, we know that editing was an ongoing process probably from the earliest biblical texts we have, and it has not stopped today.

    My point is that Ian did not provide any linguistic grounds for his translation on the basis of the Masoretic Text reading (MIMMENNI) he seemed to be accepting.

    If Ian wishes to argue that other Hebrew texts have a better reading, then that would be more of a text critical argument than a translation argument.

    The argument for MIMMENNI as the best reading could be made on the rule of “lectio dificilior potior,” which means that the more difficult reading should be preferred. The premise is that scribes try to change the more offensive reading to a less offensive reading.

    Support for this practice comes from the Talmud
    (Megillah 25b):” Our Rabbis taught: Wherever an indelicate expression is written in a text, we substitute a more polite one in reading.” But some scribes may have changed the text instead of just “reading” it differently.

    In this case, there is plenty of reason to change “apart from me” to “apart from Him[God]” in Eccl. 2:25 but less of a reason to change it in the reverse.

    But, again, one of the points of EOBS is to show how arbitrary making text critical decisions can be.

  14. societyvs

    I’d say regardless of that one instance Avalo’s points out – Ecclesiastes is a bunch of questions about one enjoying their life ‘here and now’. Including food, drink, and attitude.

    Isn’t there a passage within Ecclesiastes which sums this up:

    “Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: to eat, to drink and enjoy oneself in all one’s labor in which he toils under the sun during the few years of his life which God has given him; for this is his reward” (Ecclsiastes 5:18)

    This seems to be a theme in Ecclesiastes – the enjoyment of the ‘now’. I have no problem saying this is a very humanistic book – if one’s see’s humanism as enjoying what you earn right now (whether food, drink, or even property).

    I would say it runs severely counter to many Christian viewpoints on this subject – concerning riches of this ‘world’.

    I tend to see both as viable paths – but also about balance. Just because Ecclesiastes says to enjoy all we earn ‘here and now’ this does not mean spirituality is also not an enjoyment?

  15. Ian

    Thanks for the tip Sabio, I had accidentally not subscribed to this post.

    Having said all that. Hector, you’re dead right. My response was not based on sound linguistic analysis but was exegetical, based on the surrounding verses.

    You try to push a claim of the interpretation of the world Chutz. I don’t think I made any claim in my interpretation of vv 24, 25 that disagreed with you, did I? I’m puzzled how you think my reading turns on the writers metaphoric use of that word.

    Even having said (and acknowledging that I am not a Hebraicist) in the NT (where I have done some mathematical linguistics) the kinds of argument you put forward can be spurious because often we have only one attestation to a particular context of a particular term. That is *especially* acute for words, like Chutz in Ecc 2:25 that have very few metaphoric uses. Metaphors are inherently elastic. That mans you have to read a broader context to get the sense, usually. Or be content with a higher degree of uncertainty in your translation. Hitting BDB gives you the *results* of such a process, not source material to engage in that process.

    But admitting your analysis (which seems fine and dandy to me), could you put into context the surrounding passage then? There may be no sense specifically of a Godly context in 2:25, but surely you can’t read 2:24, with its idiomatic YAD HAELOHIM as signifiying anything other than the writers intent to signify divine endorsement of the living of life to the full through eating and drinking. And 2:26, which seems to me to clearly want to set up a distinction between the life lead by good and sinful men.

    To answer to Sabio’s questions

    1. I don’t think Hector is wrong, no. I think he’s right to say that the prevailing translation seems to have added a gratuitous connotation of protestant theology. I do think it is tough on the bases of that one verse (given its context and the whole flow of the book) to go further and argue that this verse indicates a philosophy of godless hedonism. That, to me, seems like a far more wishful thinking. I haven’t read the book you’re describing to us, however, so I may have got the wrong end of the stick on Hector’s argument.

    2. I have *no* sense of continuity or consistency of theology in the OT or the whole bible. I think it is a massively diverse book. It wouldn’t occur to me to even think about whether this passage contradicts or otherwise any other bit of text, because it seems self-evident for me that consistency of theology is utterly unachievable.

    3. As for what they were trying to correct or add. The same as always. If you read the text with a certain theology, you don’t have to deliberately distort to come up with interpretations that are consistent with your worldview.

  16. Ian

    (On another reread, Hector also seems to be suggesting I am favoring a different reading to him of the last word in 2:25 – but actually as I understand Hector’s position from your post Sabio, we agree. I too translated this ‘apart from me’ in the metaphoric sense of ‘except me’).

  17. Ian

    (yet more rereads, and I suspect now I’ve *completely* missed the point of what Hector is arguing. So I’ve ordered EOBS. It will take me a few days to get it and read it, but I should be able to follow along now… sorry if I have got hopeless muddled in secondary inferences…)

  18. societyvs

    “yet more rereads, and I suspect now I’ve *completely* missed the point of what Hector is arguing. So I’ve ordered EOBS. It will take me a few days to get it and read it, but I should be able to follow along now” (Ian)

    And this is how books are sold on-line…word of mouth and intrigue.

  19. Dr. Hector Avalos

    Ian, thanks for your response. Yes, I think that if you read EOBS, you may see that we agree on more than these posts might indicate, at least on this issue. I also discuss New Testament textual criticism at length.

  20. Pingback: Reading the Resources — Ecclesiastes 2:25 | Irreducible Complexity

  21. Ian

    Just as a FYI for those reading along, I’ve posted a bit today on how we know what versions say what, and where different usages are found.

  22. rey

    Wow. I generally read the KJV so I had no idea that other translation inject God into that verse. Very interesting.

    Sometimes I wonder about Eccl 12:13 that makes the “conclusion of the whole matter” to “Fear God, and keep his commandments” and whether it might be an interpolation since the whole book is about life being pointless and all. I mean is it believable that the same writer who says in chapter 9 that when you die you essentially cease to exist so just enjoy life and live joyfully with the woman you love and “Go, eat your bread with joy, And drink your wine with a merry heart; For God has already accepted your works”–this guy becomes all religious at the end of the book?

    Even the KJV is obviously fixing up the text in 9:9 by making it about loving your “wife”, since obviously he actually means “live joyfully with the woman you love” implying even if she isn’t your wife I think, perhaps even implying that you should commit adultery. That fits the tone of chapter 9 with the whole just enjoy yourself because life is pointless argument. Assuming that he is actually saying that there is no point to life and therefore you might as well shack it up with some hot chick you aren’t married to, then how can he make obedience to God’s commands the point of life at the end of the book?

  23. Pingback: » Fixing the Bible–or not? TaborBlog

  24. Nahum Khokhar

    Nope. This statement is completely wrong: “the writer alludes to the fact that God is irrelevant in the happiness of human beings and that one should pursue happiness for the sake of oneself, not for some god”

    Solomon, the writer, just in the previous verse Ecclesiastes 2:24 ‘alludes’ (as you cleverly articulated it) that none of the pleasures, success or knowledge is meaningful _without_ God. So he doesn’t say God is irrelevant. He says everything else is irrelevant without God. This is also discussed thoroughout the second half of the chapter when he says that all that we gain here would be left here.
    He concludes it all in chapter 12, by saying that there is nothing without the fear of the Lord.

    Please ‘acquire’ accurate knowledge, and don’t ‘allude’ if you have myopic Vision towards the Truth.

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