Vanity of vanities?
Why so many? The term הבל (hebel/habel) literally means “vapor” or “breath.” All other words to translate the word are based on readers’ understandings of it as a metaphor.
Intriguingly, this word is ordinarily employed as a metaphor as it can describe characteristics or qualities of something disappearing quickly or entities that do not have long-lasting/real forms.
For example, sinful behaviors and idols are represented as הבל (hebel): (1) idol: Deut 32:21; 1 Kgs 16:13 , 26; Jer 8:19; 10:8; (2) false/false idol: 2 Kgs 17:15; (3) worthless thing/worthless: Jer 2:5; 10:15.
A Grammatical Issue
This featured phrase “vanity of vanities” (הבל הבלים habel habalim) that Qohelet repeatedly cries out is considered to be a Hebrew expression of the superlative, which is structured as “~ of ~.” But its exact wording is not typical.
Normally, the superlative form is <singular noun + definite article + plural noun>. For example, <king + the kings> is translated as “king of kings,” meaning the highest king. (Note: Hebrew simply juxtaposes two nouns without a possessive preposition to form a possessive phrase.)
By the same token, if the phrase “vanity of vanities” is the superlative, we would expect <vanity + the + vanities>, but the article is missing here. That is, this expression might not be superlative.
But such a variation is attested in other cases. For instance, “lowest slaves” in Gen 9:25 has <slave + slaves> (עבד עבדים ebed ebadim) without a definite article before the plural noun. It is not a typical instance of the superlative, but it still expresses the superlative.
You have to be cautious, however. Some expressions which look like a variation of the superlative is, in fact, not the superlative. Guess what would <god + gods> mean in Jonah 3:8?
Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.
The verse above, in which the king of Nineveh proclaims repentance to the people to avoid God’s judgment, has <god + gods>, and NRSV translates it simply as “God.” If this is the superlative, then it should be the highest god/God. But the exact words used here is <אל־אלהים> (El + Elohim).
The problem with this combination is that the plural form (Elohim) is not from the singular noun (El). Elohim’s singular form, which rarely occurs in the Hebrew Bible, is אלוה (eloha). El’s plural form is אלים (elim, “Elim” in Ex 15:27 is not the same word). So when El and Elohim are combined, it is probably a compound noun rather than the superlative, indicating god or gods.
See some other examples: “El-Elohe-Israel” (Gen 33:20) may mean Israel’s god; Gen 46:3 “El-Elohe-Abika” (Gen 46:3) may mean your father’s god; “El-Elohe-haruhot” (Num 16:22) may mean “god of breath/spirit;” “El-Elohim aherim” may mean “other gods,” etc.
Anyway, it seems that the form <sg + pl> without a definite article is a variation of superlative, but there might be a chance that it is not. So I suggest that the interpreter of “vanity of vanities” in Ecclesiastes be cautious as it may not be the superlative, though the context indicates it is.
A semantic Issue
The semantic issue of the phrase “vanity of vanities” is much more serious than its grammatical issue. For example, JPS (Jewish Publication Society) translates the phrase as “utter futility” taking it as the superlative. Note here; JPS takes the term hebel/habel (הבל) as “futility” instead of “vanity.” There are more; many alternatives have been proposed:
futility, empty, sorry thing, senseless thing, transient thing, transitoriness, uselessness, futility, the deficiency of existence in its totality, vanity, the expression of a nihilistic judgment on life and its values, ephemerality, worthlessness, folly, unsubstantiality, cosmic iniquity, absence of an ethical principle, mystery or incomprehensibility, enigma, irony, the contingent rationality of the created reality
Schoors, The Preacher Sought to Find Pleasing Words, (Dudley: Peeters Publishers, 2004), 2:120.
In some rare cases, the word has a literal force. See below
Ps 62:9 Those of low estate are but a breath,
those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
they are together lighter than a breath.
Is 57:13 When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you!
The wind will carry them off,
a breath will take them away.
But whoever takes refuge in me shall possess the land
and inherit my holy mountain.
In the verses above, הבל means “breath.” In addition, one of the most famous cases appears in Gen 4, in which a good person absurdly loses his life to his own brother, who perhaps deserves the death. That good person’s name is הבל (hebel), also known as Abel. Abel, like a vapor disappeared, so is his name הבל (hebel).
The meaning of הבל (hebel) in Ecclesiastes might not be fixed with just one English word such as vanity, futility, etc, since such words retrain its literal sense within too specific meanings. Some scholars even think that the word’s meanings change as its contexts change within Ecclesiastes.
Nevertheless, I think Michael Fox’s understanding of the word as “absurdity” well covers a wide range of its meanings (see Fox, A Time to Tear Down, 30-31) as Qohelet’s complex and agonized emotions mostly stem from the discrepancies between his religious beliefs (in which act and consequence should be properly related), and his observation of the world (in which act and consequence are not related); that is, everything happens by chance. So he feels the absurdity.