THE BOOK OF SIRACH
INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS
JAMES L. CRENSHAW
In English Bibles the titles for the book under consideration lack consistency. The NRSV calls it "Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach." The TNK, or new Jewish translation, opts for "Ecclesiasticus," a title derived from many Latin Vulgate manuscripts. The GNB uses "Sirach: the Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)," and the REB has "Ecclesiasticus or the Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach." This commentary refers to the book as Sirach and designates its author as Ben Sira.
WISDOM LITERATURE IN THE BIBLE
The books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes differ markedly from the rest of the Old Testament, in both style and content. Their closest parallels occur outside the Bible, particularly in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature associated with educational contexts, either in the training of courtiers or the instruction of temple personnel. On the basis of sustained interest in wisdom within these biblical texts, scholars have labeled them "wisdom literature." Specialists in Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature have adopted this nomenclature, although it brings together texts with quite different settings and purposes.
Egyptian literature in this genre arose in the third millennium bce in connection with the instruction of rulers, at first given by pharaohs and later by counselors who taught potential rulers. Several texts have survived the ravages of time, including The Instruction of Ptah-hotep, The Instruction of Amenemope, The Instruction of Ani, The Instruction of Ankhsheshanky, and Papyrus Insinger. In addition, several scribal texts illuminate the educational enterprise, attesting to lazy students and vigorous disciplinary measures by teachers. A text called A Satire of the Trades or The Teaching for Duauf makes fun of several occupations and praises the profession of the scribe above all others.
Scribal texts from Sumerian times in ancient Mesopotamia describe conditions at the school house (edubba) and indicate that similar conditions existed there as in Egypt. A Sumerian instruction attributed to Šuruppak advises his son about the duties of kingship. An early prototype of the book of Job and a collection of Sumerian proverbs round out this early literature from Sumer. Babylonian texts of this kind include Counsels to a Prince, various collections of proverbs, and parallels to the books of Job (I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom, The Babylonian Theodicy) and Ecclesiastes (The Dialogue of a Master and His Slave). The Sayings of Ahiqar, an Aramaic document, purports to have come from an adviser to an Assyrian king, Sennacherib (704–681 bce). This text of early "Jewish" wisdom was enormously popular, being translated into several languages. Although very little evidence of Canaanite wisdom has been preserved, many interpreters think that these peoples must also have had such texts.7
Resemblances between biblical wisdom and these extra-biblical texts from Egypt and Mesopotamia sometimes are so striking that a relationship of some kind appears likely. Most noteworthy is the case of The Instruction of Amenemope and a collection within the book of Proverbs, specifically Prov 22:17–23:33, where eleven sayings overlap. The similarities between the book of Job and earlier prototypes from Mesopotamia are only slightly less remarkable, as is the affinity of Ecclesiastes with the ideas put forward in The Dialogue of a Master and His Slave and the Epic of Gilgamesh, a story about a hero who goes in search of eternal life and retrieves a branch from the tree of life, thanks to advice from the survivor of the flood, Utnapishtim, only to lose it to a serpent.
These close similarities in teachings from three distinct environments in the ancient Near East illustrate a characteristic of wisdom literature: its tendency to present ideas in a universalistic context, one grounded in creation. To the sages, truth was not bound by national ties. Nothing specifically Israelite appears in the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Scholars have often noted an absence in these texts of anything about the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; nothing about early leaders like Moses, Joshua, Samuel; no mention of the judges; no celebration of Israelite kings-except to attribute wisdom literature to Solomon-and no mention of the prophets or a covenant between the Lord and Israel, a special people. In short, the entire history of salvation is missing from these texts. For this reason, wisdom literature has been largely ignored until recently in efforts to describe the theology of the Bible.11
Besides being applicable to all people, wisdom literature addresses the fundamental question, "What promotes well-being?" It offers advice on coping with difficult circumstances, in a sense giving parental counsel to growing children, but also offering popular advice to people of all ages. One type of wisdom literature explores existential questions, chiefly the matter of innocent suffering and what this implies about divine justice. Naturally, this questioning attitude does not stop short of asking about death and its consequences.
Another characteristic of this literature is its preoccupation with the search for wisdom, which appears as a feminine personification associated with God in the creative process. She also actively woos young men to deeper intellectual and moral pursuits; in this endeavor she has a rival, folly, also personified as a woman. Often called a foreign woman, or strange, she seduces young men with the aid of powerful rhetoric (cf. Prov 9:17).
The extent of biblical wisdom has elicited considerable debate, some interpreters wishing to broaden the category to include much of the Bible (e.g., Genesis 1–11; Deuteronomy; the story of David’s rise to power and the succession, 2 Samuel 9–20; 1 Kings 1–2; Esther; Jonah). These attempts merely demonstrate the fact that sages did not own a distinct vocabulary but used the ordinary language of their time. Their influence does seem to manifest itself in the book of Psalms, especially in 37; 49; and 73.
Sirach definitely belongs to biblical wisdom, although its teachings represent a transition from a nonspecific national audience to Jewish hearers whose intellectual heritage faces obliteration by Hellenism. Its author, Ben Sira, unites the unique legacy of Israel’s saving history to the wisdom tradition. Although the language echoes that within the book of Proverbs, the content weaves together an account of the merciful guidance of Israel’s Lord with advice on coping with life’s eventualities. Like the book of Proverbs, Sirach also praises personified wisdom, further elaborating a myth of her activity at creation and identifying her with the accessible Mosaic law. Ben Sira describes the various professions, like The Satire of the Trades, and evidences a strong personal piety resembling that in The Instruction of Ani.
A new dimension in Sirach, the praise of Israel’s "saints" (men of piety), relates Israelite spiritual leadership to the guidance of wisdom. The other wisdom text, also from the Apocrypha, that develops this approach to Israel’s history is the book of Wisdom. Its author praises personified wisdom, now a hypostasis (or manifestation) of God’s essential character, and describes the period of the exodus from Egypt as one during which wisdom guided God’s people into freedom. Prayer and praise unite in this thoroughly Hellenistic text, one composed in Greek and making extensive use of Greek rhetoric.
THE ORIGINAL TITLE OF THE BOOK AND ITS CONTENTS
The title of this book in most Greek manuscripts identifies its genre and author:Σοφία Ἰησοῦ υἱοῦ Σιραχ (Sophia Iēsou huiou S(e)irach, "the Wisdom of Jesus the son of Sirach"). A shorter form occurs in the Syriac text: the Wisdom of Bar Sira (the Wisdom of the Son of Sira). And an altogether different title appears in the Latin tradition, where one finds such descriptive categories as the church book (Ecclesiasticus) in the Vulgate and Parabolae ("Wise Sayings") in a Hebrew copy, according to Jerome. On two occasions later Jewish writers preface a citation from Sirach with the words המשׁל אמר (hammōšēl ʾāmar, "the one who spoke in Proverbs"). The tenth-century Jewish scholar Saadia refers to Sirach as ספר מוסר (sēper mûsār, "the book of Discipline/Instruction"), and Rabbi Joseph calls it משׁלי בן סרא (mišlê ben sirāʾ, "The Proverbs of the Son of Sira").
Although the opening chapter of Sirach has not survived in the Hebrew manuscripts, a remark in Sir 50:27 attributes the book to Simeon ben Eleazar ben Sira, and Sir 51:30 adds: "Thus far the words of Simeon, the son of Jeshua, who is called Ben Sira. The Wisdom of Simeon, the son of Jeshua, the son of Eleazar, the son of Sira." The name "Simeon" (Σίμων Simōn) seems to have come from Sir 50:1, 24a; the probable name of the author is Jeshua ben Eleazar ben Sira. Most Greek and Latin manuscripts partially confirm the identity of the author, reading "the Wisdom of Jesus son of Sira" and "the book of Jesus son of Sirach" respectively. The ch ending on Sirach in Greek manuscripts represents either a Greek χ (chi), indicating an indeclinable word, or the Hebrew א (ʾaleph).
The prologue to the book, written by Ben Sira’s grandson, confirms the tradition that identifies the author’s name with Jeshua (Jesus). Ben Sira’s patronymic includes the name of his father (Eleazar) and his grandfather (Sira). Within the book several self-references occur, identifying Ben Sira as a professional wise man, describing his disciplined life-style, and inviting young boys to study in his academy.
The first of several authorial self-references, 24:30–34 (cf. 34:12–13; 39:12–15, 32–35; 41:16; 43:32; 50:25–29; 51:1–30) implies that Ben Sira understood his teachings as inspired utterances that began small but grew unexpectedly, like a canal expanding into a huge stream. His own learning, directed initially toward personal enjoyment ("I will water my garden/ and drench my flower-beds" [24:31 NRSV]), soon lost its selfish character and became available to everyone ("Observe that I have not labored for myself alone,/ but for all who seek wisdom" [24:34 NRSV]). In 33:16–18, Ben Sira repeats the latter remark; in doing so he compares himself to gleaners following grape pickers. This image suggests an awareness that the period of divine inspiration is rapidly coming to an end ("Now I was the last to keep vigil," 33:16). Later rabbinic teaching limited the era of divine inspiration to that begun by Moses and ended by Ezra. In the context of discussing the wide experience of educated persons, he mentions extensive travel and the danger associated with journeys in the ancient world (34:9–13).
Within an elaborate treatment of various professions in his day, Ben Sira demonstrates the advantages of being a scholar (38:24–39:11). The similarities to a popular Egyptian text, The Instruction for Duauf, often called A Satire of the Trades, has long been known and commented on, although the texts differ in tone and subject matter. (Ben Sira does not satirize, and his list of vocations is much shorter.) Having given his strong endorsement of the scribe’s profession, yet without disparaging the works of one’s hands, Ben Sira states that he has more to say, being full like the full moon, and invites students to blossom comparably, joining knowledge and worship (39:12–15). He proceeds to sing praise to the Creator:
So from the beginning I have
been convinced of all this
and have thought it out and
left it in writing:
All the works of the Lord are good,
and he will supply every need in its time.
Expressing a teacher’s desire for respect, Ben Sira urges students to observe his instruction (41:16). In the Greek text of 43:32 (but not in the Hebrew, which has the plural "we," Ben Sira acknowledges the inevitable mystery that humans encounter when reflecting on transcendence: "Many things greater than these lie hidden,/ for I have seen but few of his works" (NRSV). An epilogue, 50:25–29, expresses Ben Sira’s extreme animosity toward Samaritans, Idumeans, and Philistines (Hellenists), along with some comments reflecting an entirely novel idea in Hebraic thought: pride of authorship.
Instruction in understanding and knowledge
I have written in this book,
Jesus son of Eleazar son of
Sirach of Jerusalem,
whose mind poured forth wisdom.
Happy are those who concern
themselves with these things,
and those who lay them to
heart will become wise.
For if they put them into practice,
they will be equal to anything,
for the fear of the Lord is their path.
The final chapter, consisting of a prayer, an autobiographical poem on wisdom, and an appeal to readers (51:1–30), is rich with personal references, although employing literary conventions. This practice of using traditional language of self-reference already appears in the book of Proverbs (cf. Prov 4:1–9) and Ecclesiastes (Eccl 1:12–2:2 and throughout the book). For this reason, some of the self-references in Sirach may reveal nothing about the author’s personal experiences (e.g., adventures during traveling).
The information that Ben Sira enjoyed the leisurely status of a professional teacher suggests that one can find in Sirach the sort of teachings he conveyed to his students. The book stands in the tradition of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, especially the former. It consists, therefore, of brief aphorisms, maxims, and clever statements in poetic form having to do with practical daily existence. Like the initial collection in Proverbs (Proverbs 1–9), the sayings in Sirach frequently make up brief paragraphs on a particular topic. The subjects range widely, extending from inner feelings, like a sense of shame, to external behavior, such as slander, from deeply religious acts of charity to self-serving conduct at banquets, from proper attitudes toward money to the disgrace of being reduced to begging, from various kinds of friends to the trouble occasioned by bad daughters, and much more.
The teachings also take up existential issues, such as sickness and death, wrestling with the ethical question of whether one should consult a physician, who in popular imagination was seen to interfere with divine punishment for sin. Ben Sira takes no refuge in belief in a future life, and that refusal to do so allows the matter of divine justice—or more correctly its absence—to press heavily on him, as it did on the author of the book of Job.22 This vexing problem surfaces frequently in argumentative contexts, suggesting that Ben Sira encountered a vocal group who denied God’s just governance of the world. Ben Sira subscribed to traditional religious teachings and expressed his own faith quite tangibly, either in prayer or in hymnic praise. Moreover, he identified the divine revelation in the Torah with the figure of wisdom, who descended from heaven to dwell in Jerusalem. True knowledge, as he saw it, consisted of worship, its origin and destination.
Ben Sira’s teachings have no discernible order, except for the lengthy section praising faithful men (אנשׁי חסד ʾanšê ḥesed; 44:1–50:24), and even there some confusion occurs as to actual sequence. Occasional vocatives ("my son") give the book an appearance of actual classroom use, although this form of address is standard in wisdom literature, occurring in ancient Sumerian and Egyptian instructions and in Proverbs. The expressions "father" and "son" eventually came to be used for "teacher" and "student." The advice in the book of Sirach certainly accords with the supposition that a professional teacher is busily at work in Jerusalem preparing his Jewish students to cope with reality in a Hellenistic environment (50:27).
Viewing the book as a text for the academy, Wolfgang Roth understands the book in terms of "seven teaching units set off from each other through brief passages that reassure and encourage the struggling student." In his view, the book moves from simple matters to more complex ones on the assumption that students learn by stages. Moreover, Ben Sira uses himself as an example, describing his own progress from early discipline to later success. Marking the stages of a student’s progress, an exhortation to prepare for testing (2:1–17) leads to instruction about filial devotion and duty to associates (2:7–4:10). A call to cling to wisdom (4:11–19) then introduces section two, an instruction on sincerity and justice, on humility, consistency, and friendship (4:20–6:17). An exhortation to accept wisdom’s fetters follows introducing section three, teaching about social issues (7:1–14:19). The fourth section (15:11–23:27) praises students for staying in Wisdom’s shelter, debates the matter of free will, and closes with a discourse by Wisdom (24:1–27). The fifth section (25:1–33:15) deals with social relationships in general, giving a "mini-sociology of early Judaism." The sixth section (33:19–39:11), introduced by a report on Ben Sira’s progress (33:16–18), deals with such intimate issues as dreams and the inner springs of piety (providence, prayer, temperance, and illness), "a sort of mini-psychology." The seventh section (39:16–50:24) begins with a reflection on divine presence in human thinking and experience (39:16–42:14) and treats God’s presence in the universe (42:15–43:33), reaching its climax in the praise of faithful Israelites (44:1–50:24), "a theological survey."
THE HISTORICAL SETTING
A prologue introduces the Greek translation of Sirach. Ben Sira’s grandson, who rendered the Hebrew text into Greek for the Jewish community in Egypt, gives the precise date of his arrival in Egypt as the thirty-eighth year of Euergetes. That epithet was applied to only two Lagid rulers, Ptolemy III Euergetes I (246–221 bce) and Ptolemy VII Physkon Euergetes II (170–164, and 146–117 bce). Only the latter king held office long enough to meet the translator’s specified thirty-eight years; the date 132 bce, therefore, marks his entry into Egypt. The translation was completed after the death of Euergetes II in 117 bce (note the participleσυγχρονίσας [sygchronisas], which ordinarily implies simultaneity, hence, "I was there as long as Euergetes reigned").
Ben Sira lavishly praises a high priest named Simeon, son of Jochanan (called Onias in some Greek mss). From 219 to 196 bce, Simeon II was high priest in Jerusalem, which accords well with the information provided by Ben Sira’s grandson. The grandfather lived during Simeon’s rule over the religious life of the Jews, and Ben Sira vividly describes an occasion in which the high priest presided over the ritual at the Temple on a special holy day, perhaps the Day of Atonement, or possibly the daily whole offering. The tone of Ben Sira’s remarks about Simeon suggests that he had already died.
Assuming that Ben Sira lived during Simeon’s tenure as high priest, when did he die? One thing is certain: He does not mention the social chaos that erupted during the Maccabean revolt against Syrian oppression in 167 bce, although that seethed for some time prior to open resistance. In 175 bce the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to power, intensifying the policy of Hellenization already in force. Jason, the son of the high priest Simeon, joined in this effort, having replaced his own brother, Onias III, in that office, a prize secured through a bribe of 360 silver talents, plus the promise to hasten Hellenization through the construction of a gymnasium in Jerusalem. According to 2 Macc 4:23–26, the prize of the office of high priest later went to Menelaus, who offered an even higher sum to Antiochus.
In 167 bce, this Seleucid king went so far as to proscribe Judaism, forbidding the celebration of festivals and sacrifices, the practice of circumcision and observance of dietary laws, and setting up a statue of Zeus over the altar in the Temple at Jerusalem. The horrified author of Dan 8:13; 9:27; 11:31; and 12:11 designates this statue "the abomination of desolation." Ben Sira has nothing to say about these disturbing events, and one can plausibly assume that he died before they took place. On the basis of a somewhat nostalgic depiction of Simeon, seemingly directed at his successor, Onias, and urging him to imitate his father’s good deeds, scholars generally date Sirach in the period between 195 and 180 bce. A date c. 185 bce seems likely.
Seleucid kings had not always looked on Jews as enemies. Antiochus III the Great (223–187 bce) waged aggressive campaigns from Asia Minor to India, then turned his attention to Egypt. He was defeated at Raphia in 217 by Ptolemy IV Philopator, but succeeded in crushing the Egyptian army at Panium in 198 during the reign of Ptolemy V Epiphanes (203–181 bce). The Jewish historian Josephus claims that the Jews assisted Antiochus in these early years, providing supplies and elephants and fighting to remove the garrison of Egyptian soldiers in the citadel at Jerusalem.
In gratitude, Antiochus made a number of concessions: (1) to help defray the cost of daily sacrifices; (2) to exempt from taxation the materials for building the Temple; (3) to obligate the people to live according to the Torah; (4) to exempt from taxation the senate, priests, scribes, and sacred singers; (5) to exempt Jerusalem citizens from taxation for three years; and (6) to let the remaining citizens reduce their taxes by a third and to emancipate slaves. When the Syrians were routed by Romans at Magnesia in 190 bce, the situation changed noticeably, and, pressed for revenues, Antiochus rescinded the exemptions from taxes and reduced the privileges previously granted to Jews. In 187, Antiochus was assassinated at Elymais while attacking one of Bel’s sacred places to make payment to Rome. His son, Seleucus IV Philopator (187–175 bce), succeeded him. Seleucus’s treatment of the Jews was somewhat ambiguous, at first restoring the privileges earlier granted them by his father, but later sending Heliodorus to confiscate the treasures in the Temple at Jerusalem (2 Macc 3:4–40). In 175, Seleucus IV Philopator was assassinated, and Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 bce) assumed the reins. Among Jews he earned the nickname "Epimanes" ("Madman"), from his cruel treatment of them.
The internal situation reflected the political climate abroad. Opportunists chose sides, hoping to find themselves on the side of the eventual winners in the struggle for power. Competing families—Tobiads and Oniads—strove for popular support, and old rivalries—Jews versus Samaritans—extended the dissension beyond the streets of Jerusalem. Avarice and greed ran free, touching the highest office, turning the religious priesthood into a coveted prize up for grabs to the highest bidder. Jason’s and Menelaus’s willingness to compromise ancestral practices in favor of Greek ways demonstrates the degradation of the priesthood and explains Ben Sira’s glowing praise of Simeon, who stood as a sharp contrast to the weak son, Onias III. Antiochus IV Epiphanes’s removal of Onias showed how far a foreign ruler was willing to go in carrying out his policy of Hellenization.
A few allusions in Sirach may suggest the volatile situation. In 50:25–26, Ben Sira voices contempt for Idumeans, Philistines (Hellenizers), and Samaritans, and in 7:4–7; 40:25–26; and 50:1, 23–24 (Hebrew text) he may criticize contenders for the office of high priest. Finally, the prayer for renewed deeds of deliverance and signs of divine leadership (36:1–22) suggests that Ben Sira thought that belief in the ancient experience of divine watchcare could soon disappear from the collective memory. Nevertheless, such remarks fall readily within the historical situation envisioned by an activity for Ben Sira between 200 and 180 bce.
FORMS OF EXPRESSION
Ben Sira stands in a venerable tradition of wisdom teachers. His speech forms resemble those in Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, which he studied thoroughly (along with the Torah and prophetic literature).33 Truth statement and instruction, the base forms of theמשׁל (māšāl), loosely translated "proverb" but etymologically implying a likeness and an authoritative word, occur with great frequency.
Truth Statements. Often called sentences, truth statements capture fleeting insights and express them in poetic form so as to seize the imagination and linger in memory. They capture the experience of many and couch it in words that individualize the discovery, giving it a timeless quality. Such aphorisms and maxims have the force of legal injunction in some societies; ancient Israelites employed them as incontrovertible evidence. They need only be spoken to command assent: "A new friend is like new wine;/ when it has aged, you can drink it with pleasure" (9:10b NRSV). Who can deny that "all living beings become old like a garment,/ for the decree from of old is, ‘You must die!’ " (14:17 NRSV)? These sentences pronounce judgment on human nature: "A rich person does wrong, and even adds insults;/ a poor person suffers wrong, and must add apologies" (13:3 NRSV); "Like music in time of mourning is ill-timed conversation,/ but a thrashing and discipline are at all times wisdom" (22:6 NRSV).35 Long experience with poor learners rests behind this one: "Whoever teaches a fool is like one who glues potsherds together,/ or who rouses a sleeper from deep slumber" (22:9 NRSV). Fools in biblical wisdom were morally bankrupt, not devoid of intellect.
These ancient truth statements came in various forms: "Better are the God-fearing who lack understanding/ than the highly intelligent who transgress the law" (19:24 NRSV). Echoing a sentiment within Proverbs, this truth statement expresses the pathos of being dependent on others: "Better is the life of the poor under their own crude roof/ than sumptuous food in the house of others" (29:22 NRSV). Failing to speak at the right time evokes the following comment: "Better are those who hide their folly/ than those who hide their wisdom" (41:15 NRSV).
Numerical sayings enable teachers to combine similar things to achieve maximum effect when the last item finally appears:
I take pleasure in three things,
and they are beautiful in the sight of God
and of mortals:
agreement among brothers and sisters,
friendship among neighbors,
and a wife and a husband who
live in harmony. (25:1 NRSV)
Sometimes these sayings become somewhat wordy:
Two kinds of individuals multiply sins,
and a third incurs wrath.
Hot passion that blazes like a fire
will not be quenched until it
burns itself out;
one who commits fornication with
his near of kin
will never cease until the fire
burns him up. (23:16 NRSV)
At two things my heart is grieved,
and because of a third anger comes over me:
a warrior in want through poverty,
intelligent men who are treated contemptuously,
and a man who turns back from
righteousness to sin—
the Lord will prepare him for the sword! (26:28 NRSV)
Some truth statements are introduced by a particle of existence; e.g.,ישׁ (yēš, "there is").
Some [yēš] people keep silent and are
thought to be wise,
while others are detested for being talkative.
Some people keep silent because
they have nothing to say,
while others keep silent because
they know when to speak. (20:5–6 NRSV)
There are those who work and
struggle and hurry,
but are so much the more in want.
There are others who are slow and need help,
who lack strength and abound in poverty;
but the eyes of the Lord look
kindly upon them;
he lifts them out of their lowly condition
and raises up their heads
to the amazement of the many.
There is the gift that profits you nothing,
and the gift to be paid back double. (20:10 NRSV)
Some truth statements take the form of benediction or malediction, blessing and curse: "Happy are those who do not blunder with their lips,/ and need not suffer remorse for sin./ Happy are those whose hearts do not condemn them,/ and who have not given up their hope" (14:1–2 NRSV). Ben Sira characterizes pursuit of wisdom in this manner:
Happy is the person who meditates on wisdom
and reasons intelligently,
who reflects in his heart on her ways
and ponders her secrets,
pursuing her like a hunter,
and lying in wait on her paths;
who peers through her windows
and listens at her doors;
who camps near her house
and fastens his tent peg to her walls;
who pitches his tent near her,
and so occupies an excellent lodging place;
who places his children under her shelter,
and lodges under her boughs;
who is sheltered by her from the heat,
and dwells in the midst of her glory.
The benedictions contrast mightily with these maledictions: "Woe to timid hearts and to slack hands,/ and to the sinner who walks a double path!/ Woe to the fainthearted who have no trust!/ Therefore they have no shelter./ Woe to you who have lost your nerve!/ What will you do when the Lord’s reckoning comes?" (2:12–14 NRSV). These two forms reflect the sapiential tendency to think in polarities, making clear distinctions between the wise and fools, good and evil.
The simple sentence, or māšāl, also occurs as a rhetorical question: "Whose offspring are worthy of honor?/ Human offspring./ Whose offspring are worthy of honor?/ Those who fear the Lord./ Whose offspring are unworthy of honor?/ Human offspring./ Whose offspring are unworthy of honor?/ Those who break the commandments" (10:19 NRSV). Apostrophe, direct rhetorical address, livens the speech about death in 41:1–2: "O death, how bitter is the thought of you/ to the one at peace among possessions,/ who has nothing to worry about and is prosperous in everything,/ and still is vigorous enough to enjoy food!/ O death, how welcome is your sentence/ to one who is needy and failing in strength,/ worn down by age and anxious about everything;/ to one who is contrary, and has lost all patience!" (NRSV).38
Instruction. The other base form, instruction, sets the tone for Ben Sira’s teaching, for he speaks as an authoritative figure addressing students. The direct address varies from the usualבני (bĕnî), "my son," to "holy sons" (39:13), "children" (3:1), "my children" (23:7; 41:14), and "you who need instruction" (51:23). His prescriptive advice, often resembling brief paragraphs on specific topics, is reinforced with warnings and admonitions, the proverbial dangling carrot employed to motivate people. Frequently, refrains set this material apart from what precedes or follows.
Throughout the book positively expressed instructions alternate with negative ones: "Honor your father by word and deed,/ that his blessing may come upon you" (3:8 NRSV); "Do not glorify yourself by dishonoring your father,/ for your father’s dishonor is no glory to you" (3:10 NRSV). Frequently these instructions lack motivation, e.g., "Do not be ashamed to confess your sins,/ and do not try to stop the current of a river" (4:26 NRSV). Sometimes a series of instructions is followed by a single motivating clause: "My child, do not cheat the poor of their living,/ and do not keep needy eyes waiting./ Do not grieve the hungry/ or anger one in need./ Do not add to the troubles of the desperate,/ or delay giving to the needy … for if in bitterness of soul some should curse you,/ their Creator will hear their prayer" (4:1–6 NRSV). The appeal to reward for good conduct balances threats aimed at misbehavior: "Give to the Most High as he has given to you,/ and as generously as you can afford./ For the Lord is the one who repays,/ and he will repay you sevenfold" (35:12–13 NRSV).
Ben Sira demonstrates a fondness for refrains and repetitive phrases, as if stopping the readers in midthought and suspending them there: "You who fear the Lord, wait for his mercy;/ do not stray, or else you may fall./ You who fear the Lord, trust in him,/ and your reward will not be lost./ You who fear the Lord, hope for good things,/ for lasting joy and mercy" (2:7–9 NRSV; cf. 2:15–17). Similarly:
Question a friend; perhaps he did not do it;
or if he did, so that he may not do it again.
Question a neighbor; perhaps he did not say it;
or if he said it, so that he may not repeat it.
Question a friend, for often it is slander;
so do not believe everything you hear.
Question your neighbor before you threaten him;
and let the law of the Most High take its course.
(19:13–15, 17 NRSV)
Other Literary Forms. Besides the two base forms, truth statement and instruction, several other forms of literary expression liven Ben Sira’s teaching. He includes two prayers, a rare feature in earlier wisdom (cf. Prov 30:7–9 for a profound invocation of help, presumably from above). In 22:27–23:6, Ben Sira asks for effective control over his speech and thoughts, as well as mastery of pride and illicit sensual desire. This moving expression of piety addresses God as "O Lord, Father and Master of my life" and as "O Lord, Father and God of my life" (23:1, 4 NRSV). Ben Sira welcomes divine chastisement as early warning against repeating one’s sins, lest one also become subject to human mockers. The other prayer, 36:1–22, invokes the "God of All," Yahweh, the sacred name of the deity in Jewish literature, and the "God of the ages." Here Ben Sira gives vent to frustration over God’s apparent inactivity, praying for renewed signs and defeat of enemies, hastening the day of reckoning. He longs for the return of all exiled Jews, and he asks for pity on Zion. Remembering ancient recitations of Yahweh’s mighty deeds on Israel’s behalf, together with prophetic promises yet unfulfilled, Ben Sira begs the Lord to confirm the truth of both in his own time.
Several hymns also appear in Sirach, most notably 42:15–43:33 and 51:1–12 (the Hebrew text of ms B after 51:12 has another hymn of sixteen verses modeled on Psalm 136). In these hymns, Ben Sira extols the wonders of the created world in the same way the author of Job did. The awesome power of the Creator and a humble awareness of mystery, still unseen, establish the mood for these hymns. Ben Sira knows that human eyes merely touch the surface, but his exquisite use of poetic imagery suggests that even this limited knowledge is something marvelous. He mentions the way pools put on ice like a breastplate, and he describes frost as pointed thorns. The rapid descent of snow reminds him of birds in the sky. Such poetic flourish does not detract from the impression of order and precision, the existence of complementary pairs, and the purposive attention to design and function where the heavenly bodies are concerned.42
Two didactic compositions resemble the hymns, but their mood places more distance between the singer and the Creator (16:24–17:14; 39:12–35). One has the feeling that these learned meditations grew out of rational reflection and studious instruction. Exploring the place of human beings in the universe, they affirm a legitimate role for everything, even those things that seem out of place in a harmonious universe. These didactic compositions function as a defense of divine justice, like the debate form, which Ben Sira uses freely.
Also known from Egyptian wisdom literature, this device to stave off dissent first appears within the Bible in Ecclesiastes: "Do not say, ‘Who can have power over me?’/ for the Lord will surely punish you./ Do not say, ‘I sinned, yet what has happened to me?’/ for the Lord is slow to anger.… Do not say, ‘His mercy is great,/ he will forgive the multitude of my sins,’/ for both mercy and wrath are with him,/ and his anger will rest on sinners" (Eccl 5:3–4, 6 NRSV). This debate form warns against presuming too much about God’s patience, mercy, and sovereignty. It challenges those who think they can sin with impunity: "Do not say, ‘I am hidden from the Lord,/ and who from on high has me in mind?/ Among so many people I am unknown,/ for what am I in a boundless creation?’ " (16:17 NRSV).
In two places Ben Sira sings wisdom’s praise (1:1–10; 24:1–23), moving beyond Job 28, where wisdom remains altogether inaccessible to human beings, and Prov 8:1–36, where she is present alongside Yahweh as the first act of creation. Ben Sira affirms this earlier tradition, attesting to her innate inaccessibility and declaring her the initial creative act. At the same time, he insists that the Lord dispensed wisdom on all God’s works and on those who love God (1:1–10). According to Sirach 24, wisdom searched the whole world for a suitable resting place until the Creator chose Israel as her place of residence. In Zion she blossomed and produced fruit, inviting those who desired her to eat their fill. Ben Sira identifies wisdom with the Mosaic law, making it accessible to everyone in Israel. The universal motif of wisdom’s covering the earth like mist gives way to a particularistic tradition. The erotic relationship between wisdom and students, present in Proverbs 8–9, achieves new expression in an acrostic poem that concludes Sirach (51:13–20, 30), an earlier form of which was discovered in cave 11 at Qumran.
Ben Sira also heaps praise on a select group of ancestral heroes (Sir 44:1–50:24). He walks through the gallery of biblical characters, and in doing so prepares the way for a eulogy on the high priest of his day, Simeon. These descriptions resemble Greek encomia in some respects,46 but suitable antecedents from biblical literature exist. The choice of heroes, highly selective, betrays a decided preference for priestly figures48 and for others who contributed to Israel’s cult in some material way. One looks in vain for a woman in the list, despite the presence of remarkable females in the sacred traditions (e.g., Deborah, Huldah, Hannah, Samson’s mother, Ruth). Pride of position goes to Aaron and Phinehas, with Moses, David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Josiah, Zerubbabel, and Joshua being invoked for their part in reforming and strengthening the cult of the temple. Prophets who make the list do so on the basis of miraculous acts rather than oracular proclamations. The sequence of heroes follows the canonical divisions, first those characters whose lives are recorded in the Pentateuch; then prophets, including Job; and finally Nehemiah, from the writings. An afterthought leads Ben Sira to return to the beginning, Enoch, and work backward to Adam.
BEN SIRA’S USE OF BIBLICAL TRADITIONS
Although Ben Sira patterns his teaching after Israel’s wisdom literature, the extensive praise of ancestral heroes moves outside that body of texts to embrace the whole Hebrew canon. This appeal to special revelation and its confessional attestations marks a radical departure from the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Sacred history thus becomes subject matter for consideration, and that shift compromises the fundamental character of wisdom as accessible to all people, regardless of nationality or geographical location.
To be sure, the author of Proverbs 1–9 introduces the notion of divine legislation (תורה tôrâ) and discipline (מוסר mûsār), together with the concept of reprehensible conduct (תועבה tôʿēbâ), all of which come perilously close to providing a link with Deuteronomy. Their non-specific use with reference to the will of God and its punitive action against despicable behavior complicates matters and prevents firm resolution of the question of whether the author had Deuteronomy in mind when using these ideas. With Ben Sira, the issue is no longer ambiguous.
The integration of sacred history and wisdom instruction pervades the entire book of Sirach, not just 44:1–50:24. Allusions to Israel’s history as recorded in the canon of his day function as examples of praiseworthy conduct and as warnings against deeds that provoke divine anger. No longer content to study nature and human nature in search of instructive analogies, Ben Sira draws freely on the special relationship between an elect people and its deity. He actually quotes King David’s response to divine anger occasioned by obedience to a command to number the people, a perplexing story of a vacillating deity that prompted the chronicler to introduce Satan as the instigator of David’s action. According to 2 Sam 24:14, David opted to take his chances with an angry Yahweh in preference to three years of famine or three months of fleeing from enemies. Ben Sira observes: "Let us fall into the hands of the Lord,/ but not into the hands of mortals;/ for equal to his majesty is his mercy,/ and equal to his name are his works" (2:17 NRSV).
From the book of Genesis, Ben Sira alludes to Adam (Sir 33:10; 40:1), to Eve (Sir 25:24), to Lot (Sir 16:8), to Sodom and Gomorrah (Sir 39:23), to the fallen angels (Sir 16:7), to the flood (Sir 40:10), to the covenant with Noah (Sir 17:12), to the image of God (Sir 17:3), to the creation account (Sir 39:16, 21), and to Jacob’s descendants (Sir 23:12). Given the dearth of biblical references to Adam and Eve outside Genesis, Ben Sira’s clear mention of Adam in 40:1—only the Greek text has the proper name in 33:10—and his placing on Eve the sole responsibility for the origin of sin show that he was influenced by a growing trend to speculate about such biblical persons as Adam, Eve, and Enoch.
Allusions to incidents associated with the signal event of Israelite history, the exodus, also occur. Ben Sira mentions the six hundred thousand Israelites who perished in the wilderness because of their idolatrous conduct (Sir 16:9–10), as well as the tree that turned bitter water sweet (Sir 38:5). He refers to Yahweh as the "Holy One" (Sir 4:14) and mentions the Sinaitic legislation transmitted through Moses to the people (Sir 24:23).
Sometimes Ben Sira alludes to a cluster of ideas from specific biblical themes. In 24:1–12, he refers to the Yahwistic notion of creation by means of a heavenly mist; to the pillar of cloud that symbolized Yahweh’s guiding presence with the Israelites under Moses’ leadership; to the tabernacle, also a sign of Yahweh’s coming to meet the chosen spokesman for the wandering people; to sacred names—Israel/Jacob, Jerusalem-and to an elect people. Similarly, 36:1–17 mentions divine signs and wonders, echoing those associated with the exodus from Egypt and its immediate aftermath; the regular cultic recitation of Yahweh’s "mighty deeds" (צדקות ṣĕdāqôt); the tribes of Jacob and their inheritance, the land promised to Abraham; the people on whom the divine name Yahweh had been pronounced; Israel, the firstborn of God; Zion, the city of God’s sanctuary; unfulfilled prophecies uttered in Yahweh’s name; and Aaron’s priestly blessing.
Such allusions to the major sacral traditions, creation and exodus, also appear within didactic psalms, becoming at times somewhat tedious. Ben Sira stops short of giving a detailed account of these historical events connected with the wilderness, thus avoiding the tedium of learned psalmography (cf. Psalms 78; 105; 106; 136). The surprising aspect of his selection from Israel’s sacred story is what he does not choose. Given the illustrative force of Joseph’s refusal to succumb to seduction, the powerful negative potential of Saul, the perennial temptation to idolatry afforded by the story about Balaam, and so forth, one marvels at Ben Sira’s reticence. When warning against the dangers of uncontrolled passion, he does not appeal to the examples of David and Bathsheba or Amnon and Tamar (cf. 6:2–4). To combat the strong lure of Hellenism, especially for young men, Ben Sira does not use the episode about Balaam or even the incident involving Elijah and the prophets of Baal.
Ben Sira may very well have alluded to far more biblical texts than suggested thus far, inasmuch as his language frequently echoes ideas from them. For example, the designation of the Lord as compassionate and merciful (2:11) undoubtedly reflects an abbreviated version of Exod 34:6–7, the ancient proclamation to Moses of the divine attributes. This oft-cited creed-only the positive attributes-left an indelible print on subsequent characterizations of Yahweh. Ben Sira often offers advice that has its point of reference in ancient teachings, such as the command to honor one’s parents (Sir 3:3), although he provides a different rationale for such filial allegiance than one finds in the Decalogue.
Comparison with a wisdom text later than Ben Sira is instructive, for the author of the book of Wisdom also weaves sacred story into his instructions, always without specific names of the persons being recalled (Wis 10:1–19:22). He traces the long account of Israel in Egypt and the escape into the wilderness without ever naming anyone. The clear implication is that the audience knew the story intimately and filled in the missing names. This author adheres to the story line from beginning to end. The resulting treatment approaches the type of interpretation known as midrash, a running commentary on a biblical text. Furthermore, this midrash-like interpretation heightens the psychological features of a divine drama between Israel’s God and the Egyptians. Their offense, idolatry, provides focus for the entire analysis.
The characters behind the story in Wis 10:1–19:22 include Adam, Cain, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Lot, Lot’s wife, Jacob, Esau, Joseph, and Moses. The full narrative explores the familiar events in considerable detail, leaving little to the imagination. Nevertheless, the incidents lead up to and set the stage for a sharp attack on idolatry, including three explanations for its appeal to the popular imagination (the aesthetic, a parent’s grief over a son, a desire to honor a distant emperor).
With a single exception, Ben Sira withholds the names of persons to whom he refers in 1:1–43:33. That one specific reference is Lot (Sir 16:8). Ben Sira does mention Jacob, but the reference seems always to be national, hence synonymous with Israel. In the section praising ancestral heroes (Sir 44:1–50:24), Ben Sira specifically names the individuals under discussion. The difference probably relates to the literary form being employed; one mentions the name of the deceased in a "eulogy."
The practice of rehearsing ancient history by means of allusions raises the question, "Who was the intended audience?" In the light of the expense of owning scrolls of the entire Bible, one may reasonably conclude that both Ben Sira and the author of the book of Wisdom directed their teachings to a small group of prospective scribes. These young men would have studied the Scriptures just as Ben Sira is said to have done. Still, one cannot rule out the possibility that communal worship, especially singing the didactic psalms, and parental teaching may have familiarized the people with certain biblical traditions, particularly the story of the beginnings.
In some ways, Sirach resembles the book of Tobit, Baruch, the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, and Pirqe ʾAbot, devotional literature from the wider Jewish environment. The author of Tobit emphasizes acts of piety as an expression of loyalty to the Mosaic law and regularly lifts up a voice in prayer. In Tob 12:6–10 the angel Raphael assumes the venerable role of wisdom teacher, insisting that "a little with righteousness is better than wealth with wrongdoing" (Tob 12:8 NRSV) and promising reward for virtuous living. Tobit both prays for and experiences divine activity; like Job, his misfortune was eventually reversed. The poem on wisdom in Bar 3:9–4:4 does not integrate mythic themes concerning wisdom’s function at creation with the notion that wisdom finds concrete expression in the law of Moses. Instead, it proceeds in the manner of Job 28, stressing the inaccessibility of wisdom to all but God, who passed it on to Israel in the Torah. The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs transcends the ritual features of worship in favor of ethical dimensions to an unprecedented degree; Ben Sira endeavors to combine the two. Like Pirqe ʾAbot, Ben Sira offers ethical advice to students steeped in torah piety.
BEN SIRA AND HELLENISM
Occasional similarities between Sirach and Greek authors raise the issue of Ben Sira’s dependence on popular Hellenistic philosophers. The comparison of death to falling leaves in 14:18 (and in the Iliad vi.146–149) belongs to folk wisdom. The image would naturally occur to anyone who gave much thought to the process of growth and decay in nature and among humans. Ben Sira proclaims at one point: "He is the All." This expression was common in Stoic philosophy, but Ben Sira could easily have arrived at such an understanding of God on the basis of his reading of Isa 45:5–7 and Deut 32:39. Unlike Stoic thinkers, Ben Sira did not equate God with the created universe. The Stoic ideal of world citizenship did not drive out Ben Sira’s conviction that God had chosen Israel as a special heritage.
Ben Sira’s affirmation of physicians shows that he did not reject Greek ideas without careful consideration (Sir 38:1–15). He combines traditional Jewish belief about sin and disease with Hellenistic teachings, although the two seem mutually contradictory. In the end, piety prevailed, and because both Greeks and Jews prayed for healing, he could argue for combining the physician’s treatment with fervent prayer. Greek customs and ideas filled the air Ben Sira breathed, expressing themselves in many ways: a eulogy of ancestors, the notion of a rational universe with perfectly balanced pairs, human freedom and divine providence, dining customs, pride of authorship, and much more.
