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Dictional Intelligibility: Abba Eban Reads Psalms and Ecclesiastes

The MHS Review 409, VOL. 12, NO.13• 1988

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David M. Greene


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Allow me to present my credentials. I have never studied theology. I am not ordained. I have never held a TV ministry; nor have I preached the Word in a church, a tent, or a storefront. I was, however, reared in a Chris­tian family where there were regular morn­ing prayers that included Bible readings. I went to a Protestant Episcopal boarding school which held morning and evening chapel services seven days a week. Sunday churchgoing was de rigueur under both cir­cumstances. I hold a degree in music and three in English literature. As a teacher in the lat­ter field, I have occasionally taught the Bible to college undergraduates. I read French, Ger­man, Italian, Spanish, and Latin with varying degrees of facility, but I know only a word or two of Hebrew.

1 tell you all this for a reason. Some months ago I did a piece for this publication on the medieval "Play of Daniel," in the course of which I touched on the source (the Biblical Book of Daniel) and its historicity. My statements took for authority standard, dispassionate, and up-to-date reference works. They elicited from a reader a long and condescending letter, replete with several photocopied pages from unidentified publica­tions. The message was that I should stick to my field of expertise and leave Holy Writ to the specialists (who in this instance appeared to be those who took their accuracy on faith).

In the present instance, my assignment is to talk about a recording of readings from the Book of Psalms and from Ecclesiastes. In a day when many people are unconcerned with religion of any kind, and consider the year 1980 the farther limit of antiquity, I daresay that a majority is still acquainted with at least a few phrases from the Psalms. In the first beginnings of this nation they were known intimately, they (or versions in doggerel verse) being the sole permissible musical portion of Puritan worship.

The Book of Psalms consists of 150 songs whose main categories might be summed up as praises and prayers. Popular tradition assumes them to be the work of King David, who probably died in 952 BC. But many of them are, in the Bible, attributed to others, and internal evidence makes it clear that some were written more recently. Present thinking is that the collection is intended to be an all­-purpose prayer book-and-hymnal, drawing on a wide chronological range of Hebrew devotional poetry.

Similarly, Ecclesiastes has been traditionally assigned to King Solomon. The author, however, called himself "Qohelet," which the Greeks equated with the word that serves us as title, meaning, in effect, one who calls the people together, presumably to speak to them, and so, in the King James version, he becomes simply the Preacher. Scholars tell us the work was written long after Solomon, but before the second century BC.

It is a curious collection of often-conflicting ideas, which characteristic has made some think that at least two authors are in question; others have suggested it was a sort of notebook in which the Preacher jotted down observations as he made them. He emerges as essentially a skeptic who has pondered his own experience critically. The ways of God, he concludes, are unknowable, but that is no reason to doubt His authority. There is pat­tern in the universe, but it appears mean­ingless. Most human endeavors and at­tainments do not satisfy; success depends more on luck than on ability; men, whatever they may be on other planes, are physically subject to the immutable laws that affect all animals. "All is vanity."

The reader is Abba Eban, statesman, soldier, orator, and more recently TV personality (his "Tradition" series on PBS). Born Aubrey Solomon in Cape Town, South Africa, he was educated in England, taught at Cambridge, and served as an officer in the British Army, in which capacity he helped lay the ground­work for the state of Israel. He served his new homeland in various capacities, including am­bassador to the US and foreign minister. He is universally admired as a magnificent speaker.

Here his voice, though rich, has an unex­pectedly tenorish ring to it. He reads the passages very straightforwardly, making no attempt to "interpet." Hence, I suspect, one will want to take him piecemeal. His great talent seems to me is his dictional intelligibili­ty. Every word is carved out, and I am sure that, ignorant as I am of the language, I could phonetically transcribe his Hebrew recognizably.

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