Ecclesiastes Translation Series (10): “your creator” (Eccl 12:1)

Remember your creator in the days of your youth

NRSV Eccl 12:1

According to Gen 1:1, God created the heavens and the earth. Christians and Jews all believe that God is the creator of the universe. So, there seem to be no substantial problems or issues to discuss on the term “your creator” in Eccl 12:1. But if you read the Hebrew text of the verse, there certainly are some issues. 

The Hebrew word for “your creator” is bôrĕʾekhā (בוראיך). It is Qal(simple action), active participle masculine plural form of ברא (bara, to create) with pronominal suffix 2nd person masculine singular, functioning as a noun. Its most literal translation, therefore, is “your creators.” We are monotheists. So the expression “creators” is indeed a problem.

Grammatically speaking, however, this problem is not difficult to solve. Hebrew plural nouns are employed not just for indicating the plurality of the noun. Here are the uses of plural nouns according to Gesenius’s Hebrew Grammar, the classic Hebrew grammar book(see pp 396-97):

(a) a combination of various external constituent parts (plurals of local extension), or (b) a more or less intensive focusing of the characteristics inherent in the idea of the stem (abstract plurals, usually rendered in English by forms in -hood, -ness, -ship). A variety of the plurals described under (b), in which the secondary idea of intensity or of an internal multiplication of the idea of the stem may be clearly seen, is (c) the pluralis excellentiae or pluralis maiestatis

Gesenius Hebrew Grammar, 396-97

So some plural nouns are “plural” in form but “singular” in meaning. In the case of Eccl 12:1, bôrĕʾekhā (בוראיך) can be taken as pluralis excellentiae or pluralis maiestatis, that is, the plural of excellence or majesty. So it can be translated as “your creator” as all English translations have.

But how are we sure about this understanding of bôrĕʾekhā (בוראיך)? It is convenient to explain this issue away by “believing” that bôrĕʾekhā (בוראיך) expresses the creator God’s majesty and excellence. But the contents of Ecclesiastes and its genre context make the issue much more complex.

First of all, in general, one of the characteristics of biblical wisdom literature, to which Ecclesiastes belongs, is internationalism or universalism, as it shares, to name a few, linguistic, thematic, and conceptual aspects of non-Israelite literature of the ancient Near East (See Jame Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom (WJK, 2010), 50-52). So by bôrĕʾekhā (בוראיך) Qohelet perhaps literally meant “creators” or “creator” not just as the God of Israel but also as “god” as he might have thought that his readers or audiences were not monotheists or Jews. 

Secondly, the form bôrĕʾekhā (בוראיך) is also unusual. Qal active participle forms of the word ברא (bara, to create) appear in the entire Hebrew Bible only 13 times. Among them, Isaiah (more specifically 2nd and 3rd Isaiah) has 11 occurrences, all in the form of singular, meaning “the creator” and indicating the God of Israel. Another case is in Amos, also in the singular form like the book of Isaiah. But, only in Ecclesiastes does its plural form appear. So there is a chance that bôrĕʾekhā (בוראיך) in Ecclesiastes needs to be understood as simple plural. 

Thirdly, Qohelet’s “God” is also problematic as he almost always calls “God” ha-elohim (האלהים) instead of elohim (אלהים); that is, Qohelet adds the definite article to the word elohim (אלהים). In the Hebrew Bible, when certain words, such as adam and satan, has the definite article “ha-” it is usually not a proper name but becomes a generic noun. For example, in Gen 1:27, it is “ha-adam” (humankind) that God created, not “adam” (Adam). But in Gen 4:25, it was adam (Adam) not ha-adam (humankind), who had a son known as Seth. In Job 1:2, it is ha-satan, a celestial figure, a member of God’s council, an accuser who accused Job, not satan (Satan), the adversary of God not an accuser in God’s council). But in 1 Chr 21:1, it was satan (Satan, the adversary of God), who incited David to sin, not ha-satan, a member of God’s councilSo ha-elohim might also be a generic term, “god” or “gods” rather than the God of Israel. Though it is not an absolute rule, adding the definite article to elohim in Ecclesiastes suggests the book’s universalism or internationalism.

For these reasons, the identity or exact meaning of the term bôrĕʾekhā (בוראיך) is not as clear as it appears in translations. I would not go no to insist that Qohelet’s ha-elohim (האלהים) and his bôrĕʾekhā (בוראיך) are definitely god/gods/creator/creators as these terms might be understood in the non-biblical world. But I hope my readers understand that close reading of biblical texts sometimes offers serious and important theological questions that all members of religious communities should try to struggle with not to fall into religious fundamentalism in their journies of faith.

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