The last two deserve further comment. Ben Sira refers to the Hellenistic practice of selecting a person to preside over a banquet, and he gives advice on fulfilling that honor in an acceptable manner (Sir 32:1–13). He even mentions the reward for good service, the customary wreath awarded for leadership. His advice on table etiquette in 31:12–24 presupposes dinners like Greek banquets followed by symposia. Such dinners included contests at drinking wine, musical entertainment, speeches demonstrating wit and wisdom, seating of guests according to rank, and a blessing to the gods at the end of the dinner.
Greek pride of authorship influenced Ben Sira so strongly that he departed from the usual anonymity or pseudonymity of those who composed the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. He saw no particular virtue in attributing his teachings to King Solomon; given the nature of the book, he could not have done so, for the praise of ancestral heroes required an author from a much later time than the Solomonic era. The author of the book of Wisdom avoided a historical resume that would place him in the second or first centuries.
Egyptian influence can probably be detected in the comparison of professions in 38:24–39:11, although this text differs fundamentally from the Satire of the Trades. Ben Sira offers no hint of satire in describing the work of the farmer, the artisan, the smith, and the potter. Instead, he merely points out that their work consumes both time and energy, leaving no opportunity for study. In no way does he disparage their contribution to society, which he thinks depends on what they do for survival. The Egyptian Instruction for Duauf, or the Satire of the Trades, ridicules considerably more occupations than the four Ben Sira mentions. Both Ben Sira and the Egyptian author contrast the scribe’s profession with all other kinds of work; their intent was to attract students to intellectual pursuits.
The ethic of caution based on shame and regard for one’s reputation as expressed in Sirach closely resembles that in Papyrus Insinger; similarities also exist between this late Egyptian instruction and Ecclesiastes. If Ben Sira relies on this work, he varies it in significant ways (cf. Sir 6:13; 13:1–42:2; 32:23; 41:11–13). His allusion to the bee to illustrate the importance of tiny things hardly confirms dependence on Papyrus Insinger, for such an analogy seems like a natural conclusion to an observant reader.
Links with Aramaean wisdom through the Sayings of Ahiqar, although possible, may derive from folk tradition: the futility of opposing a turbulent stream (Ahiqar 3.83 and Sir 4:26) and the revelation of character through the clothes one wears (Ahiqar 2.39 and Sir 19:29–30). Anyone could easily draw these conclusions without having heard or read either work.
This meager evidence of Greek influence on Ben Sira indicates that he drew far more extensively from biblical literature than from extra-biblical, even when trying to persuade Jews that their legacy was just as universal as Greek philosophy. That was the point of identifying the Mosaic law with cosmic wisdom. Ben Sira’s teachings demonstrate an awareness of the seductive power of Hellenism, especially to young people, and he wages battle for the next generation of Jews. This struggle introduces new types of discourse: psychological and philosophical arguments in the service of theodicy, discussion of free will and determinism, reflection about two ways (Sir 2:12). In essence, he sought to provide rational backing for his ancestral heritage. The assertion that wisdom comes from the Lord constitutes a declaration of war against Hellenism, where it was a product of human inquiry. Ben Sira dismisses all astrological speculation-and apocalyptic-as sheer arrogance or pride. "Be content with the knowledge God has bestowed on you" sums up his attitude toward striving to unlock hidden mysteries.61
Did Ben Sira venture forth into the Hellenistic world as an ambassador like John, the father of Eupolemus, who was sent to Rome to negotiate a treaty (cf. 2 Macc 4:11), or Philo, who represented the Jews of Alexandria before Caligula? Did Ben Sira occupy a position as judge or counselor in the gerousia? Did he work as a scribe in the Temple? Perhaps one could say more about his relationship with Hellenism if these questions could be answered.
RELIGIOUS TEACHINGS IN SIRACH
The two primary themes in the book, fear of the Lord and wisdom,63 are interwoven from first to last, making it difficult to determine the dominant one. The author of Proverbs 1–9 subjugated piety to knowledge, viewing the fear of the Lord as the main ingredient and first principle of learning. Wisdom thus consisted of something above and beyond obedience to God, although religion comprised its very core. For Ben Sira, fear of the Lord has no rival, not even the acquisition of wisdom: "How great is the one who finds wisdom!/ But none is superior to the one who fears the Lord./ Fear of the Lord surpasses everything;/ to whom can we compare the one who has it?" (25:10–11 NRSV). Like the word translated "wisdom" (חכם ḥākam), the expression "fear of the Lord" (יראי יהוה yirʾê yhwh) appears often in Sirach (over fifty times).
Such elevation of religion prompts Ben Sira to conclude that wisdom’s garland and root exist in the fear of the Lord, making religious achievement the sole justification for pride (Sir 10:22). Human wisdom expresses itself in deeds of kindness, true obedience to the law of Moses. Divine wisdom manifests itself in the Torah. Whereas the later wisdom has assumed the form of legal statute and passionate exhortation, men and women have no excuse for choosing folly. It has been said that wisdom manifests itself subjectively as fear of the Lord and objectively as the law of Moses.
Ben Sira urges submission to the yoke of divine discipline (מוסר mûsār), noting that it withholds itself like its name. Acknowledging the difficulty encountered by most students when they first endeavor to become wise, he describes wisdom as a hard taskmaster until people have demonstrated their worth. In time, however, she shows herself as the ardent lover, making them consider her earlier afflictions as nothing. This erotic language for intellectual curiosity and obedience to the Lord links up with the passionate discourse about love for God in the book of Deuteronomy.
Another theme pervading Sirach concerns God’s justice and mercy. Ben Sira subscribes to the traditional belief in God’s justice, but he knows that skepticism has imprinted itself indelibly on the minds of his audience. He uses the standard arguments-that God waits patiently, giving sinners an opportunity to repent; that things can change in a moment; that the hour of death will settle the score; that suffering serves as a test of character or as discipline; that human knowledge is partial; that praise is the proper response-and seeks to improve on them from Greek arguments about the design of the universe and punishment by mental and psychological anxiety. He refuses to endorse an answer that seems to have been emerging slowly in the Jewish community: the conviction that righteous individuals will receive eternal life (17:27–28). The Greek and Syriac texts introduce this belief at crucial junctures (Sir 7:17b; 48:11b; Greek II, Sir 2:9c; 16:22c; 19:19; Syriac, Sir 1:12b, 20; 3:1b). In this respect, Ben Sira resembles later Sadducees rather than Pharisees, who believed in life after death. That conservative tendency on the part of Ben Sira explains why he places so much emphasis on preserving honor or reputation, the one thing that survives after a person dies (Sir 41:11–13).
The origin of sin in a perfect universe placed a special burden on defenders of divine justice, particularly when it was attributed to the Creator. The serpent’s presence in the garden indirectly indicted the Lord. Later biblical texts compromise divine justice further, insisting that God overrides human freedom, forcing pharaohs and others to persist in obstinacy. Ben Sira stoutly resisted such ideas, for he believed that everyone acts with absolute freedom (Sir 15:11–20). Nevertheless, he realized that irresistible forces put extraordinary pressure on free will (Sir 33:11–13). That ambiguity characterizes much biblical thinking about sin, but Ben Sira brings the issue of free will into the arena of public discussion.
Ben Sira’s frequent attribution of mercy to the deity stands out when one observes the rarity of this idea in earlier wisdom literature. If an individual can rely on reward for virtuous conduct, the presupposition of much earlier wisdom, then divine mercy really does not fit into the picture. That understanding probably explains why sages did not characterize God as merciful. The shift takes place in Sirach, perhaps because earlier optimism had faded under the barrage of questions in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Historical circumstances no longer favored such optimistic reading of the human situation, if they ever did, and a greater consciousness of human frailty produces existential anxiety. The extent to which such alarm over sinful dominance and the sorry future of the human race, both in this life and in the next, can be grasped by studying 2 Esdras. In the light of the weighty burden hanging over humanity, Ben Sira takes some comfort in divine compassion. The source of his confidence in God’s mercy lies outside the wisdom literature, most likely in the ancient creedal confession in Exod 34:6–7.
The God whom Ben Sira worshiped was the Creator, a concept at the very heart of wisdom thinking. This majestic fashioner of an orderly universe saw whatever transpired and therefore ruled with exact justice. This sovereign demanded social justice (Sir 4:8–10), the demonstration of one’s true worship through ritual and charitable deeds, as well as pure thoughts. Ben Sira honors God as father, shepherd, and judge (Sir 18:13, 14; 23:1, 4; 51:10; 16:12–14).
It was noted earlier that Ben Sira did not believe in life beyond the grave, and in this regard he could be labeled a proto-Sadducee. Rejecting a meaningful existence after death alone hardly suffices to place him in the camp with later Sadducees, for he shared this skepticism with virtually all OT authors (Psalm 73; Isa 26:19; and Dan 12:2 being the only exceptions). Like the Sadducees of the first century ce, Ben Sira had strong interests, if not actual membership, in the priesthood. Moreover, he belonged to the elite ranks of upper-class citizens, and with this status came ultraconservatism aimed at maintaining the status quo. In addition, the temple cult represented the center of religious life for him, despite a commendable concern for doing acts of kindness when the occasion presented itself. In a sense, he understood the fundamentals of hasidic piety, but he never let the emotions seize control.
Later Pharisaism lacked this elitism and the strong attachment to the temple cult; it also appealed to the masses much more readily than did Sadduceeism. The destruction of the Temple in 70 ce brought the sacrificial cult to an end, as well as placing the priesthood in jeopardy. The Pharisees were able to continue their worship in synagogues, which offered a natural setting for prayer and religious training of the young. Ben Sira’s influence may well have suffered along with the priests whose life centered in the Temple. The sectarians at Qumran also cared deeply about the temple cult, but Ben Sira did not share their strong attention to divine mystery. Nor did he subscribe to their apocalyptic fervor, midrashic exegesis, celibacy, and so much more.
BEN SIRA’S ATTITUDE TOWARD WOMEN
Much has been said about biblical patriarchalism, a subjecting of women to their husbands’ whims and placing them in the category of property to be disposed of at will. Daughters depended on their fathers to arrange marriages, husbands could negate solemn oaths taken by their wives, and women usually did not inherit property. Husbands could marry more than one wife, but women had no such freedom. Two standards operated in the area of sexual misconduct, and husbands punished wives for infidelity. In a sense, primary responsibility for sin’s origin fell to a woman, and a prophet could even personify evil as a woman (Zech 5:5–11). In traditional lore, if not also in fact, a father could sacrifice his daughter if he so wished (Jephthah), but sons were equally vulnerable (Isaac).
We should not lose sight of the fact that the male authors of the biblical texts often portrayed women in a highly favorable light (cf. the depiction of Samson’s mother over against that of Manoah, Ruth, Deborah, and Susanna). They may have acknowledged the threat presented by the notorious foreign woman of Proverbs,71 but they balanced this figure with wisdom, personified as a woman, and with the portrait of an ideal wife. To be sure, they also personified folly as a female and praised the wife in Prov 31:10–31, largely from the point of view of the husband whom she benefits. Numerous instances of mutual love between husband and wife in the Bible suggest that not all women considered themselves oppressed. Sages considered good wives gifts of God, and the unknown author of 1 Esdr 3:1–4:41 praises woman as the strongest thing on earth, exceeded only by truth and its Author. The erotic passion expressed in Song of Songs testifies to a society that values the power stronger than death that draws men and women to each other.
Nevertheless, rare expressions of misogynism reveal the darker side of Israelite society, the result of centuries of double standards and jokes that have long since lost their humor. The author of Ecclesiastes expresses disdain over his, or someone else’s, inability to discover a single trustworthy woman, although he does proceed to indict men almost equally, giving them only one one-thousandth of an advantage over women (Eccl 7:23–29). The heroine Judith stands above all the men in the little town of Bethulia as courageous, virtuous, and pious (Jdt 8:1–34; 15:8–10). In the book of Tobit, both Anna and Sarah appear above reproach (Tob 2:11–14; 3:7–15), suggesting that misogynistic views may have been less dispersed than has often been claimed. Examination of the Greco-Roman environment and of rabbinic Judaism reveals rampant misogynism, making the attitude of the Bible toward women look tame by comparison.
Ben Sira inherits the mixed biblical tradition with respect to women, but he may be subject to Hellenistic views as well. In any event, he adds a new dimension, the discussion of daughters as a separate category. Moreover, he places the adjective "wicked" (רעה rāʿ â) before the noun "daughters" (בנות bānôt). His obscene characterization of them as opening their quiver for every arrow (Sir 26:12) represents the ultimate in disrespect, and his rancorous opinion that the birth of a daughter is a loss (Sir 22:3) can hardly be justified by anxiety over what that entails—finding a husband for her, securing her virginity until marriage and her faithfulness afterward, worrying about her ability to bear children. Worse still, he places the entire blame for sin and death on the first woman (Sir 25:24) and apparently makes the ridiculous statement that a man’s wickedness is better than a woman’s goodness.
The positive evaluation of woman also finds expression in Sirach, demonstrating Ben Sira’s awareness that life without women would be drab, indeed. He recognizes the value of a faithful wife, and he sees the pathos of impossible "love" (using the image of a eunuch who beholds a desirable young woman and groans). Ben Sira scolds foolish old men who stray from their nests like birds, and he mentions restless sighing brought on by loneliness. His erotic appreciation for a woman’s physical beauty seems boundless, issuing in effusive language based on the holy artifacts in the Temple ("Like the shining lamp on the holy lampstand,/ so is a beautiful face on a stately figure./ Like golden pillars on silver bases;/ so are shapely legs and steadfast feet" [Sir 26:17–18 NRSV]).
THE PRAISE OF ANCESTRAL HEROES
Such lavish praise of women did not induce Ben Sira to include a woman in his praise of loyal people, which comprises the last major section of the book, 44:1–50:24. If his primary criterion for selection relates to their contribution to and active participation in the temple cult, then silence with regard to women is mandated. That particular perspective certainly applies to Moses, Aaron, Phinehas, David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Josiah, Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, and Simeon. A secondary criterion, the desire to achieve canonical coverage, may explain the inclusion of Joshua and Caleb, along with the unnamed Judges, and the prophetic figures Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Job(!), and the unnamed twelve. That leaves two royal reprobates, Rheoboam and Jeroboam, and three priestly villains (Korah, Dathan, and Abiram) who merely stand out because of their infamy. Perhaps the addition of pre-Israelite worthies—Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob at first, then Enoch, Joseph, Shem, Seth, Enosh, and Adam later-represents a feeble effort to universalize the list.
This unusual journey through the portrait gallery of notables has recently been described as a complete reading of epic history that served as a mythic etiology for Judaism in the period of the Second Temple. The hypothesis runs like this: The hymn consists of a tripartite architectonic structure with transitional units: (1) the establishment of covenants with the conquest of the land as transition; (2) the history of the prophets and kings, with the story of the restoration as transition; and (3) the climax in Simeon the high priest. Themes unite the figures within each major unit, for example, the promise of a blessing joins together the individuals from Abraham to Jacob. The poem resembles an encomium with four parts: (1) a prooemium in 44:1–15, (2) a genealogy in 44:17–49:16, (3) the narration of the subject’s achievements in 50:1–21, and (4) an epilogue in 50:22–24.
According to this theory, Sir 49:14–16 serves as a bridge linking past and present, juxtaposing Adam and Simeon in a manner that renders praise of the latter both appropriate and effective. This praise commemorates rather than entertains, although many rhetorical encomiastic devices occur, such as amplification by syncrisis (the juxtaposition of opposites for rhetorical effect), hyperbole, rhetorical questions, appeal to experience acquired through traveling, a reference to a person’s character and reputation for good deeds, the claim that words cannot adequately describe an individual, and an assertion that a person’s contribution to society lacks precedent. Thus far, the theory.
The hypothesis would be more persuasive if Ben Sira had used the four essential characteristics of encomia (prooemium, ancestry, deeds, epilogue) in proper proportion and in a manner so that they could easily be recognized. Stated differently, if Ben Sira borrowed the form of an encomium, he changed it radically. Moreover, the chronicler provides a number of parallels to Ben Sira’s use of biblical material, remaining silent about embarrassing aspects of David’s character and dropping people from the record. Everything in the list could easily have occurred to a Jewish sage with no knowledge of Greek encomia. Most of the rhetorical features above occur in the Samson narrative, as well as in numerous other stories in the Hebrew Bible.
Why does Ben Sira overlook Ezra? Was the omission intentional? At least five competing explanations for this anomaly deserve consideration. First, the socioeconomic circumstances had changed radically between the late fourth and early second centuries bce in Jerusalem, making mixed marriage a matter of indifference. This view assumes that Ezra’s strict legislation concerning marriage with foreigners failed because it did not take into account long-standing practice among the Jews. Ben Sira, on this view, remained quiet about Ezra out of embarrassment over his strict policy and the ensuing suffering it generated.
A second explanation focuses on the venerable profession of scribes, to which Ben Sira belonged. In Ezra’s day scribes had become narrowly and exclusively oriented toward the Mosaic law, but Ben Sira understands the scribal profession much more broadly. For him, an interest in the law went hand in hand with research in the tradition of the wise. To some degree, Ben Sira transforms the office of priest-scribe into that of teacher, whose authority rests ultimately on scholarship, insights, and communicative ability.
A third response to the silence about Ezra focuses on the state of the priestly office during the immediate period after Simeon’s death. Although Simeon’s son and successor, Onias III, was a pious leader, he lacked the qualities of bold leadership. Like Ezra, he was a political quietist. For this reason, Ben Sira did not want to laud Ezra as someone whom Onias could emulate. Instead, Ben Sira skips over Ezra and commends Onias’s father, hoping to stimulate a desire on the son’s part to pattern his actions after his father and predecessor in the office of high priest.
A fourth explanation for Ben Sira’s omission of Ezra in the list of ancestral heroes takes its cue from a feature common to several individuals-active participation in constructing or repairing the Temple. In this view, Ezra was omitted in favor of Nehemiah, whose vital role in repairing the wall of the city was essential to the successful operation of the cult.
A fifth attempt to explain Ben Sira’s failure to mention Ezra focuses on the chronicler’s championing of Levites, which did not accord with the elevation of the Aaronide priestly lineage in Ben Sira. For this reason, he did not wish to mention a scribe who championed the cause of a rival priestly group.
Two other prominent omissions call for comment, Joseph and Saul. In the body of the poem, one expects a reference to Joseph after the mention of Jacob, but it does not occur. The name "Joseph" appears in a brief "afterthought," along with the pre-deluvians Shem, Seth, and Adam (Sir 49:14–16; Enoch occurs here for a second time but is missing in the Masada text and the Syriac). Perhaps Joseph’s connection with the northern tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh and his blessing of these sons gave the appearance of approving the despised Samaritans, who now occupied the area originally granted to Ephraim and Manasseh. The active campaign waged by the Tobiads in Transjordan and the leaders of Samaria against the policies of Simeon II and the Tobiads in Jerusalem may have generated sufficient antipathy to cause Ben Sira to remain silent about Joseph. Alternatively, Ben Sira may have removed the name of Joseph to blot out any record of his role as adviser to the pharaoh. Again, in the light of Onias III’s switch of allegiance from the Seleucids to the Ptolemaic ruler, Ben Sira may have avoided giving the impression that he approved this shift.
Naturally, these attempts to explain Ben Sira’s silence about Joseph presuppose the secondary character of the name in Sir 49:15. Viewing his presence in the latter text as comparison rather than praise lacks persuasiveness; excising the entire unit 49:14–16 as secondary solely to restore a sequence of two persons, Nehemiah and Simeon II, who were responsible for engineering improvements in Jerusalem, seems problematic at best.
One further notable omission is the first king, Saul. The biblical story ascribes enough negative features to his character to explain the lack of any reference to him. In addition, his rivalry with David and his connection with northern tribal groups made Saul an unlikely candidate for Ben Sira’s list of worthy men.
SIRACH AND THE CANON
The preface to Sirach, written by Ben Sira’s grandson, refers to the law, the prophets, and the other writings, suggesting that the first two divisions of the Hebrew Bible existed as distinct entities and that the third group may or may not have been relatively fixed in his day. Ben Sira’s praise of ancestral heroes supports this evidence, pushing the date back to the early second century bce for at least two closed units, the law and the prophets. He knows the chief characters in Genesis through Deuteronomy, and he mentions Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve, as well as prominent persons from the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings). Unfortunately, he does not provide enough information to enable scholars to identify the exact books making up the third category. Among them he mentions Job and Nehemiah, but he probably knew Psalms and other books as well.86
Although Sirach was excluded from the Hebrew Bible, it was frequently cited in rabbinic circles until the tenth century ce, occasionally introduced by the formula "it is written," which indicates Scripture. Akiba, the noted rabbi of the second century (d. c. 132 ce), thought it belonged among theחסנים (ḥisōnîm, "outside") or extra-canonical books, those that did not, in the language of the day, "defile the hands." A severe penalty accompanied their reading, forfeiture of any participation in the next life. The same assessment of Sirach appears in Tosephta,89 which states that the book does not defile the hands. Nevertheless, Sirach is quoted eighty-two times in the Talmud and other rabbinical writings.
Recent evidence from Masada and Qumran confirms that the Jewish communities in the area of the Dead Sea viewed the book as sacred, for the copy from Masada and the two tiny fragments from Cave 2 at Qumran are written stichometrically, with parallel columns, the first half of each colon beginning on the right side and the second half appearing on the left side. Moreover, the inclusion of Sirach in the Septuagint and the Palestinian revisions of this Greek text and the Hebrew indicate its acceptance as sacred. The formulation of specific criteria for canonicity, resulting from the debates associated with the so-called council of Jamnia and related discussions, automatically excluded Sirach, if one limits inspiration to the period from Moses to Ezra. In addition, several aspects of the book are closer to Sadducaic teaching than to Pharisaic, and this may have influenced its checkered history.
The situation is equally ambiguous in Christian tradition. The presence of the book of Sirach in the Septuagint implied at least quasi-sacred character, but the translator of the Vulgate, Jerome, denied a place in the canon to the additional books, labeling them deuterocanonical. These books include 1-2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, the Additions to Esther, the book of Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, the Song of the Three Jews, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, the Prayer of Manasseh, and 1-2 Maccabees. Augustine disagreed with Jerome’s estimate, considering all the books in the Septuagint equally authoritative.
Following Jerome, Martin Luther rejected the sacred character of the additional books in the Septuagint, which he called apocrypha and placed in a separate group between the two Testaments in his German translation of 1534. John Calvin rejected these books altogether. Nevertheless, the Apocrypha appeared in the King James translation in English until the third decade of the nineteenth century, when they were removed for a combination of reasons, partly theological and partly economic. The Roman Catholic Church still considers these books sacred, but deuterocanonical, except for 1-2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh.
The author of the Epistle of James was particularly fond of Sirach. Other works of the early church used Sirach as a source of inspiration, including the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Epistle of Barnabas. So did the church father Clement of Alexandria. The early Latin fathers included Sirach as one of the five books written by Solomon, and Cyprian accepted its sacred character. This position eventually prevailed at the Council of Trent.
Slightly more than two-thirds of Sirach has survived in Hebrew manuscripts (approx. 68 percent). Between 1896 and 1900, the Cairo Geniza, a place for discarded sacred texts in the old synagogue in Cairo, yielded four distinct manuscripts of Sirach (A, B, C, D), dating from the tenth to the twelfth centuries. Another leaf (E) was discovered in 1931, and additional fragments of B and C came to light in 1958 and 1960. Three years later a fragmentary and mutilated scroll, resembling B, was discovered at Masada. In 1982 a new leaf of Sirach from the Cairo Geniza was identified (F). These manuscripts contain the following texts from Sirach:
A fragment from Cave 2 at Qumran has Sir 6:20–31 in stichometric arrangement (only the ends of the lines have survived).
The Greek text exists in two forms: (1) codices such as the four major uncials: Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, Alexandrinas, and Ephraemi; and (2) a longer form in the Lucianic rescension and Origen’s recension of the Septuagint. The Old Latin and Vulgate used the Greek text of Sirach, which has also influenced the Peshitta to some degree.
Both the Greek and the Hebrew texts contain titles for individual sections (Greek, 20:27; 23:7; 24:1; 30:1, 16; 44:1; 51:1; Hebrew, 31:12 = Greek 34:12; 41:14; 44:1) and transitions (42:25 to 43:1; 43:33 to 44:1; 49:16 to 50:1). In the Hebrew text an extra psalm resembling Psalm 136 follows Sir 51:12 (cf. 11QPs). The sequence from Sirach 31 to 36 differs in the Hebrew, the Vulgate, and the Syriac from the Greek, which offers a less likely order at this point.
Commentaries, Concordances, Monographs:
Barthelemy, D., and O. Rickenbacher.
Hengel, Martin. Judaism and Hellenism. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974. Illuminates the interplay of cultures during the period in which Ben Sira lived.
Lee, T. R. Studies in the Form of Sirach 44–50. SBLDS 75. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986. Views the Greek encomium as the literary model for Ben Sira’s praise of honorable men.
Mack, Burton L. Wisdom and the Hebrew Epic: Ben Sira’s Hymn in Praise of the Fathers. Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Claims that Ben Sira fashions a national epic from the lives of past heroes.
Marböck, J.Weisheit im Wandel: Untersuchungen zur Weisheitstheologie Bei Ben Sira. BBB 37. Bonn: Peter Hanstein, 1971. Emphasizes the changes in wisdom represented by Sirach over against earlier texts, specifically Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes.
Oesterley, W. O. E. The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach or Ecclesiasticus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912. An excellent commentary on Sirach, particularly rich with respect to Jewish sources.
Sanders, J. T. Ben Sira and Demotic Wisdom. SBLMS 28. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983. Finds traces of Egyptian influence on Ben Sira, especially Papyrus Insinger.
Schrader, Lutz.Leiden und Gerechtigkeit. Studien zu Theologie und Textgeschichte des Sirachbuches. BBET 27. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1994. Examines the themes of suffering and justice in Sirach.
Skehan, Patrick, and Alexander A. Di Lella. The Wisdom of Ben Sira. AB 39. New York: Doubleday, 1987. The best commentary on Sirach, although better in treating stylistic matters than in theological analysis.
Snaith, John G. Ecclesiasticus or The Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach. CBC, NEB. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974. Brief notes on Sirach.
Stadelmann, Helga.Ben Sira als Schriftgelehrter: Eine Untersuchung zum Berufsbild des vor-Maccabäischen Sofer unter Berucksichtigung seines Verhältnisses zu Priester-, Propheten und Weisheitslehretum. WUNT 2/6. Tübingen: Mohr, 1981. Stresses Ben Sira’s occupation as a learned scribe.
Trenchard, W. C. Ben Sira’s View of Women: A Literary Analysis. Brown Judaic Studies 38. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1982. Emphasizes Ben Sira’s misogyny, although in need of more nuancing.
Wischmeyer, Oda.Die Kultur des Buches Jesus Sirach. BZNW 77. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1994. Examines the cultural setting of Ben Sira.
Yadin, Yigael. The Ben Sira Scroll from Masada. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1965. Textual notes on the portion of Sirach discovered at Masada.
Ziegler, J. Sapientia Iesu Filii Sirach. Septuaginta 12/2. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1965. The Greek text of Sirach.
For Further Reading:
Crenshaw, James L. Old Testament Wisdom. Atlanta: John Knox, 1981. Provides a general introduction to the wisdom literature in the Bible and in neighboring cultures, Egypt and Mesopotamia.
———. "Sirach." Harper Bible Commentary. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.
———. Urgent Advice and Probing Questions: Collected Writings on Old Testament Wisdom. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1995. Extensive articles on various aspects of biblical wisdom.
Day, John, Robert P. Gordon, and H. G. M. Williams, eds. Wisdom in Ancient Israel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Treats a wide variety of topics related to ancient wisdom.
Gammie, John G., and Leo G. Perdue, eds. The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990. A comprehensive look at professional sages and their literature.
Levine, Amy-Jill, ed. "Women Like This": New Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991. Claudia Camp’s article on Ben Sira’s view of women (pp. 1–39) is particularly valuable.
Murphy, Roland E. The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature. ABRL. New York: Doubleday, 1990. An introduction to wisdom literature.
Nickelsburg, G. W. E. Jewish Literature Between the Bible and the Mishnah: A Historical and Literary Introduction. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981. A good introduction to the rich corpus of Jewish literature from the general period in which Ben Sira lived.
Perdue, Leo G., Bernard Brandon Scott, and Wiliam Johnston Wiseman, eds. In Search of Wisdom: Essays in Memory of John Gammie. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993. Articles on wisdom in both Testaments.
Rad, Gerhard von. Wisdom in Israel. Nashville: Abingdon, 1972. An introduction to wisdom literature, with special emphasis on the limits of knowledge.
Schnabel, E. J. Law and Wisdom from Ben Sira to Paul: A Traditional Historical Inquiry into the Relation of Law, Wisdom, and Ethics. WUNT 2/16. Tübingen: Mohr, 1985. A comprehensive examination of the relationship between law and wisdom.
Outline of Sirach
I. Sirach 1:1–4:10, Part I
A. 1:1–10, A Hymn to Wisdom
B. 1:11–30, The Meaning and Value of the Fear of the Lord
C. 2:1–17, Faithfulness During Testing
D. 3:1–16, Filial Duty
E. 3:17–4:10, Humility and Almsgiving
II. Sirach 4:11–6:17, Part II
A. 4:11–19, In Praise of Wisdom
B. 4:20–31, Social Status, Shame, and Speech
C. 5:1–8, On Presuming Too Much
D. 5:9–6:1, On Dissimulation Through Speech
E. 6:2–4, On Uncontrolled Passions
F. 6:5–17, On Friendship
III. Sirach 6:18–14:19, Part III
A. 6:18–37, Wisdom’s Rigorous Discipline
B. 7:1–17, The Consequences of Sin
C. 7:18–28, Domestic Advice
D. 7:29–36, Obligations to Priests and to the Poor
E. 8:1–19, Some Things to Avoid
F. 9:1–9, Relationships with Women
G. 9:10–16, Friends and Neighbors
H. 9:17–10:5, On Rulers
I. 10:6–11:1, Pride and Honor
J. 11:2–28, Deceptive Appearances
K. 11:29–14:19, On Friendship and Wealth
IV. Sirach 14:20–23:27, Part IV
A. 14:20–15:10, Seeking Wisdom and Being Welcomed by Her
B. 15:11–16:23, On Free Will and Divine Recompense
C. 16:24–18:14, The Relationship Between the Creator-Judge and Humankind
D. 18:15–18, On Giving Alms
E. 18:19–29, On Caution
F. 18:30–19:17, On Self-control
G. 19:20–30, Wisdom and Cleverness
H. 20:1–31, On Speech and Silence
I. 21:1–10, Sin’s Smooth Path
J. 21:11–22:18, The Wise and the Foolish
K. 22:19–26, Preserving Friendship
L. 22:27–23:6, A Prayer for Self-control
M. 23:7–15, The Proper Use of Language
N. 23:16–27, On Fornication and Adultery
VI. Sirach 24:1–33:19, Part V
A. 24:1–34, The Praise of Wisdom
B. 25:1–12, Some Numerical Proverbs
C. 25:13–26:27, On Wives, Both Bad and Good
D. 26:28–27:15, On Integrity
E. 27:16–28:26, Offenses Against Companions
F. 29:1–20, On Lending and Providing Collateral
G. 29:21–28, On Being Independent
H. 30:1–13, On Rearing Children
I. 30:14–25, On Health
J. 31:1–11, On Riches
K. 31:12–32:13, On Proper Etiquette
L. 32:14–33:19, On Divine Providence
VI. Sirach 33:20–39:11, Part VI
A. 33:20–24, The Advantage of Independence
B. 33:25–33, On Slaves
C. 34:1–8, On Dreams
D. 34:9–20, On the Dangers of Travel and God’s Protection
E. 34:21–35:26, On Sacrifices
F. 36:1–22, A Prayer for National Deliverance
G. 36:23–37:31, On Making Discriminating Choices
H. 38:1–15, On Physicians
I. 38:16–23, On Mourning
J. 38:24–39:11, The Superiority of the Scribal Profession
VII. Sirach 39:12–43:33, Part VII
A. 39:12–35, In Praise of the Creator
B. 40:1–41:13, Life’s Wretchedness
C. 41:14–42:8, On Shame
D. 42:9–14, On Protecting Daughters’ Honor
E. 42:15–43:33, The Wonders of Creation
VIII. Sirach 44:1–51:30, Part VIII
A. 44:1–15, Introduction
B. 44:16–45:26, The Seven Covenantal Figures
C. 46:1–20, Joshua, Caleb, the Judges, and Samuel
D. 47:1–25, Nathan, David, Solomon, and Rehoboam/Jeroboam
E. 48:1–16, The Prophets Elijah and Elisha
F. 48:17–25, Hezekiah and Isaiah
G. 49:1–16, Josiah and Subsequent Heroes
H. 50:1–24, Simeon the High Priest
I. 50:25–29, A Numerical Proverb and an Epilogue
J. 51:1–30, A Prayer of Thanksgiving, a Hymn of Praise, and an Acrostic Poem About Wisdom
Like Greek historical expositions by Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius and treatises by Dioscorides Pedamus, Hippocrates, Aristeas, and Josephus, the book of Sirach begins with a brief prologue, to which may also be compared Luke 1:1–4. Written in three elegant sentences by Ben Sira’s grandson, the prologue demonstrates the author’s mastery of Greek rhetoric to an extent not found in the rest of the book, where he translates in a manner that reflects the style of the original Hebrew being rendered into Greek. The three sentences (1) explain Ben Sira’s reasons for writing the book; (2) request readers to study it in its Greek form, making allowances for infelicities in translation; and (3) provide an autobiographical note about the actual date of the translation and extent of care involved in producing it.
The grandson, who does not give his own name, identifies the author of the book he is translating as "Jesus," which is the Greek form of the popular Hebrew name "Jeshua," and characterizes him as a learned teacher of sacred writings. The author views these texts as channels of divine instruction and for the first time in extant literature refers to Scripture in the tripartite division that came to characterize the Hebrew Bible—the law, the prophets, and the later writings. This initial sentence also mentions the law, the prophets, and the other books of the ancestors; the second sentence varies the expression further, mentioning the law, the prophets, and the rest of the books. Like this loose language, the third group remained open as late as the first century ce (cf. Luke 24:44; in Matt 22:40, Luke 16:16, and Acts 13:15 the expression stops with the mention of the law and the prophets). The Greek text contains a suggestion of discipleship in the reference to the other books that followed. Like Deut 4:6, the author of the prologue sounds a strong note of ethnic pride to encourage readers living in the Egyptian dispersion.
The reference to "those who read the scriptures" echoes the technical expression for professional scribes entrusted with the preservation and transmission of sacred texts. In 1 Esdras the expression takes several forms, always with reference to Ezra: "priest and reader of the law of the Lord" (1 Esdr 8:8–9 NRSV); "priest and reader of the law of Most High God" (1 Esdr 8:19 NRSV); "priest and reader" (1 Esdr 9:39 NRSV); "priest and reader of the law" (1 Esdr 9:42 NRSV); "chief priest and reader" (1 Esdr 9:49 NRSV; cf. Neh 8:8–12). Such "readers" explained the meaning of Scripture written in a language that had ceased to be the vernacular—for Ezra’s compatriots, Hebrew texts and Aramaic as the spoken language; for the present readers, a Greek translation of a Hebrew text for outsiders. This reference to non-Jews implies an effort to foster among Egyptians an appreciation for the religious insights of the Jewish tradition. The author attributes inspiration to his learned grandfather, whose book continues the legacy of sacred texts, and views the finished product as progress, the wise teacher adding to the accumulated insights of the ancestors.
The second sentence in Greek voices the anxiety felt by most, if not all, conscientious translators. The early rabbis formulated the problem concisely, attributing the witticism to Eliezer: "Whoever translates literally is a liar, and whoever adds to the text is guilty of blasphemy." Modern translators phrase the issue similarly, juxtaposing two fundamentally different principles—formal correspondence or dynamic equivalence. In brief, should the grammar and syntax of the source language prevail in the target language, or should the idiom of the target language dominate? W. O. E. Oesterley observed that "the numerous instances in which the translator misunderstood the original … show that his misgivings were fully justified." In his own defense, the grandson of Ben Sira charged the translators of the Septuagint with similar unintentional misrepresentation of the original sense of the Hebrew text. That translation, probably completed in the mid-second century bce in Alexandria, was necessitated by the large Jewish population in Egypt.
Jewish presence was felt in Egypt as early as the sixth century bce; according to the biblical account, the prophet Jeremiah ended his long career there (Jeremiah 43–45). A Jewish community at Elephantine near Aswan has yielded important papyri from the fifth century, one of which mentions a celebration of the Passover; the Zenon papyri provide much information about the economic life of Jews in the second century bce. In 162 bce the priest Onias was exiled to Egypt and proceeded to build a rival temple at Leontopolis. From the late third century, when one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Ptolemy, assumed control in Egypt, Jewish citizens assisted in maintaining authority over the indigenous population. The first-century ce Jewish philosopher Philo claimed that the Jewish population in Egypt totaled nearly one million. The city of Alexandria granted Jewish citizens full rights, although conflicts in various areas of the country occasionally erupted, such as the burning of the temple to Yahweh at Elephantine. Two quite opposite responses to living in dispersion are evident within Jewish literature of the period: (1) harsh polemic as found in the book of Wisdom and (2) apologetic as exemplified by Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews and Against Apion, as well as Philo’s many writings.
The third sentence in the Greek prologue states that the translator arrived in Egypt during the reign of Euergetes II Ptolemy VIII Physkon, who ruled Egypt from 170 to 164 and 146 to 117 bce. The Greek wordσυγχρονίσας (sygchronisas, "a synchronizing") indicates that the grandson lived in Egypt from 132 to 117 bce, completing the translation after Euergetes’ death. The translator states that he had access to a copy of the book, ἀφομοιόν (aphomoion, "like"), but some manuscripts read ἀφορμήν (aphormēn, "opportunity"), implying "access to" and thus opportunity (cf. the different translations in the NRSV text and note).
The three sentences in this prologue employ three thematic expressions: (1) the law, the prophets, and later books (or the variants on the third category, the other writings, the rest of the books); (2) discipline and wisdom; and (3) law. The first of these occurs three times, the other two only two times. Alexander A. Di Lella overlooks the symmetry of these three expressions, for he views the first and last reference to "law" as an inclusio, a statement, a phrase, or a word occurring at the beginning and end of a bracketed unit of thought. Actually, the first sentence uses all three thematic expressions, the first two twice. The second sentence refers to the law, the prophets, and the rest of the books, whereas the third sentence mentions only the law. The phrase "instruction and wisdom" identifies the two major components of the book of Sirach, the teachings of the Mosaic law and proverbial instructions, here linked together for the first time.
For everyone except the original recipients, God’s Word is always at least once removed. This introduces a human element into all Scripture. Those to whom God entrusted a message were required to pass that word along to others whose vocabulary, experience, and psyche differed to some extent. In transmitting the revelation, these human spokespersons for the deity reflected on what they heard and then clothed the message in appropriate rhetoric, along with motive clauses and warnings. In short, they did their best to communicate the essence of the message from God to those who themselves had no direct access to the deity.
Christians today may find it extraordinary that God actually communicated with human beings; most of us would undoubtedly lift an eyebrow if confronted with someone who claims receiving a direct message from God. We should remember that the ancients were not all that different, for not everyone who asserted that God had spoken in his or her life was automatically accepted as an authentic messenger of transcendence. The mere affirmation that the living God, the source of all life and mystery, broke the silence of eternity and entered into dialogue with humans, made in the divine likeness, must surely be as bold a thought as humans can imagine. Viewed in this way, the testimony to this divine-human encounter becomes precious beyond measure. At the same time, its present form cautions against an idolatry that honors the literary medium rather than the God to whom all words point.
By its very nature, every revelation necessitates translation into the language of ordinary discourse. That is no easy task, for a vast chasm separates the two realms, human and divine. We know far more about the former than the latter, and we endeavor to use our greater knowledge to understand the less well-known. The primary means of relating the two realms is analogy. On the basis of the better-known constitutive element, often called the vehicle by literary critics, we try to grasp the meaning of the unknown, which critics designate the tenor. For Ben Sira and for subsequent interpreters, the Mosaic legislation, particularly the Ten Commandments, functions as the vehicle. The contents of the law are well known, for the legislation touches on matters of everyday experience. The tenor, however, is a construct of the human imagination. It goes by the name of divine wisdom. We know far more about the specific statutes than we do about the broad concept of divine instruction. Nevertheless, together the law and divine wisdom enable us to understand something about God’s solicitous concern in guiding humans along safe paths.
In the important task of translating the revealed Word to society at large, faithful transmitters of the tradition were required to preserve accuracy through the ages. The ancient guardians of sacred texts were governed by the spiritual needs of various communities rather than any rigid concern to repeat verbatim earlier versions of the communicative effort. As a result, the tradition grew and retained vitality; in essence, religious texts took on the character of the living Word, a divine communication always both old and new. At the same time, these sacred texts bore witness to the human response to them, often questioning and protesting but, in the end, yielding to divine mystery.
This interrogative mood punctuates prophetic literature and occasionally makes an unexpected appearance in the narrative material in the Torah. The third division of the Hebrew Bible, the writings, witnesses an eruption of protest against the heavens that reaches a crescendo with the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Ben Sira’s teachings belong to this third division; appropriately they combine features of both perspectives, affirming praise and doubt about divine justice. In this extensive collection of a teacher’s advice to professional sages, one comes face to face with human wit and wisdom, as in the book of Proverbs, but Ben Sira places this exploration of reality from below within the larger context of divine disclosure.
