The Snowball and the Cord of Three Strands. Eccl 4:12b in the rabbinic tradition
The interpretative biblical tradition of the community of faith can be compared to a snowball rolling down from a high mountain. Its nucleus is composed by the biblical text but throughout the centuries many ideas and new connotations have been added to the initial intention of the biblical author1. They may be extraneous to the original historical context, nevertheless they belong to the heritage of the communities of faith that consider the Scripture as Word of God. The ancient and medieval sermons, treaties, letters or commentaries to the Bible contain a great amount of interpretations frequently neglected by biblical scholars. They witness how Jews and Christians in the past centuries actualized and accommodated the Scripture to the different situations of their communities.
In our article we shall deal with one literary motif taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes 4:12: Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. We shall follow the snowball of the Jewish tradition whose nucleus is the cord of three strands. At the end of our article we shall present a general outline of the Christian tradition connected with this verse. For a detailed presentation of the Christian tradition, see our article in polish published some years ago2.
I. Literal meaning of Eccl 4:12b
In the historical context Eccl 4:7-12 is a wisdom teaching on the practical advantages of common activity in comparison with the futile efforts undertaken by individuals. The first two verses (Eccl 4:7-8) stress the vanity of the toil of a single person. Then, Eccl 4:9-12a – using practical examples such as falling down, a cold night or an unexpected attack – presents the superiority of efforts undertaken by two persons. Finally, a proverbial conclusion in Eccl 4:12b adds in a metaphorical way the idea that three are even better than two.
Probably Eccl 4:12b was originally a proverb drawn from the middle east wisdom traditions3. But from the literary point of view – in the context of the Book of Ecclesiastes – the motif of the cord of three strands acts as a symbol inviting the reader to connect it with situations of his or her life. The Scripture gives explicit examples why two are more effective than one. But why three are better than two? Which situations can be connected with the literary motif of the cord of three strands? These are questions the text puts to the reader. The intention of the text is to shift the mind of the reader from a simple image of a cord to the symbolical level.
II. Symbolical potentiality of the biblical image
Before approaching the interpretative traditions let us look at the special qualities of the text that generate in the interpretative process specific connotations. We shall specify the potential of the image to generate new symbolical meanings:
1. The functional aspect of the cord as an instrument used to tie several objects together, to immobilize, to pull or to constrain.
2. The longitudinal visual aspect of a cord, calling to mind something that unites two separate extremities or puts together a line of elements.
3. The numerical symbolism. The biblical text will call to mind any reality composed of three elements.
4. The image of strands contains the idea of a perfect union of different elements.
5. The endurance and strength of the cord. It suggests a tension between the two extremities. But the fact that the cord is “not quickly” broken means that actually it can be broken.
6. And finally we should not neglect the interpretative suggestions of the context. The cord illustrates a relationship between persons that cooperate.
III. Hebrew tradition
In comparison with other verses of Ecclesiastes, Eccl 4:12a occurs relatively often in the ancient Hebrew texts. We have detected 40 occurrences of the verse carrying new symbolical meanings. The symbolical creativity was connected mainly with the number three and the strength of the cord. In the Midrash of Rabbi Eliezer (IX c., Eretz Israel) we find even a hermeneutical principle based on our verse. Rabbi Acha bar Yaakov (died 419, IV generation of Babylonian Amoraim), commenting Gen 15:9 (Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old) concludes quoting Eccl 4:12: Wherever appears the number three, it is connected with nothing else but with powerful strength4. According to this principle the cord of three strands will symbolize strength, endurance and faithfulness5.
In our research we have identified at least four interpretative keys of the verse. They concern the value of cooperation between three individuals (1), the spiritual link between generations (2), cooperation with God as source of power and might (3), and the symbolism of different elements of the tradition (4).
