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Ecclesiastes starts with a series of contrasts, most of which are easy to understand. However one reference is less obvious (at least to me) - the 'stones' in verse 5a:

1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
   a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
   a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
   a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
   a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
   a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
   a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
   a time for war, and a time for peace. ESV

Also translated variously as:

A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones; NASB

and

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them NIV

How should this scattering/throwing/casting activity be understood - and would it have been a reference to something obvious at the time of writing?

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Interesting. Gathering stones might refer to something like the building of altars or monuments, but I can't think of when the appropriate time to destroy such things would be. Maybe destroying pagan altars? Maybe clearing a field of stones? – Jon Ericson Aug 27 '12 at 20:14
    
Why do all the fields in the west of Ireland have stone walls around them? Usually, there are open gates, and sheep have the run of three or four fields, so why have the walls? Well, because they needed somewhere to put the stones, of course. I wonder whether analogous conditions existed in ancient Israel. – TRiG Oct 28 '13 at 18:31
    
My immediate connection was David gathering stones and throwing them with his sling in the story of David and Goliath. – James Shewey Dec 29 '15 at 9:52
up vote 7 down vote accepted

It is safe to say that commentators through the centuries have found this pair the most puzzling of the catalogue of times in Ecclesiastes 3:2-8. And, as George Barton wrote in his ICC commentary of 1908,

[t]he interpretation of the first clause is difficult.

Observations

There are obvious regularities and patterns in the pairs of opposites that are worth observing -- not because they determine the correct answer (they don't), but because they help eliminate unlikely answers:

  • the set of 14 pairs is normally formed of verbs (infinitives) which are antonyms;
  • the verbs do not take objects;
  • the verbs are readily understood as being literal (rather than figurative).

The main exceptions to this consistent pattern are both found in 3:5, our verse in question:

  • in v. 5a, to "throw" and "gather" takes the object, "stones";
  • in v. 5b, "embracing" is negated by the verb "to refrain", rather than being paired with an antonym.

It also so happens that, in this poem of 14 lines, v. 5a is the 7th line (finishing the first half), and v. 5b the 8th (beginning the second half). While some have made a great deal of these stuctural patterns (notably in J.A. Loader's "sonnet" interpretation), most commentators are not inclined to place a great deal of weight on them.

Unfortunately, this precise collocation (of throwing-stones or gathering-stones) occurs nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible, although the verb for "gathering", כנס = kns, occurs only 11x, two of those in Eccl. 2:8 and 26, of accumulating wealth. Nor is it the common word for "gather": קבץ qbṣ occurs 127x.

Suggested in antiquity

A number of commentators draw attention to what is likely the oldest known gloss on their meaning: the Aramaic Targum speaks of gathering stones for building, implying the "casting" as demolition.

Qohelet Rabbah offered the following gloss:

עת להשליך אבנים בשעה שאשתך טהורה
ועת כנוס אבנים בשעה שאשתך טמאה

a time to throw stones - at the time when your wife is [ritually] pure,
and a time to gather stones - at the time when your wife is [ritually] impure.

This remains somewhat enigmatic, although it is typically understood in sexual terms: "casting stones" for intercourse, and "gathering stones" as abstention. In its favour is the close proximity to v. 5b, which resonates with this understanding. Not all have found this suggestion compelling, however (indeed, most commentators reject it): see the most recent evaluation by Hans Debel, "Stones of Contention?! A Critical Evaluation of the Erotic Interpretation of Qoh 3:5a", Vetus Testamentum 64/4 (2015): 554–560, who is not persuaded.

Suggested in modernity

The two most common and/or plausible suggestions in modern commentaries, as their authors share OP's sense that some significance is to be attached to the casting/gathering of stones:

  • a military aspect (which would echo 3:8b, the last line of the "second half", as this 3:5a is the last line of the "first half"): casting stones rendering fields useless (2 Kings 3:19, 25), and gathering stones preparing the field for cultivation (Isaiah 5:2); and
  • an economic aspect, with the stones those being used in commerce and accounting (Deuteronomy 25:13-15, where the Hebrew word "stones" is translated "weights" in most modern versions).