The language of the prologue, which describes the necessary process of transmitting religious texts across generations and cultures, calls attention to professionals from the religious establishment and to people entirely outside the community of believers. Although regrettable, not all members of a religious group have the inclination or capacity to become proficient in its sacred texts. Consequently, professional interpreters, here called readers, immerse themselves thoroughly in the texts and devote their lives to explaining the hidden meanings of God’s interactions with the community. According to the unknown author of the prologue to the book of Sirach, Ben Sira belonged to this elite class of readers. His task was to assist in worship by explaining the meaning of the sacred text in the language of ordinary speech. A danger inherent in this practice is obvious: Others in the religious community relax their natural curiosity and leave the matter of interpretation to specialists.
This tendency to leave the Scriptures to the experts is buttressed by the mysterious character of so many texts, linguistic difficulties, and cultural gaps. Nevertheless, some rabbis spun stories that gave voice to the desire of numerous ordinary people to sit down together and discuss Torah from dawn to dusk. One extraordinary vision of heavenly existence pictured those who love Torah spending eternity while the true meaning of God’s gift in sacred words unfolded before their eyes.
In the real world, there will always be outsiders and insiders; perhaps religious people should take heart from the fact that this situation offers an occasion for proclaiming the good news of God at work in human lives. Although the missionary endeavor was not central to ancient Israel, rare insights do acknowledge the need to be a blessing or a light to all nations. By nature evangelistic, Christians feel compelled to declare the good news that is transforming their lives. Often the most effective witness comes through example, not words. The goal to bring outsiders into the fellowship entails faithfulness to the integrity of a religious community; otherwise dissension and ultimately a rift within the body will result.
Possibly the most instructive feature of this prologue to Sirach is the apology for mistakes in translating the original Hebrew text into Greek. Concern over authentic rendering of one language into another has not disappeared from the scene, despite a lapse of over two millennia. The difficulty involved in translation should temper heated contemporary controversies over the inerrancy of Scripture. Because a certain amount of interpretation takes place in every translation, we would do well to adopt a stance of humility with respect to all renderings of the Bible into a language other than the originals. Today we are particularly fortunate in having several excellent translations, among which three stand out as superb representatives of two different principles: the NRSV (cf. also the NIV) for formal correspondence, the TNK, and the REB for dynamic equivalance. Because languages change with time, the task of translation never ends.
The prologue implies that God’s people invariably move about from one country to another, often placing them in an alien context, imposing special demands. Existence in exile presents unusual temptations at the same time it offers considerable potential for good, especially the dissemination of the good news. This proclamation takes place through voluntary or involuntary exile, for God’s people declare the Word in altogether new settings and unfamiliar languages. That religious message always occurs in the midst of political realities, as the mention of Pharaoh Euergetes suggests. The sacred text emerged in quite particular cultural contexts, a fact we ought always to keep in mind. God’s Word certainly includes universal and absolute claims, but these claims are clothed in temporal garb. Separating the timeless from the temporal is exceedingly difficult.
The last verse of the prologue poses an intriguing problem. It can be read in two entirely different ways, one of which has stronger theological resonance. Which of the two should one treat as original? One actually does not need to choose, inasmuch as both readings address God’s people, although at different times and in different settings. In one context, the emphasis on God’s maternal love spoke with particular force, as it does once more. Another setting took special comfort in connecting God’s compassion with scriptural warrant, in this instance the praise of God in Exod 34:6–7. Whether maternal feelings or sacred texts, the allusion captures the poignancy of God’s affection for those who lovingly assist victims of a cruel society.
Like the book of Proverbs and, to some extent, Ecclesiastes, Sirach has no clear logical progression. Scholars, therefore, have difficulty when trying to divide its contents into distinct units. A few ancient manuscripts have topical headings here and there, although they lack consistency. The divisions that follow represent but one of many possible readings of the material.
Part I consists of five smaller units: (1) 1:1–10, an opening hymn to wisdom; (2) 1:11–30, the meaning and value of the fear of the Lord; (3) 2:1–17, faithfulness during testing; (4) 3:1–16, filial duty; and (5) 3:17–4:10, humility and almsgiving. The hymn to wisdom anticipates a far more elaborate celebration of divine wisdom in chap. 24, and the remarks about the fear of the Lord function as a theological statement for the whole book. The next two sections elaborate on the implications of the first and fifth commandments. The last section deals with responsibilities toward God and fellow human beings, particularly the social mandate to provide aid and comfort for needy persons in the community.
SIRACH 1:1–10, A HYMN TO WISDOM
Marböck concludes his analysis of the opening hymn to wisdom (vv. 1–10) with these words: "the hymnic introduction … contains the outline and most significant elements for a theology of wisdom in Ben Sira." To be sure, Marböck’s observations are directed at refuting the thesis of Josef Haspecker that the fear of Yahweh, not wisdom, lies at the heart of Sirach and that the hymn in vv. 1–10 introduces only 1:1–2:17, a treatise on the fear of God. Both of these scholars have clearly observed the signal importance of the opening hymn to divine wisdom.
The language and mood of this hymn are charged with polemical overtones, probably resulting from Ben Sira’s encounter with Hellenistic philosophy, especially the Stoic philosophers’ emphasis on the antiquity of their wisdom. For Ben Sira, only one God could rightly be called wise, and that one was Yahweh, the personal God of the Jews. Ben Sira attributes all wisdom to this God and concedes that humans acquire knowledge solely as a divine gift. With one sweep of the pen, he rules out human experience as a valid means of discovering the hidden subtleties of God’s wisdom. The only bridge from human to divine knowledge starts with God’s initiative, in which wisdom serves as a medium of divine presence and a revelation to human beings. In the words of C. J. Kearns, wisdom is "the multifareous gift that He has made of Himself, personified so as to be rendered comprehensible."
Ben Sira reaches back into prophetic tradition to describe Yahweh’s generous dispersal of wisdom on all flesh, but particularly on the elect. The expectation of an outpouring of the divine spirit, first articulated by Moses (Num 11:29) and subsequently endorsed by Ezekiel (Ezek 39:29) and Joel (Joel 3:1–5 [Eng. 2:28–32]), furnishes the language for God’s gift of wisdom to all flesh (μετὰ πάσης σαρκὸς meta pasēs sarkos, 1:10a). Just as Joel 3:1[2:28] restricts the outpouring of the divine vitality to Jews, so also Ben Sira places "those whom Yahweh loves" in a special category. Similarly, Ben Sira borrows traditional language from prophecy and wisdom to describe the inaccessibility of wisdom. The rhetorical questions in vv. 2–3 and 6 recall Job 38:4; Prov 30:4; Isa 40:12–14; and Bar 3:15. Even the expressions "the sand of the seashore" and "drops of rain" echo Gen 32:12; 1 Sam 13:5; Ps 78:27; and Job 36:27 respectively. The creation of wisdom recalls the hymn in Prov 8:22–30, while wisdom’s hiddenness is remarked on in Job 28:28. Ben Sira’s use of impossible questions (vv. 2–3) gives expression to a cosmology that seems strange to modern readers, one composed of spatially limited heavens, a flat earth floating on top of underground waters, the circuit of which can be traversed in a day by the sun god (Ps 19:4b–6). The form of the impossible questions resembles numerical proverbs.
The rare Greek word in v. 6 for wisdom’s subtleties (πανουργεύματα panourgeumata, "secrets") occurs elsewhere in Sirach only at 42:18; together with σοφία (sophia) and ἐπιστήμη (epistēmē, vv. 6a, 7a, "wisdom" and "understanding"), it occurs also in Jdt 11:8, the only other place these three words appear in close proximity. Ben Sira uses "root" and "subtleties" to indicate the origin and essence of divine wisdom; the Hebrew word ראשׁית (rēʾšît) in Prov 1:7 includes the ideas of "source," "essence," and "primacy." Like the unknown author of the prologue to the first collection of the book of Proverbs (Proverbs 1–9; or to the whole book), Ben Sira associates fear of the Lord with wisdom, but in reverse sequence if one takes rēʾšît to be temporal, a moment of beginning.
The interpretative addition to v. 4, found in some manuscripts, anticipates Ben Sira’s later discourse on his inspiration that began as a small stream and grew to unexpected size (24:23–33). It reads: "The source of wisdom is God’s word in the highest heaven, and her ways are the eternal commandments" (v. 5 NRSV). The gloss after v. 6 is repetitive: "The knowledge of wisdom—to whom was it manifested? And her abundant experience—who has understood it?" (v. 7). The addition to v. 10ab elaborates on the notion of God’s friends (lit., "those who love God"). Marböck rightly focuses on vv. 1 and 8–10, the former verse as a great superscription and the latter verses as its obvious development. Certain features of the original hymn in vv. 1–4, 6, 8–10b (omitting the two interpretative glosses in vv. 5 and 7) anticipate ideas that Ben Sira will take up later, specifically in the rest of chap. 1 and in chap. 18. The hymn extols different forms of wisdom, creation, and the fear of God. The brief allusion in v. 9 to mercy provides a clue for the interpretation of the entire first chapter, and indeed for the whole book. Marböck recognizes the importance of divine mercy to Ben Sira, although without adequate discussion of the tension thus produced with older sapiential views, according to which individuals received exactly what they deserved. The centrality of mercy in the brief hymn in 18:1–13 and similarities with the initial one under discussion here, especially the idea of divine largess to all, suggest that Ben Sira considered these themes crucial to his teaching. The hymn in vv. 1–4, 6, 8–10b also clearly relates to vv. 25–27, which unites the themes of wisdom and fear of the Lord. The latter concept occupies center stage in vv. 11–30.
This opening hymn to wisdom actually extols its Creator, who alone has complete access to its mysteries and thus deserves the epithet "Wise." By enumerating various secrets of the universe that continue to mystify humans, the author contrasts our limited knowledge with God’s immediate control of such facts as those that defy human inquiry. As the first created one, wisdom was subsequently mediated to other creatures, particularly to those who love God. Here in this simple observation Ben Sira sums up the exquisite praise of wisdom in Prov 8:22–31 and Job 28, to which he will return (cf. Sirach 24), using considerably more lavish language. The present hymn strikes a note of awe, both in the references to the unknown and unknowable, and in the reminder that the Wise Sovereign must be revered.
The hymn about wisdom’s true source arises from recognition that mystery always remains in any intellectual quest. Critical inquiry can do no more than touch the hem of the garment of truth. Jewish mystics spoke about the world as the garments of Torah, an insight Christians would do well to acknowledge. Such an understanding of reality gives the world a sacred character, including the declaration that the universe consists of divine disclosure, an accommodation necessitated by human weakness and ignorance. Ben Sira intimates that the universe conceals sufficient mystery to satisfy the curiosity of average citizens as well as gifted overachievers in intellectual quests. Whereas God has access to all wisdom, that unique possession does not create in the deity a wish to keep it for selfish purposes. Instead, God freely offers bits and pieces of this knowledge to deserving human beings. Here, too, humility is in order, for individuals who acquire huge amounts of knowledge owe much of it to divine generosity. Seminal thinkers know this fact well.
SIRACH 1:11–30, THE MEANING AND VALUE OF THE FEAR OF THE LORD
A poem of twenty-two bicola (a line of poetry with two half-lines as separate cola), the same number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, serves as a programmatic statement for the entire book. It identifies wisdom with the fear of God—that is, religion—and enumerates the fruits of living according to wisdom’s dictates. Ben Sira infuses his statements about the fear of the Lord with the warmth of personal piety. The expression "fear of the Lord" and its variant occur ten times in this poem (twelve times if one counts the addition to v. 12, together with v. 21) and function as an inclusio to delimit the unit (vv. 11, 30). The heart of the poem equates wisdom, fear of the Lord, discipline, and observing the Mosaic law (vv. 25–27). A thematic statement (v. 11) leads to a promise of a long and blessed life to those who fear the Lord (vv. 12–20, where "long life" in vv. 12, 20 forms an inclusio), which abruptly veers off into warnings against loss of self-control (vv. 22–24) before returning to stress the need for keeping the commandments (vv. 25–27) and avoiding duplicity (vv. 28–30).
For the most part, Ben Sira’s teachings in this poem derive from the book of Proverbs, especially the introductory collection Proverbs 1–9, which gives prominence to personified wisdom, but also the final praise of woman in Prov 31:10–31. Some of these images of wisdom as a crown, a garland, a tree, health and life, happiness, produce, root and branches came to prominence in later wisdom texts also (e.g., Wis 6:17–21; 7:1–9:18). At least two expressions in Ben Sira’s poem about the identification of wisdom as fear of the Lord echo the larger canon, Torah and the Prophets. The concept of abomination (v. 25) is a cultic expression in Deuteronomy, although the notion belongs to the wisdom tradition in Egypt and the book of Proverbs as well. The connection in v. 26 with the commandments points to the original deuteronomic context in which God’s law is proclaimed (cf. Exod 20:2–17; Deut 5:1–21) in capsular form. Ben Sira may actually allude to the entire Mosaic legislation. In v. 14, Ben Sira expresses a concept that was regularly associated with the birth of a prophet or a special servant of Yahweh in Israel (Isa 44:24; Jer 1:5) and with royal births in Mesopotamia. In this view, God chooses special persons to carry out individual assignments, whether prophetic or royal.
The reference to a happy end to life (v. 13) does not imply anything beyond the grave, for in this respect Ben Sira sides with those who later formed the party of the Sadducees. He accepts the usual teaching about the end (אחרית ʾaḥărît) in the OT—that a person dies and joins the ancestors in a ghost-like existence in Sheol, the body returning to dust whence it came, according to hallowed narrative. Ben Sira’s reference to the dead being blessed lacks any indication of the one doing the blessing, whether God or the human survivors (cf. 11:25–28, however, where Ben Sira attributes the blessing to God). According to the wisdom teachers who composed the book of Proverbs, an intimate connection existed between morality and happiness, with rare exceptions. These exceptions became the rule for the authors of the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, and yet Ben Sira was hardly touched by their poignant attacks on traditional wisdom. Events soon after he wrote his book threw an even greater question mark on this optimism, for the frequency of martyrdom during the Maccabean revolt (167–164 bce) made it difficult to describe the end of such faithful ones as blessed. The author of Dan 12:2 breaks sharply with Hebrew tradition in a desperate effort to salvage divine reputation for justice and to provide comfort for those who either faced a martyr’s end or grieved for someone who had.
Many features of this poem manifest an exuberance equal to that of the final verse in the prologue, which speaks of God’s lavishing gifts on friends. Drawing on the poem about personified wisdom’s building her house and inviting guests to a feast (Prov 9:1–6), Ben Sira actually uses a word for "inebriation" (μεθύσκω methyskō, v. 16). The allusion in v. 15 to her building a nest (ἐνόσσευσεν enosseusen) anticipates 24:8–12, a section on wisdom’s coming to dwell in Jerusalem that reaches a crescendo at the close of the first half of the book. At the same time, this allusion looks back on the similar poem about personified wisdom in Prov 8:22–31.
The resemblances between this figure of wisdom and the Egyptian goddess maʾ at have been acknowledged for some time, especially the picture of her holding the ankh, a symbol of long life, in one hand and riches in the other. That idea certainly resembles Ben Sira’s description of wisdom’s gifts. In addition, Egyptian wisdom emphasizes silence so much that the word becomes a technical term for the person of character, one who controls anger and is, therefore, the opposite of the heated person. Egyptian instructions also describe the good person as one who is like a tree with well-watered roots (cf. v. 20 and more fully 24:13–14, 16–17), and they characterize wise behavior in terms of restraint, eloquence, timing, and integrity. The wise person, thus, practices self-discipline, speaks effectively at the appropriate moment, and declares the truth. In vv. 22–24, Ben Sira refers to self-control and the right time (καιρός kairos) for speaking. The image of wisdom as a garland and a crown has its exact counterpart in Egyptian wisdom literature.
The interplay between free will and divine gift finds expression in v. 26, where human initiative evokes divine largess. To the unspoken question, "How can one become wise?" Ben Sira answers, "Keep the commandments." The author of the Epistle of James offers yet another response to this query: "Ask God for wisdom" (Jas 1:5 NRSV). The closing section of Ben Sira’s poem introduces a powerful element of social control in the ancient world: honor and shame, one that he returns to several times (3:2–11; 4:21; 7:7; 10:19–11:6; 41:17–42:8). In his first reference to the loss of honor (v. 30), Ben Sira probably reflects on a text in Proverbs in which a dying victim of the "strange woman" confesses his mistake:
Oh, how I hated discipline,
and my heart despised reproof!
I did not listen to the voice of my teachers
or incline my ear to my instructors.
Now I am at the point of utter ruin
in the public assembly. (Prov 5:12–14 NRSV)
Presumably, Ben Sira thinks of disgrace in the context of the synagogue, although the greater Jewish community functioned as a social arena dispensing honor or shame. The language of duplicity, a double heart, occurs in Ps 12:3 and Jas 1:8; 4:8, and the notion of watching over one’s lips recalls Ps 141:3, a theme that recurs in Sir 23:2–3.
Ben Sira’s deep piety comes to expression in vv. 25–27, where the Greek wordsσοφία (sophia, "wisdom"), παιδεία (paideia, "instruction"), πίστις (pistis, "faith"), and πραότης (praotēs, "humility") recall venerable Hebrew terms for "wisdom" (חכמה ḥokmâ), "instruction" (מוסר mûsār), "faithfulness" (אמונה ʾĕmûnâ), and "humility" (ענוה ʿănāwâ). The noun ʾĕmûnâ consists of active fidelity and passive trustworthiness, senses conveyed by various renderings in the Septuagint (pistis, "faith"; πιστός pistos, "faithful"; ἀλήθεια alētheia, "truth"; ἀληθινός alēthinos, "truthful"; ἀξιόπιστος axiopistos, "reliable"). It thus becomes clear that the word includes far more than the cognitive dimension; mere intellectual assent expresses itself by means of appropriate action, as the author of the Epistle of James recognized.
To reiterate, this elaboration of the primacy of religious devotion within intellectual inquiry leaves no doubt about Ben Sira’s allegiance. He elevates piety above all else, but it is an informed piety. Wisdom determines one’s speech and actions, as it were, watching over those who fear God and keep the divine commandments. Such wisdom embraces every dimension of human existence, in Ben Sira’s opinion. It informs one’s silence, bringing rich dividends both in material wealth and in prestige among one’s peers. It shapes virtue and strenghtens one in the fight against vice. Wisdom also gives loyal followers integrity, enabling them to avoid hypocrisy. Under its instruction, the faithful learn to compose wise sayings and thus to transmit a valuable legacy to others. Ben Sira will spell out these insights, and more, in what follows.
For Ben Sira, genuine religious faith is the clearest indication of wisdom. A person cannot, in his view, be wise without acknowledging the priority of God in one’s life. Possibly the most daring suggestion of all concerns the personification of wisdom as a woman, given the frequent disparaging of women in ancient proverbial sayings. This bold move was undoubtedly dictated by two factors: the circumstances of instruction, where boys comprised the students; and the feminine form of abstractions, such as wisdom, truth, and righteousness in the Hebrew and Greek languages. Viewing wisdom as feminine definitely introduced an erotic component into learning precisely at a stage in the life of young boys when they could make optimal use of attraction to the opposite sex.
This practice, while potentially enervating, is also fraught with danger. The natural curiosity about the opposite sex among young people easily leads to conduct that threatens both their spiritual well-being and their physical safety. At the same time, this heightening of the erotic brings the whole realm of sex into the clear light of day, requiring youth to come to terms with powerful feelings while striving to discover God’s will for their lives. This struggle, begun in tender years, lasts into later years as well, and the church will do well to harness erotic energy so as to channel it into productive endeavors. Sacred dance and drama can add a powerful dimension to worship, particularly when one sees the body as a place of residence for the divine.
SIRACH 2:1–18, FAITHFULNESS DURING TESTING
This section consists of three stanzas and a concluding couplet (vv. 1–6, 7–11, 12–16 + 17). Its ornate rhetorical style-three verses beginning with "You who fear the Lord" (vv. 7–9), three rhetorical questions (v. 10), three verses with introductory "woe to" (vv. 12–14), and three verses with an initial phrase consisting of "Those who fear the Lord" (vv. 15–17)—suggests oral use in classrooms. These repetits (refrain-like phrases) aided the memory and enhanced the rhetorical style of the unit. The key to understanding the first stanza, v. 6 has the catchwords "trust" (πιστεύω pisteuō) and "hope" (ἐλπίς elpis), whereas "mercy" (ἔλεος eleos) in vv. 7–9 provides a cohesion for the second stanza, and the correspondence between vv. 11 and 17 links the last two stanzas.
2:1–6. The idea of testing, discipline attributed to a loving father in Prov 3:11–12, follows naturally from the previous poem, which ends by warning against hypocrisy. Adversity has the potential for unmasking such insincere religion. The literature on divine testing in the OT is set within such a context (e.g., the offering of Isaac, Gen 22:1–18; the trials of Joseph in Egypt, Genesis 37–50; and the afflictions of Job). Biblical texts frequently describe this testing in the language of separating impure dross from precious metal (cf. Prov 17:3; Wis 3:6; Jas 1:12). The biblical writers maintain firm confidence that genuinely virtuous people will emerge victoriously in the end, just as the worst-case scenario, Job, exemplifies. Only the author of Ecclesiastes resolutely refuses to view testing in positive terms (perhaps also the author of Jeremiah’s laments in Jer 11:18–12:6; 15:10–21; 17:14–18; 18:18–23; 20:7–18). The three young men who enter the furnace, according to the devotional legend in Daniel 3, confess their readiness to die even if God elects not to rescue them (Dan 3:16–18). In some instances, these experiences of testing forged a special bond between the worshiper and God, eliciting profound expressions of piety.
An important manuscript, ms 248, sets this unit apart by means of a heading, "On Patience" (περι ὑπομονῆς peri hypomonēs). The initial vocative, "my son" (τέκνον teknon) appears frequently in the book (3:12, 17; 4:1; 6:32; 10:28; 11:10; 14:11; 31:22; in the plural, 3:1; 23:7; 39:13; 41:14). This direct address of a son is typical of wisdom instruction throughout the ancient Near East, beginning as early as the third-millennium Sumerian Instructions of Šuruppak and Egyptian royal instructions. In this same vein, Israelite teachers directed their words to sons ("my son," Prov 1:8, 10, 15; 2:1; often in Proverbs 1–9; occasionally in Prov 22:17–24:22; "sons," Prov 4:1; 5:7). From earliest times this language of "father" and "son" was used in educational settings to designate "teacher" and "student." Sumerian schools also had a monitor who went by the title of "big brother." At first this familial language referred to kinship, but over the years the terms "father" and "son" lost their original connotations entirely and came to designate "teachers" and "students" only. That is exactly how בני (bĕnî; τέκνον teknon) functions for Ben Sira.
One of the most difficult aspects of testing was the necessity of holding firm in one’s expectation of promised gratification for faithful conduct. Hence the necessity for encouraging words like Ben Sira’s, "Trust in him, and he will help you" (v. 6a). Hoping in God’s eventual deliverance of the worshiper occupies central place in much of the Bible, although sounding a rare note in wisdom literature, which emphasized human achievement. Ben Sira unites the traditional piety of psalms, prophecy, and sacred narrative with the more down-to-earth teachings of the sages. In this respect, Ben Sira continues the views attributed to Job’s three friends who urge him to place his hope in God.
2:7–11. In v. 10, Ben Sira uses a traditional argument of the sages, the appeal to accumulated experience. His long rhetorical question:
Has anyone trusted in the Lord
and been disappointed?
Or has anyone persevered in the
fear of the Lord and been forsaken?
Or has anyone called upon him
and been neglected?
anticipates a negative response (cf. Ps 22:4–5). This answer scarcely follows if one actually examines Israel’s recorded past, particularly the tragic disappointment ending King Josiah’s faithful reliance on the promises articulated in the book of Deuteronomy. Religious belief seldom coincides, however, with brutal reality, and people always seem capable of interpreting even the most adverse circumstances as confirmation of dogmatic expectations (cf. Ps 37:25–26).
Like numerous worshipers who preceded him in Israel, Ben Sira bases his confidence on Yahweh’s much-cited proclamation to Moses of the divine attributes:
"The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation."
(Exod 34:6–7 NRSV; cf., e.g., Pss 86:5; 103:3–4; 145:8–9; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Neh 9:17)
Predictably, later citations of this text omit the threatening traits of the divine character and appeal to the Lord’s compassionate nature (except for Nah 1:2–3, directed against Nineveh). Liturgical use of this text extends beyond the Bible to the contemporary Jewish Passover seder, in which children respond to their parents’ question, "Who knows?" (מי ידע mî yôdēaʿ), in numerical gradations from one to thirteen, ultimately reaching a devotional crescendo with the recitation of the thirteen divine attributes. Modern interpreters have understandably mined this biblical text as a mother lode of theological insight.
2:12–14. For Jewish compatriots who consider Hellenistic thought and culture superior to ancestral traditions of the Jews, Ben Sira reserves the strongest language. Three times in these verses he utters the language of curse ("woe to" [הוי hôy; οὐαι ouai]). Persons whose hands slacken in observing the Mosaic statutes and who neglect to lift them in prayer occasion the first of these harsh curses. The other two uses of the curse accentuate cowardice and loss of nerve. All three refer to the body: heart and hand, heart, and nerve, respectively. The Lord’s reckoning to which Ben Sira refers is entirely this-worldly; it manifests itself in various forms of sickness and disaster. The image of walking a double path, almost comic, underlines the absurdity of all attempts to reconcile Jewish and Hellenistic worldviews, according to Ben Sira. He was prepared to make modest compromises to accommodate those who valued Hellenistic ways, but that principle did not extend to matters affecting the divine commandments concerning good deeds. He willingly adopted Greek views and practices without any real drawing of the line. Perhaps the political situation permitted him such freedom. That changed with the oppressive policies inaugurated by Antiochus IV.
2:15–17. The concluding stanza stresses the interior motive for serving God and enjoins humility. The author of the saying in the Jewish tractate Pirqe ’Abot ("The Sayings of the Fathers") that elevates the love of God over desire for reward ("Be not as slaves that minister to their master in order to receive reward; but be as slaves that minister to their master without a view of receiving reward," Pirqe ’Abot 1:3) follows the clear teaching of Ben Sira. According to v. 16, religious devotion arises out of desire to please God. The keeping of the law, suspect to those Jews who have fallen under Hellenism’s seduction, issues from love for God. This theme will recur many times throughout the book. For now, however, Ben Sira endeavors to put the fear of God into his hearers—and readers.
2:17. The final couplet evokes an episode in King David’s life when he became vulnerable to divine wrath by, of all things, obeying Yahweh’s explicit order to take a census of the people. Ben Sira quotes, not entirely accurately, David’s decision to take his chances with God’s wrath rather than endure three years of famine or three months of fleeing before enemies (cf. 2 Sam 24:1–17, esp. vv. 13–14.) Choosing a three-day pestilence, David entertains the hope that Yahweh’s unpredictable anger will give way before the reliable divine compassion: "I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the Lord for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into human hands" (2 Sam 24:14 NRSV). The appeal to this text, like so much application of Scripture to later situations, stretches it to the limits, for an innocent David awaits divine punishment, whereas Ben Sira appears to view dependence on Yahweh as a means of escaping wrath. In any event, he closes this unit with a pun on the Hebrew word from Exod 34:6 for divine compassion,רחום (raḥûm; cf. 50:19), which he equates with God’s name.
To sum up, in this section Ben Sira acknowledges that all who strive to do good inevitably encounter obstacles along the way. They need not despair, however, for the author of such trials uses difficulty to build character. Facing tests of various kinds, one should faithfully rely on divine assistance, knowing that the outcome will be favorable. This confidence rests above all in the nature of God, whose compassion is well known and whose faithfulness is attested from of old. Nevertheless, one’s trust should have a solid basis in piety, for God’s mercy is exacting.
Ben Sira was convinced that true wisdom accompanied the keeping of the law. In Christian terms, this means that we become wise as a direct result of obeying God’s will. True knowledge depends on faithfulness to divine guidance. To be sure, some people only pretend to be religious, necessitating rigorous examination of the conduct of those who claim to be wise. True religion is evident in those who worship God alone; Ben Sira knew that such devotion was difficult, for moments of testing inevitably arise. To stave off such temptation, he urged people to become thoroughly familiar with religious history. In his view, the testimony of predecessors provided adequate support for believing in divine mercy. In Hasidic Judaism and in Christian worship of the recent past, at least among some fellowships, testimony to God’s faithfulness became a significant part of communal life. We may not wish to revert to this practice liturgically, but we can surely benefit from conversations with elderly members of congregations in which they bear witness to God’s faithfulness during their days in our midst. The active participation of the elderly in worship thus provides an inspiration and a model for younger people, for whom the older generation stands as a permanent witness to the truth of the gospel and its claims on their lives.
Ben Sira’s brief reference to David’s struggle to endure divine anger in the least destructive manner introduces readers to a valuable means of relating to Scripture. In this instance, readers are instructed to search the sacred texts for occasions when someone experienced something similar to the circumstances confronting them. The assumption underlying this anecdote is that God is faithful. If in David’s case God’s fury was clothed in mercy, God will most probably behave similarly now.
SIRACH 3:1–16, FILIAL DUTY
Whereas the preceding poem takes up human obligation, expressed in the first commandment—honor the Lord—the present unit much more self-consciously provides a commentary on the fifth commandment—honor your parents (Exod 20:2–3, 12; Deut 5:6–7, 16). Many ideas in these three subunits (vv. 1–6, 7–11, 12–16) derive from the book of Proverbs, where duty toward parents is mentioned often.
Ben Sira’s sharp comments (cf. v. 16) may have been provoked by changing economic conditions that put enormous pressure on the stability of the large family. Carol A. Newsom has perceived the beginnings of this conflict in Proverbs 1–9, the latest collection within the book of Proverbs. There the younger generation is tempted to adopt extreme measures to obtain its heritage without the delay occasioned by the long life of parents. New ideas about longevity also began to surface, perhaps in the wake of Hellenistic influence, in the late third and second centuries bce, particularly elevating youth and questioning the value of long life. A telling instance of this attitude occurs in 2 Macc 4:40, which refers to a certain Auranus as "advanced in years and no less advanced in folly." Ben Sira endeavors to preserve the traditional Jewish value of a definite hierarchy in the family structure, where parents and children relate to one another, in regard to power, in the same way masters and slaves do (v. 7).
The fifth commandment is the first to introduce reinforcements, specifically the promise of prolonged existence on earth (Exod 20:12) and well-being (Deut 5:16). This emphasis in ancient Israel on showing honor for one’s parents reflects a sociological context where adult sons continued to live in the family complex long after marrying. This situation naturally increased the occasions for conflict between grown sons and their aging parents. The fifth commandment, therefore, covers more than the obligations of young children to their parents. In vv. 12–13, Ben Sira reinforces this broader understanding of the obligation to parents, for he urges his readers to remain constant in their respect for parents even when decrepitude and senility place extraordinary strains on the relationship.
3:1–6. The first unit opens with the conventional appeal from a teacher to a student, in this instance, but originally the language of father and son was literal. The probable Hebrew verb (שׁמע šāmaʿ, "Listen to me your father, O children"), when followed by the preposition ב (bĕ), implies obedience; here Ben Sira explicitly urges action in accord with the advice. The Greek purpose clause "so that you may be saved" (ἵνα σωθῆτε hina sōthēte) should not be understood in its New Testament sense, for it probably translates the Hebrew expression for "faring well" (cf. Deut 5:16: יטב [yāṭab, "that you may be kept in safety"]). The second verse attributes the authority of parents over their children to a divine gift rather than to societal convention. Nothing in this section indicates that honor for mothers was secondary, which should give pause to interpreters inclined to decry ancient Israel as an unmitigated patriarchal society.
Something relatively new in Hebraic thought, the atoning power of good deeds and the amassing of credit in the heavenly record book, finds expression in vv. 3–4. The emphasis on the efficacy of charitable acts arose as a consequence of the increased esteem in which piety was held during the second and first centuries bce. The book of Tobit frequently acknowledges the positive correlation between acts of kindness and divine approval (cf. Tob 14:10–11). The notion of laying up treasure in God’s sight, familiar to students of the NT, has an analogue in rabbinic literature that refers to meritorious conduct, both inherited and personally acquired. According to the The Sayings of the Fathers (Pirqe ʾAbot), charitable works and repentance erect a shield against evil. Presuming too much, earlier sages carried such promises of divine blessing for faithful service to the limit and refused to acknowledge huge cracks in this system of theological accounts. Such calculating morality, challenged by the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, continues unabated in Sirach. The Greek expression for laying up treasure occurs elsewhere only in 1 Tim 6:19, although the idea itself occurs also in Matt 6:9–20 and Luke 12:21.
Ben Sira moves beyond a meritocracy based entirely on almsgiving and charitable works, for he knows that all such human deeds count in God’s sight only when accompanied by prayer. Therefore, Ben Sira promises those who honor their parents that their own children will bring joy and that God will hear the parents’ prayer (v. 5). In v. 6, Ben Sira returns to the motivation for honoring parents in the fifth commandment, specifically the prolonging of life, but he places selfish interests in a broader context of religious devotion: Those who honor their parents obey the Lord.
3:7–11. The second unit (if indeed a separate entity) begins with a break in the text at v. 7, which ms 248 fills with typical teaching from Sirach, now applied to the subject under consideration ("Whoever fears the Lord will honor his father"). The description of children’s service to parents uses the Greek word for the work of slaves, although with a qualifying expression "just like": "he will follow his parents just like masters" (ὡς δεσπόταις δουλεύσει hōs despotais douleusei). The singular form of the word for "masters" (δεσπότης despotēs) designates "God" in the LXX of 23:1 and 34:24. The next two verses (vv. 8–9) echo an earlier concept of patriarchal blessing, one that provides an important ingredient of the plot in the stories about Isaac and his two sons, Jacob and Esau (Genesis 27; cf. Genesis 48). Ben Sira knows that children can dissimulate, like Jacob, saying one thing while behaving in a deceptive manner. True honor for parents, Ben Sira insists, unites practice with speech. The image of a deeply rooted plant in v. 8 conveys Ben Sira’s idea of the beneficent paternal blessing, just as Psalm 1 conveys the Lord’s blessing by means of the image of a tree planted beside abundant waters. The second half of v. 9 states that not even such well-fed roots can protect a plant from a maternal curse (cf. Prov 20:20 for the reverse idea that a son who curses his parents will lose his lamp, a metaphor for life).
The final two verses of this subunit (vv. 10–11) introduce the concept of rivalry between a father and a son. Ben Sira observes that sons gain nothing through exalting themselves at their fathers’ expense but that they benefit from their fathers’ honor. He extends this notion to include respect for mothers as well. Alexander Di Lella quotes Sophocles’ Antigone (703–4), for a similar idea: "For me, my father, no treasure is so precious as your welfare. What, indeed, is a nobler ornament for children than a prospering father’s fair fame, or for father than son’s?" Sophocles’ last observation goes considerably beyond Ben Sira’s exclusive emphasis on deriving benefit from a father’s honor, with no mention of a father’s benefiting from a son’s honor.
3:12–16. The third subunit takes up special circumstances in which aging parents become a source of acute exasperation, tempting sons to seize authority. What should one do when parents lose control of their faculties, whether physical, emotional, or intellectual? Returning to the form of address "my son," perhaps to regain a sense of intimacy, Ben Sira urges the son to assist his father and not to stoop to the level of a father who has lost his ability to reason anymore.
The next two verses (vv. 14–15), describe the atoning power of respect for parents. From early times, ancient Egyptians pictured the heart being weighed on scales against a feather, which represented justice. Israelites believed that God kept a book in which were recorded the names of those persons reckoned for life (cf. Exod 32:32, Moses’ bold request to have his name blotted out of that book if the Lord did not forgive the sinful people). Later rabbinic literature also alludes to "that which balances." Presumably, the people thought God kept a careful record of people’s actions, whether good or evil, to assure that divine judgment was completely impartial—like blind justice. Naturally, such an idea stood in tension with an equally widespread belief in God’s mercy. Believing that deeds of kindness atoned for sin, the author of the saying in the rabbinic tractate Sukka 49b concludes that almsgiving is superior even to sacrifice. In the same vein, Ben Sira remarks that the accumulation of credit for honoring one’s parents will pay off in time of calamity, sins melting like frost in warm weather. The Greekἐλεημοσύνη (eleēmosynē) of v. 14 translates a similarly technical Hebrew word, צדקות (ṣĕdāqôt), signifying "deeds of kindness."
The final verse in this unit under discussion presupposes the harsh legal statute that condemns to death anyone who curses his or her parents (Exod 21:17; Lev 20:9). Ben Sira equates dishonoring one’s parents with blasphemy; the way one behaves toward parents thus becomes an indicator of religious allegiance.
Looking back over these sixteen verses, one is struck by the way Ben Sira comments from several perspectives on a particular commandment: Honor your father and your mother. The tendency of members of an extended family to reside in close quarters must have put enormous strain on younger family members when parents became old and lacking in judgment. Kindness to such individuals yields rich dividends, according to Ben Sira, atoning for earlier offenses.
True religion moves beyond love of God; it includes love for one’s fellows, too. The recipients of acts of love are personalized here-parents in their waning years when they may become difficult and excessively demanding. In this way need becomes highly visible, and one cannot escape responsibility by entering the realm of an idealized and vague love of humankind.
SIRACH 3:17–4:10, HUMILITY AND ALMSGIVING
The present unit consists of two distinct subunits, 3:17–31 and 4:1–10, each of which begins with the traditional appeal, "my son." Verses 30–31 provide a transition from a discussion of humility and pride to consideration of almsgiving. Two sayings (vv. 25, 29) offer self-conscious reflection on wisdom, in this regard resembling Hos 14:9 and similar reflective comments ("Those who are wise understand these things;/ those who are discerning know them" [Hos 14:9 NRSV]). The best Greek mss actually lack v. 25, although it appears in ms 248.
3:17–31. The section on humility begins with conventional teaching about the virtue of humility, specifically that it incurs favor with humans and God. Ben Sira observes that persons in authority ought to be especially humble, because the Lord is honored by the lowly. The argument from the greater to the lesser is not entirely consistent, inasmuch as the supremely powerful One does not offer an example of humility. Nevertheless, various traditionists in ancient Israel acknowledged the centrality of humility—from Mosaic legislation and the description of the meek Moses to prophetic summaries of essential piety, such as Mic 6:6–8. Similarly, wisdom sayings link humility and piety ("The reward for humility and fear of the Lord/ is riches and honor and life" [Prov 22:4 NRSV]).
Perhaps the greatest temptation confronting sages was intellectual pride, particularly in a Hellenistic environment that encouraged the pursuit of every imaginable mystery. Traditional Judaism combined revelatory knowledge with human achievement but gave precedence to the former. Jewish leaders acknowledged the significance of intellectual inquiry, although imposing certain restrictions as a result of dangerous speculations into the unknown and unknowable. For example, they prohibited liturgical reading or study of the creation narrative, the mystifying description of Ezekiel’s vision recorded in Ezek 1:4–28, and the list of sexual transgressions in Lev 18:6–18.
On the basis of Deut 30:11–14 and similar texts, one may conclude that some Israelites assumed that nothing worthwhile came cheaply, for the speaker insists that God’s gift of the law requires no human effort at all beyond willing acceptance. The presumption that the people were prepared to ascend mountains or cross perilous seas to attain such a valuable treasure makes the announcement of a free gift all the more noteworthy. The gracious instruction leading to life could be had for the asking, but such an arrangement seemed too simple for persons accustomed to rigorous intellectual pursuits with minimal results.
Ben Sira recognizes the appeal of the unknown to the young students whom he addresses, but he also understands the hidden dangers inherent in astrological calculations among the Greeks and some forms of wisdom speculation in Jewish circles (cf. Sir 18:4–7). Hence he cautions against probing into areas that resist analysis, for in his view God has made known everything that human beings need to know.
One finds here no inkling of dissatisfaction like that expressed by Qohelet over God’s restriction of knowledge (Eccl 3:11). This poignant complaint in the midst of praise for an orderly universe and a vigorous intellectual curiosity (if that is the real meaning of the obscure Hebrew wordהעלם [hāʿōlām]) contrasts mightily with Ben Sira’s stern warning against investigating the secrets of the universe. In a sense, however, he merely serves as a guardian of sanity, inasmuch as some facts will forever remain locked in mystery, and as a reminder that sacred tradition already contains enough mystery to keep most students occupied for the remainder of their lives. As for anything else, a statement in Deut 29:29 suffices: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this law" (NRSV).
The psalmist recognizes the need for controlling intellectual pride and boasts about mastering that temptation (Psalm 131). This modest person pleads not guilty to preoccupation with things too great and marvelous. The dominant image in v. 2 is either that of an infant cuddling against its mother’s breast, suggesting that the probing mind has finally achieved rest, or that of a weaned child who has begun to venture forth on his or her own, a fine image for intellectual progress toward independent thought. This attitude, too, differs greatly from that of Qohelet, who complains that knowledge lies beyond human perception (Eccl 7:24).
The language of these texts on the proper scope of intellectual inquiry includes a wide range of expression, but a few words stand out. Among them are the ordinary word for "seeking" (דרשׁ dāraš), a verb expressing penetrating study (חקר ḥāqar), and four adjectives for the hidden (נסתרת nistārôt), the wonderful (פלאות pĕlāʾôt; נפלאות niplāʾôt), the deep (עמק ʿāmōq), and the distant (רחוק rāḥôq). Ben Sira’s use of this weighty vocabulary lends credence to the hypothesis that he has in mind Greek speculation of a cosmogonic and theosophical character. Cosmogonic speculation centered in the question of the governance of the universe, and theosophical ruminations explored the hidden or mystical nature of the deity. The psalmist who composed Psalm 139 marvels that, unlike human knowledge, God’s knowledge of the worshiper has no limit; here one finds some of the same vocabulary listed above, specifically the verb for rigorous investigation (ḥāqar) and the adjectives for "distant" (מרחוק mērāḥôq), "wonderful" (פליאה pĕlîʾâ; cf. v. 14), and "secret" (בסתר bassēter). One can easily concur in the exuberant conclusion that such divine knowledge is too wonderful, beyond human grasp (v. 6).