1. Cooperation between three individuals
In the first group (cooperation between three individuals), several traditions try to identify the three persons represented by the verse with personages taken from the Jewish tradition. The Midrash Qohelet Rabbah (VIII cent., Eretz Israel) suggests three historical representations of the verse6. First, The two are David and Batsheba, while the third is the prophet Nathan that approves the words of Batsheba (1Kings 1:14) and confirms the dynasty of David by his heir Solomon (1Kings 1:33). Second, the two are Jehoiada and Jehoshabeath, but it is the third, namely the community of Israel that confirms the kingship of Joash (2Chron 23:11). Third, the two are Mordecai and Esther, but the third, the king Ahasuerus agrees with them and issues a decree liberating the Jews (Est 8,10). Similar interpretative pattern we find in the medieval midrash Demut Kisse Shlomo ha-Melech7: the two are Nathan and Gad that cooperate with the third, David, as they admonish him after his sins. Even the words of Ecclesiastes if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion (Eccl 4:10) have been applied to the admonition of the prophet Nathan concerning the sin with Batsheba (2Sam 11-12) and to the rebuke of Gat after the censing of the people of Israel (2Sam 24:11).
The cooperation between individuals concerns especially the study of the Torah. The ancient document Sifre Devarim (end of III cent., Eretz Israel) formulates a general principle: A man should get a friend to study with him the Torah and the Mishnah, to eat and drink together and to share with him his secrets8. Here the numerical aspect has been neglected in order to stress the importance of the mutual cooperation. In the same direction go the Midrash Qohelet Rabbah and Midrash Qohelet Zuttah, as they explain in details: If two are studying the Torah and one of them forgets something, the second will help him. And the third that forms the cord of three strands is the teacher correcting the errors of both of them9.
Another goal of cooperation between individuals is the shalom (peace, wellbeing). The sources mentioned above quote the following story attributed to Rabbi Meir (died 130-160, III generation of Tannaim, Eretz Israel) in connection with Eccl 4:12. When he saw a single man, he used to say: “Shalom, man of death!”; when he saw two men, he used to say: “Shalom, men of conflict!”; and when he saw three men, he used to say: “Shalom, man of peace (shalom)!”. This interpretation may have some connection with the targumic reading of Eccl 4:12 (V-VII cent.): If a powerful wicked man stands in certain generation and his deeds bring punishment to the world, two will stand against him to remove the punishment. But much more valuable are three righteous men living in one generation and the peace is among them.
2. Spiritual link between generations
The second group of Jewish interpretations is focused on the spiritual link between generations. In the midrash Sifre Devarim10 and in the ethical midrash Tanna de-be Elyahu11, composed in the third century in Babylonia we find the following interpretation: the continuity of the heritage of Jacob (Deut 32:9) is based on the three patriarchs, namely Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whom symbolizes the cord of three strands. The midrash of Elijah issues a moral obligation to preserve the spiritual unity with the Partiarchs, called also Fathers of Israel. There is a lexical similarity with the formerly presented interpretation of the Targum: the Aramaic tzadykya (plural of righteous) and zkwthwn (their merits) calls to mind the tradition of the zekut Avot (the merit of the Patriarchs) with their importance in the expiation context of the Rosh ha-Shanah. But there is a substantial difference: the Targum speaks of three righteous in one generation while Sifre Devarim and Tanna de-be Elyahu deal with three righteous representatives of consecutive generations.
In later Talmudic tradition the treatises Ketuvot12 and Bava Batra13 mention three rabbies – grandfather, father and son (Rabbi Bisa, Rabbi Chama and Rabbi Oshaya) that faithfully transmitted the Oral Torah from father to son. On this basis – together with the pattern of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the medieval Tosefot and Rashi14 formulate a general rule: the wisdom is not a private affair but should be transmitted from generation to generation. Rashi strengthens this consideration quoting Is 59:21: My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring. In the eyes of Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak the three generations mentioned by the prophet Isaiah can interpreted in the light of Eccl 4:12b.