To these another possibility may be added: if the distinctive repetition of the verb "gather" (kns) has any influence (twice in ch. 2, and again here), it could be that 3:5a has to do with gathering precious stones (see meaning #3 in Brown-Driver-Briggs' ʾeben entry), i.e., dissipating and amassing wealth.

Evaluation

It's clear that no one really knows for sure. It is unlikely that we have a metaphorical pair here, given the very consistent pattern in the rest of the thirteen antonym pairs. (This has not stopped the effort so to interpret them, of course.) It is possible that the immediate context supports the hint of the midrash, that this has to do with sexual intimacy. Given the difficulties with that view (see Debel's article), it is probable that it means something else. But having seen what Eccl 3:5a doesn't (likely) mean, there is no way of having any certainty about what it does mean.


Additional commentaries consulted

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Perhaps I cross the boundary into "religio-sci-fantasy" a'la Discovery Channel by eulogizing קהלת son of David as an observant Mathematician.

Perhaps, קהלת/Ecclesiates is a Mathematical-Physics thesis encoded in poetry as a thesis of social-behavioural iteration.

The קהלת/Aggregator/Congregator/Assembler (perhaps, ancient terminology to describe the Mathematician beyond his times) starts by declaring that everything constitutes a zero-sum game.

Zeroes of zero, zero of zeroes, zero sum.

And then he uses the cyclical repetition of daily life and conflicts to illustrate the iteration it takes for the game to achieve equilibrium.

He then says, as any zero-sum-gamer would tell/program the experimental entities - go motivate yourselves to obtain maximum gain for yourselves, be selfish or be thoughtful, be conflicting but it all will iterate as zero-sum states. That all transitional states would finally come to some equilibrium zero-sum states.

He says,

There was no gain under the sun.

In chapter 3, he sets up a transition-state table. As a 2-dimensionally coupled poem. There are two modes of coupling/couplet.

  • each line constructs a pair of antithetical couplet
  • each pair of lines constitutes a parallel couplet.

He begins by explaining his transition-state table that every period and state has an event. And there is a state for every thing under the sun. A period would mean an iteration within a series of iterations.

Actually, it is a state table rather than a state-transition table, because he explains the transitions of the states within the whole book of Ecclesiates.

At the end of setting up the table, he says that the Creator has set up the case/context/concern (mistranslated as travails). Concern as in concern-oriented-programming. And the concern/context has been dispensed to mankind to provide a response.

And in 11:1 he gives the advice on how to resolve state-machine conflicts:

Send your conflict upon the surface of the waters and after many days, you will resolve it (find its resolution).

Perhaps, he is saying, when an iteration is stuck in conflict, send it to the openness and transparency of a fluid trading/market and it will resolve itself. The verse specifically used the verb שלח (send) not שליך (throw/cast). And specified the surface (פני ) of the waters not in/beneath the waters.

To respond to the question

The parallel couplet of the pair antithetical couplets are

A state to cast away stone, a state to gather stones
A state to embrace, at state to ignore embrace.

Which I read as,

A state to deliberately cause divergence,
A state to deliberately cause convergence,
A state to accept convergence,
A state to ignore convergence.

What I mean by convergence, is a state whereby your state-machine needs to collect and synchronise members of the field. Perhaps, a rest state (Sabbath or Jubilee state). And then another state to scatter them again. A state to accept convergence and a state to reject frivolous/unneccesary requests for convergence.

He implies, under localised conditions they do not realise it is but a zero-sum on a global scale(under the sun). Though, a wise man may think to know about it but he would not actually find it happening - as he only has a localised view.

Ecclesiates wholistically

So the wise קהלת/assembler urges the audience of his assembly to try this zero-sum game. To be either cruel or kind, greedy or considerate - every time, every state is but iterates into yet another zero-sum state.

He would be saying

Go on indulge in over-consumption and over-production but that would cause millions of born/unborn humans to perish because it is a zero-sum game. Go on and hoard your riches, but it is still a zero-sum game.