Verses 25–31 contrast obstinate individuals with persons who listen to sound advice, attributing salvific generosity to sages who experience the joy of helping needy persons.
Ben Sira characterizes obdurate persons as sinners who lack enough good deeds to ward off inevitable calamity, whereas responsive individuals perform acts of kindness that prevent harm from striking them. The concept of reward and retribution underlies such thinking, and the language echoes the description of Pharaoh as hard-hearted in Exod 7:14 and the sage par excellence, Solomon, who requested a hearing heart to equip him for the task of ruling the nation. The Hebrew for an obdurate mind or will ("a hard heart" [לב כבד lēb kābēd]) indicates a heavy weight of arrogance that increases with every obstinate act; and its opposite ("a wise heart" [לב חכם lēb ḥākām]) becomes even lighter when overcome by joy.
Ben Sira’s notion of retribution has no reference to a future life; "at the end," therefore, indicates disaster in this present existence. The scorner (לץ lēṣ) frequently provoked scathing rebuke in the book of Proverbs, but to no avail. Ben Sira even associates such persons with madness and describes them as active lovers of evil, not merely acquiescing in loathsome conduct. From such scoundrels only evil can proceed, so deep-rooted have their misdeeds become.
According to 3:29, an obedient will understands the sayings of the wise, and an attentive ear brings joy to a sage. Both qualities apply to teachers and to students, the former needing obedient listeners and the latter becoming wise through obedience.
Like fire, obstinate conduct threatens the existence of sinners. Ben Sira lacks confidence in the judgment of sinners to take advantage of the available antidote to sin, although the wise provide examples of almsgiving that atones for wrongdoing. Belief in the efficacy of charitable deeds led to an expression, attributed to Rabbi Aqiba, that God placed the poor on earth to provide a means for the rich to attain salvation through almsgiving.
4:1–10. The final section of Part I (1:1–4:10) takes up the matter of duties toward marginalized citizens of the community, specifically the poor, widows, orphans, and sojourners. Ben Sira grounds social ethics in God’s conduct toward the needy and promises divine approval for acts of kindness. The teacher recognizes the facts of life, the temptation for rulers to curry favor among powerful citizens, but he offsets this reality with the reminder that God hears the cry of the oppressed when they curse those who spurn them.
The Hebrew text of v. 1 has "mock" (לעג lāʿag) instead of "defraud" (ἀποστερέω apostereō) in the Greek text, recalling Prov 17:5 ("Those who mock the poor insult their Maker" [NRSV]; cf. Prov 14:31, "Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker" [NRSV]). This verse also has a reference to embittered eyes, presumably made that way through harsh experience. Ben Sira urges his listeners to offer assistance without delay (cf. 29:8), thus conferring dignity on persons reduced to poverty. In v. 3, the Hebrew reads "boil" (חמר ḥāmar) and "bowels of the oppressed" (מעי דך mʿy dk), conveying the idea of seething emotions. Ancient Israelites thought of the intestines as the seat of turbulent feelings.
Verses 4–6 warn against incurring the wrath of needy persons through outright rejection of their petition or a furtive glance away so as to avoid eye contact with them. The operative words in v. 6, "cry out" (צעק ṣā ʿaq) and "cry" (צעקה ṣĕ ʿāqâ), belong to liturgical tradition (cf. Exod 22:23, "If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry" [NRSV]; Ps 22:25).
Verses 7–10 treat the relationships among the several social classes in the Jewish community. Ben Sira offers advice on how to ingratiate oneself to the entire "congregation" (עדה ʿēdâ). That includes proper respect for the ruling aristocracy as well as for those in need. Under the Ptolemaic rulers in Egypt, Jerusalem had a number of officials, a pattern that continued in the Sanhedrin. These aristocrats demanded respect, which was easy enough to give; as for the poor, one should acknowledge their salutation, which preceded a request for alms. Ben Sira’s reference to rescuing the oppressed recalls similar advice from Lemuel’s mother in Prov 31:8–9, for royal ideology demanded that kings rescue the needy. This ideal seldom found expression in actual practice; most kings occupied themselves with military ventures aimed at securing—or improving—their political situation. The allusion to courageous rendering of a verdict does not necessarily imply membership in the legal profession, for ordinary citizens were often called upon to render judicial decisions.
Ben Sira presses his point home by calling upon everyone to assume parental responsibility for those in need. The reward makes such behavior worth the effort, according to Ben Sira. He promises that God will call these surrogate parents "children." Such imagery of God as parent, although rare, occurs enough times to make it particularly poignant. The section closes on a high note, the staggering assurance that "God will be gracious and deliver you from harm," or if one follows the Greek, "God will love you more than your mother does."
In this section, Ben Sira addresses an issue that was dear to the pious in Israel: the role of humility in the presence of divine mystery and human need. Beginning with appreciation for the humble by their peers, the unit closes by asserting that God, too, looks with favor on the humble. Two areas in which humility finds expression are highlighted: (1) intellectual inquiry and (2) the attitude toward marginalized citizens. Ben Sira recognizes the enormous gulf between human and divine knowledge, indeed the utter reliance of people on God for insight, here understood as the gift of Torah; but the teacher also perceives the practical implications of humility. Anyone who truly understands the meaning of humility will perform acts of kindness in a way that allows recipients to retain their dignity.
This section consists of discrete proverbs concerning relationships, both private and public. A brief poem in praise of wisdom (4:11–19) introduces the sayings, with alternating third- and first-person narrative. (The Greek text lacks this particular feature, describing wisdom throughout in third person.)
SIRACH 4:11–19, IN PRAISE OF WISDOM
The Hebrew of this poem is patterned after Prov 1:22–33 and 8:4–36, where Wisdom extols her virtues. This mode of address returns in Sir 24:3–22. The first-person account in the Greek echoes the style of comparable poems praising Isis (aretologies). A remarkable link between serving wisdom and serving God occurs in v. 14. Moreover, wisdom possesses the power to turn over those who resist her instruction to their own destruction. Such a figure is no ordinary person, and the poem comes close to hymnic praise of deity.
Using the image of treacherous paths and rigorous testing, Ben Sira acknowledges the difficulty of acquiring wisdom, but he insists that persistence pays off eventually. Earlier religious thinkers attributed testing to Yahweh, assuming that genuine faithfulness could best be ascertained when believers faced adversity and triumphed. Only as loyal servants demonstrated integrity could one be sure that religious devotion would endure, regardless of the circumstances. Ben Sira closely associates loyalty to wisdom and divine service (v. 14).
4:11. The initial verse in the Greek text echoes Prov 4:8, which promises that wisdom will exalt those who value her. The Hebrew and Syriac texts in v. 11 have a different verb, "to teach" (למד lāmad), as if to emphasize the stage of learning rather than the end result of respect among peers. The spelling of "wisdom" as חכמות (ḥokmôt) rather than the more usual חכמה (ḥokmâ) resembles Prov 1:20 and 9:1, which state that wisdom cries out in the busy streets and that she has built a house containing seven pillars. A pun on the two consonants, ב (b) and נ (n), occurs in the Hebrew words for "sons" and their activity ("her sons" [בניהה bānêhâ]) and מבינים (mĕbînîm), a participle from the verb בין (bîn, "to understand"). The NRSV’s "her children" captures the wider sense of the expression bānêhâ, although in the context of the classroom it had the more restricted meaning of "sons" and "students."
4:12. In keeping with wisdom’s hiddenness and her readiness to put individuals to a test, this verse assures those who actively search for wisdom that they will obtain favor. The Hebrew text identifies the Lord as the source of favor, agreeing with the statement in Prov 8:35 ("For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord"), where the first colon uses the verbמצא (māṣāʾ) and a participle from the same root with the sense of "finding" instead of בקשׁ (bāqaš), as here, "to seek." The Greek text does not indicate whether the favor derives from God, from wisdom, or from human beings. In the thinking of Israel’s sages, conformity with wisdom’s dictates entitles persons to rewards from all three sources. An epithet for Yahweh, "the living one," can be viewed in the context of Canaanite religion in which Baal dies and rises again in accord with seasonal patterns. The divine title "the living one" asserts that Israel’s God does not die and consequently must be reckoned with at all times. The concept of a deity who transcends natural seasons reinforces notions of both justice and mercy in that Yahweh always observes human conduct and watches over the faithful.
4:13. This verse moves beyond the images of loving and seeking wisdom to holding her fast. Together, these three ideas refer to an individual’s prizing the life of the intellect, expending enormous energy to acquire an education, and building moral character that embodies the learning. The persons who embrace woman wisdom, an idea implicit in loving her (v. 12), and hold on to her for dear life will discover honor. Here Ben Sira uses the verb māṣāʾ, along withכבוד (kābôd, "glory," "honor"; δοξα doxa) as the direct object of the verb. In this instance, both the Hebrew and the Greek indicate that the Lord bestows blessing on faithful individuals. The concept of blessing (ברכות bĕrākôt, plural), included long life, a loving family, and prosperity. The benefits that accrue from successful pursuit of wisdom thus pertain to one’s status in the community and to the privacy of a family. The Greek text states that the Lord blesses every place wisdom enters, whereas the Hebrew concentrates on wisdom’s followers.
According to Prov 9:1–6, wisdom has constructed a grand house with seven columns and invites guests to a banquet. Naturally, her house is believed to be a dwelling in which blessing abounds. In a later poem (14:20–27), Ben Sira describes those who meditate on wisdom as being blessed and urges them to pursue her like hunters on a chase, daring to pitch their tents near her house.
Ancient peoples imagined blessing and curse as states of mind and body subject to outside control. Professional cursers like Balaam, whom Balak, king of Moab, hired to denounce Israel in the story preserved in Numbers 22–24, were thought to have possessed considerable power. This tradition about Balaam survived outside the Bible and has been confirmed by a stroke of good fortune that yielded a text, discovered at Deir ʾAlla near the Dead Sea, that actually refers to a prophet named Balaam. Such professionals were naturally feared, although the biblical narrative portrays this prophet as being subject to a greater power, the will of Yahweh.
Blessings, too, carried immense weight. They also inspired certain incidents in the Bible, notably the story about Jacob’s deceit of his father and receipt of the paternal blessing, to Esau’s great dismay. The contravening divine will entered the picture, too, when human wishes did not coincide with Yahweh’s plans; the strange scene describing Jacob’s last words in Gen 48:8–22 sets aged father against son and ignores once more the right of primogeniture, giving the blessing to Ephraim rather than to Manasseh, the firstborn. These stories suggest that neither the curse nor the blessing automatically achieved its goal, contrary to much that has been written over the years.
4:14. The image moves beyond "seeking," "loving," and "holding" to that of "serving." The language belongs to Israel’s cultic life; a noun formed from the verbשׁרת (šārat) applies to priestly ministers of the altar (משׁרתי מזבח mĕšārtê mizbēaḥ; cf. Joel 1:13, also called "ministers of Yahweh" [משׁרתי יהוה mĕšārtê YHWH] in Joel 1:9 and 2:17). Similarly, the verb בקשׁ (bāqaš, "to seek") belongs alongside other terms like דרשׁ (dāraš) in describing inquiry of the Lord at the cultic center. The verb for "loving" (אהב ʾāhab), also functions as liturgical vocabulary in addition to its use in the secular realm. These verbs from the experience of worship indicate how Ben Sira allowed his personal piety to shape his everyday language. In vv. 11–13, the religious dimension of these verbs remains obscure, whereas it comes to prominence in v. 14. Now Ben Sira equates divine service with intellectual pursuit. This idea differs appreciably from the earlier notion that religion both orients knowledge and makes it possible, or that spiritual insight crowns all true knowledge. The older formulation, "The fear of God is the beginning/first principle of knowledge," has yielded an even bolder claim: Devotion to a life of the mind is identical to that of religious leaders. Both scholars and priests minister to the Lord, each in his or her own way.
The epithet "the Holy One" occurs often in the Isaianic corpus, especially in the longer form, "the holy one of Israel." One can read the Hebrew for "Holiness" (קדושׁ qādôš; or קדשׁ qōdeš) as a reference to a person or to a place. This title for God became the favorite of rabbinic Judaism, where it is often followed by "Blessed be He." Like v. 12, where a participle form of the operative verb occurs (those who love her love life), this verse employs a verb and a noun from the same root (those who serve the Holy One serve her). This feature of Hebrew syntax occurs frequently, indicating no aversion to repeating an idea in close proximity. Unlike the second colon of v. 14 in Hebrew, the Greek is perfectly clear: "and the Lord loves those who love her."
4:15. The next verse continues the general topic of the preceding four, although shifting in the Hebrew to first-person address. In the thought of ancient Israelites, as also in Egyptian wisdom, the verbשׁמע (šāmaʿ, "to hear") indicates obedience. "Those who hear me" are persons who conduct their lives in compliance with wisdom’s proclamation. Such persons, Ben Sira avers, will judge accurately, with integrity; the Hebrew אמת (ʾĕmet) suggests "truth" or "reliability." The idea that the righteous will judge nations, which the Greek declares, derives from an ingenious reading of the Hebrew word for "truth," ʾĕmet. By repointing the consonants to אמת (ʾummōt), a rare expression for nations results. In this way, the translator introduces a concept that was more at home in the Alexandrian context, specifically Israel’s relationship to non-Jews. The same idea that wise Jews will judge nations appears in Wis 3:8 (cf. the Prov 29:9a LXX). In popular Hellenistic thought, the wise were entitled to rule over the people (cf. the idea of philosopher kings associated with Plato). The initial verb in the second colon of v. 15 parallels the verb for "hearing" in the first colon: "Those who listen to me" // "Those who obey me." The sentence concludes with a promise of secure dwelling in the inner recesses of wisdom’s house. The language has an erotic undertone, implying that obedient ones will reside in wisdom’s bedroom. Such fantasy enjoyed free rein in ancient speculation about wisdom. Reading ישׁכן (yiškan) as "dwells," one can translate as follows: "Whoever obeys me dwells in safety; whoever listens to me resides in the inner chamber of my house."
4:16. This verse is lacking in the Hebrew. The Greek text, which turned the idea of faithfulness in v. 15 into an entirely different notion (ʾemet, "truth" toאמת [ʾummōt, "nations"]), now introduces faithfulness. In doing so, it promises an inheritance to those who remain loyal to wisdom, extending the legacy to their descendants. That inheritance consists of personified wisdom, who freely bestows herself and all accompanying blessings on faithful lovers. Because the Hebrew of this verse is not extant, we cannot tell whether the language was intended to evoke ancient sentiment connected with the divine promise that Israel constituted Yahweh’s private possession (see, e.g., Exod 19:5–6).
4:17–19. The last section in this unit issues a somber warning that pursuit of wisdom’s blessings entails arduous effort and not a little danger. The image of testing suggests that wisdom will intentionally lead people along false paths in order to determine their worth, in the end returning to a straight path and rewarding the faithful but abandoning others to thieves. The difficult experiences in classrooms probably inspired this talk about trials, for the life of students included numerous unpleasantries ranging from harsh whippings to painful thinking. The latter included tedious memorization of texts, extensive practice of calligraphy, copious recitations, and rigorous thinking-all at the expense of frivolity and fun with persons of the opposite sex.
The excessively long initial verse (v. 17) cannot stand alone, although it introduces the situation that vv. 18–19 resolve. It states that wisdom disguises herself, accompanying her followers and putting them to tests. Earlier sages often spoke of discipline as an unpleasantry that must be endured in the educational task. The Hebrew verb signifying "disguise" has the basic sense of forgiveness; the word recalls the notoriousנכריה (nokriyyâ, "strange or foreign woman") in Proverbs 1–9, which Joseph Blenkinsopp plausibly interprets in the light of exclusivism during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Another term for this dangerous foe in Proverbs 1–9 is אשׁה זרה (ʾiššâ zārâ), "the foreign woman."
The exact nature of her alienness is unclear, but possibilities include ethnicity, spirituality, and moral character. In short, the foreign woman may have been a non-Israelite whose strange ways and relative freedom set her apart and enhanced her seductive powers; she may have been a practitioner of a rival cult to Yahwism, particularly one associated with sexual license; she may have been an Israelite with loose morals. Ben Sira’s choice of vocabulary brings all this speculation to bear on the experience of acquiring knowledge.
The language of v. 17 emphasizes wisdom’s active involvement in testing her followers, first by specifying that she walks alongside them and then by indicating that she probes them directly (lit., "to their face"). Furthermore, the noun for "trials" (מסה massâ) contains the consonants of the verb "to test" (נסה nāsâ), which occurs in Gen 22:1 to describe God’s action in testing Abraham by demanding that he sacrifice his son Isaac. The same verb appears in the story about King Ahaz, recorded in Isaiah 7, this time in the mouth of the outwardly pious Judean ruler. His smug, hypocritical remark, "I should not petition nor test Yahweh" (Isa 7:12, author’s trans.) outraged the prophet Isaiah, who endeavored to persuade the king to rely on the Lord rather than on the might of Assyrian soldiers.
The Hebrew text of vv. 17–18 completes the thought as follows: "when his mind concurs with mine, I will once more put him on a straight path and make known to him my secrets." The Greek expands the idea of trials, noting that wisdom will bring fear and dread (cf. Exod 15:16), testing followers with discipline (παιδεία paideia). Here the Greek verb βάσανισει (basanisei) suggests "rubbing on a touchstone" to determine an object’s authenticity.
The imagery in the Hebrew involves the heart’s becoming full of wisdom and the person’s then being led on an accurate ("straight") route, until full disclosure takes place. Occasional hints of esoteric lore surface in biblical literature, e.g., Job 11:6a "that [God] would tell you the secrets of wisdom" (NRSV), and Dan 2:22, "He reveals deep and hidden things;/ he knows what is in the darkness,/ and light dwells with him" (NRSV). Similarly, Qohelet speaks about obscurity and deep mystery, first in Eccl 3:11 ("He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put the unknown in their mind, because of which no one can find out the work God has done from beginning to end") and later in Eccl 7:24 ("Distant—whatever is—and extraordinarily deep; who can find it?").
The Greek text adds what is surely implicit in the Hebrew of v. 18: "and she will gladden him." The last verse (v. 19) returns again to the threatening posture, wisdom’s final words here. If he turns away from her, she warns, she will cast him off, abandoning him to destruction. The image of a simpleton attempting to negotiate life on his own and ending up like the ruins of a deserted village or in the hands of robbers (cf. Obad 5, "plunderers by night" [NRSV]) brings this unit to an effective conclusion. The doublet in Hebrew makes the warning even more poignant.
In sum, this poem praises wisdom by associating her with life and its divine source. It asserts that wisdom’s loyal followers attain joy, exalted position, and honor. Ben Sira’s language inclines toward the sacral when describing wisdom’s devotees as ministers—i.e., priests at the altar. The picture is not completely rosy, for Ben Sira acknowledges the unpleasant fact that intellectual inquiry demands arduous toil, particularly in the early stages until the pursuit becomes natural. Ben Sira understands this initial hardship as wisdom’s testing of individuals to determine whether they will remain resolute in their study. The dire consequences of turning away from wisdom contrast with an unveiling of secrets to the faithful.
A significant feature of this section is the place of the intellect in biblical religion. The modern tendency to disdain intellectual pursuits as the domain of nerds and eggheads has made a negative impact on the church at every level. Social pressure on bright young people often places demands on them to hide their intellectual achievements and aspirations rather than risk rejection by less motivated peers. Society’s refusal to value education has forced potential teachers to enter more lucrative professions like medicine, law, business, and scientific research. School standards, therefore, continue to decline, threatening society at large. The lowering of the reading level in textbooks, known in the trade as "dumbing down," and the constant pressure from competing interest groups to highlight private readings worsen the situation. Addiction to television compounds the problem, contributing to vastly shortened attention spans and mental laziness.
In years past, pastors belonged to the intellectually elite members of society, having received formal education in the classics. The situation has changed dramatically today, and many intellectually gifted individuals choose more lucrative professions. Few pastors now excel in the life of the mind, partly because of disinterest, but also because of mounting pressure on every hand to attend to all kinds of professional responsibilities. Moreover, many highly successful televangelists fill the airwaves with messages that extol the life of the Spirit at the expense of the mind. Some of these preachers even consider intellectual pursuits alien to spirituality, partly because of residual fallout from the historical-critical study of the Bible and partly because of well-known extremists in some universities.
Ben Sira elevates the life of the mind, equating divine service with devotion to the pursuit of knowledge. This attitude suggests that religious people need to take another look at the way they spend leisure time, as well as their commitment to education. Perhaps one can serve the Creator by studying just as effectively as one can by doing good deeds. Using the brain to explore the unknown may please God just as much as any number of acts, and applying the intellect to devout meditation may be looked upon with even more favor than some deeds of kindness. Both intellectual rigor and moral rectitude belong in the arsenal of religious people.
Furthermore, childlike curiosity should be encouraged in intellectual research. Ben Sira’s stress on active seeking furnishes a vivid contrast to contemporary passive education. The beauty of intellectual pursuit is its open-endedness, for no one actually ever achieves the goal. The treasure at rainbow’s end simply sits there, always beckoning but ever receding in the distance. Most of the excitement comes from the search; those individuals who sit at home and wait for wisdom to drop down upon them miss everything. In a similar vein, Mary L. Caldwell proposes that much of the value in prayer comes in the act itself, not in the answer.
SIRACH 4:20–31, SOCIAL STATUS, SHAME, AND SPEECH
This section contains practical advice, largely stated negatively, on speaking one’s mind regardless of the social classes involved, and on generosity. Ben Sira distinguishes two kinds of shame, one desirable and the other undesirable. He will discuss shame more thoroughly in later chaps. (41:14–42:8; cf. 20:22–23).
4:20. The customary address by a teacher to a student, derived from that of parent to child, opens this unit in the Hebrew and the Latin. The first observation, "Guard the time and noise," reverses usual sentence order in Hebrew, perhaps to emphasize the objects, which usually come after verbs. On the basis of Eccl 3:1, where the nouns for "season" and "time" (זמן ועת zĕmān wĕʿet) occur, one may conjecture that המון (hāmôn, "noise") is a corruption of an original zĕmān. The verb שׁמר (šāmar), the imperative of which is translated "guard," also has the sense of "observe." Ben Sira urges students to watch over the occasions that come along, alert to opportune moments (καιροί kairoi). The Greek term καιρός (kairos) distinguishes these quality times from uneventful ordinary times (χρόνος chronos). Wise students inspect the different situations that emerge over the course of a day and seize the opportune moment for action.
This simple admonition to watch for promising moments possibly relates to the venerable practice of observing the times in order to control events magically. Specialists who knew the times are mentioned in Daniel; such individuals who studied the stars and chronicled seasonal changes sought mastery of astrology for the purpose of controlling events for themselves and their clients. The practice thrived in Mesopotamia, where wisdom has been plausibly defined as magic, and in Egypt, where the well-known Book of the Dead was compiled. Priestly groups in Israel, particularly those belonging to the sect at Qumran, devoted much energy to calendrical matters. They believed that God had specified exact times for sacred observances.
Precisely what "the evil" had to do with the times remains unclear, unless it signifies a misfortune for which omens were sought. Ben Sira continues with "And fear the evil," without elaborating on the nature of this object of dread. Alexander Di Lella understands the potential threat as Hellenism, the tendency to glorify Greek customs and ideas at the expense of Jewish practices and thoughts. Nothing in this context points in such a specific direction, however deplorable attempts to become more Greek than Jewish may have been reckoned in later literature. In contrast to the unknown author of 1 Macc 1:11–15, who expresses chagrin over the efforts of Jews in the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 bce) to efface all evidence of circumcision so they could participate in athletic contests in gymnasia, Ben Sira remains silent about such activity. Similar contempt for priests who highly prized Greek honors while despising Jewish values issues from the pen of the writer of 2 Macc 4:13–15.
Ben Sira warns against conduct that prevents students from standing up for what they believe. Being ashamed of taking a stand covers any number of situations, although embarrassment over identification with people whose customs seem backward and uncultured certainly fits the context. So does reticence to espouse unpopular causes when persons of power and influence resist them. Ben Sira may have in mind the many different ways influential, but corrupt, people pressure the wise to keep silent for fear of unwelcome consequences, for their livelihood often depended on the goodwill of the affluent. He urges students to guard their integrity in the same way they watch over opportune moments.
4:21. This verse reminds the reader that not all shame is the same, some being an indication of honor while other instances signify disgrace. One ought to be ashamed of deplorable conduct, which entails sin ("iniquity" [עוון] ʿawôn; ἁμαρτία hamartia]), but a person should not be ashamed of actions worthy of honor and favor (כבוד וחן kābôd wĕḥēn; δόξα καὶ χάρις doxa kai charis). The literary form of this statement consists of a particle of existence, "there is" (ישׁ yēš), followed by predicate nominatives. In this instance, the two cola use synonymous parallelism but specify opposite types of shame: "For there is a shame that leads to sin,/ and there is a shame that is glory and favor." The LXX adds this verse after Prov 26:11.
At some point during the transmission of the HB, the divine name "Baal" caused sufficient unease to prompt changes in some personal names using this appellation. The name "Ishbosheth" thus resulted (2 Sam 1:1), with the implausible meaning "man of shame" instead of "man of Baal." In at least one instance, the change did not take place in every occurrence of the name, for Saul’s son Meribbaal (1 Chr 8:34) is also called Mephibosheth (2 Sam 4:4). Clearly, Ben Sira’s sensitivity toward shame has ancient precedent in Jewish scribal circles and does not, therefore, necessarily reflect the influence of Mediterranean culture, with its strong emphasis on honor and shame.
4:22. "Show no favoritism to the detriment of your true self" seems to represent the sense of v. 22a, although the Hebrew may warn against partiality toward oneself—i.e., selfishness. The Hebrew phrase "to lift up your face" implies showing favor toward someone, often in warning against being unduly influenced by wealth (cf. 42:1b and 35:16a for additional uses in Sirach). The second colon in v. 22 may advise against a sense of shame that leads to one’s downfall. The Hebrew "do not stumble at your stumblings" can be improved by adopting the verb from the Greek, "do not be ashamed" (μὴ ἐντραπῆς mē entrapēs). The verse then warns against a shame that leads to ruin, but it does not indicate what Ben Sira has in mind. This generality leaves the saying open to many applications.
4:23. This verse counsels against withholding comment when the occasion for speech presents itself, thereby concealing one’s intelligence. The use of the weighty expression for time in v. 23 (עולם ʿôlām instead of עת ʿēt) might indicate that speculation about the world to come and this age has already begun. Ben Sira has no use for such optimistic hopes of existence after death, but he knows that some moments are filled with potential, and he does not want his students to let them pass unnoticed. On the basis of 8:9 in Greek, "to give answer in time of need" (ἐν καιρῶ χρείας δοῦναι ἀπόκρισιν en kairō chreias dounai apokrisin), Rudolf Smend reads χρεία (chreia) for σωτηρία (sōtēria, "need" for "safety"). The author of Eccl 3:7 also recognizes a time for speech-indeed a time for everything under the sun.
The second colon in v. 23 acknowledges that wisdom can go unnoticed if one lacks the courage to speak up or the ability to recognize an opportune moment. To be sure, the adage that "remaining quiet and being thought a fool is better than opening one’s mouth and removing all doubt" possesses some truth. One aim of ancient education was to equip young people for effective speech, which entails a capacity to discern the right time to respond.
4:24. The adverbכי (kî; γάρ gar), signals an explanation of the sentiment expressed in v. 23: "Through speech intelligence is made known and understanding through the tongue’s response." This artful literary inclusio ABB′A′:
employs technical vocabulary of the sages and gives voice to traditional beliefs in their circles. Despite this extraordinary praise of eloquence (cf. Prov 15:23; 16:1), these intellectuals knew that successful rogues also possessed smooth tongues. This theme found expression in the frequent warnings within the book of Proverbs about a seductress with her smooth line. Quick answers and glib answers often go hand in hand, indicating that one needs to analyze the content of what is said and not just its eloquence.
4:25. The Hebrew here has contrasting parallelism: "Do not contradict God [האל hāʾēl] but bow before God [אלהים ʾelōhîm]." An Aramaic loan word, סרב (sārab) connotes verbal lying, a bold resistance to the truth. The Greek has "Do not oppose the truth" (μὴ ἀντίλεγε τῆ ἀληθεία me antilege te aletheia). In Jewish piety of the first century ce, "truth" (אמח ʾemet) actually served as a divine appellation; the Gospel of John has Jesus identify himself as "the way, the truth, and the life." Similarly, the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 1:18a mentions Truth as one of God’s names.
In contrast to the Hebrew of this verse, the Greek second colon introduces the concept of folly and returns to the earlier notion of shame. According to this version, one ought to be ashamed of foolishness.
4:26. Here Ben Sira advises against pride that prevents persons from confessing fault. In these circumstances, embarrassment facilitates remorse, enabling one to admit guilt. The verbשׁוב (šûb) signifies an about-face, a turning from iniquity to true confession and moral resolve confirmed by subsequent conduct. In rabbinic times a noun form, תשׁובה (tešûbâ) indicated the act of repentance. The second colon in v. 26 probably alludes to an ancient proverb pointing to the futility of trying to resist the inevitable—in this instance God. "Do not stand in front of a flood" calls attention to the impossibility of resisting God’s will. The image of an overflowing river occurs in Isaiah 8 with reference to Assyria’s might. An Eygptian proverb about the impossibility of concealing a river appears several times, attesting the popularity of such thinking. The Syriac translation of the Aramaic collection of aphorisms titled The Sayings of Ahiqar includes the following comment: "My son, struggle not against a man in his day, and oppose not the current of a river."
4:27–28. Ben Sira next advises against spineless surrender before fools, "spreading oneself out" to be walked on, and showing favoritism to rulers (v. 27). At this point the Hebrew has a variant of 8:14, which states the obvious fact that litigation against a judge stands little chance of succeeding. The remark about rulers leads naturally to v. 28, which admonishes sages to fight to the death for righteousness (Greek and Syriac, "for truth") and promises assistance from above. The Hebrew adds 5:14a at this point.
4:29–30. Speech and actions form the two subjects of v. 29. Ben Sira advises against hasty—or haughty—speech and slovenly actions. The next verse resists the display of power in the presence of subjects: "Do not rage like a lion [or a dog] in your house or be wily and suspicious among servants." The rare expression for "your servants" (עבדתך ʿăbuddātāk) appears elsewhere only in Job 1:3 and Gen 26:14. According to Eccl 7:21–22, suspicion about slaves’ criticism of their masters was fully justified.
4:31. The final aphorism in this unit addresses the problem of stinginess and greed by ridiculing persons whose hands open wide to receive gifts but clamp shut when others beg for alms. A hypothetical situation in Deut 15:7–8 mentions the same concept of an open and a closed hand. The idea persists into the early second century ce, for example in Did. 4:5 and the Epistle of Barnabas 19:9, where the expression is exactly the same in Greek: "Be not one who stretches out his hands to receive, but shuts them when it comes to giving."
To recapitulate, this brief section concentrates on speech, both its timing and its integrity. It warns against concealing one’s intelligence, but also against exposing ignorance. Because life seldom unfolds in simple patterns, one needs to cultivate the ability to discriminate between a time for speech and a time for silence. The same discernment applies to shame, which can be both positive and negative. In all circumstances, courage plays a role, and the person who possesses power is advised to practice restraint.
1. The issue of shame seldom surfaces today. There once was a time when honor and shame governed human conduct, particularly in the ancient Near East, as it still does in modern Asian communities. Pilch and Malina contend that this code survives in the Mediterranean world today. He and others find this ancient viewpoint among obscure villagers. When asked which son in Jesus’ story did the right thing, the one who said yes but did nothing or the one who said no and later obeyed his father, modern Arabs praise the first son because he honored his dad in public. They denounce the other son for dishonoring his father openly.136
We live in a society whose people have forgotten how to blush. Honor and shame have little value to countless individuals. The parading of private lives on television talk shows, the restoration to respectability of junk bond traders on Wall Street, and contributing to the fortunes of criminals by purchasing their stories—all these and more bear witness to a loss of the concept of honor. Christians have an obligation to recapture the virtue of honor and reinstitute the notion of shame. Any society that ignores or rewards reprehensible behavior has a terrible mark against it. Shameless individuals who disgrace public office and cavalierly run again bear witness to our moral bankruptcy. Christians who reward such candidates by helping to elect them seriously compromise the office and demonstrate shameful disregard for honor.
Ben Sira recognized different kinds of shame. Christians rightly feel shame when the nation embarks on activities that bring death and starvation to people elsewhere. A sense of outrage may, indeed, be the strongest reaction one can make to military aggression, sales of weapons, and unjust economic policies that supplement the income of a few rich citizens.
2. The most reliable indication of intellectual acumen is found in deeds, for wisdom manifests itself in moral character. In the view of ancient sages, anyone who truly listened and understood the teaching acted in accordance with its demands.
This emphasis on deeds as the evidence of wisdom provides a balance for the earlier elevation of the intellect. Ben Sira realized the necessity of complementary pairs, for some truth resides in each side. Both doing and knowing are vital components of wisdom. In religious matters, one easily slips into a type of thinking that offers simplistic answers, for consistency seems desirable at all costs. Unfortunately, most such thinking distorts the truth while lulling people to sleep. Rather than taking comfort in single-minded answers, religious people need to be reminded of faith’s complexity and fragility. A false sense of ease, a pseudo-simplicity, thus characterizes many Christians’ approach to crucial issues precisely when they should be forced to work out the intricacies of their faith with fear and trembling.
3. This section also makes a point that Jesus subsequently reiterated: Money can capture the heart and push God out (see also 5:1–8). The ultimate longing of the heart, whether God or mammon, determines the character of joy and the nature of security. Modern society measures a secure future in terms of a good job, adequate medical coverage, and access to a good education. Without promise of these things, people become anxious about what is denied them, bestowing unreasonable importance on the missing element.
Those who have a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth have great difficulty imagining the way basic things like daily food and shelter occupy the attention of Third World peoples from dawn to dusk. We who can reasonably expect to have adequate food and a place to sleep are fortunate in that our minds are freed from the cares of subsistence. Christians have an opportunity to demonstrate gratitude by easing the burdens on those who have less.
Ben Sira knew that wealth influences those who lack it in unhealthy ways. Like so many ethicists of the ancient world, he tried to counter the temptation to curry the favor of influential citizens. The author of the Epistle of James also brought this matter to the attention of early Christians, many of whom displayed favoritism whenever rich visitors arrived in their midst. He reminded Christians that their worst enemies were wealthy citizens.
The modern church has considerable difficulty living up to the ideals of a people who do not show partiality toward those persons with money and prestige. One reason why, surely, is the need for money to fund an operating budget. Most churches need a certain number of reasonably affluent members whose generosity enables them to carry out a program. A potential problem arises, however, when persons who will undoubtedly be a drain on the budget apply for church membership. Many congregations find themselves torn between a desire for security and status, on the one hand, and a sincere wish to minister to the needy, on the other hand. Ben Sira was sufficiently observant to know that the scales naturally tilt in favor of the rich. Perhaps we should be thankful for the visible presence of those who represent real need, for they give those who have sufficient resources an occasion to be truly generous.
SIRACH 5:1–8, ON PRESUMING TOO MUCH
The author of the profound prayer in Prov 30:7–9 knew that wealthy people face a special temptation to rely on their own resources rather than trusting in God. Ben Sira also recognizes this danger, but he links it to certain additional attitudes that deny divine sovereignty. These attitudes fall into the category of theodicy, for they assert that God does not really punish evil people. In this brief section on theodicy, Ben Sira takes up at least three arguments that sinners often use in defense of their presumption with regard to God’s mercy: (1) Acquired wealth proves divine favor; (2) expected retribution for sin has not fallen; and (3) God’s readiness to forgive gives one ample time to repent. The mention of wealth in v. 8 provides an inclusio with the first verse in chap. 5 and brings the unit to a close.
The language of this entire section assumes a combative posture, an authoritative figure issuing negative commands or prohibitions. The operative command "Do not" occurs at least once in every verse, twice in vv. 1 and 7. Ben Sira adopts an ancient formula from debates, "Do not say," which is then followed by proscribed sentiments. He appears to address distinct attitudes toward the relationship between sin and punishment.
5:1–3. The first of these commands relates to possessions. One who has amassed a fortune tends to lean on it rather than trust in God. The Hebrew word for "wealth" (חיל ḥayil) implies vigor, hence it fits nicely into a context of self-reliance. The pregnant expression is matched by an idiom for control over one’s destiny, "There is power in my hand." The second verse reiterates the thought, repeating the verb "to lean" (שׁען šāʿan), but using a different word for "his strength" (כחו kōḥô) before the final phrase about pursuing one’s desire (cf. Job 31:7b). Confident in his or her own might, the bold sinner is thought to boast, "Who can prevail over my strength?" Ben Sira reminds those who would speak in this way that Yahweh will seek out the persecuted, which must mean that the oppressors cannot escape punishment. The same expression occurs in Eccl 3:15.
5:4. A second attitude toward delayed punishment surfaces in this verse. Ben Sira warns against saying, "I sinned and what has happpened to me?" Here we come up against an age-old dilemma: People do wrong and appear to suffer no ill consequences for their actions. As time elapses and nothing unpleasant comes their way, they conclude that God does not punish the wicked. To counter such skepticism, Ben Sira reaffirms traditional belief that God is longsuffering. The expression "God is longsuffering" (אל ארך אפים הוא ʾēl ʾerek ʾappayim hûʾ) echoes the liturgical confession in Exod 34:6–7, in this instance the divine patience. The image "long of nose" suggests that God’s anger does not flare up quickly but requires considerable provocation. Here, again, comparison with Ecclesiastes is instructive: "Because sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the human heart is fully set to do evil" (Eccl 8:11 NRSV).
5:5–6. A third presumptive attitude concerns God’s readiness to forgive. According to this opinion, the scope of one’s sins does not really matter so long as they are atoned for by sacrifice and good works. Thinking forgiveness a light matter, the sinner freely indulges, "multiplying iniquity." Ben Sira warns against this kind of overconfidence, which trusts in Yahweh’s compassionate nature to forgive an abundance of sin. Here, too, the decisive language for divine compassion (רחום raḥûm) derives from Exod 34:6–7. The apostle Paul combats a similar view in Rom 6:1; it seems that some Christians argued that the greater the sin the more copiously God’s forgiveness manifests itself. Such reasoning provides a dubious justification for continuing in a state of rebellion, indeed, for excelling in evil. The Mishnah offers evidence of similar presumption, warning against thinking that one can sin and ask forgiveness only to repeat the offense. The rabbi responsible for this saying believed that for such persons the Day of Atonement had no efficacy.
5:7. Another attitude that Ben Sira rejects outright consists of calculated delay in the act of repentance. Assuming that God’s wrath comes rather slowly, people hope for enough warning to enable them to repent at the last moment. In this way, they do not miss out on any fun, having the best of both worlds. Ben Sira reminds such thinkers that God’s vengeance strikes suddenly, without warning, for at the time of reckoning they will perish.
5:8. Returning to the previously mentioned reliance on wealth to protect one from danger, Ben Sira insists that such ill-gotten wealth will not secure anyone in the day of God’s vengeance. Trusting in lies ("deceitful riches" [נכסי שׁקר nĕkāsê šeqer]), the sinners will be completely vulnerable when divine fury "passes over" them (cf. Prov 11:4).
Verses 1–8 bracket presumptuous thoughts within overreliance on wealth. Ben Sira warns against ill-placed confidence, one based on faulty reasoning about delayed punishment. Both mercy and wrath belong to God, he insists, and one should act accordingly.
This text probes the human psyche, exploring the rationale for shifting the blame for people’s conduct to an unjust God. The several defenses given for adopting a life of sin imply fuller knowledge of the universe than is accessible to anyone except God. Such attacks on divine justice, and ultimately on God’s benevolence, grow out of an unwillingness to accept the inevitable status of creature. Being finite means living in a condition of limited potential, and that limitedness includes such important qualities as power and knowledge. The arrogance of Job and all others like him becomes ludicrous when faced with the real problem of evil, mythologically symbolized in the two creatures Behemoth and Leviathan.
No human being can obtain sufficient distance from the scene to observe everything that transpires in the universe and to pass judgment on its appropriateness. Our view always takes place from below, as it were, and suffers from severe myopia. Even if one could bring together all human perspectives into a single view of things, the result would still lack the one essential ingredient for understanding the whole picture—telos, "the end." Hidden from our eyes is the larger picture in which God’s purpose plays itself out on the earthly stage.
In some ways our lives resemble a great patchwork quilt. The individual pieces of cloth that make up the final design vary considerably in aesthetic appeal, with some actually falling into the category of ugly. Once the quilt maker finishes the design, the total picture completely transforms former unattractive pieces. The viewer now sees each individual square of cloth as it contributes to the beauty of the whole quilt. Perhaps God weaves together the separate strings of human existence, intricately mixing and matching the different colors and textures so that they ultimately form a beautiful garment.
Biblical imagery suggests a similar analogy. If our bodies constitute a temple in which God resides, perhaps the master builder takes the individual stones and constructs an edifice from the different sizes, shapes, and colors. Together these building blocks make up a splendid house, God’s dwelling place. In the final design, every single stone contributes to the whole just as every piece of cloth adds something necessary to the patchwork quilt.
This argument implies that the ugly incidents of our lives, those events that cause us to question divine justice, may fit into the larger picture in a way that our limited perspective obscures. In any event, most arguments for rebelling against God are so self-serving that they scarcely convince those using them, much less anyone else. The ones that Ben Sira cites lack the grandeur and power of struggles by loyal servants to comprehend things so thoroughly incongruent with belief in a loving God.