The moral dimension of the link between generation has been stressed in the Midrash Tehillim. This commentary to the book of Psalms, composed from former sources in the the XIII-th century, suggests the following rule: if there are three righteous men, grandfather, father and son, nothing in this world can separate them and they can be certain to receive a reward in the world to come15. Also Rabbi Zeira (III generation of Amoraim, Eretz Israel, III-IV cent.) confirms there are families transmitting from generation to generation the love to the Torah and the ability to gather possessions16. The same midrashic source makes an objection: it can happen that a rich family loses all its belongings gathered in the course of many generations. Rabbi Zeira answers: It is not written “the cord of three strands will be not broken”, but “is not quickly broken”.
3. Cooperation with God as source of power and might
The third group of interpretations stresses the power of God as the source or the strength of the metaphorical cord of three strands. In Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer there is written: It was you who made yourself a cord of three strands? It is Me who refer to you the words: you shall be perfect with the Lord, your God17. In the text there is no allusion to the number three, nor God is one of the elements of the cord. We have rather a general reference to the power and endurance that come from God. In the same way should be read the principle formulated at least three times in the Talmud Yerushalmi: If somebody avoids once, twice or three times to trespass the Torah, God will strengthen him. But if he abandons the path of the righteousness, he can be finally broken, like the cord of three strands18.
God’s cooperation with men illustrated by the image of the cord of three strands appears especially in the act of procreation. Rabbi Yohanan (died 279, II generation of Amoraim) used to say that the words two are better than one (Eccl 4:9) refer to husband and wife, and the subsequent motif of the cord of three strands makes allusion to God who gives them descendants. This interpretation was illustrated with the example of Amram and Jochebed, parents of Moses19.
Another context appears in the interpretation of Rabbi Isaac (died around 200, IV generation of Tannaim, Eretz Israel) transmitted by the Midrash Qohelet Rabbah20. The words pronounced by Moses and Aaron have more authority than the words pronounced by Moses only. But the highest authority – see the cord of three strands – corresponds to the words God ordered to be spoken by Moses and Aaron. The scriptural example evocated here is Lev 11:1. Similar interpretation has been enlarged by the quotation of Lev 9:23 in the same passage of Midrash Qohelet Rabah: It is better to work together Moses and Aaron, than to work separately. If they act jointly, the Divine Presence (Shechinah ) descends upon them and bestows the blessing.
A further symbolical elaboration is the trio composed by God, Moses and the Torah, that gives a blessing more endurable than the cord of three strands. It seems this interpretation became a normative explanation of the blessing of Moses in Deut 33:1-29. We find it in the Midrash Devarim Rabbah (V-VIII cent., Eretz Israel), Midrash Tanchuma (IX cent., but sources from IVcent., Eretz Israel) and in the Chronicles of Moses (X-XI cent.)21. Notice that such interpretation of the symbol is far from the interpersonal relation expressed by the primary meaning of Eccl 4:12b. Nothing suggests here – as it happens in other midrashim – a personification of the Torah.
4. Symbolism of different elements of the tradition
The last interpretative key of the symbol of the cord of three strands goes beyond the interpersonal character of the three connected elements. It is based on the simple connotation with the number three, but also on the function of the cord as something that ties and on the longitudinal visual aspect of the cord, symbolizing the continuity of the tradition. The cord of three strands may carry a symbolical meaning of the Written Law (Miqra), Oral Law (Mishna) and the Traditions (derech eretz) that fasten the unity of the People of Israel in a certain moment of its history and through the ages. This interpretation is present in the treatise Qidushin of both Yerushalmi and Bavli Talmudayim, and was appreciated by Rashi22.
A similar symbolical creativity gave birth to the interpretation we find in the treatise Menachot of the Talmud Bavli. It is connected with the observance of three commandments: to wear tefilim on the head and on the arm, to wear tzitzit at the edges of the garment and to place the mezuzah on the side of the door23. The first two mitzvot contain a clear visual allusion to the cord, while all of them call to mind the context of Eccl 4:12b. The three elements prevent from falling down and from an unexpected attack (Eccl 4:9-12a) – that means from the sin and from the evil spirits.
