“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

Ecclesiastes 1:2

Friday, 24 July 2020

Ecclesiastes 1:1-4

Surprised? No, this is not another text from Exodus to round off these reflections on freedom. As I look over the last few days, I realised that we need to go deeper and see things more clearly, particularly since some may be a little confused by a few of my comments.

First, how much of the Exodus story should we take literally? I am of the view that very little of the text is historically accurate. Archaeological evidence does not support the account of turmoil in Egypt and a tumultuous conquest of Canaan, which is good news for folks like the Amalekites.

Second, how much can we say is ‘of God’? Here we need to distinguish between an understanding of God directly instructing people – in a few cases to do less than charitable things like genocide – and how a people came to see God’s providence working in their lives. The latter is how I read Exodus and Scripture.

So why end with ‘Vanity of vanities’? I think if we look closely at the account of freedom in Exodus, we face tensions and moral contradictions. Freedom is infinitely complex, often contradictory and all too often one person’s freedom is at the cost of another’s. Bleak though this may seem, this seems as true for a biblical account like the Exodus as it is for the present day. Sometimes freedom may be vanity.

Like the Preacher Qoheleth, we must take ideas like freedom with a pinch of salt – at very least we must constantly ask ourselves: freedom from what, freedom for what?

Loving God,

Give us the wisdom of Qoheleth to discern true and false freedom That we may find the fullness of freedom in you.


Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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