Hebel is a Hebrew word which occurs thirty-eight times throughout the book of Qohelet (Perdue 191). The NRSV translates hebel as “vanity” (Eccl 1.2), but Perdue further explores the semantic range of the word. Perdue argues that hebel “contains in this text a restricted semantic range of meaning,” and he goes on to list the common translations of the word: vanity, absurdity, and ephemerality (Perdue 191). Next, Perdue states that “the literal meaning of hebel…is breath” (192). This gave me a new perspective on hebel which focused on its intangibility. For some reason, the word “vanity” had always brought material wealth to mind rather than fleeting intangibility. Perdue argues that “in [his] judgement, Qoheleth uses this metaphor to evoke the imagination to visualize and recognize the experience of ephemerality or evanescence” (Perdue 192). In Perdue’s opinion, the essence of hebel lies in the meaning that I had never before seen! Perdue talks about the importance of understanding all of the interpretations of hebel through the lens of “evanescence,” the fleeting, vanishing reality of breath (192). In addition to hebel being a metaphor for the short-lived human breath, Perdue also emphasized hebel’s use as a metaphor for the human “desire to retain the life-giving breath given them by the Creator” (192). Based on Perdue’s arguments, he puts forth an alternative translation to “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Eccl 1.2): “all is breath quickly passing and a desire to retain life’s animating spirit” (192). This alternative translation encompasses both aspects of hebel as breath, as suggested by Perdue.
So, what is the significance of hebel in Qohelet? Essentially, our understanding of hebel becomes our understanding of the message of Qohelet. Of course, any word that is repeated 38 times in 12 chapters is important to interpretation, but hebel’s importance is related more to its use than its frequency. After all, hebel forms the inclusio in 1.2 and 12.8 that frames the entire book of Qohelet (Perdue 191). In these verses, Qohelet proclaims, “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity” (Eccl 1.2; 12.8). Because Qohelet proclaims that ALL is “hebel,” our interpretation of the word hebel is applied to Qohelet’s view of everything. Personally, I find Perdue’s argument about the meaning of hebel as breath, fleeting and fading, to be a compelling one. His alternative translation helped me better understand the spirit of the passage. Instead of hearing an argument focused on material wealth (which had been my interpretation based on “vanity”), I began to see the fullness of Qohelet’s argument that as humans, everything we do is short-lived, like the breath we breathe. Further, the double meaning of hebel as a metaphor for our (failed) efforts to “retain the divine spirit” and its life-giving breath served to emphasize the spiritual dimensions, though negative, of Qohelet (Perdue 192). Lastly, studying hebel in the Perdue text helped me realize the wide diversity of semantic range. While the translation of hebel as “breath” does not necessarily rule out the correctness of the translation “vanity,” it painted a very different picture of the passage in my mind. As I saw the many different meanings in just this one verse, I wondered how my understanding of other familiar verses would change if I explored the semantic range of the key words. It is both exciting and overwhelming to think about, but overall it serves as a reminder that the Bible is indeed a living text, shaped by the work of humans along with God— and still being shaped as we do the work of interpretation and application!