IV. Outline of the Christian interpretative tradition
In our research we identified more than hundred symbolical interpretations of the cord of three strands in the Christian tradition24. They can be summarized in the following way:
1. Cooperation between individuals and the virtue of charity (especially Syriac tradition, John Chrysostom and preudo-chrysostomian writings).
2. Unity of the Church (Basil the Great, Pacianus of Barcelona, Paschasius Radbertus).
3. The link of love uniting man with God (Gilbert of Hoiland, Burchard of Bellevaux, William of St. Thierry, John of Forda).
4. The three virtues of faith, charity and hope (Jerome, Bede Venerable, Paschasius Radbertus, Gilbert of Hoiland, Guibert of Nogent).
5. The mystery of the Holy Trinity (The most frequent interpretation in the patristic age: Origen, Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory of Elvira, Basil the Great, Philastrius of Brescia, Chromatius of Aquilea, Paulin of Nola, Gregory the Great, Salonius, Olimpiodoros, Gregory of Agrigentum).
6. Unity of the testimonies of the Scripture (Ambrose, Jerome).
7. Unity of the senses of the Scripture, especially historical, allegorical and moral (Bede Venerable, Burchard of Bellevaux).
8. Body, soul and spirit, according to the platonic anthropology (probably Origen, Didymos of Alexandria, Olimpiodoros, Gregory of Agrigentum, Dionisius bar Salibi, Bernard of Clairvaux).
9. A negative interpretation – a cord symbolizes the sin or the vice (Augustin, Gregory the Great, Aelredus of Rievaulx, Petrus Cellensis, John of Forda, Bernard of Clairvaux)
10. A special case is the symbolical creativity of Barnard of Clairvaux, who connects the image of the cord of three strands with Christ, angels, triple testimony of blood, spirit and water, triple ascensus of the Virgin Mary, humility, and many others spiritual topics.
It may be amazing for the modern reader that such a marginal literary motif of the Bible as the cord of three strands became the source for a deep dogmatic, moral or mystical reflection. The topic analyzed in our article is far of being exhausted; there are much more texts – especially of medieval authors – not yet published containing further symbolic interpretations both in the Jewish and Christian traditions.
Despite the differences between both traditions there is a similar process of symbolization of the biblical literary motif. First, the interpreter discerns a specific relation between the literary motif and certain aspect or concept belonging to the religious sphere, sometimes very slightly connected with the biblical context. Second, a complex construction of allegorical associations (involving other biblical passages) is build around the symbolic interpretation that motivates the relation between the literary motif and its intentional parallel. Finally, the symbolic interpretation – repeated and developed by other interpreters – becomes part of the heritage of a certain community of faith that preserves it and considers authoritative.
In the recent adhortation Verbum Domini of the Holy Father Benedict XVI we read: While today’s academic exegesis, including that of Catholic scholars, is highly competent in the field of historical-critical methodology and its latest developments, it must be said that comparable attention need to be paid to the theological dimension of the biblical texts, so that they can be more deeply understood in accordance with the three elements indicated by the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum25 . These three elements mentioned in Dei Verbum are the unity of the whole of Scripture, the living Tradition of the whole Church and the analogy of faith26.
In our article we analyzed the Hebrew tradition, considering the unity of the whole Scripture: one verse has been interpreted in the light of the whole canon of the Hebrew Bible. We approached the interpretation from the point of view of the tradition of Israel, and we applied the principle of the analogy of faith in the way that a biblical motif has been connected in a symbolical way to certain elements of the religious doctrine of Judaism.
The methodological approach we presented in our article can be helpful to deepen also the Christian interpretation of the Bible according to the principles mentioned in Dei verbum and stressed by the Holy Father Benedict XVI in Verbum Domini27.
At the same time the approach to the text from the perspective of the reader, especially in the context of the community of faith is one of the characteristic marks of the post-modern study of the Bible. Sometimes such approach becomes subjective and arbitrary. The consideration of the traditions of the communities of faith helps to integrate this kind of approach with the scientific study of the Scripture. At the same time it creates a chance for a fresh insight into the so called more-than-literal meaning of the Bible.
