Qoheleth’s “Dark House” (Eccl 12:5) -- By: Ronald Youngblood

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 29:4 (Dec 1986)
Article: Qoheleth’s “Dark House” (Eccl 12:5)
Author: Ronald Youngblood


Qoheleth’s “Dark House” (Eccl 12:5)*

Ronald Youngblood**

The Semitic root ʾ-l-m has given rise to a range of semantic developments in the various Semitic languages. It is evident that, in general, the derivatives of the root cluster around a number of central ideas which do not appear to be related. This leaves open the possibility that some words for long understood as belonging to one semantic group may in fact belong to another. If the context suits an alternative meaning just as well as, or even better than, the traditional sense, we have grounds for proposing a new understanding of some well known terms.1

The above paragraph serves to remind us that striking the proper balance between etymology on the one hand and context on the other2 is an important prerequisite for breakthroughs in Biblical interpretation. The purpose of the present paper is to suggest the possibility of just such a breakthrough in Eccl 12:5 by providing a new understanding of the phrase bêt ʾôlām3 there.

I. The Translation “Eternal Home” In Eccl 12:5

It goes without saying that byt ʾwlm is almost universally translated “eternal home” or its equivalent by commentators and in English versions.4

The use of *byt, “house,” in the sense of “tomb, netherworld” is common enough in the Semitic languages generally5 and is not in dispute here. An

*From chap. 13 of A Tribute to Gleason Archer: Essays on the Old Testament, ed. W. C. Kaiser, Jr., and R. F. Youngblood. Copyright 1986 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Used by permission of Moody Press.

**Ronald Youngblood is professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Bethel Theological Seminary West in San Diego, California.

unexceptionable OT example is Job 30:23: “I know you will bring me down to death, / to the ‘house’ appointed for all the living.” Another possible example—one that at first blush would seem to clinch the traditional rendering of byt ʾwlm in Eccl 12:5—is Ps 49:11 (MT 49:12): “Their tombs will remain their houses forever (btymw l...

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