He uses his state-machine to illustrate what he perceives of the world. In 8:14 he says

There is zero-sum constructed on the earth. It involves the righteous as well as the wicked. I reiterate it is but zero-sum.

So, his advice to those who have hoarded too much to cause a pareto/bottleneck conflict, they should give some away like an airplane burdened by too much fuel - otherwise you do not know what evil will befall the earth. Give some away, send them to the waters, to the flux of the market and the bottleneck will unstuck itself after many days.

Relevance

I simply felt that the stones had to be explained in the whole context of the Assembler's game-theory.

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I have two answers, a simple meaning and an allegorical meaning.

Simple meaning: After a home is built the excess stones are removed from the home (because they are in the way and no longer useful). Before a home is built we gather the stones to build the house. So this is a parallel of verse 3. See Metzudat David (an 18th C Jewish commentary that focuses on the simple meaning of the text) on the verse.*

Allegorical Meaning: The stones are the tribes of Israel which will be scattered into the diaspora and will be gathered back in Israel in Messianic times. Like the stones on the High Priest's breastplate which each represent a tribe and the stones that Jacob surrounds his head with in Genesis 28:11 but become one united stone in Genesis 28:18.

* For the author, David Altschul, see #30 in the ALTSCHUL, ALTSCHULER, ALTSCHUELER, or ALSCHULER listing in the Jewish Encyclopedia.

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1  
Your "allegorical" meaning is reminiscent of Rashi's intepretation. – Davïd Dec 10 '15 at 23:06
2  
Of interest, the Tosofot for the Torah (Daat Zekenim), or medieval commentaries which appear next to notes by Rashi in current editions of the Babylonian Talmud, suggest that these stones were the two respective sets of tablets of the Law handed to Moses. That is, the first set was destroyed due to separation from the Lord, and the second for reconciliation. – Joseph Dec 11 '15 at 5:12
1  
David, you are right, it is similar to Rashi's interpretation. I am not sure how I missed that Rashi. But I like my addition of the tribes as stones on the High Priest's breastplate. – conceptualinertia Dec 11 '15 at 13:05

Further Analysis

Davïd's answer gives a good statement about the verse, providing a very useful analysis. However, there are a couple of points of analysis for Eccl 3:1-8 that I believe are relevant, yet unexplored (likely both by Davïd and the commentaries he references).

Four More Relevant Observations

"More," because again, Davïd's observations are very relevant.

  • The general truth nature of the other statements as opposites. This is not the case for most of the common solutions to this verse.

    In seeking to figure out what is referred to, the commentators tend to be very specific in focus: sexual abstinence/engagement of a human man toward woman, casting/gathering stones into a field, breaking/construction of homes or buildings.

    But in v.2, all living creatures can be born and die, all plants can be planted or plucked up. For v.3, all living things can be killed or healed, while a variety of things are composed of parts and can be broken or built-up (and as a side note, houses of stone already fall under this category). A wide variety of experiences can cause one to weep or laugh, mourn or dance as v.4 notes, and also for v.5b to embrace or refrain. In v.6, any thing that can be possessed one can gain or lose, keep or throw away. For v.7, all fabric can be torn or sewn,1 all thoughts can be kept to oneself or expressed. Then in v.8, one can love or hate a variety of things, and any group can be at war or peace with another.

    So seeking too specific of a reference appears to be travelling down the wrong path. The economic idea (noted in Davïd's answer) at least has a general idea behind it, but is weak in that it is directed through a specific direct object of economy (precious stones), whereas economics could be expressed much more generally, and really is probably part of the basis of v.6 anyway. This leads to the second observation.

  • Each set of couplets are believed to relate to each other. There are fairly obvious parallels in v.2 to birth/death of animals/plants, v.3 to destruction/maintenance of living/constructed things, v.4 expressions of sorrow/joy, v.5 we will skip for now since it is the topic verse (but it can be noted that this relationship of the pairs is what drives the sexual union interpretation, as it is the only generally offered interpretation that relates 5a and 5b thematically), v.6 to having/not having possessions.