SIRACH 5:9–6:1, ON DISSIMULATION THROUGH SPEECH
Two images from popular proverbs in 5:9 provide a fitting transition to a new theme that evokes a triple use of the idiom "master of two" with reference to duplicity in speech. The remarks about winnowing indiscriminately, regardless of the direction of the wind, and trying out various paths apply equally well to the preceding discussion of different attitudes to retribution as they do to what follows. Another widespread expression, "to put the hand to the mouth," indicates humility and respect in the presence of greatness, perhaps also the lack of an adequate response. This symbolic gesture is mentioned in Job 21:5; 29:9; 40:4 and elsewhere in the OT (Prov 30:32; Mic 7:16; cf. Wis 8:12). Like so much in wisdom literature, it also appears in Egyptian texts.
Ben Sira recommends quickness in hearing but a considered response, one "long in spirit" (the same advice can be found in Jas 1:19). The necessity of hearing rightly before responding captured popular imagination much earlier, for it finds expression in Prov 18:13. Years later Qohelet contrasts a patient person with an arrogant individual in Eccl 7:8.
The slanderer comes in for Ben Sira’s strongest censure. The double-tongued person resembles a thief in robbing innocent people of their good reputation. Just as speech with integrity brings honor in its wake, so also deceitful remarks cause shame. The purpose of such duplicity is described in the language of hunting—lying in wait. Thus the double-tongued person lays a trap for the unwary. The significant terms in 5:14 comprise an ABB′A′ pattern: double-tongued/shame/reproach/double-tongued. The next verse combines two opposites: minute and large, friend and enemy. A third occurrence of "double-tongued" for emphasis or completion, plus the combination of "shame" and "reproach," offers a suitable conclusion to the section.
SIRACH 6:2–4, ON UNCONTROLLED PASSIONS
The subject of this short unit probably falls into the realm of sexual misconduct. The warning applies generally to powerful passions of all kinds, but the images for the consequences apply particularly well to sins of the flesh. Ben Sira likens illicit sex to a raging bull, all the more apt because of the association of bulls with fertility, and he warns that sexual misbehavior destroys a tree, causing its fruit and leaves to drop off. The description elsewhere of a eunuch as a dry tree (Isa 56:3) indicates the dire consequences of ungoverned lust. Like the mighty Samson, the person who loses control of his or her passions falls into the hands of the enemy (Judg 15:18), the same expression used here in v. 2.
Later on Ben Sira uses the popular image of leaves falling from a tree as a powerful reminder of death. This graphic image contrasts with that of a healthy tree situated near an abundance of water (Ps 1:3). The closing reference in v. 4 to an insatiable desire (נפשׁ עזה nepeš ʿazzâ) acknowedges the strength of sexual lust, an appetite similar to hunger for essential nourishment. Uncontrolled, this desire turns one into an object of ridicule. According to Anderson’s interpretation of שׂמחה (śimḥâ) as a rabbinic cipher for legitimate sex within marriage, Ben Sira’s choice of this noun to indicate enemies’ happiness ("rejoicing") is especially fortuitous. The subject of sexual lust will occupy Ben Sira’s attention again (cf. 18:30–19:3).
SIRACH 6:5–17, ON FRIENDSHIP
This section on the value of faithful friends is the first of several in the book dealing with a subject that was widely discussed in Hellenistic literature of the time. Jack T. Sanders has examined the affinities between this advice from Ben Sira and similar counsel in Theognis’s elegiac poems of Book 1 and Phibis, another name for Papyrus Insinger. Sanders’s analysis demonstrates extensive cross-fertilization of ideas throughout the Greek world. Popular philosophers wandered from town to town and taught anyone who would listen to their ideas, and merchants traveled from port to port and inland, exchanging both goods and concepts. Ben Sira’s frequent use of "lover" (אוהב ʾôhēb) instead of the usual word for "friend" (רע rēaʿ) probably betrays an unconscious influence from the Greek world.
Nevertheless, two expressions clearly mark this advice as authentically Hebraic. The language of greeting, "to ask about one’s well-being" (שׁאל שׁלום šāʾal šālôm) characterizes genuine friendship, according to v. 5. In v. 16, the image of the soul’s residing in a protective vessel, "the bag of the living" (צרור חיים ṣĕrôr ḥayyîm), recalls ancient folklore from 1 Sam 25:29, Abigail’s rhetorical flourish about divine protection for David. Although the expression "one in a thousand" occurs in Job 9:3 and Eccl 7:28, it also appears in Egyptian wisdom literature and thus cannot be considered exclusively Hebraic. Ben Sira connects this expression with an interesting collocation, "lord of your counsel" (בעל סודך baʿal sôdekā). He therefore advises his students to have many companions ("persons of your well-being") but to restrict their intimates to one in a thousand (v. 16). The same advice is found in Sanhedrin 100b: "Let the men of thy peace be many; reveal thy secret to one out of a thousand."
Just as wisdom withholds her secrets from her followers until she has submitted them to various trials, so also should Ben Sira’s students do. He suggests that they not share confidences with friends hastily, waiting until circumstances have tested their reliability. The reason for such caution concerns the harsh reality that some friends stay around only during fair weather. In Ben Sira’s language, they do not withstand calamity with you, but they hang around as long as things go well. Furthermore, some friends become enemies for whatever reason and proceed to tarnish one’s reputation by divulging embarrassing intimate details to everyone eager to devour delicious morsels of slander. The fact that this former friend once shared food at table seems to mean nothing, despite the rich symbolism of eating together in ancient Israel. The former table companion cannot be found to assist one in an evil day (v. 10). In the light of questionable character in friends, Ben Sira urges caution in every instance pertaining to friends but extraordinary wariness in the presence of enemies.
Despite its pitfalls, Ben Sira certainly esteems friendship highly. He likens a friend to treasure (הון hôn, a word much loved by the sages), and he recognizes the high cost of obtaining (קנה qānâ, "to purchase," "to acquire") a true friend. The threefold use of "a faithful friend" (אוהב אמונה ʾôhēb ʾĕmûnâ) in vv. 14–16 has almost a touch of fantasy, as if Ben Sira wished to describe a perfect state of things on earth. Only deeply religious people, he asserts, will experience such friendship. Naturally, he understands true friends as God’s gift for faithful service in spiritual living.
In contrast to the unit about deceptive speech in 5:9–6:1, this one emphasizes the positive power of language to foster friendship. The section opens with a beautiful expression for courteous greeting, "gracious lips" (שׁפתי חן šiptê ḥēn), the pleasant response to a sweet palate (הין ערב hêk ʿārēb). The adjective ʿārēb is as rare in the Bible as the sweet palate itself, occurring only in Prov 20:17 and Cant 2:14. Other links to the unit on duplicitous language include the word "reproach" (חרפה ḥerpâ) and the thrice-repeated particle of existence, "there is" (ישׁ yēš) in vv. 8–9.
The Greek text of v. 16 changes the image of "a bag of the living," which the translator probably did not understand (or he considered "bundle," "bag" [צרור ṣĕrôr] a mistake for צרי [ṣōrî]), to an expression compatible with Hellenistic thought. The resulting statement, "a faithful friend is a medicine of life" (φίλος πιστὸς φάρμακον ζωῆς philos pistos pharmakon zōēs), illustrates the way changes occur whenever texts are translated into a language with entirely different concepts and images.
The realization that even intimate friends sometimes "change into" enemies (the Hebrew verbהפך [hāpak] has this meaning in v. 9) does not give Ben Sira a jaundiced view of friendship. The ease with which a wisdom teacher could move over into suspicion of all relationships can be seen in The Instruction of Amenemhet: "Trust not a brother, know not a friend, make no intimates, it is worthless."
The Jewish tractate Pirqe ’Abot sums up the value of friends as follows: "Let a man buy himself a friend who will eat and drink with him, who will study with him the written and the oral law, and to whom he will entrust all his secrets." Ben Sira would surely concur in these sentiments, as his return to this topic again and again suggests (cf. 11:29–12:18; 22:19–26; 37:1–6).
The importance of true friendship can hardly be overemphasized. Modern patterns of work put enormous strain on friendships, for people constantly change locations, making it difficult to maintain long-term relationships. Awareness that one will likely move to a new location in a few years works against the formation of close friendships, as does the time factor itself. To quote Ben Sira, "True friends are like wine; when it [friendship] has aged, you will enjoy it." Genuine friendship grows with the passing of time as two people share experiences and confidences over the years.
Extending a hand in friendship always makes one vulnerable. Ben Sira certainly recognized this unwelcome aspect of friendship, as did Jesus, who addressed his betrayer with the stinging word "friend." Many victims of false friends walk around and pose a staggering problem for trusting Christians. How much should a person divulge of his or her own hurts and joys? How far should an individual go toward cultivating friendships with those who have a long history of wearing their feelings on their sleeves? If friendship implies vulnerability, then Christians willingly become vulnerable by being friends at tremendous cost.
The third major unit in Sirach begins, like the first two, with a reflection on wisdom (6:18–37). It concludes with a solemn reminder of death’s universality and urges young men to make the most of life by applying the advantages derived from wisdom (14:11–19). The final observations return to the contrasting stages of life, youth and old age, that introduce the initial poem (6:18), and reiterate the notion of fruits from one’s labor (6:19; 14:15). Between the opening and closing sections, Ben Sira offers random advice about appropriate behavior; various responsibilities; warnings about different types of people, particularly women; caution in selecting associates; and unreliable friends.
SIRACH 6:18–37, WISDOM’S RIGOROUS DISCIPLINE
Three distinct sections make up the larger unit of twenty-two bicola: 6:18–22, 23–31, 32–37 (for the entire section, the Vg supplies the title De Doctrina Sapientia, "On Wise Teaching"). An inclusio, built on the noun "wisdom" (חכמה ḥokmâ), links vv. 18 and 37. An introductory "my son" (בני bĕnî), sets each of the three subsections apart. A single theme unites the whole discussion: the necessity for and rewards of seeking wisdom regardless of the obstacles one may encounter. Images of farming and hunting consistently dominate the material in the first two subsections; the third, vv. 32–37, shifts to the picture of lively conversation and deep thought.
The Hebrew of v. 18 is lacking in ms A, and only the last two words appear in ms C. For vv. 23–24, the Hebrew has 27:5–6, and vv. 26 and 34 are completely missing. In v. 19, the twin images of plowing and sowing are broken up in the Hebrew, but not in the Greek; an unlikely sowing and reaping occur in Hebrew, the context calling only for the preparatory stage of planting. This brief unit demonstrates the difficulty of determining precisely what the original Hebrew text of Sirach actually included. Often, as here, insufficient clues exist to enable interpreters to decide which option comes closer to the autograph.
6:18–22. Ancient Israelites believed that wisdom accompanied old age, the result of long experience. Naturally, because young people lacked exposure to the tradition and to the realities of life, they also could make no legitimate claim on knowledge. The sole means of attaining this worthy goal was by submitting to discipline and by persevering through all difficulties. Young people, like Elihu in the book of Job, were expected to listen while their elders gave their view of things and were to speak only briefly, if at all.
The weight of this preference for the aged in intellectual matters fell heavily on the prophet Jeremiah, who unsuccessfully pleaded youthful innocence as a way of escaping the divine commission. In his case, the narrative reports, the one who summoned him to prophesy would grant eloquence and courage so that he could stand up to ridicule (Jer 1:5–10). Within wisdom circles, the elevation of a young man or woman to a position of authority and leadership was unlikely. Wisdom and its advantages came at the end of much hard work; gray hairs signaled to others that one had lived long enough to acquire some valuable insights. This claim becomes problematic in the book of Job, for Elihu rejects it outright, and Job insists that he knows as much as his older friends.
The Bible often uses agricultural imagery, primarily because Scripture arose in an agrarian society. Claus Westermann has emphasized this aspect of wisdom literature, especially the older sayings in the book of Proverbs. In his plausible view, this instruction is the product of simple villagers whose central concern was the family and its survival. Their discourse revolved around the daily routine in the fields and vineyards, at the gates, and in the intimacy of tents and small dwellings.
Although Ben Sira appears to have lived in a city, probably Jerusalem, he continues to use agricultural images, partly because of his conservative nature and partly because even in his day many city dwellers owned small plots outside Jerusalem and worked them daily during the growing season. He issues an invitation to approach wisdom in the same way one begins the day in the fields. Just as workers go about various tasks, here symbolized by plowing and sowing, with eager expectation of a successful yield, so also young students can start their long journey with confidence that the harvest will, indeed, be a time of rejoicing.
For ancient peoples, the metaphor of plowing and sowing often functioned as a euphemism for sexual relations, and a woman was described as a fruitful field to be plowed by her husband. This widespread metaphor, familiar to readers of the Samson narrative, in which one of his riddle-like sayings accuses the Philistine companions of dallying with his wife ("plowing with his heifer"), links up with the rich and varied imagery of eroticism associated with personified wisdom. In addition, such language of explicit sexual expectation was fully at home at harvesttime, as the beautiful story about Ruth and Boaz demonstrates.149 The eating of wisdom’s bountiful produce, like the enjoyment of sexual union, makes the work involved in all former cultivation seem inconsequential, almost trivial. In Prov 8:19, Wisdom boasts that her fruit surpasses gold and silver in value; a similar point is made in 1 Esdr 4:18–19 with reference to a man’s delight in a woman. Dropping precious ore like refuse, he stares at a beautiful woman with mouth agape.
Ben Sira urges young boys to draw near to wisdom, eagerly anticipating her produce (v. 19); the verbקוה (qāwâ) connotes lively hope, a confidence born out of experience and reinforced by hard work. Simpletons and uninformed individuals, indicated by traditional terms from the book of Proverbs ("foolish" [אויל ʾĕwîl] and "unintelligent" [קצר לב qāṣar lēb]), encounter her like an uneven path, unless the idea of plowing continues in v. 20 and suggests rocky terrain. Stopping momentarily to pick up a heavy stone, they quickly throw it down rather than moving it to an area in the field where its bulk would be useful, probably in helping to form a terrace to slow erosion and to retain water for agricultural use.
Verse 22 offers an explanation for such short-sightedness in persons of insufficient intellect and consequently inadequate resolve, and in doing so it draws on views about wisdom’s hiddenness. Although Ben Sira’s play on words is not entirely clear to modern interpreters, it probably involvesמוסר (mûsār), a synonym for "wisdom," and a participle form of the verb סור (sûr, "to turn away") with passive force, "withdrawn." The same root returns in the verb תוסר (tiwasser) of v. 33, "you will become wise."
This puzzling observation that wisdom, like her name, is not manifest to the crowds sounds somewhat elitist, particularly in its Greek translation, "and is not manifest to the populace" (καὶ οὐ πολλλοῖς ἐστιν φανερά kai ou pollois estin phanera). She does not appear to ordinary citizens, hoi polloi. The Hebrew text has "obvious" or "plain" (נכחה nōkḥâ or נכחה nĕkōḥâ), perhaps continuing the idea of a path or furrow. The form is laid out in an ABB′A′ pattern: wisdom: she: she: not straight. Ancient peoples believed that a name encapsulated one’s essence, hence should be carefully guarded. A deity who divulged his or her name risked being controlled by magical incantation, which probably explains the story about Yahweh’s reluctance to share the divine name with Moses (Exod 4:13–15). Other traditionists did not subscribe to this theory about the divine name and, therefore, used "Yahweh" freely.
6:23–31. Whereas the first section emphasizes the harsh discipline involved in acquiring an education, the second unit continues its emphasis but moves beyond the idea of toil in splendid fashion. What once appeared to be fetters and a yoke will be transformed into royal garments. Now at last those students who persisted realize that wisdom only seemed harsh but was actually acting in their best interests. Like the symmetry in the book of Joel, where the destructive results of invading locusts are replaced in every detail by their opposite, each unpleasant feature connected with trials imposed by wisdom on young students will be changed into highly desirable attire (Joel 1:2–2:17 // 2:18–27). The language of putting on moral traits like clothing was common in Israel and Greece at this time.
The form of v. 23, an imperative followed by its opposite with a negation, recalled earlier teaching in the book of Proverbs ("listen, accept // do not reject"). The teacher asserts his authority by means of a threefold possessive pronoun, "my" (אתי ʾōtî) in the Hebrew; the Greek translator drops one of these but makes up for the loss with an intensive verb, "do not refuse" (μὴ ἀπαναίνου mē apanainou).
The dominant image in v. 24 comes from plowing; imagining an ox submitting to a yoke and collar, Ben Sira uses this symbol for the process of getting an education. This idea caught on rapidly in the Jewish community, for it appears prominently both in rabbinic literature and in the New Testament. According to Matt 11:29, Jesus invited followers to take his yoke upon their necks and learn from him; he promised, however, that his yoke would be easy and his burden light. A passage in Pirqe ’Abot reads as follows: "Every one who receives on himself the yoke of Torah, they remove from him the yoke of the kingdom and the yoke of worldly occupation. But every one who breaks off from him the yoke of Torah, they lay upon him the yoke of the kingdom and the yoke of worldly occupation." According to Erubin 54a of the Babylonian Talmud, whoever brings the neck under the yoke of Torah will enjoy her protective care.
The reference to bonds or fetters in v. 24 is difficult; the Hebrew text actually has a word for "net" in v. 28. Perhaps the language suggests the stocks that were used to punish uncooperative slaves or weights that athletes employed during practice to strengthen their ankles and increase their speed. The expression may even be a rather loose way of describing the cords that secured yokes around the necks of oxen. In any event, v. 25 continues the image of an ox willingly submitting to a yoke. The following verse recalls deuteronomic language of resolve ("with your whole mind [heart] and strength").
Three imperatives describing the quest for wisdom signal the importance Ben Sira placed on the hunt. Lying between two imperatives for searching,דרשׁ (dĕrāš) and בקשׁ (baqqēš), the imperative of חקר (ḥāqar) suggests tracing out a route. Together the three verbs indicate thorough research, a probing into the realm of the unknown. Actually, a fourth imperative appears in the initial colon of the Hebrew text, but the Greek translator probably read a verb, "and you will discover" (ותמצא wĕtimṣāʾ). The language of the second colon in this verse (v. 27) derives from Prov 4:13; once you have taken hold of (חזק ḥāzaq) wisdom, do not relinquish her. This verse furnishes a contrast to the conduct of the uninformed who abruptly threw away the stone he had picked up, presumably because of its heavy weight (v. 21).
Completely transformed, wisdom will present herself as rest and exquisite delight. Two verbs stand out here, "to find" (מצא māṣāʾ) and "to overturn (הפך hāpak). The former is governed by an adverb of time, "at last," while the latter is qualified by the personal pronoun "for you." Finally, worthy students see wisdom as she truly is and as she has always been. Verses 29–31 describe the splendid clothing that, with the cooperation of her industrious students, she has woven for them. The collar has become a beautiful robe, the yoke a golden ornament, the bonds a purple cord. Royal imagery abounds in this fanciful description, and even the color purple signifies kingship. The expression "purple cord" comes from Num 15:38–39 and later played into rabbinic speculation about a determent from adultery, the cord becoming visible when clothes are removed and serving as a reminder that God observes everything one does.
6:32–37. The third subsection proclaims that "where there is a will there also exists a way," offers useful advice about seizing every opportunity to learn, and provides a religious interpretation of the intellectual journey. The conclusion to the Egyptian "Instruction of Anii" demonstrates that some students seriously doubted their ability to live up to their teacher’s moral requirements. Here the son, Khonshotep, objects that he lacks his father’s moral stamina, although approving the teachings. Anii responds that everyone can learn, and he reinforces this view with specific examples taken from nature and society in general. Ben Sira, too, has full confidence in his students’ ability. Having settled the matter of motivation, he encourages them to look for learned sources of knowledge among older people and become willing followers. The idea of peripatetic teachers flourished in the Greek environment, and Jewish teachers of the first century ce established rival schools, those of Hillel and his rival, Shammai.
Two things stand out in this bit of advice. First, education takes place by listening to intelligent discourse rather than through reading texts, and second, it assumes the form of a witty saying (משׁל māšāl; proverb, aphorism, witticism, allegory, riddle). The Hebrew שׁיחה (śîḥâ, "meditation") occurs only three times in the OT, Job 15:4 and Ps 119:97, 99. It conveys a sense of wonder and gratitude in the presence of God’s mystery and statutes (cf. Amos 4:13, where a related form occurs [שׂחו śēḥô, "his thoughts"]). Verse 36 almost urges students to make a nuisance of themselves, rising early and wearing out the stone at the entrance of a wise man’s house. The Hebrew imperative of v. 36 further stresses the active responsibility to observe (ראה rĕʾēh) intelligent behavior.
The final verse in this unit reveals Ben Sira’s extensive theological bent. He urges students to ponder the fear of the Most High and to meditate on the statutes continually ("daily" [תמיד tāmîd]). The ABB′A′ structure returns in the first bicolon of v. 37 ("reflect on/the fear of Elyon/his state/meditate on") and persists to the end ("and he/will give insight to your mind/what you desire/he will make you wise").
1. Ben Sira’s remarks about cultivating a sense of self-worth are hardly needed in modern American society, which seems almost obsessed with universal self-congratulation, regardless of ethical character. The growth of the human potential movement and the widespread popularity of self-help literature have encouraged people toward an uncritical self-esteem and self-acceptance. The important thing, feeling good about yourself, has virtually extinguished the concept of guilt and banished the notion of sin. This attitude has led to disastrous pedagogy, ruling out the idea of learning from one’s mistakes and accepting mediocrity, laziness, and slovenly habits.
While in the moral sphere, as well as the educational, the contemporary message promotes accepting the status quo and even glorying in it; in the area of body building and diet precisely the opposite message goes forth: "No pain, no gain." Here nothing worthwhile comes without effort, and no one tries to conceal this reality. To lose weight and to tone the muscles, one must submit to a rigorous regimen of food and exercise. The judgment that we are not always and completely okay underlies the entire enterprise.
The latter understanding of things resembles the ancient worldview, one in which discipline played a central role. Without practice, no one becomes really good at anything, whether sports, music, dance, cooking, parenting, or anything else. The apostle Paul applied this principle to the spiritual life, acknowledging that one begins as an infant and then grows in faith and knowledge through diligent study and moral discipline. Ancient moralists adopted images from sports, the martial arts, and agriculture in the effort to encourage people to grow in character.
2. Jesus, like Paul, made strict demands on his disciples, warning against an enthusiastic initial surrender followed by a slackening of resolve (Luke 9:62). He expected followers to forsake everything they valued and to take his yoke on their shoulders. Nevertheless, he did promise that, in retrospect, they would recognize his burden as easy and his yoke as light (Matt 11:29–30). The sect at Qumran also emphasized the difficult discipline facing initiates, and to ease that process the religious teacher provided a manual of discipline by which to organize their daily lives.
Christians today can profit from plain directions about living, particularly because absolutes have fallen under attack from every quarter. We may no longer render a categorical no about this or that practice, but one thing surely remains as fixed as ever: Growth in Christian discipleship comes only as a result of constant effort. In this struggle to become mature in faith, only Christians who exercise self-discipline will make any ascertainable progress. Jesus’ exclusive language made the price of following him absolutely clear; the symbolism of a narrow way, and straight, implied that discipleship was only for the select few. That exclusive language clashes with the legitimate need to be inclusive today, and many Christians merely bypass the rigorous demands. The result is a brand of Christian witness lacking moral commitment.
SIRACH 7:1–17, THE CONSEQUENCES OF SIN
This section opens with a thematic sentence about how to avoid trouble and closes with a graphic description of punishment for evil. In between these powerful motivators, Ben Sira gives some advice about aspiring to a position of power and responsibility, warns against presumption and loose speech, and recommends manual labor. The grammatical form, the negative particleאל (ʾal) plus a jussive, runs through the entire section, except for v. 17, actually extending through v. 20. The repeated negative command builds up to a crescendo, emphasizing the teacher’s concern for students’ welfare. Two features of vv. 1–17 require comment, first the personification of evil and, second, the difference between the Hebrew and Greek texts.
Like wisdom, evil is personified in vv. 1–2 and thus capable of chasing someone and overtaking a hapless victim or turning its back on persons who show no interest in it. Such a move had already occurred in Prov 9:13–18, which describes a personified folly as a seductress who invites young boys to a banquet, reminding them of the pleasure derived from eating forbidden fruit. Interpreters generally consider this personification of evil to have been modeled on wisdom, although the reverse sequence has been proposed. This descriptive language of personification characterizes prophetic speech, too, the prophet Amos likening the fallen nation Israel to a raped virgin (Amos 5:2), and Jeremiah threatening destruction from pestilence, sword, famine, and captivity (Jer 15:2). Similarly, a psalmist referred to righteousness and truth as kissing each other (Ps 85:10).
7:17. The most striking difference between the Hebrew and the Greek texts in this unit occurs in this verse. Whereas the Hebrew only mentions the natural decomposition of the body ("worms") as the destiny of evil people, the Greek translator wrote "fire and worms" (πῦρ καὶ σκώληξ pur kai skōlēx). Critics usually see the addition of "fire" as evidence that Hellenism strongly influenced Ben Sira’s grandson in Egypt. The Greek concept of perdition has thus invaded the thinking of pious Jews in the late second century bce, according to this view. One should probably not make so much of this textual difference, for the expectation of "fire and worms" as punishment for rebels against the Lord occurs already in Isa 66:24: "for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh" (NRSV). Nevertheless, the shorter version of Sir 7:17 (without any reference to fire) probably represents Ben Sira’s view and, therefore, will be followed here.
7:1–3. The thematic sentence "Do no evil, and evil [misfortune] will never overtake you" struck later Jewish religionists as worthy of wider dissemination, for it is quoted several times in midrashic literature. The optimistic worldview underlying the sentiment owes nothing to the questioning of divine justice pursued in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, as well as in Psalm 73. Instead, Ben Sira here reaffirms the dominant view of earlier wisdom within the book of Proverbs—namely, that individuals can control their own fate by the way they conduct their lives (Prov 10:16; 12:14; 13:18; 22:4). The agricultural metaphor in v. 3 about sowing "in the furrows of injustice" and reaping "a sevenfold crop" sounds like a popular aphorism. An erotic nuance probably clung to the saying, given the customary use of the metaphor for sexual relationships and the personification of evil as a woman.
7:4–7. The attempt by Ben Sira to dissuade young boys from aspiring to high office comes as a total surprise, for elsewhere he praises the office of sage above all other professions and states that they will serve among rulers (39:4; cf. 8:8). Martin Hengel has viewed the negative counsel against the dark background of Seleucid politics, which is characterized in the book of 2 Maccabees as thoroughly corrupt (2 Macc 4:1–20). Where high office goes to the highest bidder and foreign control over internal Jewish decisions existed, service as judge or in any one of a number of official positions would have seriously compromised an individual. The more positive advice in the latter part of the book could have arisen in an earlier period, perhaps during the Ptolemaic rule prior to 198 bce or early in the Seleucid era before a hostile attitude developed toward the Jews.
Less probably, in vv. 4–7 Ben Sira simply enjoins humility: "Don’t seek office, but be prepared to serve if it searches you out." The warning against boasting about goodness to God and calling the king’s attention to your intelligence supports the latter alternative. Verse 6 points away from that reading, suggesting that the demands of the office would be so taxing that the individual would inevitably fail. Either he would lack authority to expel wickedness, or he would be vulnerable to bribery and to the subtle influence of persons in power.
This brief section concerns four distinct entities: God, king, judge, and people. The first two, God and king, are brought together as supreme (heavenly) and terrestrial authorities respectively. By Ben Sira’s time, the older concept of judge as warrior had given way to a more modern understanding of one who pronounces verdicts in litigation. The fourth category, the public at large, lacks the power inherent to the king and the judge, but it controls people in a much subtler fashion, through withholding honor and imposing shame.
7:8–14. The third subdivision deals with presumption. Ben Sira describes arrogant people who think they can treat everybody lightly, indeed contemptuously, with impunity. They even treat God in this manner. Ben Sira warns against doing the same sinful act twice, the sinner presumably gathering courage from the absence of immediate punishment (cf. v. 16). Verse 9, missing in Hebrew, offers another rationale for sin, specifically that generosity toward God atones for one’s deeds. The notion that money can buy anything, even forgiveness, has often lurked in the nooks and crannies of the religious mind. In v. 8 the image suggesting conspiracy is that of "binding up," the opposite of binding the precepts of the law on the hands and forehead (cf. Deut 6:8; 11:18).
Ben Sira advises against taking prayer lightly and uttering the same thing over and over (cf. Eccl 5:2). Finding the right balance between liturgical petition through refrains and offering spontaneous adoration did not come easily in the ancient world, any more than today. Warnings against excessive use of epithets for God and adjectives for divine attributes occur in rabbinic literature, and Jesus is quoted as cautioning against empty repetitions in prayer (Matt 6:7). At the same time, he teaches a model prayer to his followers and is pictured as repeating himself three times at prayer during his final hours in the garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:39–44). For Ben Sira, the proper combination seemed to have been energetic prayer followed by the dispensing of alms to the needy.
The power of the spoken word for good and ill seems to have occupied Ben Sira’s mind here. The negative side of speech, both ridicule and outright falsehood, provoke his ire, as does loose talk generally. Because the assembly of elders conducts important business, one’s talk ought to be to the point and circumspect.
7:15–16. In the Hebrew text, v. 15 replaces v. 9 and belongs to the present subsection. Unique in subject matter, the verse reflects a viewpoint that will be explored more thoroughly in 38:24–39:11. Ben Sira recognizes manual labor as divinely ordained and therefore honorable; he derives this positive assessment of work from the ancient story about Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden before their sin. The changed sociological environment in the early second century bce, with the opening up of numerous professions besides farming and the commercial situation that rewarded venturesome investments, may have prompted Ben Sira to come to the defense of traditional values here. He knew that society could not survive without products from the farm, and he also understood the reluctance of young boys to work with animals when they could avoid such backbreaking toil.
Ben Sira’s favorable attitude toward work was also shared by the rabbis, finding expression in Pirqe ’Abot 2:2, "Excellent is Torah study together with worldly business … all Torah without work [i.e., manual labor] must fail at length, and occasion iniquity," and in Qiddushin 99a, "Whoever does not teach his son work, teaches him to rob."
SIRACH 7:18–28, DOMESTIC ADVICE
7:18–21. With this section Ben Sira moves into the privacy of the home, mentioning brother, wife, slaves, children, and parents. The opening statement about the exceptional worth of a brother sets the tone for the entire discussion of the family circle. Ophir, the source of the gold that was most valued in biblical literature, was either in southern Arabia or in Egypt (1 Kgs 9:28; 10:11; 22:48; Job 22:24; 28:16; Ps 45:9). Ben Sira places an intelligent and good wife alongside a brother as worth more than gold. His remarks about slaves reflect both Hebraic and Greek ideas, Hebraic in the reaffirmation of the ancient legislation enjoining owners to release slaves after six years (Exod 21:2; Deut 15:12–15), and Greek in the comment about intelligent slaves. Often Hellenistic slaves were learned educators acquired through conquest.
7:22–26. The sequence in these verses is somewhat jarring, particularly the abrupt move from mentioning cattle to mentioning children, but one observes a similar, although reverse, movement in the prologue to the book of Job (Job 1:2–3). To some degree, children and wives were understood as a man’s property, although this does not rule out deep affection on both sides.
Ben Sira uses a rhetorical question four times: "Do you have cattle … children … daughters … a wife?" After each question he offers some timely advice, always from the standpoint of self-interest. Take care of valuable cattle, discipline children, protect a daughter’s virginity and choose a sensible husband for her, and keep a wife whom you love. Conceivably, fathers chose husbands for their daughters without soliciting their wishes, but one can naturally assume that many young girls made their desires known. Ben Sira will have much more to say about daughters, not all positive (42:9–14). The Hebrew text has strong language for disciplining sons: "bend their necks," but it adds "and acquire wives for them while they are young"—that is, before awakening lust gets them in trouble.
7:27–28. These verses do not appear in the Hebrew text; they were probably omitted through a scribal error—after the scribe wrote, "with the whole heart" in v. 27, his eye then may have fallen on the similar phrase in v. 29. The sentiment expressed in these verses moves from the greater to the lesser. Your parents gave life to you; how can you ever match that gift?
SIRACH 7:29–36, OBLIGATIONS TO PRIESTS AND TO THE POOR
7:29–31. Ben Sira’s fondness for the priestly office finds frequent expression in the book, particularly within the section praising biblical heroes and ending with a magnificent poem eulogizing the high priest, Simeon II. The social status of priests varied over the centuries; because of competing sacerdotal families, the rise to power of one group naturally marked the decline of another in rank and privilege (1 Sam 3:10–14). The Levites endured this kind of demotion at one time, prompting the author of the book of Chronicles to come to their defense. Similarly, the family of Abiathar had fallen from royal favor in earlier days (1 Kgs 2:26–27). It follows that one can hardly describe all priests as privileged, although their status had certainly risen considerably during Ben Sira’s time. He urges his readers to obey biblical legislation with respect to supporting priests (cf. Deut 14:28–29; Lev 6:14–18). The two verbs,פחד (pāḥad) and כבד (kābēd), imply awe and high regard respectively. An ancient epithet for Yahweh was "the Fear of Isaac" (Gen 31:42), although an alternative translation of פחד יצחק (paḥad yiṣḥāq) is "kinsman of Isaac." Either rendering of the phrase emphasizes Yahweh’s protection of Isaac in times of danger. The careful delineation of different types of sacrifice involving gifts to priests suggests that Ben Sira left little to chance where priests were concerned.
7:32–36. The addition of some remarks about responsibilities toward the needy shows that Ben Sira linked duties to God and to human beings. The positive evaluation of offerings to the dead is surprising, for the funerary cult fell into disfavor quite early in Israelite history. Nevertheless, ancient and venerable practices such as this one survived through the centuries because of strong feelings for departed loved ones. One explanation for idolatry points to a parent’s grief over a lost child and the desire to have a reminder in tangible form (Wis 14:15). The cult, widely practiced among Greeks and Romans, persisted into Christian times, according to F. X. Murphy. Catacombs of St. Sebastian have yielded a banquet room with graffiti on the walls "signifying that pilgrims had satisfied a vow by celebrating a memorial banquet in honor of Sts. Peter and Paul." The Greek text tones down the reference to a cult of the dead, turning the remark into an admonition to attend burial rites, so important to the pious Tobit (Tob 1:16–20; 2:3–9).
SIRACH 8:1–19, SOME THINGS TO AVOID
8:1–7. The central theme of this unit, competing against someone with vastly more resources than you have, reminds Ben Sira of some related dangers, such as associating with violent people and revealing one’s intimate secrets to strangers. The Hebrew verbריב (rîb) is primarily juridical, connoting litigation in the court, but it also implies competition in other ways. Ben Sira deals with aging and the prospect of death in a humorous vein, quite differently from Qohelet’s treatment of these issues in Eccl 11:7–12:7. The eternal decree, "You must die," did not carry terror for Ben Sira, unless he managed to hide it successfully. For him, death meant "a gathering in" just as earlier narrators spoke of the patriarchs’ being gathered to the ancestors (Gen 25:8, 17; 49:29).
8:8–9. The next subsection emphasizes the importance of tradition, a point that Pirqe ’Abot dramatizes by imagining a great chain of tradition spanning the generations. In this way, the link between past and present was assured, as was the accuracy of what was transmitted. Ben Sira uses technical terms for careful pondering (שׁיח śîaḥ), riddles (חידות ḥîdôt) and teaching (למד lāmad) in v. 8 and that for accepting the instruction (שׁמע šāmaʿ) in v. 9. The primary source of wisdom is aged people; according to Pirqe ’Abot 4:26, "He who learns from the old, to what is he like? To one who eats ripe grapes and drinks old wine." Similarly, in Pirqe ’Abot 4:1 the question is asked, "Who is wise?" and answered, "He who learns from every man."
8:18–19. In v. 18, Ben Sira achieves a striking pun through reversing the consonants of the Hebrew word for "stranger" (זר zār, yielding רז rāz, "secret"). The latter word plays an important role in the War Scroll from Qumran with its esoteric knowledge and strong emphasis on being initiated into divine knowledge of mysteries that was not available to ordinary citizens. The word rāz also occurs in the book of Daniel (2:18–19, 27–30, 47; 4:6), where a mystery must be unveiled by God’s special representative. For Ben Sira, the secrecy implied by rāz had nothing to do with celestial mysteries.
SIRACH 9:1–9, RELATIONSHIPS WITH WOMEN
Such recognition of dangers inherent to interaction between males and females characterizes wisdom literature from the very beginning, although the later Jewish concern for purity of lineage gave more bite to the warnings. Ben Sira cautions against jealous suspicions on the basis that they might become self-fulfilling prophecy, and he uses an ancient metaphor for dominance, treading on one’s back (cf. the advice to her son Lemuel by the Queen Mother in Prov 31:3). This entire section reflects the perspective of a male who views women as dangerous seductresses. That was true of all women, in Ben Sira’s view, but particularly was the case with dancing women, prostitutes, and partygoers. A gloss on v. 4 reads: "Do not sleep with singing women lest they burn you with their mouths."
The allusion to fire in the context of seduction recalls the extended treatment of passion in Prov 6:20–35, where a probable pun occurs between "fire" (אשׁ ʾēš) and "woman" (אשׁה ʾiššâ). Here, too, the adulterer is threatened with ruin, for the cuckolded husband will have no mercy on the offender. In this text from Proverbs, two images are juxtaposed, that of a cozy lamp guiding one’s eyes and that of a burning fire destroying one’s very existence (cf. Job 31:9, 12). The former is parental teaching, the latter an adulteress. Ben Sira’s discussion of this danger is more prosaic and comprehensive than Prov 6:20–35. He takes up this issue again in 25:13–26:27, where more emphasis is put on loyal wives than in 9:1–9.
The astonishing tendency to blame the woman even in cases not involving active seductresses places Ben Sira among a host of other male teachers of his day. If men could not control their lust when a beautiful woman came into view, it was not the woman’s fault. Like the rabbi who advised against walking behind a woman, Ben Sira blamed the victim of passion.
In Ben Sira’s teaching, a negative understanding of women in society outweighs his few positive comments. Modern sensibilities about sexual harassment have brought about an enormously complex situation. In such a context, the church can function as an agent of reconciliation, helping to maintain pressure on those who think the issue is trivial and to encourage women and men to learn how to relate in a manner that guarantees dignity to both sexes. In coming to terms with the relationship between males and females, one does well to remember that Jesus’ attitude toward women contrasted sharply with that of most others in the first century, both in the Jewish and the Greco-Roman worlds. The modern elevation of women owes much to his openness to them regardless of their reputation, as Charles E. Carlston pointed out some years ago.
SIRACH 9:10–16, FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS
Returning to some topics already treated in 8:1–9, Ben Sira uses an arresting simile: Friendship resembles wine in that both need time before they can be fully enjoyed. This saying may be a proverb that he quotes for effect, but he may actually have coined the saying himself. The delay in retribution can be misleading, he insists, and one should be careful about associating with powerful people whose anger can spell one’s end. Ben Sira never seemed to tire of using the language of snares and nets. Here he offers an antidote to sin: constant conversation about Torah and religion in the presence of wise and good people.
SIRACH 9:17–10:5, ON RULERS
Two things stand out here, the positive correlation between eloquence and success in rulers and the optimistic view of providence in appointing wise individuals to govern. The Greek text focuses on the way clever speech reflects an artisan’s craft, whereas the Hebrew emphasizes the manipulative power of language. The persistence of belief in universal providence regardless of the political situation is testimony to the force of tradition, and Ben Sira’s readiness to compromise universalism with particularist views about special divine interest in scribes (in the Greek text, at least) shows how both understandings of providence often co-existed. One wonders whether Ben Sira would have affirmed God’s hand in appointing Antiochus IV Epiphanes to the Seleucid throne. This ruler proceeded to wage a campaign to destroy Jewish identity, proscribing the observance of the law and legislating the practice of idolatry. Ben Sira could not have forseen any of this. Perhaps one could view Ben Sira’s remarks as applicable only to Judah, forארץ (ʾereṣ, "land") can have this restricted meaning, but the sages usually cast their nets much more widely than this reading allows. He appears to have framed his statement with thought only of the relative freedom enjoyed by Jerusalem under the Ptolemies.
SIRACH 10:6–11:1, PRIDE AND HONOR
10:6–18. The essential question posed for interpreters of this section, "Does the language have a specific referent?" cannot be answered. To be sure, certain events in the political world of the day resemble Ben Sira’s remarks rather closely. They could refer to Antiochus III’s victory over Ptolemy Philopator at Panium in 198 bce, as well as to the story about the excruciating death of the latter king. The comment in v. 14 makes one think of Joseph, the "ruler" who rose from a lowly state to a place of honor (Genesis 39–50), but the resemblance is minor. Even if Ben Sira wished to describe the situation involving political jockeying for control of Judea, he would have veiled his language to avoid arousing the rulers’ ire. The description is sufficiently general to apply in any number of contexts, and it may never have been intended as satire against the ruling Seleucids or Ptolemies.
Similarly, the remark about someone who became ill and died promptly, either because the physician did not recognize its seriousness (the Greek text) or because he was helpless to stop its progress (the Hebrew), does not necessarily relate to a specific instance in Ben Sira’s memory. Transference of power, helplessness in the face of illness, and eventual decomposition represent general occurrences of which almost everyone would be aware. Ben Sira uses these powerful illustrations to emphasize the universal and personal nature of defeat. Every vestige of pride becomes ludicrous in the light of human makeup ("dust and ashes" [עפר ואפר ʿāpār wāʾēper]; cf. 17:32; 40:3; Gen 18:27).
Having witnessed a transferral of power of great magnitude, Ben Sira knew that even "pretend-gods" succcumbed to death’s grim horror. Today’s king is tomorrow’s corpse. That realization, together with the anecdote about a worthless physician, prompted Ben Sira to write that, in the face of boundless pride, God turns things upside-down. Egyptian wisdom literature often deals with a topsy-turvy world of societal unrest, but it lacks Ben Sira’s optimism. The price of pride, according to Ben Sira, exceeds loss of life in a most humiliating manner; it also involves total extinction, even with all recollection of an individual being erased.