Prof. dr. hab. Krzysztof Bardski
Director of the Department of Biblical Philology
University card. S. Wyszynski, Warsaw, Poland
1 Today’s biblical scholar must follow that text in its later reinterpretations and its Wirkungsgeschichte up to the present day to be able to observe the growth of this snowball along the path of history (P. Grech, „The Regula Fidei as hermeneutical principle yesterday and today”, in: L’interpretazione della Bibbia nella Chiesa, Atti del Simposio promosso dalla Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede, Roma, settembre 1999, Citta’ del Vaticano 2001, p.222.
2 K. Bardski, Trzykrotnie zapleciony sznur Eklezjastesa (Koh 4,12a) i jego symbolika w tradycji Izraela i Koœcio³a, Scriptura Sacra 3/3 (1999) 5-42.
3 Cf. A. Shaffer, “The mesopotamian background of Qoh 4: 9-12”, Eretz Israel 8 (1967) 246 – 250; „New information on the origin of the Threefold Cord”, Eretz Israel 9 (1969) 159 – 160.
4 Midrash of Rabbi Eliezer, 28,2.
5 Rabbi Yohanan ben Zaccay (died around 90, I generation of Palestinian tannaim) used to call his disciple Yehoshua Ben Hananya a „cord of three strands” because of his endurance and faithfulness (Abot of Rabbi Natan, 14).
6 Cf. Midrash Qohelet Rabbah, 4,9,1.
7 Cf. Demut Kisse Shlomo ha-Melech, 6.
8 Sifre Devarim, Netzavim Vayyelech, 2 (pisqa 305).
9 Midrash Qohelet Rabbah, 4,9,1; Midrash Qohelet Zuttah, 4,12.
10 Cf. Sifre Devarim, Haazinu, 7 (pisqa 312).
11 Cf. Tanna de-be Elyahu, 3,11.
12 Cf. bKetuvot,62b.
13 Cf. bBawa Batra, 59a.
14 Cf. Rabbi Shlomo Ben Yitzhak, Miqraot Gedolot, Ad Eccl 4,12b.
15 Cf. Midrash Tehillim, 59,1.
16 Cf. Midrash Qohelet Rabbah, 4,9,1.
17 Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer, 15,3.
18 jPeah 5b, jSanhedrin 49a, jShevuot 7b.
19 Midrash Qohelet Rabbah, 4,9,1.
20 Cf. Ibidem.
21 Cf. Midrash Devarim Rabbah 11,4; Midrash Tanchuma (version of the Warsaw edition), Ve-zot ha-beracha, 2; Divre ha-yamim le-Moshe Rabbenu (Chronicles of Moses), 12.
22 Cf. jQidushin 22b; 23a; bQidushin 40b; Rabbi Shlomo Ben Yitzhaq, Miqraot Gedolot, ad Eccl 4:12.
23 Cf. bMenachot 43b.
24 For detailed references to the authors and sources see our article: K. Bardski, Trzykrotnie zapleciony sznur Eklezjastesa (Koh 4,12a) i jego symbolika w tradycji Izraela i Koœcio³a, Scriptura Sacra 3/3 (1999) 5-42.
25 Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, 34.
26 Dei Verbum, 12.
27 This methodology has been presented and developed in multiple articles and in our recent books: K. Bardski, Pokarm i napój mi³oœci. Symbolizm w ponaddos³ownej interpretacji Biblii w tradycji Koœcio³a, Rozprawy i Studia Biblijne 16, Vocatio: Warszawa 2004; S³owo oczyma Go³êbicy. Metodologia symboliczno-alegorycznej interpretacji Biblii oraz jej teologiczne i duszpasterskie zastosowanie, Rozprawy Naukowe 3, WAW: Warszawa 2007; W krêgu symboli biblijnych, Petrus: Kraków 2010; Lektyka Salomona. Biblia-Symbol-Interpretacja, Rozprawy Naukowe 6, WAW: Warszawa 2011.