    In v.7 the parallel is by far more obscure. Yet commentators believe, because others relate, this pair of couplets does. One view worth noting parallels to v.4, in that v.7 expresses activities one does when in sorrow of loss (tearing clothes and keeping silent), while the other paired activities are done when one is not sorrowing (sewing and conversing).2

    For v.8, there is a parallel also, one dealing with human relations specifically, as people make war with those they hate and peace with those they love. But v.8 has a distinction that is the next observation.

  • Parallel pattern of paired couplets breaks. Barring perhaps v.5 that is under discussion, v.8 is the only pair of couplets to offer the parallel items in opposing order. That is, it is not love > hate, peace > war (or vice versa), where love/peace is first and their opposites stated last (an order of A B A B). Rather, they are given in a small chiastic structure of thought, love > hate, war, peace (and order of A B B A). The questions this evokes for v.5 are which order does it take and why? One final observation is the relation of v.8 to v.1.

  • Bookends of control. One is in no control of one's own birth, and little control over one's own death (v.1; suicide perhaps an exception, although there are failed attempts that as well). Likewise, one is in little to no control of whether one's people are at war or peace with another people. Not only is war/peace a decision based upon a group rather than just any particular individual, it is also based upon that other group's attitude. All the other couplets involve feelings, decisions, actions, etc. that are individually controlled. How, if at all, does this group vs. individual observation relate to v.5?

Another Possible Answer

Given the observations noted by Davïd (specifically the peculiarity of a direct object in this couplet of v.5a only and the negating verbs of the passage rather than antonyms) along with the above observations, and those observations joined with analysis from some other texts of Scripture, I find the most probable idea of v.5a is that of judgment versus fellowship, or perhaps more broad still, exclusion versus connection, specifically in community (group) context.

First, the specific direct object of "stones" must be relevant to the general truth trying to be expressed. Here's where an analysis of Scripture becomes useful, especially in conjunction with the verbs used. Every other "stone" (אֶ֫בֶן) reference used in conjunction with the verb שׁלך (to throw) is in a context of judgment being enacted:

  • Lev 14:40, Priests were to cast out stones from a building infected with plague outside the city.
  • Dt 9:17, Moses throws the tablets, made of stone (v.10), to break them as judgment upon Israel's sin.
  • Josh 10:11, God casts hailstones ("hail" is inferred in some translations, the word is just "stones") from the sky against the enemies of Israel.
  • 2 Kg 3:25, people throw stones in the fields around the cities as judgment upon those communities.
  • Zech 5:8, a stone is thrown onto the basket to cover wickedness.

Another passage does not use the word אֶ֫בֶן, but carries the same concept:

  • Judg 9:53, A woman throws a millstone upon the head of Abimelech (also referred to in 2 Sam 11:21).

As well, the casting of stones in judgment is very much a part of the Mosaic Law in the places where people were to be stoned to death. Passages indicating that as well as those that historically show it occurring would be relevant. In those passages, the word אֶ֫בֶן is found, but the verb used (רגם) is more specific to the act of stoning, and yet no one can argue that conceptually, the verb still carries the synonymous idea of שׁלך with respect to stones (that is, throwing of stones upon people in judgment). The verses relating to this verb with stones: Lev 20:2, 27; 24: 14, 16, 23; Num 14:10; 15:35-36; Dt 21:21; Josh 7:25; 1 Kg 12:18; 2 Chr 10:18; 24:21; Ezek 16:40; 23:47. Related to this, to a lesser degree (i.e. not a judicial act of stoning to death), is Shimeiah's throwing (סקל) stones upon King David (2 Sam 16:6, 13).

The above points to an overwhelming amount of evidence that throwing of stones is related to the general truth of enacting judgment. What of the gathering of stones?

The verb כנס (to gather) is not related to the direct object of stone elsewhere in Scripture. However, other verbs or contexts do refer to stones.