10:19–25. Verses 19–22 employ a rhetorical device, catechetical instruction (v. 19), that became popular in later times, both in Jewish pedagogy and in the Christian church. The simple question, "Whose offspring are worthy of honor?" is matched by its opposite, and the first answer fits both questions. Human beings deserve both honor and dishonor. The device permits the teacher to contrast the two types, rebels and God-fearers. Social status actually means nothing where honor is concerned. The comment about despising a poor wise man echoes Eccl 9:15–16. The Hebrew sociological categories in v. 22, largely monosyllabic, imply meager existence ("sojourner," "stranger," "foreigner," "impoverished" [גר gēr, זר zār, נכרי nokrî, רשׁ rāš]). Ben Sira acknowledges their worth on the basis of a religious standard, whether they fear God or not.
Lest this graphic description of the fate awaiting all humans, proud or not, the concentration on divine intervention to frustrate human efforts, and the attention paid marginalized citizens lead to self-contempt, Ben Sira moves ahead to salvage personal esteem and to base self-worth on intelligence. He recognizes the necessity for a certain measure of pride lest others treat one like a doormat.
SIRACH 11:2–28, DECEPTIVE APPEARANCES
The international character of wisdom literature comes through nicely in this section. The Egyptian Papyrus Insinger uses the illustration about the bee’s smallness and the wonderful delicacy it produces. The entire twentieth instruction warns against overlooking small things (e.g., a small ilness, a little fire, a tiny lie, a small snake) and mentions some advantageous small things such as bread, dew, wind, and good news. Similarly, the Instruction of Ankhsheshanky has this comment: "Do not disdain a small document, a small fire, a small soldier."
Several Greek writers observe that one’s life cannot be evaluated until death. Solon, for instance, wrote: "Until he is dead, do not yet call a man happy, but only lucky"; Aeschylus stated, "Only when man’s life comes to its end in prosperity can one call that man happy"; and Sophocles declared:
Let every man in mankind’s frailty
Consider his last day; and let none
Presume on his good fortune until he find
Life, at his death, a memory without pain.
Ben Sira may well have heard a popular saying like one of these, but the ideas are sufficiently general to occur in any cultural context. His formulation of the matter speaks volumes in few words: "A man’s end tells about him."
The similarity between the teaching in v. 2 and the biblical story about Yahweh’s selection of David to rule over Israel instead of Saul (1 Sam 16:6–13) does not necessarily indicate that Ben Sira had that incident in mind. Remarkably, the account of David’s anointing takes pains to add, "Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome" (1 Sam 16:12 NRSV), after having discounted external appearance on the basis of the Lord’s penetrating sight (1 Sam 16:7). Perhaps the narrator merely acknowledged a natural preference among human beings for attractive features. Ben Sira tries to overcome this tendency.
The enigmatic remark about concealed divine works probably plays on an epithet for Yahweh, the "Worker of Wonders" (Exod 15:11; Ps 77:14; cf. Jdg 13:19). The reference may be to God’s activity in human lives—the exalting of the lowly and the humbling of the proud—rather than the works of creation, which are for the most part gloriously manifest. Ben Sira gives several examples of God’s hidden work, particularly in changing the lives of paupers, but also by mocking arrogance among the wealthy.
In the ancient world, the deity, or deities, were said to be responsible for everything, whether good or evil. Ben Sira accepts this belief without expressing the slightest reservation (v. 14). The fuller exposition in vv. 15–16, widely attested, suggests that a later editor thought Ben Sira’s straightforward remark needed further elaboration in the direction of spiritual qualities. This practice attests to the vitality of the interpretive community and to the biblical text’s character as a living tradition.
The idea that work does not necessarily pay dividends (v. 11) runs counter to the fundamental teaching of early wisdom in the book of Proverbs. Sometime later, Qohelet certainly doubted the lasting value of human toil. Ben Sira’s point, that God’s peculiar actions defy human standard, arises from a strong concept of divine freedom. The allusion to the eyes of the Lord does not reflect Persian influence in this instance, although the notion of personified eyes roving the empire seems to be found in the book of Zechariah, but expressed differently (Zech 1:8–17, horsemen patrolling the earth).
Once again, Ben Sira returns to the issue of theodicy (vv. 20–28) and mocks the rich, who rely on their wealth to protect them from adversity. Like the rich fool whom Jesus ridiculed for overlooking one small matter (Luke 12:13–21), the fact of death, these powerful individuals take their ease and wait for more good to come their way. The debate formula, "Do not say," occurs twice (vv. 23–24) and a variant as well, "Do not wonder" (v. 21). Ben Sira points out that appearances often deceive, for instantaneous changes can reverse present circumstances. The final declaration of a person’s character, the balancing of virtuous deeds against wicked works (cf. Dan 5:27), was thought to take place at the hour of death. The reward for faithful service was an honorable name that survived in children (so the Greek translation ofבאחריתו [bĕʾaḥărîtô, "at the end of his life"]) and in grateful memories of the entire community. The word סוף (sôp, "end") as an indication of life’s termination occurs in Eccl 7:2. The idea of an exact balancing of the account soon took on great importance among the Pharisees, who enthusiastically endorsed belief in life after death.
SIRACH 11:29–14:19, ON FRIENDSHIP AND WEALTH
This section vividly illustrates the difficulty of dividing the contents of Sirach into discrete units. A glance at the commentaries reveals little agreement on this and many other larger units, each interpreter viewing the material from a different perspective. Riches, the unifying theme of 11:29–14:19, provokes various thoughts from Ben Sira, chiefly cautionary advice about the dangers involved in trying to relate to wealthy people. He uses several arresting images to convey his insights.
11:29–12:9. The first picture comes from a hunter’s practice of placing a bird in a cage to lure other birds into it (11:30). The cage has a special entrance that opens from below; once another bird has entered the enclosed place, it cannot spring the door from above and is thus trapped. Ben Sira likens the proud to a decoy bird attracting the attention of its victims, perhaps also to the hunter who watches from a hiding place until its prey has entered the cage. As if this image of vulnerability were not sufficient, Ben Sira observes that a single spark ignites coals (11:32). An ancient proverb warned against underestimating a little fire, a tiny rumor, a small soldier. Experience had taught society that some small things did enormous harm. A "worthless person" (אישׁ בליעל ʾiš bĕliyyaʿal) lurks in the shadows to shed blood (cf. Prov 1:11, "to lie in wait, to ambush" [ארב ʾrb]). This use of the expression ʾiš bĕlîyyaʿal is unique in Sirach, but it occurs elsewhere in Job 38:18 and Prov 6:12; 16:27; 19:28. The application of these images to the problem at hand, inviting strangers into one’s home, uses a wordplay for "stranger"/"estrange" (זר/זהיר zār/zāhîr).
12:10–12. Another image in this unit compares enemies to a corrosive pot or to a "magic mirror" that was thought to divulge the identity of friend and foe when carefully polished and examined. Ben Sira advises caution, taking the form of constantly polishing the metal surface of a mirror to prevent its copper from becoming discolored (12:10–11). The reference to the right hand (12:12) implies the place of honor, which should be zealously protected from impostors.
12:13–18. The picture of a snake charmer, once bitten, pleading for sympathy from onlookers, or a thoughtless daredevil who tempts ferocious beasts and then asks for pity when they have mauled him, accurately describes the behavior of anyone who gets cozy with an enemy. Shedding insincere tears and whispering feigned affection (12:16), the enemy awaits an opportunity to throw a victim into a pit (cf. Joseph’s brothers in Gen 37:12–24).
13:1–20. The principle that the person who touches tar becomes dirty (13:1) gave rise to a proverb long before Ben Sira’s day, for the idea of being tainted through association with base fellows already appears in a text by Theognis. Its popularity has persisted to the present, occurring in two of Shakespeare’s works.169 Similarly, the concept of "like associating with like" was enunciated frequently in various forms (cf. the Latin "like delights in like," Similis simili gaudet). In Isa 11:6, the prophet envisions a total reversal of the usual pattern of things, an era when a wolf will lie down with a lamb, a leopard with a goat, a calf with a lion, a cow with a bear, and when an infant will play over the hole of an asp, a weaned child will touch an adder’s den. The real world, one in which a clay vessel that collides with an iron kettle shatters (13:2), does not deal gently with opposites who try to forge close friendship. Ben Sira lays out some areas of vulnerability when people of ordinary material resources attempt to become close friends with persons who possess extraordinary wealth.
In the first place, he argues, "like loves like" (13:15). The argument from analogy with animals like wolves, hyenas, dogs, wild asses, and lions contains a fundamental flaw, for rich and poor belong to the same genus. Ben Sira selects predatory animals to make his point: hyenas, wolves, lions. Their prey—or natural enemy, in the case of dogs (cf. Job 30:1; Isa 56:10; Jer 12:9)—illustrates the precarious position of people who aspire to be friends with the rich. Once the poor have served their purpose, whether for amusement or for their meager resources, they are promptly cast off like refuse. Moreover, in the process of responding to the hospitality of the wealthy by the customary follow-up, people of modest means deplete their resources through an endless round of entertainment.
In the second place, Ben Sira observes, those who befriend the wealthy walk a difficult tightrope, trying to be noticed without being too conspicuous and inviting contempt. The situation has been compared to sitting at a fire; one needs to get close enough to feel the warmth of the flame, but must remain far enough away to avoid getting burned.
A third point of vulnerability issues from the inevitable self-denial demanded by limited resources, now stretched to the limit by competing with people who have greater wealth. One has to adopt a miserly life-style, and that, says Ben Sira, makes absolutely no sense for any number of reasons. The third and second centuries bce, with surging interest in amassing a fortune, also produced advocates of personal enjoyment, such as Qohelet, Ben Sira, and the rabbi who insisted that everyone must give an account of every good thing not enjoyed. One can infer from the heated attack in Wis 1:16–2:24 on such indulgence that things quickly got out of hand, leading to lawless conduct by young robbers. Qohelet’s sevenfold encouragement to enjoy life had found a receptive audience, one prepared to do so without any consideration for those harmed by this commitment to gathering rosebuds before they wither.
13:21–14:2. Yet another source of difficulty lay in society’s natural disposition, a bias in favor of the rich. The plain fact must be faced, Ben Sira observes (13:23), that the crowds praise the wealthy even when the latter utter nonsense, and the masses condemn the lowly who may speak eloquently; the word for "ridiculing" in 13:22 (גע גע gaʿ gaʿ) imitates the croaking of frogs; if one reads גגע (gagaʿ), it may refer to cackling. In other words, people who endeavor to cross that invisible line between poverty and riches only fool themselves. As Qohelet rightly perceived, the poor wise man received no one’s gratitude (Eccl 9:16). Small wonder a clever individual wryly observed that "God loves the poor but helps the rich."
The judgment that riches in themselves are not evil (13:24) introduces a wholly unexpected sentiment. Just as Ben Sira’s advice about charitable giving in 12:1–7 presents an insuperable challenge—ascertaining authentic goodness in others—his opinion of the wealthy requires a similar looking into the hearts of others. Happily, he believed that goodness was reflected in one’s countenance (13:26; cf. Prov 15:13; Ps 104:15; Eccl 8:1; Matt 6:16–18).
14:3–19. Finally, Ben Sira points to the absurdity of being stingy, "small of heart" (לב קטן lēb qāṭān) and denying oneself life’s pleasure when standing under a sentence of death. This allusion to the story about Adam and Eve and the divine decree, "You must die!" (14:17), is virtually without precedent. Ben Sira will take the reflection one additional step, blaming the woman for all subsequent misfortune. For now, he restricts himself to drawing a comparison between leaves falling from a tree and people dying. The analogy, although appropriate in the case of individual people, becomes strained when applied to generations, for usually when leaves fall from a tree on their own, others do not take their place until the seasons have changed. Ben Sira’s expression for humankind, "flesh and blood" (בשׂר ודם bāśār wĕdām) occurs often in rabbinic literature.
When leaves fall to the ground, they decompose, enriching the soil. Human beings also rot (the verbרקב [rāqēb] occurs here and in two other places, Prov 10:7 and Isa 40:20), but the Israelites thought of the deceased as somehow existing in Sheol. The reference to this shadowy domain in 14:12 is the first one in Sirach. It was originally thought to be outside Yahweh’s realm, but the prophet Amos recognized no such limit to God’s authority (Amos 9:2). The unknown author of Job believed that a certain leveling of social distinctions occurred there, resulting in rest for the weary (Job 3:13–19). In the opinion of at least one psalmist, the residents of Sheol do not chant Yahweh’s praises (Ps 6:5). Those who entered Sheol, so it was thought, take up permanent residence. This opinion was replaced in NT times by a conviction that Sheol was only a temporary resting place, at least for the righteous. A change also took place in the character of Sheol, perhaps under Persian influence, in common thinking. No longer a neutral domicile, Sheol came to be depicted as hell, a realm of punishment by fire.
1. Still another area in which Ben Sira’s views have suffered over time concerns wealth. For the most part, he looked on rich people as enemies; the author of the Epistle of James shared this suspicion (Jas 2:1–7). Given the social context producing the Scriptures, such an attitude is understandable. Ben Sira does qualify his criticism of wealth in the end, observing that riches not associated with wickedness cannot be totally bad. Perhaps that appreciation for wealth rightly used should become a mainstay of Christian teaching—particularly in the light of the enormous financial resources in the coffers of the church. One can scarcely imagine modern society apart from the contributions of philanthropists who have donated funds for private hospitals, colleges and universities, churches, foundations that bestow seed money on all kinds of worthy causes, and the like.
Furthermore, many persons who have prospered materially encounter a problem peculiar to the wealthy: the difficulty of distinguishing between genuine friends and others who seek to use them for personal gain. The church serves these people faithfully when it also recognizes this problem and welcomes the rich into its circle in the same way it does the poor—that is, as persons needing Christian love. In this way, churches can help wealthy people learn to use their resources for worthy causes just as they teach those with meager possessions to be stewards of their resources.
2. Ben Sira has a few observations about death’s inevitability that ring true today just as they did long ago, although the church has introduced the hope of the resurrection that alters the situation emphatically. This hope, fundamental to Pauline theology and to the early Christians generally, rests in God’s character and in the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead. Ultimately, the hope in the resurrection symbolizes an unwillingness to believe in the victory of evil over good. No one really knows what happens at death, and Christians need to face up to that fact, readily admitting that they live by faith. In the meantime, the church can bear faithful witness to the hope of the resurrection by helping those who stare death in the face more immediately than the average individual. By providing hospices, visiting the dying, helping people die with dignity, preparing members to face the inevitable reality, remembering the dead, and teaching Christian workers to deal comfortably with the terminally ill, churches can demonstrate to society at large that their members take death seriously but do not let it paralyze them into inaction.
Reminiscent of Psalm 1, with its language of blessing and the imagery of a flourishing tree, the opening poem about wisdom lays the groundwork for serious reflection on free will and divine retribution for wickedness. This discussion leads naturally to thoughts about God as judge, a concept that arose often in the volatile ancient Near East. Confident that God rewards virtue and punishes sin, Ben Sira urges his hearers to exercise their free will wisely, attending to small matters like giving alms to the needy, exercising caution and self-discipline, gaining control over speech by avoiding harmful utterances and by skillful elocution when speech was preferable to silence. He recognizes the favorable circumstances afforded wickedness and distinguishes between the wise and fools, who take different paths to distinct destinies. Ben Sira stresses the importance of long-term friendships, the proper use of language, and entering exclusively into appropriate sexual relationships. A prayer focuses his compelling desire to utter only what issues in favor from both God and humans.
SIRACH 14:20–15:10, SEEKING WISDOM AND BEING WELCOMED BY HER
This praise of wisdom consists of two parts, 14:20–27 and 15:1–10; 15:1 then provides a thematic verse uniting the description of those who pursue wisdom with that of her receiving them with open arms. The remarkable resemblance between this hymn and Psalm 1 is both linguistic and theological. Each begins with the formula of blessing, "Blessed are" (אשׁרי ʾašrê), then goes on to describe the behavior of the happy ones—their meditating on Torah and subsequent prosperity—while using the image of a flourishing tree. Each one also contrasts two groups, the favored ones and the unfortunate victims of their own wickedness and folly.
14:20–27. The opening section focuses on the lively pursuit of wisdom; it does so by concentrating at first on the images of spies (in the Hebrew) or hunters (in the Greek), then shifting to that of a passionate lover, only in the end changing the metaphor for wisdom to that of a tree with birds building nests in its branches and finding refuge from the scorching sun. All of this comprises a single sentence in Hebrew with various linking devices in the explanatory appositional clauses. The Greek reading in v. 20, "will die" (τελευτήσεί teleutēsei), may have arisen through reflection on 11:28, the insistence that only at death can one really consider anyone happy. The verb "to meditate" (הגה hāgâ) also occurs in 6:37 and 50:28. In v. 22, the Greek manuscripts have "ways" (ὁδοῖς hodois), with only Codex Vaticanus reading "in her entrances" (ἐν ταῖς εἴσοδοις αὐτῆς en tais eisodois autēs), which agrees with the Hebrew. The idea suggests that spies observe every single entrance to wisdom’s dwelling. The dominant image in the Greek text, that of hunting, implies that wisdom’s pursuers lie in wait at all her paths and demonstrate their skill at tracking wild animals.
The change to lover occurs in vv. 23–25, where his action demonstrates strong passion at the expense of proper decorum, at least to the modern way of thinking, where peering into a window of a beloved hardly accords with acceptable conduct. On the basis of Cant 2:9, which has the young woman rejoice that her beloved stands outside and peers into her window, one may assume that the practice did not offend some segments in ancient society. Wishing to be near the object of his ardor, the young man in v. 24 pitches his tent against the wall of her house. The wordאהלו (ʾōhŏlô, "his tent") has both a literal and a figurative meaning here and in Job 8:22; 22:23; and 29:4, approximating the sense of one’s physical and psychological existence.
In vv. 26–27, the earlier image of wisdom as a shade tree recurs, with the lover now being described as a bird. The Hebrew text has "its nest" (קנו qinnô) in v. 26, whereas the Greek has "his children" (τέκνα αὐτου tekna autou). The idea of wisdom’s providing shelter occupies the thought of Qohelet in Eccl 7:12, an extremely enigmatic verse. The divine object lesson in Jonah 4:6–11 dramatizes the deep feelings generated by adequate protection from the sun’s sweltering rays in the ancient Near East.
15:1–10. Part two of this poem shifts the point of view to the object of hot pursuit. As this section illustrates, wisdom gladly lets herself be captured by worthy pursuers but holds herself at a distance from those lacking intelligence. The thematic verse equates fear of Yahweh—that is, "piety"—with keeping the law and then relates both to wisdom. The expression "the one who handles the law" (תופשׁ תורה tôpēš tôrâ) refers to a scribe in 15:1, but in Jer 2:8 it indicates a priest (alongside rulers [shepherds] and prophets). The verb תפשׂ (tāpaś) connotes catching and holding an object securely, hence skill at warfare (cf. Num 31:27) and expertise at interpreting the law, as here.
The tame imagery of wisdom as a mother in v. 2 quickly yields to the more customary picture of a passionate young bride ("a wife of youth"; cf. Prov 5:18). Both Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah compare Yahweh to a mother who cannot forget her children and who offers comfort (Isa 49:14–15; 66:13). Verse 3 echoes the ancient tradition about wisdom’s feast as proclaimed in Prov 9:1–6, but the language comes closer to that uttered by wisdom’s rival, folly, in 9:13–18. Although wisdom is said to serve bread and wine, folly offers stolen water and bread consumed in secret (v. 17). Ben Sira carefully specifies the nature of the bread and water ("bread of astuteness" and "water of understanding"). The clandestine and erotic features of illicit sex in Prov 9:17 have given way here to intellectual categories. This symbolic use of bread and water for religious instruction and its rewards gained popularity in Jewish literature after Ben Sira. The idea has a long history, beginning as early as the period of return from Babylonian exile. In Isa 55:1–2, Yahweh offers water, milk, and bread to the hungry.
The literary structure of vv. 1–4 merits closer attention. In vv. 1 and 4 an ABA′B′ parallelism reigns: "one who fears Yahweh/will do this // one who handles torah/will obtain her" (v. 1); "whoever leans on her/will not totter // whoever trusts her/will not be shamed" (v. 4). The ruling pattern of vv. 2–3 differs greatly, an ABB′A′ structure obtaining: "she will meet him/like a mother // like a woman of youth; she will receive him" (v. 2); "and she will feed him/bread of astuteness // and water of understanding/she will give him to drink" (v. 3). Besides essential spiritual nourishment, wisdom grants honor and eloquence (v. 5). The explosion of sibilants in v. 6 almost gives the impression that Ben Sira wished to demonstrate his own skill at persuasive and pleasant communication:שׂשׂון (śāśôn, "joy"), ושׂמחה (wĕśimḥâ, "and rejoicing"), ימצה (yimṣâ, "he will discover"), ושׁם עולם (wĕšēm ʿôlām, "and an everlasting name"), תורישׁנו (tôrîšennû, "she will bequeath to him"). The teasing sound of the consonants is balanced by content that evokes a desirable mood.
The poem ends on a threatening note: Sinners will not even catch a glimpse of wisdom. The contrast between the fate of foolish people and the reward of persistent lovers could hardly be starker. On the one hand, the lover camps beside wisdom’s house and "nests" in her branches, and wisdom receives him with open arms, treating him to a sumptuous meal. On the other hand, the fool stands in the remote distance, having failed to capture her. Such arrogant sinners are not worthy of singing her praise (v. 9), and only divinely sent praise enjoys God’s blessing.
One of the most useful symbols for human existence is that of pilgrimage. We are homo viator, people on the road. Ben Sira’s use of imagery from Bedouin who dwell in tents reminds us all of the temporary nature of earthly existence. "This world is not my home, I’m just passing through"—the words of this spiritual touch a responsive chord, describing how we are embarking on a journey, with its final destination by no means certain.
Whether we subscribe to that hope grounded in Jesus’ resurrection or limit our concerns to the present existence, we can undoubtedly profit from clear signs laid by the trailblazer from Nazareth, for the journey will take us along dangerous routes. Ancient Romans set up milestones along the way, some of which survive to this day. As Christians, we can begin to think of ways to erect markers that indicate progress in coming to terms with ourselves and with God—over and above the customary moments of birth and conversion. Careful chronicling of spiritual progress, together with an honest listing of the unfortunate byways we frequently take, will serve as useful road maps for us and, at times, for others. We are not alone after all, and we bear some responsibility for fellow travelers.
The symbol of a pitched tent also suggests that every illusion of permanency will be exposed. In God’s world, we do not own the land but merely occupy it for a short time and then move on to another place. Moreover, those committed to pilgrimage travel light, even in a day when success is measured in terms of material wealth. A readiness to go where need arises and to take up our tent pegs in God’s service comes much more easily when one views life as a journey and sees every dwelling as temporary. Then the plight of dispossessed persons throughout the world becomes one every person can comprehend.
SIRACH 15:11–16:23, ON FREE WILL AND DIVINE RECOMPENSE
In a fictional debate, Ben Sira tries to answer some accusations against God and to counter justification for wicked conduct. Several biblical texts come very close to blaming Yahweh for human rebellion, especially Exod 11:10, Yahweh’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart; 2 Sam 24:1, Yahweh’s prompting David to carry out a census of young men who were eligible for conscription into the army; Jer 6:21 and Ezek 3:20, Yahweh’s imposing obstacles to life; and Isa 6:9–13, Yahweh’s use of the prophet to hinder repentance on the part of the nation. Furthermore, the claim that both weal and woe come from the Lord in Deut 32:39 and Isa 45:7, when coupled with a firm denial of any rival deities, can easily lead to belief that both good and evil human beings derive from God.
The fundamental problem arose from widespread belief that Israel’s God had created a world in which sin was a live possibility. The skeptic asked why such a universe was formed when a deity capable of creation could surely have made one that rendered transgression impossible. Three possibilities for the origin of evil naturally came to mind: (1) God created both good and evil; (2) Satan introduced sin into the world; and (3) human beings brought evil into a perfect world. At this point, Ben Sira strongly attaches blame to men and women, who willingly opt to rebel against their maker. In three verses, he uses the Hebrew wordחפץ (ḥāpēṣ, "to desire," "to choose") as many times, emphasizing human choice (15:15–17). In his view, any attempt to shift blame from humans to God ignored one essential fact: God cannot do that which God despises.
Skepticism about divine recompense for sinful deeds seemed to support the claim that Yahweh either approved of evil or simply overlooked it. When a delay in divine visitation coincided with reverse expectation, such as numerous children being born to wicked people, traditional understandings of divine justice became suspect. That situation existed in early second-century bce Jerusalem and demanded a thoughtful response from a teacher like Ben Sira. In offering a rebuttal to such skepticism, he put forth at least one bold statement at odds with tradition: Barrenness with virtue surpasses a large family of wicked children (16:1–4). To overcome doubt about divine punishment, he lets Scripture demonstrate the reality of God’s wrath on sinners of all sorts. Ben Sira’s answer to those who considered their little actions inconsequential in God’s eyes amounts to a teacher’s harsh rebuke for sloppy thinking.
15:11–20. The initial section echoes Moses’ speech in Deut 30:15, 19, which offers the people of Israel a choice between good and evil, life and death. This unit also draws on Gen 1:1 and insists that from the beginning God has opposed sin absolutely. The formula of debate, "do not say" (אל תאמר ʾal tōmar) and a variant, "lest you say" (פן תאמר pen tōmar), appear in vv. 10–12 (ʾal tōmar in 16:17). The attribution of rebellion (פשׁע pešaʿ) and violence (חמס ḥāmās) to God evokes in Ben Sira a twofold use of the word שׂנא (śānēʾ, "to hate"; cf. vv. 11, 13; in the latter instance, רעה [rāʿâ, "wicked"] in hendiadys with ותועבה [wĕtôʿēbâ, "abomination"] precedes the verb). The Epistle of James also refutes a claim that God incites sinners to do evil; it, too, stresses human desire as the origin of sin (Jas 1:13–15).
Verses 15–16 breathe the spirit of Hab 2:4, where human faithfulness is said to bring justification before God. The strong intellectual component in faith thus finds a worthy complement in actions demonstrating one’s convictions. Fire and water (v. 16) serve as metaphors for life’s destruction and generation; and the idea of two ways was familiar in the Hellenistic world, as well as in Judaism. The rabbis frequently refer to two inclinations, theיצר הרע (yēṣer hārāʿ) and the יצר הטוב (yēṣer hāṭôb). The first, the evil disposition, antedates the second, the good tendency, by a dozen years, according to rabbinic speculation. Biblical grounds for two inclinations existed in Gen 6:5 and 8:21 (for the evil bias) and 1 Chr 29:28 and Isa 26:3 (for the good inclination). The rabbis even noticed two spellings of the crucial nouns for mental disposition, לב (lēb) and לבב lēbāb, "heart") and יצר (yêṣer, "inclination") in the biblical text.
16:1–23. In the second unit, which the Vg titles De filiis impiis ("On Wicked Children"), Ben Sira draws the consequences of his belief in an all-seeing God: Sinners will pay dearly for their offenses. He first takes up the mistaken notion that numerous progeny demonstrate God’s favor. That is true, Ben Sira says, only when the children fear God. Indeed, one good person is better than a thousand sinners (cf. Eccl 9:15), and a single worthy individual can generate enough children to fill a city. Here Ben Sira probably alludes to Gen 15:1–5, the promise to Abraham that he will be the father of countless descendants.
Verse 5 raises a provocative issue for interpreters of wisdom literature: When does the personal ego surface? Peter Höffken has discussed this problem as it pertains to Qohelet, where the authorial "I" occurs often. Does Ben Sira appeal to his own private experience in alluding to what he has seen and heard, or does he merely transmit information by means of a literary convention? Interestingly, he stops short of recording these personal insights; instead he promptly enters into an allusive account of divine wrath in biblical narrative. He recalls the punishment of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram in Num 16:1–35, that of the rebellious giants in Gen 6:1–4, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen 19:1–28, and the erasure of a whole generation of Israelites in the wilderness (cf. Exod 12:37 for the number 600,000).
The avoidance of the Hebrew word for "giants" (נפלים nĕpilîm) may represent Ben Sira’s aversion to speculation about their role in the fall of humankind that characterized the Enochic literature and the book of Jubilees. Ben Sira’s choice of "giants of old" (נסיכי קדם nĕsîkê qedem) may also allude to the myths preserved in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28.
Several psalms take up the problem of doubters who emphasize the vastness of the universe and the inconsequentiality of human deeds, whether good or bad (cf. Pss 10:4, 11, 13; 14:1; 53:2). Ben Sira combines such skepticism with vocabulary taken from theophanic descriptions of earth’s response to God’s coming, the prayers attributed to Solomon at the dedication of the Temple and to Jonah in the belly of the fish (1 Kgs 8:27; Jonah 2:6), and acknowledgment of mystery where God’s actions are concerned. The exact grammatical relationship from vv. 17–23 is unclear, although vv. 18–19 may be parenthetical. In the Hebrew text, v. 20 links up with v. 17, whereas the Greek has v. 20 as a continuation of v. 19. The glosses on this unit (vv. 15–16) and the many variants in other languages attest to the lively debate generated by such skepticism (cf. 17:15–20; 23:18; Wis 3:7; 14:11). For now, Ben Sira seems content to adopt the practice of diatribe, a vibrant form of persuasive discourse in which an imaginery audience is addressed directly, often going so far as to label his opponents "misguided, senseless, and foolish."
Generation after generation of religious people have struggled to understand the implications of divine knowledge and sovereignty. Does God know everything that happens even before it takes place, and does divine power leave any room for human freedom? Experience teaches us that we make free choices when confronted with alternatives, but we also know that those decisions are shaped to a great extent by genetics and culture. How free, then, are people? In the religious realm, a similar ambiguity reigns. We choose God or spurn the divine invitation to holiness, but how much real choice do we have in that decision?
The biblical manner of addressing this problem began with the result and argued backward to causal factors. When people turned their backs on God, that action must surely have been willed by God, whose intention cannot be frustrated, given the operative understanding of divine power. The real difficulty with this view came in incidents involving people who desired to change but whose will was subjected to a contrary divine power (e.g., Pharaoh) or in circumstances where it was believed that God blocked human inclinations to repent (e.g., Isa 6:9–10; Mark 4:10–12). Possibly these texts represent mistaken assessments of the situation, but how can the church hold in proper tension our potential for good or ill and God’s sovereignty? That struggle has divided the church and continues to baffle theologians, who usually take their cue from the rabbinic affirmation of free will and divine authority. That mystery is not the only one in the religious life of modern Christians.
SIRACH 16:24–18:14, THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE CREATOR-JUDGE AND HUMANKIND
This section consists of four (or five) distinct poems: 16:24–30; 17:1–24 (or 17:1–14 and 17:15–24); 17:25–32; 18:1–14. It treats the dual themes of God’s creative and judicial functions, especially divine retribution, extends an invitation to repent, and elaborates on God’s compassion for frail human beings. The former resembles a midrash on Genesis 1, while much of the language recalls Psalms 8 and 104. The brief unit in 17:15–24 provides further response to the earlier skeptical attitude articulated in 16:17–22.
16:24–30. The initial poem praises the Creator for the orderliness of the universe, its appropriateness in every detail. The detached language and mathematical precision emphasize the divine plan (κοσμέω kosmeō, "to order," "to arrange") in Greek, from which comes the noun "cosmos." The Greek text has a vocative in v. 24, "my son," lacking in both Hebrew and Syriac. Verses 24–25 serve as an introduction to this initial poem, perhaps also to the larger section. Ben Sira stresses the reliability of his teaching by such terms as "weighing" (שׁקל šāqal) and "preserving" (צנע ṣnʿ). He implies that he has carefully examined God’s works and retained his findings for posterity. From Prov 1:23 he borrows the concept of pouring out God’s Spirit (אביעה ʾabbîʿâ), although in 50:27 he uses the causative form of the verb (נבע nābaʿ).
The poem describing God’s creative act that brought forth the universe (vv. 26–30) reflects on the narrative in Gen 1:1–25, but the Hebrew is fragmentary from the second bicolon of v. 26 to 30:11. The Greekκρίσει (krisei, "judged") is a mistake for κτίσει (ktisei, "created"), for which the Hebrew has an infinitive construct form of the verb ברא (bārāʾ, "to create"), a verb used only with God as subject in the Bible. Whereas Gen 1:1 has בראשׁית ברא אלהים (bĕrēʾšît bārāʾ ʾelōhîm), Ben Sira used the syntactically correct בברא אל (bibrāʾ ʾēl, "when God created") plus מראשׁ (mērōš, "from the beginning"). These works, in contrast to human beings, always obey God’s commands; indeed, they deserve the divine affirmation of extraordinary goodness (cf. the refrain in Genesis 1, where God makes this judgment often). Still, these creatures must return to the earth whence they came (cf. 40:11).
17:1–24. In 17:1–14, Ben Sira turns to the account of God’s creation of human beings, merging the two different descriptions in Genesis 1–2 with the separate tradition from Sinai about the giving of the commandments. Ben Sira understands the image of God to imply authority over the animals comparable to God’s sovereignty in the heavens. The Greek concept of the five senses (sight, touch, smell, sound, and taste), together with two additional faculties from Stoic philosophy, knowledge and reason, have evoked a gloss in v. 5, perhaps prompted by the listing of gifts in v. 6. The abrupt shift to the Sinaitic theophany in v. 13 follows the notion of fearing God, an accompaniment of praise, and emphasizes responsibility toward neighbors. The reference is probably to the second tablet of the Decalogue.
Contrary to the opinions expressed by "foolish persons" in 16:17–22, Ben Sira is convinced that God does see every human being and rewards or punishes each according to his or her actions. That assurance comprises the next seven verses, which conclude with a promise of forgiveness to the repentant.
Verse 17 refers to ancient speculation about Israel’s special relationship to God. Whereas God appointed secular rulers for the other nations (or angelic mediators with Yahweh on their behalf), Ben Sira observes, as God’s portion, Israel has direct access to God. In short, Israel exists as the private people of God. Ben Sira’s high esteem for good works shows in the metaphors employed in v. 22, where both a "signet ring" and "the apple of the eye" describe almsgiving. The signet ring, or seal, worn on the finger or around the neck, when pressed in wax, left a person’s insignia on important papers (cf. Gen 38:18; Cant 8:6; Jer 22:24). The other metaphor appears in Deut 32:10; Ps 17:8; Prov 7:2; and Zech 2:12, the first and last of these references with regard to Israel and Judah as God’s special portion.
Jewish reflection on the relationship of other peoples to God acknowledged their place in the divine scheme of things. Sifre 40 states that "God does not provide for Israel alone, but for all people," and the Targum to Pseudo Jonathan at Gen 11:7–8 observes that every nation has its own guardian angel (cf. Deut 32:8–9 LXX). Ben Sira believed in the universal domain of Israel’s God, but he also considered some nations inveterate foes. His harshest comments occur in 50:25–26 with reference to Idumeans, Philistines, and Samaritans.
The threat of retribution in v. 23 resembles that in Joel 4:4–7[3:4–7, Eng.], where the prophet stresses an exact recompense for offenses against the Judeans. Ben Sira implies that God may remain inactive for the time being, as the skeptics in 16:17–22 suspected, but that patient waiting will eventually give way to divine visitation. Nevertheless, Ben Sira offers hope to the despairing.
17:25–32. The Latin text sets the next section apart with the title De Conversione ("On Repentance"); these verses urge mortals to repent in order to sing Yahweh’s praises. Extolling the Lord’s glory represented for Sirach the highest form of life (cf. 15:9–10; 17:10; 18:4–7; 39:8, 15, 35; 43:28–30; 51:1, 22), one forbidden those in Sheol. Ben Sira uses an analogy in v. 31 that also occurs in 1 Esdr 4:33–41 and in a fragmentary Sumerian text, specifically that if even the sun is eclipsed, how much more the feeble light of humankind. The contest of Darius’s guards appropriately concludes with praise of the Lord of truth, just as this poem sings of divine mercy in the context of human dust and ashes.
18:1–14. The final unit characterizes Yahweh as a righteous and merciful judge whose majesty surpasses human imagination. This thought prompts Ben Sira to reflect momentarily on the lowliness of men and women when compared with God’s grandeur. The frailty of humankind even moves the Lord to compassion, according to Ben Sira, and evokes in the deity a shepherding role. This image of the divine shepherd enjoyed wide coverage in the Bible (cf. Psalms 2; 23; 80; Isa 40:11; Ezek 34:11–16; John 10:11–18; Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; Rev 7:17).
The title in v. 1 for Yahweh, "the One who lives forever," occurs in Dan 4:31; 6:27; and 12:7. This epithet probably constitutes the author’s reaction against predominant extra-Israelite views of gods who die and rise each year. It follows that none could possibly adequately grasp Yahweh’s mystery; Ben Sira expresses this point beautifully: When one has finished, one is actually still at the very beginning, having progressed little in recounting God’s glory (cf. 1:3, 6; 42:17; Job 9:10; Ps 145:3). The rhetorical question in v. 8 links this verse with Pss 8:5; 144:3; and Job 7:17. Papyrus Insinger also likens the human life span to a grain of sand (see v. 10), and Egyptian texts generally calculate one’s existence on earth as a maximum of one hundred years (see v. 9; cf. Ps 90:10; Isa 65:20). Ben Sira concedes in v. 13 that human beings limit their compassion to immediate neighbors, while Yahweh extends a merciful hand to everyone.
The religious life stands under the promise of divine blessing, which comes in the midst of a broken world and makes life tolerable. A significant number of texts in the Bible either invite God’s people to rejoice or actually characterize them as wholly surrendering to joyful praise. The sound of benediction, the blessing, may have served as the concluding note of congregational gatherings, but that affirmation had its basis in the earlier happiness created by God’s presence in the company of good people. The "positive thinking" preachers of modern Christianity have rightly seized this feature of religion, although often by overlooking the biblical realism that gives that joy a moral obligation to ease others’ suffering.
The church has an unenviable record of suppressing happiness, although unwittingly. Emphasis on negatives in one’s personal moral conduct arose from purely good intentions, a desire to avoid every appearance of evil. Applying the Johannine principle of residing in the world without being a party to its values has never been easy. Too often the church has chosen withdrawal from the world as the safer option, despite the clear rejection of this approach in the New Testament.
Good Friday and Easter Sunday serve in the liturgical calendar as perennial reminders that both sadness and joy belong to the very center of Christian experience. Reflecting on the prevalence of sin and suffering in society, as well as contemplating the cost in human lives and in the divine economy, brings streams of tears. Nevertheless, meditating on God’s bountiful love and acceptance of transgressors who turn away from their self-centered ways, along with thinking about the beauty and goodness in God’s creatures, elicits rapturous songs of joy. The challenge is to give equal rein to each feeling. The long face must not become permanently fixed, for happiness comes with the dawn. That hope springs eternal in the human breast, awakened by every pronouncement of blessing on the people of God.
SIRACH 18:15–18, ON GIVING ALMS
The elaborate praise of God for unlimited generosity in the preceding section leads to some observations about acts of kindness among humans. They are to model their giving on that of the Lord (cf. Jas 1:5). Ben Sira realizes that the prevalent view about God’s blessing on good persons and the opposite on sinners implies that prosperous people deserve their wealth just as the poor suffer appropriately for laziness or wickedness. The temptation, therefore, was to look on the poor with contempt, even when giving them a handout. Ben Sira advises that words should match deeds, a charitable act being accompanied by gentle remarks.
The analogy from daily experience—relief from oppressive heat that dew brings to plants suffering distress—prompts an exuberant overstatement, which Ben Sira hastens to qualify. A (kind) word is better than a gift, but a truly gracious individual unites both word and action. Ignorant persons do just the opposite, they compound a niggardly gift by harsh language. The Babylonian Talmud makes the point effectively: "Whoever gives a farthing is blessed sixfold, but the one who adds words elevenfold."
SIRACH 18:19–29, ON CAUTION
This brief unit may also have been inspired by the poem on divine mercy and forgiveness in 18:1–14. Ben Sira encourages his readers to plan for unpleasant intrusions, particularly sickness and death. The Syriac of v. 19 urges readers to consult a physician; because illness was thought to strike those who had offended God, one could not get well until obtaining forgiveness. Physicians did not fit into this understanding of sin and its consequences very well, for they interfered with that process. Ben Sira wrestles with this vexing problem in 38:1–15, where he combines the traditional view of sin’s relationship to sickness with a more modern concept of doctors and medicines.
Reflection on the day of God’s visitation and the prospect of rejection puts the fear of the Lord in people, according to v. 24. One should observe a similar caution in making vows (cf. Eccl 5:3), for one’s circumstances may change quickly, rendering it impossible to fulfill a promise despite its accompanying solemn oath. Ben Sira reverses the usual order in the phrase "from morning to evening" (see similar usage in late texts, such as 1 Chr 16:40; 2 Chr 2:4; but cf. Gen 1:5; Ps 55:7; Dan 8:26), perhaps because political decisions and commercial transactions, the primary means of quick reversals, occurred during the daylight hours.
In Judaism, various ways to obtain forgiveness were advocated. Sickness and its accompanying suffering atone for sin, according to a Tannaitic source, if one also repents. In this regard, W. O. E. Oesterley refers to Bereshith Rabba (chap. 65), which states that Isaac prayed to be given suffering to turn away divine judgment in the next life. Another means of forgiveness, according to Yoma 86b is repentance, and almsgiving was yet another (Baba Bathra 10a). Death, the supreme suffering, also brought reconciliation (Sifre 33a). These texts reveal an eagerness to find ways to make God’s forgiveness as far reaching as possible.
SIRACH 18:30–19:17, ON SELF-CONTROL
Before v. 30, the Greek has a title, "Self-control of the Disposition" (ἐγκράτεια ψυχῆς egkrateia psychēs), a title that appeared at v. 15 in Codex Sinaiticus. Such headings occur elsewhere at 19:29; 20:27; 24:1; 30:1, 16; 44:1; and 51:1. This section contains brief poems about sensual desire (18:30–19:3) and gossip (19:4–17). The chapter division interrupts a unit of thought (v. 1), indicating the consequences of living beyond one’s means.
