The Most Existential Book in the Bible: Part 1, Life is Hebel

Last semester, in my PSYC 348 Psychology and Christianity class, we were in our unit on existential psychology. To get into that material, I had to get the class up to speed, sharing an introduction to existential philosophy and how that philosophy affected psychological theories and practice. 

We spend most of our time in this introduction discussing how existentialism places the issue of meaning at the heart of the human experience, how meaning is tenuous and fragile in the face of death. 

Some of the students find this a difficult discussion, feeling that it is depressing and dark. To help them, I point to the book of Ecclesiastes. "This stuff isn't new, or invented by brooding Europeans," I share with the class, "The Bible was existential way before existential philosophy existed." 

Ecclesiastes is the most existential book in the Bible, and a key to interpreting the book is how you translate the Hebrew word hebel, which occurs 38 times in the book. Hebel is the grand theme of Ecclesiastes, but it is notoriously hard to translate.

In the major English translations there have been two schools of thought in how best to translate hebel.

The first is the King James-inspired school which translates hebel as "vanity." Hence the famous rendering in the KJV of the opening lines of the Preacher (1:2):
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. 
Following the KJV in translating hebel as "vanity" are the ASV, ESV, NKJV, RSV, and the NRSV.

The other, smaller camp translates hebel as "meaningless." The NIV and NLT go in this direction.

The trouble with these translations is that the literal meaning of hebel is breath, vapor, or mist. The existential refrain of Ecclesiastes is that existence is characterized by a fleeting, transient insubstantiality. Life is mist. Life is hebel

According to the Preacher, human effort is like building sandcastles on the beach. Sandcastles are hebel. Sandcastles are impermanent, they will not last. Consequently, it is "vain" and "meaningless" to existentially invest in sandcastles. 

That is how Ecclesiastes becomes the most existential book in the Bible. Ecclesiastes is a prolonged reflection on the transitory nature of existence, and how this creates a crisis of meaning for human effort, striving, goal-setting, and achievement rendering them vain and meaningless.

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