  • Gen 31:46, Jacob command stones be taken (לקח) and made a heap (גַּל; i.e., gathered) upon which he and Laban and their relatives ate. In this case, after this "fellowship" time, the heap became a witness of possible judgment should one pass into the domain of the other (i.e., it was a truce, but with a threat of judgment behind it).
  • Lev 14:42, a priest commands stones to be built back into the building that they were thrown out of because of plague (that is, the opposite of 14:40 given above for judgment).
  • Josh 4:3 and 5, Joshua commands 12 men of Israel to put 12 stones together in the bed of the Jordan river; these 12 men were one from each tribe, showing that the gathering of the stones was in part a symbol of connection and fellowship of the tribes in this work of crossing into the promised land.
  • Josh 10:18, Joshua commanded stones (plural) be rolled (גלל) together (i.e. gathered) over the mouth of the cave, to keep the five kings inside from escaping Israel (and does so again to bury their corpses after judgment, v.27). This act kept the kings "connected" to Israel long enough to deal with them.
  • 1 Kg 18:31-32, Elijah takes stones and builds an altar (i.e., gathers) to offer sacrifice to God and bring the people back together in a belief of God. Altars were built of stone, and others represented connection, or more specifically fellowship (usually with one's deity, but also a place for community worship of that deity; but some altars were witnesses for the community fellowship only, e.g. Josh 22:10-11).

So the pictures in Scripture of gathering of stones show some idea of making and keeping connection, usually fellowship, though in the case of the five kings shut up by Joshua, it was simply to keep them connected to Israel for judgment. That verse, however, is of a decidedly different nature, and so may not really inform about the picture of gathering of stones as the others do.

If the ideas of judgment/exclusion and fellowship/connection are correct for Eccl 3:5, then how does that fit with the other observations?

Second, viewing as the general truth of a time for judgment/exclusion and fellowship/connection, its pairing with embrace and shun/remove/refrain/withdraw (רחק) makes them have a topical relationship as the other pairs of couplets (and a better one, I think, than the sexual union topical relation).

Third, viewing as the general truth of a time for judgment/exclusion and fellowship/connection, it makes v.5a a statement of group function, only marginally in the control of individuals, much like v.1a birth/death and v.8b war and peace, the bookends of the passage. This is significant in that v.5 rests as the middle pair of couplets, between the bookends, and is paired with the embrace/shun, that is a very individual idea. So the verse links the individual and the group concepts from the passage.

Fourth, the central location of the passage also takes on the chiastic structure of v.8, only reversed: exclude (cast)/connect(gather) connect(embrace)/exclude(shun) (B A A B) versus connect(love)/exclude(hate) exclude(war)/connect(peace). Note as well the topical relation of v.5 to v.8 in that sense.

Conclusion

The evidence suggests, to me, that many commentators have missed out on finding the general truth, the reason for the direct object, the proper topical relation between the middle pair of couplets, and other connecting observations. Primarily, they have missed it because they were seeking too specific of a reference, rather than what Scripture shows to be a more general view of meaning behind throwing versus gathering of stones.

A most likely candidate for the meaning is this idea of judgment/exclusion and fellowship/connection.3


NOTES

1 Fabric (or clothing) can be related to the idea of v.3 in breaking and building, but the specific reference here is distinct on two grounds. One, fabric/garments can be made from a single piece of thread, so it is not strictly "built" in the normal sense. Knitting and crocheting often involve just a single strand being wrapped around itself. Two, see footnote 2 for the particular purpose of the reference here.

2 This connection of tearing fabric and silence during sorrowing is noted by such commentators as Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (1871; Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997); John Peter Lange, Philip Schaff, Otto Zöckler, Tayler Lewis, and William Wells, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Ecclesiastes (1870; Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008); Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, vol. 14, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993).

3 Which idea is related to another answer here that notes divergence/convergence, only that answer approaches the text from a decidedly philosophical bent and lacks much strong Scriptural support or immediate grammatical analysis as this answer has attempted to provide here. Nevertheless, the conclusion of meaning seems related at least to the idea, primarily because the verbal points of the verse do indicate the idea of diverge/converge or exclude/include, which themselves relate to judgment and fellowship.

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