What does it mean to cast your bread upon the waters?

Monday Musings for October 07, 2019

Good morning, Musers,

References to agriculture abound in Scripture — and why not? Agriculture is one of the bases of civilization. Figures of speech abound there too — and again, why not? Without figures of speech, we’d have no language. But what’s really great here is that when we combine these two, we can see God’s will in broad strokes. He wants us to flourish, and he wants to talk to us in the same way that we talk to each other.

Ecclesiastes 11:1 is in focus today, and it contains some of that agricultural imagery. But what is God saying here? I ask because casting your bread upon the waters — although a familiar phrase in Christendom — is anything but clear.

I’ve heard prosperity preachers say that this passage guarantees a substantial return on any money given in faith — and the rendering by the Contemporary English Version of the Bible could be seen to affirm this (... and today, that could be a pun on the word bread).

“Be generous, and someday you will be rewarded.” (CEV)

I personally hate that idea, though… but here’s the thing: I can’t use this passage to argue one way or the other. Although the passage is a poetic wonder, its lack of clarity means that it has no teeth… so it’s hard to make a case about either the bread or the casting based solely on that verse. But even if we consider the context in verses 1 through 6, it’s still one scholar’s opinion against another.

But before we engage with this book, there is something from outside of the book that you should know: Ecclesiastes almost didn’t make it into the canon… but don’t panic! It did make it. It has some unique characteristics, however, and these require special handling. As such, it should be no surprise when different scholars see different things in the same text... although most agree that "bread" is a metonymy for seed or grain.

That being said, almost every commentator laments the impossibility of presenting a continuous and systematic exposition of the argument in Ecclesiastes (or Qoheleth, as it’s called in the Hebrew Bible). So, it is what it is… and I’m looking forward to looking back at this book sometime after the resurrection! But in the meantime, I have a few opinions I’d like to share.

Before I do, though, it is important to note that ideas like “Cast your bread…” are precepts… and precepts target people. But people do what they want to do and not always what they ought to do — and precepts are about the “oughts.”

However, this  “oughtness” does not have the force of a command. Now, love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might — that’s a command! But Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 is decidedly softer.

But note this well: God “does” soft. Sure… once in a while he goes all Sodom-and-Gomorrah on us. But the vast majority of the time he speaks softly yet plainly… and he does this in nature, he does this through humankind, he does it in his Word… and Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 is one of those times.

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