When I wrote my commentary on Ecclesiastes A Table in the Mist I took Eccl. 11:1-2 as a reference to the risk of international trade. It sure did seem to me like a reference to Solomon’s risky trade with other nations. Israel exported grain (bread) and Solomon’s ships returned to him with rich cargoes (1 Kings 5:1-12). This seems to fit with the theme of chapter 11. Solomon is issuing a call to be boldly generous and lavishly good to our neighbors.
But now I wonder if there’s another way to understand these verses.
Cast your bread into the waters,
for you will find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
for you know not what disaster may happen in the land.
Michael Homan believes that Solomon is advocating the brewing and serving of beer (“Beer Production by Throwing Bread into Water: A New Interpretation of Qoh IX.1-2,” Vestus Testamentum 52:2 : 275-278).
This looks really promising. First, there are all the references in Ecclesiastes to wine. Solomon advises godly folk to “drink wine” and enjoy life (9:7) with one’s spouse. And this exhortation to make beer and share it with others fits with the idea that the troubles of this life are best alleviated with a joyful reception of food and drink with others (2:24, 25; 3:13; 5:11, 18; 8:15; 9:7).
Secondly, beer is just liquid bread. Or perhaps we should say, as James Jordan puts it, beer is glorified liquid bread. So casting your bread (grain) in the water and waiting many days to find it is about the process of fermentation, especially the anticipation of a glorious final brew.
Third, it needs to be stressed that in the Bible beer and wine are gifts of God given to gladden the hearts of the faithful, especially in times of trouble and distress. Proverbs 31:6 says, “Give beer to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress.” This fits with the last line of 11:2, “for you know not what disaster may happen on the earth.”
Fourth, the social context of this drinking is stressed in 11:2a, “Give a serving to seven, or even to eight.” As Homan notes, “The inclusion of “seven” or “eight” people in Qoh. xi 2 fits with the context of beer drinking as a social event.11 And finally, the term plq, “serving”, is also used for distribution of food to Levites (Deut, xviii 8) and at a festival com- memorating the ark’s entry into Jerusalem, when David distributes victuals to the people (2 Sam. vi 19).”
All of this fits in quite well with Solomon’s conclusion to the book. It highlights the fact that the way to cope with the vaporous quality of human life is to enjoy food and drink, especially wine and beer with others in the Lord’s presence.