18:30–19:3. The surrender to extravagant lust impoverishes a person and brings mockery and contempt. Ben Sira associates lavish parties with sexual license, here symbolized by an expression that has become proverbial, "wine and women." He knows the power of carnal lust, a desire so strong as to tempt men to squander savings and to borrow with abandon in order to satisfy their lust. He warns that such debased conduct often brings venereal disease in its wake, although the reference could be to an untimely death by other means. The Hebrew emphasizes the complete exposure of the one who indulges in such conduct: "He will become utterly naked," probably a metaphor for an impoverished condition.
19:4–17. The unit on gossip urges those who hear unpleasant tales about others to put an end to the vicious rumor and to report what has been said only to the person about whom the gossip has revolved. The purpose is to warn that individual to be more circumspect or to repent, if the gossip contained any truth. The one exception to remaining silent (v. 8) alludes to Lev 5:1, legislation concerning testimony when someone knows a fact that bears on another’s guilt or innocence. The graphic illustrations (bursting from holding a word inside; writhing, as if feeling the pains of giving birth; suffering from an arrow that has penetrated one’s thigh) mock the ludicrous behavior of avid gossipmongers.
The anaphrous style of vv. 13–15, referring to a previously mentioned person or object (e.g., "friend … he"), with the repeated imperative, "Question … perhaps … or if … so that" with a variant in the third and fourth instances, arrests the attention of those who hear the successive items. In this manner, Ben Sira achieves maximum effect for the rhetorical question, "Who has not sinned with his tongue?" and the admonition to give free rein to the law (cf. Lev 19:17–18). The generous attitude toward the subject of gossip alone can successfully counter a natural tendency to believe the worst in others.
SIRACH 19:20–30, WISDOM AND CLEVERNESS
The reference to the law links this short poem to the preceding one. Ben Sira observes that wisdom can be both positive and negative, hence one who fears God is better than a shrewd sinner. Such a statement in a Hellenistic context invited mockery, given the Greek emphasis on intelligence. Earlier Jewish tradition illustrates the evil potential of knowledge—e.g., the serpent’s craftiness in Gen 3:1 and Jonadab’s clever but unscrupulous use of intelligence to enable Amnon to seduce his sister (2 Sam 13:3). In this brief section, Ben Sira unites the two fundamental themes of the book: wisdom and the fear of the Lord.
The insights in vv. 26–28 reveal profound psychological awareness; the outward demeanor of an unscrupulous person masks an inner hostility awaiting a chance to express itself openly, and the juxtaposition of competing claims about judging someone by external appearance. Although Ben Sira realizes that appearances can deceive, he insists that one can know another person by examining three things: clothing, laughter, and gait. Whoever maintains this cautious realism refuses to give up on the necessary task of making judgments about the character of those with whom one comes into contact. Some books can be judged by their covers, as everyone knows all too well.
SIRACH 20:1–31, ON SPEECH AND SILENCE
Random sayings comprise this unit, often juxtaposing an idea and its "opposite" in the two bicola. The central issue, the right use of speech, stands over against appropriate and inappropriate, or misleading, silence, on the one hand, and lying, on the other hand. The paradoxical circumstances involving speaking and refraining from talk lead to a discussion of paradoxes in general. The Greek heading, "Proverbial Sayings," before v. 27 indicates that an ancient scribe divided this section differently from that suggested here.
20:1–8. The sages in Israel and Egypt spoke often about right speech and silence, the latter idea serving to characterize a professional sage, among others, in Egypt as "the silent one." Egyptian instructions develop a concept of rhetoric to serve as an ideal for the wise to aspire to in their study, one characterized by timing, restraint, accuracy, and eloquence. Israelite sages, too, recognized the importance of knowing when to speak and when to be silent; they also praised truthfulness and eloquence. These qualities were not limited to the wise, however, for some people possessed an innate gift of eloquence. Nor was this appreciation for silence limited to Israel and Egypt. Alexander Di Lella cites the following extrabiblical aphorisms: "A sage thing is timely silence, and better than any speech" (Plutarch, c. 100 ce); "Let a fool hold his tongue and he will pass for a sage" (Publilius Syrus, 1st cent. bce); "Let your speech be better than silence, or be silent" (Dionysius the Elder, 4th cent. bce). Apparently, many thinkers prized silence as golden.
Matters were not quite so simple, as the contrasting sayings in Prov 26:4–5 reveal. In some situations, neither speech nor silence is unambiguous, for responding to a stupid remark bestows more dignity on it than the comment deserves, and failing to answer may appear to indicate ineptness, an inability to offer better counsel than that given by the fool. Ben Sira knows the tradition represented by this attempt to point out the difficulty in interpreting silence, and he acknowledges that refraining from speech does not always demonstrate wisdom. Some people merely have nothing worthwhile to say.
The analogy in v. 4, although graphic, is not entirely clear. Ben Sira pictures a eunuch being overwhelmed by lust for a young woman, passion that by the very nature of his condition will lead the eunuch nowhere. To that scene, Ben Sira compares the attempt to force an individual devoid of moral formation to behave ethically. Lacking inner motivation, the person can make no progress in doing the right thing.
20:9–17. These verses interrupt the discussion of speech and offer some observations on various oddities of existence: an unexpected windfall that costs much more than its value, honorable losses, so-called bargains that actually amount to a drain on one’s finances, and a lender who repeatedly demands repayment before its due date. Anyone who has purchased a used automobile at a "good price," only to discover its actual condition and the expense involved in repairing it, can understand Ben Sira’s point. His allusion to persons who rose from humble circumstances to positions of power represents a literary topos in the ancient world, as the story about Joseph demonstrates.
20:18–20. The original topic of this unit returns in v. 18; this "better saying" about the greater damage inflicted by slander than by falling down is widespread. The image in the Greek of v. 19 is lost on modern readers who do not realize that the fatty tail of a sheep was considered a delicacy in the ancient Near East. The saying in v. 20 serves as an instance when timing rather than content renders a remark worthless. Everyone who has suffered in silence, only later to think of an appropriate response, appreciates the significance of timing. The observation in v. 21 that absence of sin does not necessarily indicate virtue resembles an Egyptian saying that only a man’s purse prevents him from satisfying his insatiable lust.
20:21–26. These verses take up the matter of shame, especially that resulting from misstating the truth. The stakes in honor and shame are high; one’s reputation and life hang in the balance. Persons whose humble circumstances evoke embarrassment and cause them to make promises they cannot keep (v. 23) and liars earn the same reputation as a thief. All three suffer disgrace.
20:27–31. The final unit consists of traditional teachings about the scribal profession—the sages will serve rulers (like Daniel, Ahiqar, Mordecai, and Joseph)—and about special temptations they encounter, such as bribes and unpredictable anger. The concluding couplet states that, like hidden treasure, concealed wisdom is worthless and that hiding one’s ignorance is superior to hiding one’s intelligence.
SIRACH 21:1–10, SIN’S SMOOTH PATH
Three images conjure up the horror of sinful action for Ben Sira’s audience, here addressed as "my child." They consist of two threats from the realm of nature—the serpent’s bite (cf. Gen 3:1–5; Prov 23:32, which likens the sting of strong drink to that of a snake) and a lion’s teeth (cf. 27:10 and Joel 1:6 for the same language)—and one threat from the human domain—a dreaded two-edged sword in the agile hands of someone bent on destruction.
The allusion to the prayer of the poor in v. 5 demonstrates Ben Sira’s positive attitude toward God’s rule of the world. As affirmed in ancient religious tradition, God hears the cries of persons in need; the doubts expressed in the book of Job and in Ecclesiastes have not dampened Ben Sira’s spirit in the least. The point of v. 8 varies with the manuscript traditions; the Septuagint has "for the winter"εἰς χειμῶνα eis cheimōna), whereas the important ms 248 has "for a tomb" (εἰς χῶμα eis chōma). The former implies that one gathers stones instead of wood in preparation for cold weather; the latter reading may suggest that payment on the loan becomes due before the burial mound is complete. The audial pun in v. 9 in the Greek, "a bundle of tow is like a band of lawless ones" (στιππύον συνηγμένον συναγωγὴ ἀνόμων stippuon synēgmenon synagōgē anomōn) and the probable reference to techniques employed by the later Romans in the construction of roads in v. 10 bring this brief unit to a close.
In 1 Pet 5:8 the description of the devil evokes all three of the horrors cited in Sir 21:2–3 by combining the old notion of the serpent with that of Satan who resembles a raging lion ready to devour, the usual language for the sword’s activity in the OT.
SIRACH 21:11–22:18, THE WISE AND THE FOOLISH
21:11–22:2. Ancient sages never tired of drawing a sharp contrast between themselves and ignorant ruffians, whom they called fools. One decisive difference between the two groups concerned the value of education. Because they failed to appreciate the worth of knowledge, fools were impossible to educate, information entering their minds and flowing right through into oblivion. The wise place a value on education like ornaments worn by royalty (v. 21); when they learn something, they promptly add to it (v. 15). Here Ben Sira recognizes the importance of preserving the tradition intact, but he balances that idea with the necessity of contributing to the fund of knowledge. Mere retention of ancestral tradition did not make one wise; that instruction from the past had to be thoroughly adapted to new conditions and to personal experience.
Verse 12 recalls the earlier distinction between wisdom and shrewdness, and v. 13 introduces an image that Ben Sira will use again to signify his own effort to write a second volume of instruction (24:30–34). The same symbolism, knowledge as a mighty stream and a life-giving spring, occurs in Pirqe ’Abot 6:1, where one who studies Torah for its own sake is described in this way.
This entire unit characterizes fools more fully than wise persons. Fools hear sensible remarks and toss them aside, behave in altogether uncivilized ways, inspire hatred, resent discipline, and babble incessantly. Ben Sira compares their idle chatter to a heavy burden on a journey (v. 14). The harsh criticism of sluggards within the book of Proverbs continues in 22:1–2, where Ben Sira uses a coarse image to describe them, that of a smooth rock used in the ancient world after a bowel movement.
22:3–6. Here Ben Sira utters one of his most misogynistic statements; his opinion, regrettably, was shared by many at the time.188 Precisely what inspired the observation that "the birth of a daughter is a loss" can only be surmised, although the context may suggest that he had in mind the difficulty and cost involved in obtaining a suitable husband for her. Elsewhere his comments about daughters imply suspicion about their morals and show that he did not think highly of them—at least not of a certain kind of daughter. One can see how such an opinion of girls would fit nicely into a society that exposes infant daughters to the elements in order for them to die. Echoes of this horrible practice occur within the OT. In its liturgical practice, later Judaism continued this negative attitude toward women. A daily prayer, recommended for all men, stated: "Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who have not made me a woman," and every man was urged to thank God daily for not making him a woman or a slave.190 This sentiment reflects the numerous regulations in Jewish law strictly regulating the life of a woman.
22:9–15. Ben Sira uses strong images to describe fools in these verses. Teaching them is futile, like gluing the pieces of a broken pot together or communicating with a sleepy person. Long experience with dull students probably taught Ben Sira the accuracy of this analogy; the slow student simply misses the point as if half asleep. No wonder Ben Sira recommends perpetual tears for such fools, as opposed to the more usual seven-day mourning for the dead. The image in v. 13 moves one step further than that of fools as the ancient equivalent of toilet paper. Here they shake themselves like pigs (the Hebrew original probably had "dogs") and spread their filth on all bystanders. The comparison of debt and a foreigner to a heavy load occurs also in Ahiqar.
22:16–18. The closing unit praises intelligence as both strong and beautiful. The final thought, that fences (or pebbles) cannot withstand a strong wind, may allude to the practice of placing small rocks on a wall enclosing a vineyard or garden so that when a jackal or a fox invaded a garden, the animal would knock them off and alert the farmer. This entire section, 21:11–22:18, is remarkably free of religious teaching, except for the opening verse.
Just as Ben Sira’s understanding of women reflected a society in which women were born under a curse, so also some modern views of women relegate them to secondary status. The present disparity in pay between women and men, where it still exists, results from various economic factors, chief of which is the understanding of men as providers for families. The subtle shifting of women to lower-paying jobs and assessing them by standards that more appropriately apply to men place women in a disadvantaged position. Pregnancy and its attendant obligations make it more difficult for females to advance in their workplace. Differences in women’s temperament and style strike many males as signs of inferiority or lack of motivation. All this and more fuels misogynistic and chauvinistic sentiments today.
For anyone who values human worth and believes such attitudes should vanish like dinosaurs, one can think of no challenge that, if successfully met, offers more reward. First, men can finally begin to treat women in the same revolutionary manner Jesus did. Second, men can start to learn from women in more ways than imaginable, even if it means radically questioning the very foundations of modern society. Third, women can be elevated to senior leadership roles within the church and its ministry. This move alone holds the potential for revolutionizing the devotional life of God’s people.
SIRACH 22:19–26, PRESERVING FRIENDSHIP
In this short section, Ben Sira returns to the topic of friendship (cf. 6:5–17) and comments on the remarkable resiliency of affections. He understands that the severe strain produced by personal insults can cause genuine friendships to snap. Two clear images for inflicting pain and driving friends away—jabbing one’s eye and, by analogy, throwing a rock at birds—draw attention to the harm caused by hurtful words. Nevertheless, he believes the constancy of genuine friendship can stand serious offenses such as threatened physical violence and verbal abuse. Ben Sira does not recommend that one count on this strong bond in all instances of abuse because some things (e.g., divulging secrets and treachery) will drive any friend away.
The test of true friendship comes when one cannot do anything to help those befriending him or her. Ben Sira advises his readers to begin a friendship with someone in difficult circumstances and then take pleasure when that person’s financial situation improves. The closing observation in the first-person pledges personal loyalty—in the context of a veiled threat, should harm befall the speaker. That is, others will avoid the person who caused the injury, for they will know that he or she cannot be trusted.
SIRACH 22:27–23:6, A PRAYER FOR SELF-CONTROL
This moving prayer for control over wrongful speech and carnal lust introduces the two following units, 23:7–15, 16–26. The final verse (v. 27) sums up this section and, indeed, everything up to this point in the book. Other prayers appear in 36:1–13a, 16–22; 51:1–12.
The opening request for a sentry to be perched on the speaker’s lips uses a Hebraic expression,מי יתן (mî yittēn, lit., "who will set?"). Ben Sira’s double request for a sentry and a seal demonstrates the urgency of the need. Anyone with this much protection would not fall into sin through speech. The image of a guard for one’s mouth also occurs in Ps 141:3 and Ahiqar 14b–15. In Sir 28:24–26, Ben Sira extends the image considerably, recommending a door and a bolt for the mouth and balances and scales for words.
The threefold address to God in 23:1 includes the tetragrammaton (YHWH), Father, and Master of my life. The OT refers to God as Father of the nation of Israel (1 Chr 29:10; Isa 63:16; Mal 2:10). Ben Sira personalizes that form of address (23:1, 4; 51:1, 10). The third epithet, "Master of my life," gives way to "God of my life" in v. 4. The expression "our Father, our King" (אבינו מלכנו ʾābînû malkēnû) became popular in Jewish prayers, for the twin ideas cover the immediacy of parental love and the sovereignty of a transcendent ruler of the universe.
The abrupt reference to "their designs" in 23:1 without a clear antecedent prompted W. O. E. Oesterley to rearrange the prayer in the following sequence:
27 … and that my tongue destroy me not,
2 O that scourges were set over my thoughts …
3 that mine ignorance be not multiplied …
4 O Lord, Father, and God of my life,
1 Abandon me not to their counsel,
Suffer me not to fall by them.
5 Give me not a proud look,
and turn away concupiscence from me.
The manuscript evidence indicates considerable disarray, with the Syriac and the Vg reading v. 1b after v. 4a. The rearrangement is not necessary, for Hebrew poetry often introduces unanticipated pronouns for which the reader must supply an appropriate antecedent.
Verse 2 asks for whips to subject thoughts to their control. Thus doubly protected—from sins of the tongue and from thought—Ben Sira can avoid becoming the object of ridicule. The prayer now takes up one further danger, which might result from success in avoiding sins of speech and thought. He asks for protection from "giant-like eyes," pride; for good measure, he repeats the request for power over sinful lust.
SIRACH 23:7–15, THE PROPER USE OF LANGUAGE
This section, which many Greek manuscripts label "Instruction Concerning the Mouth," takes up two types of language that get people into deep trouble, the one religious and the other secular. First, Ben Sira discusses the lavish use of oaths, which constantly place one under divine scrutiny just like a slave who requires close watch. The implication is that continual supervision will inevitably reveal flaws in character that demand punishment. Oath-taking alone includes the danger of swearing unknowingly to a lie, using the divine name loosely, and placing oneself in danger through excessive obligations that reduce one to poverty. Second, the person who habitually uses lewd speech will inadvertently slip into this manner of talking in circumstances where it will bring disgrace. Ben Sira thinks that such foul language does not belong in the Jewish community ("the inheritance of Jacob," v. 12). This expression usually refers to the land in which Israel dwelled.
SIRACH 23:16–27, ON FORNICATION AND ADULTERY
Ben Sira adopts a common form in wisdom literature, the numerical proverb, to describe those who give themselves over to sexual sins of various kinds. Elsewhere he uses numerical sayings in 25:1–2, 7–11; 26:5–6, 28; 50:25–26. They are found often in Proverbs (Prov 6:16–19; 30:15b–16, 18–19, 21–23, 29–31) and Job (Job 5:19–22; 13:20–22; 33:14–15), and are also in prophetic literature (Amos 1:3–2:16) and in Ugaritic texts. Like the book of Amos, Sirach does not list the full quota of sins (three here, four in Amos) but pauses to explore a single offense, carnal lust.
The section sparkles with psychological insight as Ben Sira describes the insatiable hunger of fornicators, to whom all bread is sweet (cf. Prov 9:17, where the seductress calls stolen water "sweet" and bread eaten in secret "pleasant"), and the endless rationalizations for surrendering to the primal urge. The feeble excuses for adultery—no one will ever know, and God is forgetful—do not reckon with an all-seeing deity who knows the future intimately. Ben Sira comes perilously close to stating a doctrine of predestination in v. 20, which conflicts with his earlier stress on free will.
Having dealt with adulterers in the first part of this treatise on carnal lust, Ben Sira moves on to talk about adulteresses. Their crime consists of breaking the divine legislation, betraying a marital relationship, and bringing children into the world where they will not be wanted. This threefold offense, arranged to emphasize a descending order of gravity, also applies to the adulterer, but Ben Sira does not explicitly say so. The punishment of adultery, according to Lev 20:10 and Deut 22:21–22, was death, and Talmudic law continued this punishment, at least theoretically. Verse 24 extends the punishment to children, which suggests that the death penalty was no longer in force at this time.
The last verse uses the adjectives "better" and "sweeter" to suggest that faithful service to Yahweh held far greater appeal than surrendering to one’s sexual passions. The key word "survive" provides the clue to Ben Sira’s reasoning, for loyalty to the Lord brings life, but surrendering to passions issues in death.
The appeal of sexual satisfaction, even with inappropriate partners, will always characterize human existence, as it certainly did in Ben Sira’s time. The difficult task of remaining monogamous when bombarded with temptation on every hand or of refraining from sex until the right time and place tests one and all. The knowledge among advertisers that sex pays rich dividends and the active role of fantasy leave many people in the grip of a destructive force. Children are particularly vulnerable. Increased mobility and privacy make liaisons with an attractive other both tempting and possible.
In such a volatile environment, how do Christians negotiate the waters of change? Perhaps the story in Genesis 39 of Joseph’s resistance to a seductive summons from Potiphar’s wife offers a starting point. Joseph’s reason for saying no to the attractive offer was first and foremost theological: "How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?" (Gen 39:9 NRSV). Admittedly, such an act as sleeping with Potiphar’s wife would have represented betrayal of his master’s trust and bed, but Joseph’s only stated concern was quite different. He did not want to prove false to his relationship with God. Moreover, the adulterous act also affects the partner, in this instance, Potiphar. And such conduct inevitably takes a heavy toll on the offenders, for it undermines integrity and weakens character. This satisfaction of carnal desire becomes habitual, as Ben Sira perceived, and in the end it depersonalizes everyone involved, turning them into objects of pleasure.
How can the church encourage interaction between women and men while discouraging obsessive fascination with obtaining the forbidden and avoiding an attitude of indifference to sexual mores? The old obsession with sex as the sin, which occupied the church for centuries, has done far more harm than can be recounted here, but new guidelines are essential to assist young Christians in the never-ending struggle to deal responsibly with sexual desires.
Beginning with an elaborate poem extolling wisdom’s virtues and identifying wisdom with divine revelation to Moses, and thus to Israel, this section of Sirach ends on a comparable note affirming divine providence. Between these lofty religious sentiments lie observations and advice from Ben Sira concerning the inner sanctum of the family and the heart of individual character, integrity. He characterizes despicable people in general, as well as wives-both desirable and undesirable. This leads to a broader discussion of offenses against companions, as well as the important, yet potentially devastating, matter of lending money and providing collateral for persons needing it. Ben Sira gives his views on rearing children, etiquette, and wealth; these topics, although traditional within wisdom literature, take on added significance in the Hellenistic environment, with its quite different customs and values where public dining and commerce were concerned.
SIRACH 24:1–34, THE PRAISE OF WISDOM
Like the four major parts in the first half of the book, this section—the first of four parts—begins with an elegant poem about wisdom in three stanzas, vv. 3–7, 8–12, 13–17. Most Greek manuscripts have the title "The Praise of Wisdom." An introduction to the poem (vv. 1–2) and a conclusion (vv. 19–22) give this poem the same number of lines as letters in the Hebrew alphabet. An identification of wisdom with the Mosaic law follows in vv. 23–29, and a personal claim for the author’s inspiration from wisdom (vv. 30–34) concludes the chapter. Some interpreters (e.g., John Snaith) see chap. 24 as the conclusion to part one of the book, vv. 30–34 justifying Ben Sira’s addition of a second part, chaps. 25–43. In Snaith’s view, a similar hymn in 42:15–43:33 concludes part two, just as a hymn in 51:13–30 concludes a third part and also the whole book.
The praise of wisdom in vv. 1–22 draws freely on Prov 8:1–36 (cf. Job 28; Prov 1:20–33) for its language and ideas, although similar hymns occur in ancient Egypt, primarily in aretalogies associated with the goddess Isis. These texts recite her virtues or accomplishments in the first person, praising Isis as creator and ruler of the universe. These same ideas appear in Ben Sira’s praise of wisdom, but they already characterize her in the biblical precedents.
24:1–2. The introductory speech mentions wisdom’s people and the assembly of the hosts of the Most High. The natural way to understand these references places them in a heavenly context; they represent the angelic hosts attending God’s court. Nevertheless, "her people" subsequently takes on a special sense, the nation Israel, even if in these verses it connotes heavenly companions.
24:3–7. The initial stanza uses images from the Priestly creation account in Gen 1:1–2:4a and from the Israelite sojourn in the wilderness. That wisdom issues from the divine mouth and settles like a mist on the entire earth accords with the claim that God spoke the world into existence and that the Spirit hovered over the chaotic mass from which order evolved. Wisdom identifies herself as the pillar of cloud mentioned in Exod 13:21–22, accompanying the Israelites and confirming for them God’s watchful eye. Picturing the universe as a vault with circumscribed limits, wisdom claims to have walked around its entire area in a creative act. The reference to plumbing the depths of Sheol amounts to an assertion of sovereignty over its citizens.
Verse 7 introduces the subject of the second stanza: wisdom’s search for a resting place. Other traditions picture her as unable to find a home on earth, whereas iniquity was successful in its quest for a suitable residence there, settling like rain or dew in the desert (cf. 1 Enoch 42:1–2). These two attitudes to the hiddenness of wisdom represent the tension between particularism and universalism within the community. The author of 1 Enoch did not grant any people exclusive access to divine knowledge, but Ben Sira attributes true wisdom to the Jews.
24:8–12. The second stanza identifies wisdom’s resting place as Jerusalem and suggests that the favorable location encouraged her to grow deep roots. Wisdom’s selection of the inheritance of Jacob resulted from a divine decree, not from some accident of time or place. The universe came into existence through a divine word, and wisdom pitched her tent in Israel because of God’s command. The possessive pronoun "my" attached to the word "Creator" links up with the notion in Prov 8:22 that Yahweh created wisdom first of all, and the mention of dwelling in a tent recalls the tabernacle, or tent of meeting, in the wilderness. Verse 10 introduces an entirely new concept: Wisdom ministers before God in the Temple at Zion, the ancient name for the city of David. Ben Sira’s priestly interests successfully link wisdom with the daily sacrificial service, something no previous sage had been willing to do.
24:13–17. The idea of wisdom’s taking root leads immediately to the theme of the third stanza, which describes her as various trees in the land of Israel: durable and majestic like the cedar of Lebanon or tall as the cypress on Mount Hermon; beautiful as the palm in Engedi or oleanders in Jericho; useful as the ever-present olive; rare as the plane tree; fragrant as trees yielding spices, perfumes, and incense; sprawling like the huge terebinth. The choice of these trees suggests wisdom’s omnipresence; she dwells in the mountains to the north and in the valleys and gorges to the south. This sensual imagery concludes with a somewhat different, although related, simile: Wisdom grew like a vine and gave forth abundant clusters of grapes.
Ben Sira’s choice of cassia and myrrh relates to their function, when mixed with cinnamon and fragrant cane, in preparing an ointment essential for the ritual involving the sacred ark. Similarly, galbanum (an aromatic, though bitter, gum), mastic (an aromatic resin), and onycha (an extraction from a marine mollusk) in combination with frankincense produced incense for use in the liturgy. Despite the frequent association of the terebinth with idolatrous cults and sacred prostitution (e.g., 1 Kgs 14:23; 2 Kgs 17:10; 18:4; 23:14; Isa 17:8; 27:9; Jer 17:2; Mic 5:13[Eng., 5:14]), Ben Sira dares to incorporate the image of this splendid shade tree into his description of wisdom.
24:18–22. The concluding invitation develops the notion of viticulture and its fruit; wisdom summons everyone to a feast, as in Prov 9:1–6. She offers food and drink that makes one return for more, and she promises protection from shame and its cause, missing the mark. Patrick Skehan thinks this (conjectured!) use of the verbיחטאו (yeḥeṭāʾ û) and חטאי (ḥōṭĕʾî) in Prov 8:36 are the only instances in the Bible where חטא (ḥāṭāʾ) has its original meaning of "missing the mark."
24:23–29. With v. 23, a new section begins, momentarily in third-person narrative, descending into prose. Ben Sira makes an astonishing statement: that divine wisdom, here described, is identical to Israel’s prize possession, the Mosaic law. In other words, access to wisdom comes through reflection on the divine commandments, no longer through studying nature and human experience as maintained in Proverbs, the book of Job, and Ecclesiastes. To convey the immensity of its coverage, Ben Sira evokes the ancient myth of the four rivers flowing through the garden of Eden. The Mosaic law is inexhaustible, like those rivers, ever spilling over their banks with beneficial gifts to those who depend on water for survival. The Pishon, the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Jordan, the Nile, and the Gihon comprise the major rivers with which the Israelites were acquainted in fact and in fiction. According to Gen 2:10–14, four rivers—Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates-watered the whole land. To these, Ben Sira adds the Jordan and the Nile. He alludes to the effort on the part of Adam and Eve to grasp knowledge, labeling the result of that first initiative partial. Like the first couple, all those who follow will also fail to capture wisdom’s full contents. First and last constitute a merism here—i.e., opposite parts of something representing the whole. No one can contain a river, and none can comprehend the full extent of Torah. The ABB′A′ symmetry of v. 29 is total:
24:30–34. The final section constitutes Ben Sira’s personal claim to having been moved by prophetic and sapiential inspiration to write his book, which also became a mighty river spilling over its banks. At first he resembled an irrigation canal watering a small garden, but later he became a river and, even greater yet, a sea. No longer a derivative body, he now pours forth original teaching like prophecy for all who desire it. The final verse claims a selfless motive for his labor, a desire to share his insights with others worthy of their contents (cf. 33:18, where this verse is repeated). The idea that teaching as a light occurs with respect to the law in Ps 119:105; Prov 4:18; 6:23. The author of the book of Wisdom understands wisdom as light (Wis 7:26, 29). In Ps 19:10, the law is said to be sweeter than honey and drippings from the honeycomb; wisdom takes over this imagery and applies it to herself in v. 20.
Some of the ideas in this chapter found expression in Judaism generally. The Alexandrian philosopher Philo Judaeus (c. 15 bce–45 ce) identified wisdom with the pillar of cloud, and m. Pesiqta 186a states that God offered the law to all nations but only Israel was willing to accept its stipulations. Homiletical use of this imagined refusal to accept the Torah naturally appealed to the moral imperative and a sense of ethnic superiority.
Ancient peoples developed authenticating stories (or myths) to confirm their own views, thus functioning primarily within closed walls, and only secondarily as a defense of these views directed to outsiders. Some of these stories reinforced ethnic claims comparable to contemporary slogans, such as "the noble savage," "the prostitute with a heart of gold," "the land of the free and the home of the brave," etc. Ordinarily, these myths arise to counter less than complimentary value judgments. Compared to an intellectually vigorous Greek culture, the religious tradition of Israel, represented by its legal transmitters like Ezra, gave an appearance of mental softness. Particularistic claims flew in the face of Greek universalism, and monotheism seemed pitifully restrictive over against a rich pantheon.
Ben Sira’s response to potential, if not actual, mockery anchors Jewish ethnicity in a universal context. The Creator of the cosmos chose provincial Judah as the appropriate location for divine instructions in right living, a law that applies equally to every citizen in God’s special kingdom. For some unspecified reason, God’s logos rejected all nations except Judah and took up residence at Jerusalem. The consequences of that claim extend to the present era, when opposing factions vie for that sacred ground. Accompanying features of the myth complicate matters beyond repair, especially the belief that God has given this holy land to the Jews and taken it away from its previous owners, the Canaanites.
Perhaps the primary value of such efforts to justify national and religious convictions is negative. They point to the paucity of really persuasive arguments on behalf of particularistic claims, thus calling all groups to abandon imperialistic notions in favor of humble confession alone. Moreover, the sensual delights and visceral level on which the myth operates summon us all to celebrate the beauty of the natural order and its unending mystery rather than wasting time and energy quarreling over religious dogma.
SIRACH 25:1–12, SOME NUMERICAL PROVERBS
In this brief section, Ben Sira returns to the form introduced in 23:16–17, numerical proverb, varying it in the first of two by omitting the smaller number. Verse 1 refers to three sources of pleasure; all have in common an emotion that creates harmony. The first relates to the larger family, the second to people living in the immediate vicinity, and the third moves into the inner sanctum of the home. The next verse names three loathsome types: the pauper who is too proud to accept help, the rich person who lies (the assumption being that wealthy people have no need to dissemble), and an old lecher. The following four verses reflect on the responsibility of acting one’s age. The comment that one who failed to gather anything during youth cannot reasonably expect to do so in advancing years may apply directly to a lecherous desire to recapture the amorous past with a vengeance. Ben Sira notes that old age should be characterized by signs of wisdom and religious devotion, for the aged have the advantage of wide experience. The folly of old lechers is beautifully illustrated in the book of Susanna, which tells of two men who try to blackmail Susanna into complying with their wishes.
Verses 7–12 deal with ten fortunate types of people. Among these, the second and fourth deserve further comment. The wish to see one’s enemies’ downfall belonged to the piety of biblical psalms (Pss 18:38–43, 48–49; 54:7; 112:8) and laments generally, although the attitude did not enjoy universal acceptance (Prov 17:5; 24:17–18; cf. Matt 5:43–44). The allusion to plowing with incompatible animals (cf. Deut 22:10) assumes a polygamous environment, the husband having sexual relations with two wives who cannot get along with each other. Ben Sira’s elevation of piety over knowledge goes beyond traditional views, in which fear of the Lord was both the originating force and the essence of wisdom. Verse 11 states that worship surpasses wisdom.
SIRACH 25:13–26:27, ON WIVES, BOTH BAD AND GOOD
Having momentarily introduced the topic of a good wife in 25:1, Ben Sira now turns to a discussion of virtuous and wicked wives, beginning with the latter (25:13–26) and interrupting this strong censure with a brief section on a good wife (26:1–4), only to return to the less complimentary assessment of wives (26:5–12) before concluding on a positive note (26:13–18). In the cursive mss 70 and 248, as well as Syriac, a section combining positive and negative comments about wives sums up the discussion, ending with an image of a garrulous wife as the sound of a battle cry (תרועה tĕrûʿâ) and the accompanying confusion.
25:13–26. Hyperbole sets the tone for Ben Sira’s treatment of the traditional topic about bad wives, and this fact needs to be taken into account when evaluating his attitude toward women. The unpleasantries—severe blows, villainy, suffering, and revenge—provide a semantic and psychological context within which to view the grief caused by a wicked woman. Thus far the language refers to bad women generally, not just to wives. The association of evil women with snakes and their venom was balanced in the ancient world by a positive celebration of the rejuvenating power and virility of these creatures. The reference to "vengeance of enemies" in v. 14 may actually reflect a polygamous setting in which wives jockey for position and harbor grudges that lead to aggressive acts of vengeance in the same way Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel, expressed rivalry (Gen 29:31–30:24).
The exaggerated speech continues in v. 16 with the first-person expression of preference. The comparison, absurd in the extreme, for no one could live with a lion or a dragon, calls to mind the unbearable situation of dwelling in the same house with an incorrigible woman. Whereas wisdom brightens the countenance, according to Eccl 8:1, for Ben Sira wickedness has the opposite result, darkening the face. To indicate the full effect of such evil, Ben Sira evokes the thought of a bear, perhaps because lions and bears were often associated (cf. Amos 5:18–19). Driven from his own house, the unfortunate husband hangs out with friends and seeks consolation (v. 18). The next verse uses the same hyperbole of vv. 13–14, "any iniquity," although phrased differently to stress the minuteness.
The image in v. 20 emphasizes the difficulty encountered by old people when the terrain does not permit them to plant their feet firmly. A sandy slope is both slippery and hard to negotiate. Ben Sira thinks a complaining wife makes life equally challenging to that of a sandy hill. The following two verses (vv. 21–22) take up the subject of two different ways by which women trap men, in Ben Sira’s view: with their beauty and their wealth. Only the latter attraction provokes further comment, the assertion that a man who depends on his wife’s assets for daily survival is also subjected to constant abuse.
The bold claim in v. 24 that sin originated with woman, presumably an allusion to Eve’s disobedience of the divine decree, and that all subsequent people die because of Eve’s sin represents but one of three different viewpoints in ancient Israel regarding sin and death. The usual explanation for death in Judaism focused on Adam’s unrepentant attitude rather than on Eve’s original disobedience, when it did not assume that human beings were by nature mortal (41:4). In the ancient story of the fall, Eve’s disobedience preceded Adam’s chronologically (cf. 2 Cor 11:3; 1 Tim 2:14), but Adam’s presence and complicity implicate him equally. John Levison has endeavored to exonerate Eve in Ben Sira’s eyes; Levison thinks v. 24 refers to an evil wife and to husbands who die because of such terrible spouses, but the contextual evidence and the fragment from Qumran do not make a strong case for the argument. The third source of evil, along with Eve and Adam, was Satan, at least in popular thought.
Verses 25–26 project a patriarchal worldview completely at odds with the modern one, particularly in the West. Ben Sira advises husbands to suppress evil wives’ freedom to express themselves just as one builds a dam to prevent the free flow of water. Failing in that endeavor, husbands can then resort to the ultimate contingency, divorce (cf. Deut 24:1). The language implies severing her from her husband’s flesh, which recalls the statement in Gen 2:24 that husband and wife become one flesh. Within Judaism, two opposing attitudes to divorce vied for acceptance, the one lenient—for something as trivial as burnt bread—and the other quite restrictive, allowing divorce only for instances of adultery or other sexual offense. The lenient view merely acknowledges a fact: If one is prepared to divorce a wife over burnt bread, then the marriage is already dead. Ben Sira’s view falls into the former camp; a husband can divorce a wife who refuses to bow down before his wishes.
26:1–4. These extreme comments about wicked wives do not constitute the sum of Ben Sira’s remarks about wives, for he knows that good women also exist. The praise of virtuous wives, like the charges against bad ones, represents the view of the husband. Good wives bring longevity, peace, blessing, and happiness that expresses itself openly in their husbands’ faces. These gifts resemble those that wisdom bestows on her lovers. One can scarcely imagine higher praise than this. Even poverty loses its sting when a man has a good wife, according to Ben Sira.
26:5–12. Having registered strong appreciation for good wives, Ben Sira reverts to the earlier topic of undesirable wives. Although the Greek of v. 10 refers to a daughter, the Syriac reading ("wife") probably retains the Hebrew original. The entire section bristles with arresting images and obscenities, particularly the references to an ill-fitting yoke that rubs the skin of an ox raw, a dreaded scorpion, and the euphemisms for sexual relations—a thirsty traveler drinking from any available stream, sitting (lying) in front of every tent peg (penis) and opening her quiver (vagina) for every arrow (penis). In addition, allusions to drunken and flirtatious conduct make this litany of undesirable behavior extremely uncomplimentary to some wives. In Ben Sira’s mind, their harm ranks alongside false accusations leading to mob action; v. 5 refers to slander, gang action, and false charges. The form of this verse—only the first part of a numerical saying—is false, like the behavior itself.
26:13–18. These verses take up the subject of good wives once more, this time using comparisons from the Temple to convey their incomparable beauty. When a virtuous wife also possesses good looks, she resembles a menorah, a seven-branched candelabra, and golden and silver pedestals (or ornaments, if one reads "breasts" with Alexandrinus and Vaticanus instead of "feet"). Ben Sira observes that a good wife fattens her husband up, an indication of good health in the ancient Jewish environment, and that such a woman comes as a divine gift, a view shared by the authors of some sayings in the book of Proverbs. The attributes of a good wife include modesty, self-discipline, and orderliness, but they also embrace physical beauty. Ben Sira shows a remarkable appreciation for the external appearance of a woman, although his comments belong in the larger context of character. The remark that the value of chastity cannot be weighed on existing scales indicates where he really places the emphasis. The notion of weighing virtue or vice was widespread in the ancient Near East (cf. the divine judgment on Belshazzar in Dan 5:27 and the Egyptian concept of weighing the soul against a feather representing justice).
Nothing in the final section demands an understanding of it as secondary, despite its absence in the shorter Greek translation (and Hebrew; it is preserved in the expanded Greek version and in Syriac). Nevertheless, much of the material either repeats what Ben Sira has already said or echoes similar remarks in the book of Proverbs. The reference to a wife as daughter in v. 24 strengthens the understanding of v. 10 as an allusion to a wife. This section warns against squandering one’s vitality on foreign women, a common theme in wisdom literature, and advises young men to plow their own fields, sowing worthy seed. This euphemism for sexual relations becomes for Ben Sira a way of assuring patrimony. His disdain for prostitutes and adulteresses, as well as his conviction that men get the sort of wives they deserve, places Ben Sira in the mainstream of wisdom’s exponents. The suggestion in v. 24 that a modest daughter always retains an element of embarrassment, even in the presence of her husband, appears to press beyond anything prior to this time, when mutual enjoyment of sex was the rule. At the very least, this ideal of modesty differs radically from the exuberance of the young sister ("lover") in the Song of Songs.
The family lies at the center of society today, just as it did long ago. Ben Sira undercuts this significant institution while endeavoring to strengthen it, for he harbored misogynistic sentiments even while singing women’s praises. His comments about wicked women raise a significant question: Can praise ever make amends for damaging criticism?
In fairness to him, one must acknowledge the fact that Ben Sira certainly has strong words of approval for good wives. Nevertheless, the crude remarks and generalizing condemnation of a certain kind of woman, together with his suspicion concerning woman’s lascivious nature, make an indelible impression on readers’ minds. Like violent images that linger long after the fact, these unfavorable comments leave unwelcome vestiges. Words can hurt even more grievously than do sticks and stones, particularly when directed against persons lacking power and prestige. Here, too, the sensual expressions of delight go a long way toward salvaging Ben Sira’s reputation as a sage—but not far enough.
In the light of this, Christians may wish to take inventory of their use of language about groups who lack the authority to challenge unwelcome remarks. Over the centuries, the English language has become freighted with derisive terms and unflattering expressions, each of which brings pain to innocent victims. By consulting compendia that isolate such offensive terms, and by studiously avoiding their use, concerned Christians can make a difference in a society that seems to know no limits where offensive speech is concerned.
SIRACH 26:28–27:15, ON INTEGRITY
A variety of sayings discusses the general topic of honesty, beginning with a numerical proverb about three problematic instances of persons trapped in the opposite state from the expected one (26:28) and ending with a few comments about offensive speech (27:11–15).
26:28. The initial saying refers to a rich person reduced to poverty, intelligence that fails to elicit respect, and a person who forsakes virtue for its opposite. The Greek text has "warrior" (ἀνὴρ πολεμιστής anēr polemistēs) for the first of these, probably through a misunderstanding of an original אישׁ חיל (iš ḥayil) or גכור חיל (gibbôr ḥayil), "a wealthy man" or "person of substance." In the HB, גבור gibbôr means "a mighty person," "a warrior."
26:29–27:3. Ben Sira’s suspicion that commerce by its very nature participates in sin grows out of the fact that the very premise of trading consisted of gain at the buyer’s expense. In his day, commerce flourished, taking Jews to many places and reducing their leisure. According to Erubin 55b (cf. Qiddushin 82a, which calls such trading "the handicraft of robbery"), such preoccupation with business adversely affected the study of Torah.
