Exegetical Implications of the Masoretic Cantillation Marks in Ecclesiastes
A rabbinic tradition preserved in b. Yoma 52a-b suggests that five biblical verses are "undecidable"--that is, it is not clear how they ought to be punctuated. This makes evident a fact that is not often noticed: the Masoretic punctuation of the Bible is sometimes exegetical in character. Simcha Kogut, in his recent book Correlations between Biblical Accentuation and Traditional Jewish Exegesis, has shown that the biblical text is sometimes punctuated "against" the peshat, the meaning which a "reasonable" reader would assume to have been intended by the author. Such punctuation is a silent commentary. The reason for it is not explained; but it would seem to be prompted by a desire to shape the meaning of the text, often to match it in an interpretation found in rabbinic literature. Choon-Leong Seow's recent Anchor Bible commentary on Ecclesiastes notes over a dozen probable or possible places in that book where biblical scholars have suggested that the Masoretic punctuation does not match the intended meaning of the text. The purpose of this paper is to analyze these cases to determine whether any of these examples were indeed prompted by exegetical concerns. In several cases, the Targum to Ecclesiastes translates the same word twice--that is, they translated simultaneously in accordance with two different decisions about how the verse should be punctuated. I suggest that, in many cases, the Masoretic decision to place a pause in a location that seems to contradict the peshat was similarly made not to contradict it, but to add a second possibility. Despite the restrictive quality of the vowels and punctuation marks which the Masoretes added to the traditional consonants, they may, paradoxically, have been actuated by a desire to preserve the indeterminability of the text.