Alter never fails to entertain. In the opening 14-line poem of Ecclesiastes 3 (yes, the one made famous in the 60’s by the Byrds), Alter points out that each couplet appears to contain a semantic pairing: “life and death for humans, planting and uprooting in the vegetable kingdom, killing and healing, wrecking and building, weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing,” but that the couplet that is followed by “embracing and refraining from embracing” does not appear to have anything to do with embraces: “a time to throw stones and a time to gather them.” The rabbis, ever ready to see sexual connotations, suggest that because of the embracing in the second line, the first line about stones ought to be taken as a veiled metaphor for ejaculation of semen and refraining from the same. I apologize if this interpretation has tainted one of Scripture’s most pleasing poems.
I have no profound comment to offer, but I love this line (3:11-12), “Eternity (’olam) God has put in their heart, without man grasping at all what it is God is doing from beginning to end.” C.S. Lewis made much of this in Mere Christianity — I mean the innate longing for eternity — but I don’t recall just now whether he quoted Qohelet or not.
It is difficult to read Qohelet’s dreary reflections on how man and beast are both only dust, and “who knows whether the soul of man goes upward and that of a beast downward”. The rest of Scripture gives us reasons to know that.