Ben Sira credits merchants with sufficient conscience to necessitate turning the eye, an inability to look their victim in the eye. Such body language was already recognized in the book of Proverbs (cf. Prov 6:12–19; 28:27). The bartering process had led to humorous posturing by the buyer, who would protest the exorbitant price at first but subsequently brag to others about the purchase, but Ben Sira’s evaluation of the new merchant class lacks humor. He thinks of sin as an inevitable consequence of selling, one as firmly fixed as a tent peg wedged between two rocks to secure it against the wind. In this view he was not alone, as this quote from the Egyptian "Instruction of Ankhsheshanky" 28.4 reveals: "Do not have a merchant for a friend; [he] lives for taking a slice."
27:4–7. The three images that illustrate the manner in which speech demonstrates the discipline of one’s mind derive from ordinary farm life in ancient Palestine. After oxen had threshed grain, it was placed in a sieve that retained the husks and dung while allowing the kernels to pass through for immediate use or temporary storage. The analogy suffers somewhat, for one expects the speech to represent pure grain, whereas Ben Sira observes that talk demonstrates flaws, bringing them to the surface. The second comparison is more apt: Just as a kiln tests a potter’s vessels, bringing imperfections into the open, so also conversation reveals faulty logic. The third comparison rests on the assumption that a well-tended vine or fruit tree will produce appropriate fruit, but this principle does not always apply (cf. Isa 5:1–7 for acknowledgment that one cannot count on a positive correlation between effort and result, as any farmer knew well).
27:8–10. These observations about perverse expectations, commerce, and testing through speech assert a principle of divine reward and retribution. That idea comes to expression again in vv. 8–10, where Ben Sira observes that one who practices justice and integrity will succeed royally, just as surely as the wicked will encounter a lion in their path.
27:11–15. This thought leads Ben Sira to deplore the offensive banter of the wicked, which is unstable and anarchic. Naturally, he urges good people to associate with others like them, a principle that gave rise to the proverb in v. 9: "Birds roost with their own kind." The adverse effect of offensive language, "causing the hair to stand on end," is the same as that resulting from a divine revelation in Job 4:15. (See Reflections at 27:16–28:26.)
SIRACH 27:16–28:26, OFFENSES AGAINST COMPANIONS
This section consists of poems about betraying another’s trust (27:16–21), retribution (27:22–29), vengeance (27:30–28:11), and slander (28:12–26).
27:16–21. Two images from hunting, that of a released bird or a gazelle, emphasize the futility of trying to repair the damage resulting from betrayal of trust (cf. Prov 6:5). Once a bird or a gazelle has left its trap, no one can easily recapture it. Ben Sira stresses the ultimate cost of revealing secrets about an intimate friend; nobody will ever trust you again. The introductory clause, "whoever betrays secrets" (v. 16), recurs in the final verse of this poem, forming a neat inclusio (v. 21) bracketing the unit of thought.
27:22–29. The poem about retribution evokes Ben Sira’s ire for an individual who feigns friendship to your face but plunges a verbal dagger in your back when out of your range of hearing. The language describing the hypocrite’s action is noteworthy; he sweetens his words while in your presence but twists his mouth in other people’s midst. Ben Sira shares earlier sages’ disdain for the practice of winking, viewing it as malicious (cf. Prov 6:13; 10:10). In this context of discussing someone who uses your own words to condemn you by perverting their original meaning, the first person returns once more; but here Ben Sira aligns himself with God. Both of them hate such dissemblers.
Verses 25–29 cite traditional proverbs that assert a relationship between cause and effect, here focusing on the dire consequences of particular actions: throwing a rock straight up (cf. Prov 26:27b), digging a pit (cf. Prov 26:27a; Eccl 10:8), and setting a trap (Ps 9:15–16). Such wishful thinking characterizes much of wisdom literature, largely because the sages believed that God guaranteed justice in society. As numerous proverbial sayings demonstrate, the sages’ faith was not naive. The incisive questions in the books of Job (e.g., Job 10:3–7; 24:1) and Qohelet (Eccl 2:16; 3:21) develop some ideas already present in the earlier sayings.
27:30–28:11. The treatment of vengeance links up with the previous discussion, asserting divine retribution based on an accurate record of sinful deeds. Sirach 28:2–5 insists that anyone who desires forgiveness from the Lord must first exercise that compassion toward human enemies (cf. Matt 6:12, 14–15; 18:32–35; Mark 11:5; Luke 21:4; Jas 2:13). This sentiment also appears in Jewish literature generally. For example, God forgives whoever forgives his or her "neighbor"; "So long as we are merciful, God is merciful to us; but if we are not merciful to others, God is not merciful to us";204 "Whoever has pity on men, to him will God be merciful"; "Only the one who is merciful with mankind may expect mercy from Heaven."206 The concluding verses (28:6–7) appeal to the prospect of death as sufficient reason for extending forgiveness to others and remind readers of the supreme commandment: to love God and neighbor (Lev 19:18).
The next section (28:8–11) warns against letting sharp words escalate into blows. It quotes a proverbial saying about the amount of wood to use on a fire (Prov 26:20; cf. Jas 3:5). This citation leads to a similar one in 28:12, which observes that at a certain point when a coal is glowing one can blow on it and start a fire or spit on it and extinguish the ember. This thought leads naturally into a discussion of gossip, for like breath and spit, words proceed form the mouth. This transitional verse demonstrates the difficulty of dividing Ben Sira’s teaching into distinct units (cf. the Vg’s title at 28:1, "On the Forgiveness of Sins" (De remissione peccatorum).
28:12–26. The most striking feature of the discussion of gossip is the claim that slander has destroyed more people than has the sword (v. 18) and that the verbal lash breaks bones (cf. Prov 25:15). In v. 14, the Greek Codex Alexandrinus has "third tongue," a technical expression in rabbinic literature for slander that, according to ‘Arak. 15b, slays three people—the slanderer, the slandered, and the person who believes the slanderer. Ben Sira specifically refers to the rupture of marriages resulting from slanderous allegations about innocent wives (v. 15), and he likens slander to an iron yoke (cf. Jer 28:14). A particular example of slander’s effect comes from the time of Herod the Great, who believed such reports on his wife Mariamne and had her executed, only to regret his action to the point of near madness. Returning to the earlier teaching about retribution, Ben Sira claims immunity from slander’s power for the godly but asserts that wild animals will pounce on the wicked. As a precaution against falling prey to the temptation to slander others, he advises putting a strong bolt on the door of one’s mouth and using accurate scales to weigh every utterance prior to speaking. The images of a yoke and chains also occur in Prov 6:24–25, 29–30 with regard to the discipline of wisdom.
Many observations in this part of Sirach move outside the family structure to the broad realm of economic and social relations. On the basis of what is said, one can legitimately conclude that ancient Israel, like much of the West, was overcome by greed. Ben Sira’s indictment of merchants leaves little, if any, room for fair trading practice. In earlier times, when the economy was based on bartering, little opportunity existed for making excessive profits through exchange of goods. With the emergence of currency and speculation in commerce, that situation changed forever. Greed has come to characterize our entire society, and cynicism has replaced trust with each revelation of unchecked lust for money.
In addition, confidences are readily broken, and the social fabric tears a little with every betrayal of trust. People profit from slandering others and from exposing every peccadillo to a curious populace. The rules of polite society have given way as more and more parents shirk their responsibility to train young children in the way they should walk. The church has a rare opportunity to take up the slack, nurturing neglected youth in the art of living. Christians who traditionally promise to assist in bringing up new converts in the family of God need to broaden their understanding of nurturing to include rudimentary matters of etiquette, indeed socialization in every aspect.
SIRACH 29:1–20, ON LENDING AND PROVIDING COLLATERAL
The book of Proverbs advises strongly against guaranteeing loans for someone else (Prov 6:1–5; 11:15; 17:18; 20:16; 22:26–27; 27:13), but Ben Sira urges the opposite, although in a responsible manner. His motive for this practice and for lending money to the poor, as well as for almsgiving, derives from religious duty, the commandment to be generous to the needy. In accord with the prohibition against charging Jews interest on loans (Exod 22:24; Lev 25:36–37), it plays no role in this discussion of loans. (In the later Talmudic tractate B. Bat. 90 it is said that "a userer is comparable to a murderer, for the crimes of both are equally irremediable.") Polonius’s counsel to Laertes, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend" lacks this theological mandate that drove Ben Sira to risk abuse and loss of money. Nevertheless, he enters into the negotiation with open eyes, knowing that borrowers humbly "kiss profusely" (καταφιλέω kataphileō) and feign appreciation before acquiring a loan but become obstinate and abusive when payment comes due. Borrowers either blame hard times for failure to meet the deadline, or they accuse the lender of setting the date too early. Irony fills the observation in v. 6 that by lending money to someone the lender acquires an enemy at no extra charge ("freely" [δωρεά dōrea]).
The strong "nevertheless" (πλήν plēn) in v. 8 places the poor in a different category from the unappreciative, abusive borrower. Rather than hiding silver under a rock and letting it rust (cf. Isa 45:3; Matt 25:18), one should, in Ben Sira’s opinion, obey the commandments and put the money to good use. In this way, one lays up treasure and attains protection from harm (cf. Matt 6:19; 19:21; Jas 5:3). The Vg has the title "On Compassion" (De misericordia) at v. 12.
The cautious remarks on guaranteeing a loan or covering a debt for someone indicate that Ben Sira knows the consequences of covering a bad debt. He acknowledges that some generous people have been driven into penury and forced to travel to distant lands because of extending themselves too far out of compassion. He also recognizes unscrupulous and illegal practices, such as seizing collateral when someone has failed to repay a debt at the appointed time (cf. Exod 22:25; Deut 24:12–13; Amos 2:8). Ben Sira’s description of the plight of those who engage in careless surety, tossing like the boisterous sea, offers a sober warning to all who consider standing in for a creditor.
SIRACH 29:21–28, ON BEING INDEPENDENT
This brief unit is best understood against the background of Greco-Roman culture, in which certain individuals stayed in the homes of wealthy people as unpaying guests. These parasitic persons were obliged to do menial chores to earn their food and lodging, and in the process they encountered considerable abuse. Ben Sira urges people to be content with their status, whether prosperous or humble, and thus to keep their independence. The initial verse mentions life’s essentials: water, bread, clothing, a house for privacy (cf. 39:26, where a different list occurs). The remark in v. 25 about playing the host is ironic, for abuse instead of gratitude greets the "host’s" action, making him a virtual slave. The unexpected reference in v. 28 to a creditor links this unit to the preceding one.
SIRACH 30:1–13, ON REARING CHILDREN
The essential point to remember in assessing the harsh discipline of children in ancient Israel (cf. Prov 13:24; 19:18; 22:15; 23:13–14; 29:15) is the belief that children provide continuity after their parents’ deaths, both in defending the family’s rights and in carrying the name forward into the next generation. Moreover, the severe treatment of children was common throughout the ancient Near East; a very old Sumerian school text, numerous Egyptian school texts from a somewhat later era, and the Aramaic Sayings of Ahiqar (perhaps seventh century bce) provide copious evidence of this pedagogical practice over millennia. Ben Sira offers a curious justification for avoiding familiarity with one’s children: They will lose respect for you. The reference in v. 10 to a parent gnashing teeth reverses the proverb in Ezek 18:2 and Jer 31:29, where children’s teeth are set on edge because of their parents’ deeds.
Verse 7 suggests that coddling a son will make a parent vulnerable to grief whenever a cry is heard in the streets, causing their anxious query, "Is that my child in pain?" The advice against playing with children assumes paramount importance in the light of the silence within the Bible about playful interaction between children and their parents. The entire section presupposes that children, like wild horses, must be tamed—one might even say subdued. The language of a heavy yoke accords with this understanding of children. The Hebrew, which is missing from 26:2a, resumes again at 30:11. The following verse catches the spirit of the entire discussion: "As a python pounces on a wild beast, so crush a son’s loins while he is young." This harsh image probably suggests severe punishment for all offenses, particularly sexual ones—the reason for referring to chastising the boy’s loins.
SIRACH 30:14–25, ON HEALTH
Codex Vaticanus has the titles "On Health" above v. 14 and "On Goods" over v. 16. The brief section states a truism that robust health is preferable to wealth accompanied by sickness and momentarily dwells on the futility of giving delicacies to those unable to enjoy them, before concluding with encouragement to enjoy life. Ben Sira considers death, with its grim finality, better than constant illness. The Greek translators shied away from his pessimism with regard to life beyond the grave; accordingly, they omit the phrase "eternal sleep." Verse 18 alludes to the practice of offering food and drink to dead ancestors (cf. Tob 4:17), but an apparent interpretive gloss in v. 19 shifts the thought to another familiar ritual, the giving of sacrifices to idols. Allusions to the latter type of worship occur in Deut 4:28; Ps 115:4–7; Isa 44:9–11; 57:6; Wisdom 13; Bel and the Dragon 3:22; and Letter of Jeremiah 27, while Tob 4:17 possibly refers to the placing of food and the pouring of drink offerings on memorial stones (but cf. the attitude in Deut 26:14).
Biblical authors never appreciated the practice among their neighbors of treating idols as if they were alive—dressing them, feeding them, and taking them for a walk. Like so much in the OT as well as in the NT (cf. John 9:2), verses 19–20 understand sickness as divine punishment. Elsewhere Ben Sira offers a more nuanced interpretation of illness, one informed by Hellenistic attitudes to physicians and medicines rather than responding to criticism of this popular notion by the author of the book of Job (cf. Job 38:1–15, but note the resurgence of the popular view in the Greek text of v. 15, "Let him fall into the hands of a physician." The Hebrew text has "Whoever sins before his Maker will behave proudly before the physician"). The graphic portrayal in v. 20 of a eunuch embracing a young woman and groaning captures the utter futility of combining grievous illness with enjoyment of rich foods (cf. 20:4a).
A healthy attitude toward maintaining beneficial psychological states occurs in vv. 21–25. In recognizing the danger of harboring resentment and nursing grief over a prolonged period, Ben Sira resembles Qohelet (cf. Eccl 11:9–10; Matt 6:34). The rabbinic tractate Sanh. 100b cites a portion of v. 23: "Do not let sorrow enter your heart, for sorrow has killed mighty men." Many ancient thinkers have registered similar ideas, for example, "Anger would inflict punishment on another; meanwhile, it tortures itself."
The order of the Greek text becomes confused after v. 24; two pairs of leaves containing respectively 30:25–33:13a and 33:13b–36:12 have been transposed. A more natural order, placing 33:13b–36:12 before 30:25–33:13a, is retained in the Hebrew, the Vg, and Peshitta.
SIRACH 31:1–11, ON RICHES
In this unit about the difficulty of being rich and also virtuous, Ben Sira uses rhetorical questions and emphatic language that comes close in meaning to "miracle." The prayer attributed to Agur in Prov 30:8–9 captures the danger inherent to the wealthy, a temptation to forget God as a result of (deceptive) self-sufficiency. Others in ancient Israel shared the sentiment expressed in v. 10. This criticism of wealth was also common among Hellenistic authors of this time. Ben Sira’s understanding of riches was complicated by contradictory impulses—the destructive effect of pursuing money as if it were the ultimate thing in life and the belief that God commanded the Israelite people to do works of charity by helping the needy. Extreme poverty, like excessive wealth, brought special temptations.
Verses 3–4 contrast rich and poor in terms of the results of a common activity, "toiling." In the one instance, toil yields plenty, whereas in the other the labor only brings need. The first known use in the Bible of the Aramaic loan word "mammon" (ממון mammôn) occurs in v. 8, although later texts use it often (cf. Matt 6:24; Luke 16:9, 11, 13; and Pirqe ’Abot 2.16, "Rabbi Jose said, ‘Let your friend’s wealth [mammôn] be as precious to you as your own’ "). Verse 9 probably expresses irony, following an unlikely blessing, one pronounced on a non-existent entity. The next verse suggests that only one who has withstood the ethical test that comes with a fortune has the right to boast, for others do not know how they would deal with the temptation. The final verse alludes to the practice of proclaiming aloud the names of benefactors in the gathered assembly or in writing on the walls of synagogues.
SIRACH 31:12–32:13, ON PROPER ETIQUETTE
This extensive section consists of three discrete topics dealing with conduct in eating (31:12–24), self-control in drinking wine (31:25–31), and behavior at banquets (32:1–13). Egyptian instructional literature devotes considerable space to these subjects, largely because of its use in preparing young men for life at court. In the book of Proverbs, only the brief section in Prov 22:17–24:33, which depends on the Instruction of Amenemope, takes up these matters (cf. Prov 23:1–3). Ben Sira’s remarks came at a time when Greco-Roman banquets were notorious occasions for gluttony.
31:12–24. Ben Sira offers advice that falls in the category of common courtesy. In his culture, the host praised the food and guests exercised restraint, lest they appear greedy. The curious argument about the evil eye—that is, an insatiable appetite—and the appropriateness of tears flowing from this instrument needs to be balanced by recognizing the positive contribution of the eye. Ben Sira bases his advice on courtesy and self-interest, arguing that eating in moderation enables one to sleep. In context, the suggestion that one get up and vomit seems better suited as a relief from indigestion than advice during meals to excuse oneself long enough to vomit so as to continue eating everything provided by the host.
31:25–31. The counsel to drink wine in moderation appears in conjunction with lavish praise for this contributor to human happiness. The rhetorical question in v. 27 implies that life without wine is hardly worth living. Nevertheless, Ben Sira knows how wine, drunk in excess, brings misery beyond comprehension. This description of drunken conduct pales in comparison with that in 1 Esdr 3:17–24, which praises wine as the strongest thing in the world.
32:1–13. Hellenistic banquets (symposia) were governed by a strict set of rules. A banquet master was selected for the occasion and may have worn a wreath of flowers (cf. 2 Macc 2:27). Musical entertainment was provided, and senior guests displayed their wisdom; only occasionally were younger guests expected to speak, and that quite briefly.
In v. 13, Ben Sira manages to combine such Hellenistic partying with his own religious inclination, although Greeks also praised their gods at the end of a feast. He demonstrates astute insights about proper social conduct in the advice to go home promptly, even if out of courtesy the host invites you to stay beyond the appointed hour. Ben Sira’s knowledge of natural phenomena—the association of thunder with previous lightning—leads to unsupported claims about popular approval of modest persons. The key to this statement lies in one’s support group; Ben Sira’s fellow scribes would probably have praised modesty. They certainly would not have approved of drinking contests like those in Greek symposia (cf. Isa 5:22 for similar language), for the perils of drunkenness were well known to the authors of Proverbs (cf. Prov 23:29–35).
SIRACH 32:14–33:19, ON DIVINE PROVIDENCE
32:14–18. This section on divine providence deals with the positive role of the law in individual lives and posits a theodicy based on polarities in nature and among humans. Five variants in the Hebrew of v. 14 yield virtually the same idea—that whoever seeks God submits to discipline, and the one rising early to pray (cf. 39:5) enjoys divine favor. Praying at sunrise was an act of piety with enormous symbolic power, a sanctioning of each new day. Ever conscious of sinners, Ben Sira acknowledges this vulnerability before the law’s curses. Knowing the contents of divine instruction, these reckless persons (the Greek has "hypocrite" [ὑποκρινόμενος hypokrinomenos]) refuse to observe them, preferring their own wishes to God’s. The image of light in v. 16 does not necessarily indicate Ben Sira’s familiarity with the lighthouse of Pharos off Alexandria, for biblical literature abounds in such language (Ps 119:105; Prov 6:23).
32:19–24. Verse 19, at which the Vg has the title "Do Everything with Counsel" (cum consilio omnia facienda), uses an old idea but gives it a new twist: Think before acting, and having done so, put an end to second-guessing. Ben Sira recognizes the psychological stress generated by constant anxiety over whether one has made the right decision. At the same time, he warns against a sort of brash confidence that ignores real danger such as that posed by brigands lying in ambush on the open roads, and he expects people to learn from past mistakes. Verses 23–24 apply the verb "to keep," "to observe" (שׁמר šāmar) to the Torah as well as to one’s life (נפשׁ nepeš). According to v. 23, guarding one’s ways (or deeds) is tantamount to observing a statute (מצוה miṣwâ), while v. 24 varies the verb with reference to Torah (נצר nāṣar) but repeats "watches over himself" (שׁומר נפשׁו šōmēr napšô).
33:1–3. The assertion in 33:1 flies in the face of reality, although many sages subscribed to this simplistic theology. From a certain perspective, however, even the experience of Job can be harmonized with the claim that God rescues good people from tests. The same cannot be said for Job’s children and servants, who perished through no fault of their own. The description of sinners as a boat without a rudder, tossing at sea in a tumultuous storm, occurs widely in ancient ethical teachings (cf. Jas 1:6). The belief that a divine oracle, predictive by nature, is reliable like the priestly throw of dice (Urim and Thummim) indicates that Ben Sira trusted heavily in God’s control of such minute details as the way these sacred "rocks" fell.
33:4–6. Two images characterize fools, according to vv. 5–6. They repeat themselves incessantly, like a cart wheel and axle, and they lack any discrimination at all, like a rutting stallion scenting for a mare. In v. 4, the Hebrew ms E advises people to give careful attention to what they wish to say, whereas the Greek verb "gather" (συνδέω syndeō) suggests a colorful image of a person binding up clothes and essential supplies in a bundle before setting out on a journey.
33:7–15. Ben Sira tries to explain why people divide into two distinct groups, which he labels wise and foolish, righteous and wicked. First, he notes that in God’s wisdom not all days have the same significance in the liturgical calendar, despite their enjoying a common source of light and warmth. Second, Ben Sira concedes that all people derive from the same source, dust, but the potter decides what value to place on the completed vessel. Some people, like Abraham, receive divine blessing; others, like priests, are brought near to the Holy One; still others, like Canaanites, are cursed. From such comparisons, Ben Sira concludes that God made the whole universe like this, each entity having an opposite—good and evil, life and death. This idea of constitutive pairs goes beyond Qohelet’s teaching of a time for everything under the sun (Eccl 3:1–8). In this section, Ben Sira probably responds to Jewish Hellenizers who doubted the special place of Israel in the divine economy.
33:16–19. The last four verses of this unit comprise the second authorial self-reference in the book (cf. 24:30–34; 34:12–13; 39:12–15, 32–35; 41:16; 43:32; 50:25–29; 51:1–30). Ben Sira allies himself with the prophets, using the metaphor of a watcher guarding the people against enemy attack (cf. Ezek 3:17; 33:7; Hab 2:1), and with wisdom teachers (cf. Wis 6:12–20). Conscious of his position at the end of a long line of inspired persons, he seeks to overcome the stigma of being last by excelling in knowledge, thus making the last become first. The image of filling his winepress suggests success in learning Torah. Verse 18 repeats the claim of altruism already made in 24:34, and v. 19 asks influential citizens to reflect on his teaching (cf. Wis 1:1; 6:1–2 for this rhetorical form).
Like their modern counterparts, ancient teachers felt the need to capture the attention of their students; to do so, they made direct appeals to be heard. Both Ben Sira and the unknown author of the book of Wisdom flattered their audience by identifying them as rulers and officials, the important decision makers in the community. According to the sages’ ideology, their students could look forward to appointment in high office, hence the language here is not simply rhetorical flourish.
1. Doubt about the actual operation of a principle of reward and retribution provoked Ben Sira to affirm divine providential care and to make an audacious claim that tilts perilously close to cosmic dualism. Inherent to ethical monotheism is a perennial problem: how to harmonize belief in a benevolent Creator with the presence of so much evil. A moment’s thought suggests that a good God would surely have made things capable of running more smoothly—that is, acting in conformity with the divine will. Ben Sira offers a reasonable answer—namely, free will—but then he places this partial resolution of the problem in jeopardy by insisting on something approaching divine determinism. Modern apologists fare little better, even when profiting from Ben Sira’s bold endeavor.
2. Anyone who hopes to persuade others to adopt a certain life-style must be prepared for questions about credentials. What right do you have to offer advice? Where did you acquire insights into the nature of reality? Ben Sira asserts the right to teach others, claiming total immersion in Israel’s sacred traditions and exceptional success in that study. The sages’ authoritative introduction, "Listen, my son, to your dad’s advice," functions precisely like the prophetic oracular formula, "Thus has the Lord spoken." Neither the one nor the other actually required others to pay attention, for successful counsel depends on the disposition of the person to whom it is addressed. Learning, therefore, is a mutual process involving teacher and student, one characterized by trust.
This principle applies at every level of instruction. Parents, relatives, friends, and pastors can no longer assume that the mere assertion of authority commands obedience, for respect of that magnitude must be earned. Even the right to share intimate feelings is not automatic, for privacy needs to be honored. Nevertheless, many individuals desperately long for worthy persons to shatter their wall of isolation and construct a relationship of trust and fidelity. Like Ben Sira, unselfish Christians can bring a ray of hope to such lonely children of God.
3. Perhaps the time has come for Christians to acknowledge a need for lifelong education. In the past, emphasis has fallen on the teaching role, so that whatever learning took place came as a result of preparing to instruct others, often children. Society in general has begun to place greater emphasis on continuing education, with major universities offering stimulating and intellectually demanding classes for persons enjoying longer years of retirement. This opportunity for instruction in later life bodes well for active minds and earnest learners among the aged. The church is beginning to recognize this shift among its members and to encourage lifelong learning about spiritual matters, but more needs to be done in this vein.
The present interest among many Protestants in the spiritual life of mystics and in meditation as practiced by monastics of the Roman Catholic Church offers yet another challenge. The potential for spiritual enrichment is almost unlimited, and the combination of meditation and secular existence opens up new ways of dealing with reality. Those persons who allow the deep spiritual life of meditation to shape their decisions have much to gain.
This section begins with an appeal stressing the advantage of maintaining one’s independence until the moment of death. The unit concludes with a lengthy comparison of various vocations to that of professional teachers of wisdom. Between introductory and concluding units, one finds quite distinct treatments of several topics of interest to sages generally and some sentiment specific to Ben Sira’s own day, but until then foreign to wisdom literature.
SIRACH 33:20–24, THE ADVANTAGE OF INDEPENDENCE
The advice in vv. 20–24 to hold on to one’s possessions until just prior to death may have been prompted by pious Jews who gave away their wealth in the interest of acquiring credit with God for performing deeds of kindness (מצווח miṣwôt). The unfortunate consequence of such generosity, an impoverishment that placed unnecessary hardships on family members of the charitable individual, carried with it an embarrassing need to request assistance. Ben Sira’s silence about daughters in this list of family members stands out, for he mentions son, wife, brother, and friend but says nothing about a daughter. The advice to distribute one’s goods just before death implies that the practice of writing a last will and testament had not yet become normative. This literary form came to be an important vehicle for ethical instruction, for in it a revered figure approaching the end of life handed down the insights about life acquired through long experience. The well-known Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs demonstrates the usefulness of this literary device in Jewish ethical instruction.
In Jesus’ day life’s unpredictability prompted many Jews to worry about the future in a way that he considered counterproductive, particularly in the light of human inability to control so many factors that shape destiny. His call to trust the heavenly Father notwithstanding, modern Christians join their secular compatriots in worrying about becoming dependent in their later years. Social Security and Medicare may have reduced people’s anxiety somewhat, but many persons approaching that period in life when their earning potential goes down and their expenses for medical care skyrocket find themselves frequently worrying about the future.
This anxiety increases as taxes rise, inflation and medical care eat away at people’s savings, and they can see no end to the rising spiral of costs. That worry is further heightened by a sense of vulnerability to numerous forces that seem wholly out of control, particularly violence and crime of all sorts. No longer able-bodied, many elderly persons feel like prisoners in their own homes, unable to venture very far for fear of attack. Moreover, the fast pace of society places them at risk, for failing sight, waning dexterity, and slower reaction time increase their chances of having an accident. In addition, they cannot understand the younger generation’s lack of respect for their elders. Time appears to have passed them by as so many cherished values go up in smoke.
Ben Sira understood this type of anxiety and suggested a practical way of dealing with it in his time. The secret as he saw things was to hang on to possessions until death, in that way avoiding the necessity of depending on one’s family for primary care. He correctly perceived the blow to personal dignity when one must rely on others’ goodwill, even when the care givers belong to one’s own family.
The theological conviction that God hears the petition of those in need should not prevent caring individuals from addressing the root causes of such anxiety. Ben Sira’s partially humorous remark that one should not make fun of old people for "some of us are growing old" personalizes the problem in precisely the right manner. Everyone has a stake in solving the dilemma, for sooner or later each individual will internalize the feelings that generate such anxiety. In this struggle to find answers to a vexing problem, the first consideration may be, by necessity, the strengthening of familial bonds. Perhaps the time has come to recognize children’s responsibility to repay parents for their years of generous care. In this regard, we can learn valuable lessons from other cultures, particularly the Arabs and Asians, both of which honor those who have lived a long time.
SIRACH 33:25–33, ON SLAVES
Both religious and social legitimation for slavery existed in the ancient world, and Ben Sira did not question these sanctions. The slaves of Israelites possessed minimal rights; for example, Deut 23:15–16 protects a runaway slave from being returned to an abusive owner; Exod 21:2 states that slaves must be set free in the seventh year (cf. Deut 15:12–18); and Exod 21:26–27 lists compensation for the loss of an eye or a tooth as a result of cruel treatment by an owner. Such laws may never have been obeyed, but at the very least they indicate awareness that slaves were in fact qualitatively different from animals, even if they are mentioned frequently in lists alongside oxen, asses, and other cattle (cf. Exod 20:10, 17). Ben Sira’s advice to keep slaves busy assumes that "an idle mind is the devil’s workshop." But that principle can be pressed too far, and Ben Sira cautions against harsh treatment—beyond, that is, the demeaning use of stocks and chains for unmanageable slaves.
Ben Sira’s concluding advice for those modestly well-to-do owners of only one slave would appear to be self-evident. Because you have but one slave, you should be particularly generous to prevent that slave’s displeasure and to assure that he or she will not run away. The remark that the owner purchased the slave with his own blood must be understood figuratively as representing one’s life’s savings. The motive underlying this conduct is entirely one of self-interest. Several narratives in the Bible indicate that slaves often rose to high places and contributed greatly to the well-being of households, their loyalty to masters often leading to exceptional behavior (cf. Joseph in Genesis 37–50, Eliezer in Genesis 24, and Naaman’s Israelite slave in 2 Kings 5).
SIRACH 34:1–8, ON DREAMS
Although revelatory dreams are reported favorably in the patriarchal narratives (Genesis 37–50), in the stories about the judges (Judg 7:13–15), in the book of Job (Job 4:12–21; 33:15–18), and even as late as the period when the popular tales preserved in the first six chapters of the second-century bce book of Daniel took shape, this means of ascertaining the divine will came under sharp attack from several prophets, most notably Jeremiah (cf. Jer 29:8). Ben Sira concurs in this negative assessment of dreams, but he reserves space for legitimate dreams sent by God (cf. the NT dreams of Joseph, of the magi, and of Pilate’s wife, Matt 1:20; 2:12–13, 20; 27:19). Such a judgment begs the question, however, for no means existed for determining which one had its origin in divine revelation as opposed to those arising in human fantasy. The same situation pertained in prophecy, for no adequate criterion for distinguishing true prophetic words from false could be found (cf. Deut 18:15–22).
The basis for rejecting dreams, in Ben Sira’s view, was their lack of any foundation in tangible reality. They resemble idols in that they possess no link with the realm to which they supposedly point. Ben Sira uses graphic images of utter futility, trying either to take hold of a shadow or to catch the wind in the palm of a hand (cf. Hos 12:1 and Qohelet’s use of the latter image as an apt description of human existence, Eccl 1:14; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:6, 16; 6:9). In addition, Ben Sira compares dreams to looking at oneself in a mirror; the pale reflection in a mirror fashioned from polished metal lacked the qualities intrinsic to life itself. The apostle Paul uses this thought to indicate that what one sees in a mirror is only a partial, and necessarily distorted, although to some extent trustworthy, proclamation of God’s promise awaiting Christians (1 Cor 13:12). Ben Sira’s further line of argument against dreams calls attention to their adverse effect and unreliability; according to the laws of purity and impurity, something ritually clean cannot come from an unclean object, just as truth cannot derive from lies. Rhetoricians in ancient Greece used a similar argument with regard to ethos, insisting on moral character as an essential ingredient in persuasive speech.
Verse 5 enlarges the discussion to include two other significant ritual functions in the ancient world, particularly in Mesopotamia and Egypt, but certainly present in Israelite culture as well. These highly valued modes of finding out what lay in store for a person were divination and omens. Considerable literature about omens has survived, and even the OT preserves allusions to a number of different kinds of divination (e.g., casting sacred dice, 1 Sam 14:42; shooting arrows, 2 Kgs 13:15–19; observing the flight of birds, drinking a sacred potion, etc.). The vast number of clay livers discovered in Mesopotamia testifies to the enormous significance of hepatoscopy to the Babylonians. Priests observed the livers of animals sacrificed at altars as a means of discovering the will of the gods as it pertained to the person offering the sacrifice. Whereas a considerable population viewed dreams, omens, and divination as reliable and understood the study of these manipulative practices as "scientific," to use a modern term, Ben Sira thought they merely equipped fools for a wild ride, one characterized by an unchecked imagination.
The last verse states Ben Sira’s real reason for discrediting these familiar means of discovering the future. In his view, the Mosaic law contained God’s complete revelation to the Israelite people, and such unreliable probings as dreams, omens, and divination prevented the divine legislation from attaining its full scope. The faithful exposition of the Torah by a sage provided everything the people needed, Ben Sira insisted, so that no one need resort to proscribed or fundamentally foreign avenues of inquiring about the unknown.
SIRACH 34:9–20, ON THE DANGERS OF TRAVEL AND GOD’S PROTECTION
Ancient sages recognized the broadening experience of travel to foreign lands, but they also knew the accompanying perils. Resorting to first-person narration, Ben Sira discusses these dangers in the context of God’s protective care. Interestingly, Ben Sira does not offer any details about the dangers from which his cleverness delivered him (cf. the account of Paul’s shipwreck as told in Acts 27:13–44; 2 Cor 11:24–27, 32–33). The remainder of this unit, vv. 14–20, encourages readers to trust the Lord, presumably in undertaking dangerous journeys where brigands, unfamiliar diet and customs, and countless other obstacles to safe travel await the inexperienced traveler.
SIRACH 34:21–35:26, ON SACRIFICES
Historical necessity taught ancient Israelites to think of other means of atonement than sacrifices on the altar in the Solomonic Temple, for during their stay in captivity and for sometime after their return to Judah, circumstances made it impossible for them to carry out the prescribed offerings. Moreover, a strong prophetic voice beginning with Amos and enduring for many years called into question the entire cultic apparatus, at least as practiced in Jerusalem. A rabbinic anecdote from the late first century ce reveals a similar attitude, for when Joshua ben Hannaniah lamented the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce and simultaneously the disappearance of the place of atonement, Johanan ben Zakkai responded that an equally valid means of forgiveness, deeds of kindness, remained, as acknowledged in Hos 6:6: "For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,/ the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings" (NRSV).
34:21–27. In this section Ben Sira tries to do justice to this revolutionary criticism of the sacrificial cult while at the same time granting the binding authority of earlier laws requiring Israelites to bring specific offerings to the Lord. He begins by reinforcing the prophetic indictment of flawed offerings, using the prohibition against giving a blemished animal to the Lord and applying the principle underlying the law to include gifts obtained at the expense of marginalized citizens. Such gifts, he says, resemble heinous acts of murder (cf. 2 Kgs 25:6–7, the execution of King Zedekiah’s sons in his sight); whoever deprives the poor of food are in reality murderers, and the one who delays payment of wages beyond nightfall is likewise guilty of homicide (cf. Lev 19:13; Deut 24:14–15; Baba Metzia 112a, "Everyone who withholds an employee’s wages is as though he deprived him of his life").
34:28–31. These verses emphasize the necessity of genuine transformation, a radical reversal of one’s conduct, if one expects to receive God’s forgiveness. Unless one’s actions accord with the inner attitude, the two work at cross-purposes, accomplishing nothing. One builds; another tears down. One prays; another curses—and the result is negligible. Similarly, Ben Sira insists, one who has become impure by touching a corpse and who has undergone ritual lustration has gained nothing unless he or she avoids corpses thereafter. On that principle, Ben Sira boldly insists that only those who forsake their sins obtain forgiveness, for fasting alone has no atoning power.
35:1–13. The next section weaves together this ethical transformation of the sacrificial cult and a literal understanding of the requirements concerning tithes and offerings (cf. Tob 1:6–8). Ben Sira equates charitable deeds with the meal offering and thanksgiving offering. Having insisted on the moral requisite for acceptable offerings, he goes on to recommend generosity toward the Most High, who rewards the faithful much more unstintingly.
35:14–26. These verses describe the Lord as champion of widows and orphans (cf. Ps 68:5; Jas 1:27), but one who stands for impartial justice, and they utter a fervent psalm praising God for crushing the wicked. The latter provides a fine point of transition to the prayer in 36:1–22, which reiterates the sentiment about destroying evildoers, in this instance foreigners. Ben Sira assures his readers that imprecation issuing from the lips of the powerless will reach heaven, calling attention to a widow’s tears. Whereas Lam 3:44 accuses God of being wrapped in an impenetrable cloud, Ben Sira asserts that the prayer of humble people pierces the clouds and keeps knocking at the door of the Most High until provoking a favorable response. The rapid rehearsal of divine punishment against guilty humans, unexpected in a text of this sort, may reflect the chaotic political situation under the new Seleucid rulers. According to Isa 55:10–11, Yahweh’s Word will not return empty but will accomplish its purpose on earth; Ben Sira applies the same reasoning to the prayer of the lowly.
An interesting feature in studying different religions is the effort to maintain specific regulations, believed to be divinely ordained, when historical circumstances change so drastically as to make them obsolete or questionable at best. Such requirements may once have made sense, but now their arbitrary character stands out. One thinks immediately of Jewish dietary laws and restrictions relating to observing the sabbath. Religious leaders confronted with the question about the permanence of divine laws often look for enduring principles that enable them to salvage the essence of sacred commands while discarding the external trappings.
Naturally, this sort of situation arose in ancient Israel after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, making it impossible to fulfill the laws about sacrificing at the sacred altar. During their stay in Babylonia, exiled Judeans were forced to find other ways of obeying their God; in doing so, they resorted to a spiritualization of divine regulations. Back in Judah, the prophet Jeremiah spoke of circumcizing the heart, along with the actual bodily circumcision. Similarly, Joel pleaded with the people of Judah to rend their hearts rather than their garments, and a poetic Hosea referred to prayer and praise as "the bulls of the mouth" (sacrifices, Hos 14:2).
Such transformation of religious language also occurred in respect to specific offerings intended for the temple cult. Religious leaders gradually realized that sacrifices alone had no redemptive power; without repentant attitudes, even multiple offerings achieved nothing beneficial. By the time of Ben Sira, this novel way of looking at age-old ritual obligations existed alongside strong desire to fulfill the letter of the law, once more possible because of the restored Temple. He held both notions in a delicate balance, insisting that charitable deeds and sacrificial offerings brought divine favor.
Christians face the same issue, although focused differently. Over the years the church has constructed a heavy chain of tradition containing numerous obligations that have been given divine sanction. Tithing, specific observance of the Christian sabbath, and loyalty to orthodoxy and orthopraxy specific to a denomination often assume roles like those occupied by Jewish dietary laws and requirements for offering sacrifices in the Temple. Faced with such externals, many Christians search for the spiritual meaning of these rituals. In this quest, Ben Sira provides sound leadership, for he realized that religious ritual devoid of loving deeds was empty and that people need specific ordinances to remind them that love of fellow human beings becomes complete when that love also directs itself to God.
However profound this spiritualization of legal obligations, it runs the risk of dissolving into pious generalities and vague practice. The orthodox Jewish argument that dietary laws, for example, must be observed because people owe allegiance to God carries considerable force, even if we cannot go further and accept such arbitrary regulations as divine law. Individuals from many different cultures have attributed their laws to a particular deity, perhaps primarily as a means of sanctioning them after the fact. Nevertheless, their willingness to submit to "divine legislation" indicates that they felt constrained to recognize an authority beyond their own, and in that regard they were surely worthy examples for moderns.
SIRACH 36:1–22, A PRAYER FOR NATIONAL DELIVERANCE
This prayer seems entirely foreign to wisdom literature as traditionally understood, for nowhere in the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes do such sentiments appear. Ben Sira prays in the tone of laments within the psalter, with one decisive difference: the absence of any praise of God (e.g., Psalms 12–13, 25–26). There, too, however, some laments stand alone (cf. Psalm 38), and elsewhere the book of Sirach has elaborate expressions of praise for the Creator. This prayer begins with a cry for rescue, especially in the Hebrew ("Save us" [הושׁיענו hôšîʿēnû]) and addresses God as lord of all (cf. 45:23 and 50:22 in the Greek and Rom 9:5); it ends with a similar thought, that everyone will know that Yahweh is God of all time (cf. the Prayer of Azariah). A psalm from Qumran uses a similar expression, "Lord of all" (אדון הכל ʾādôn hakkōl) and "God of all" (אלה הכל ʾĕlōah hakkōl [Ps 151:4 = 11QPsa 28:7–8]), which reproduces the title of Baal, "Lord of earth" (אדון ארץ ʾādôn ʾereṣ) and "Lord of all the earth" (אדון כל הארץ ʾādôn kol hāʾ āreṣ), attributed to Yahweh.
The language of the prayer echoes traditional texts from Israel’s liturgical repertoire as well as more recent eschatology and apocalyptic. Ben Sira cautiously veils his allusions to Seleucid rulers, perhaps concealing a direct reference to Antiochus III the Great, who, according to Dan 11:18, arrogantly claimed to be unique in power ("There is no one besides me"). The anthological style recalls Ezekiel’s oft-used formula about the nations’ knowing that Yahweh is God (v. 5), which the prophet Joel also uses more than once (Joel 2:27; 3:17). He, too, spoke of signs and wonders when Yahweh renewed the saving activity heralded by Israel’s ancestors (Joel 2:28–32; 3:1–5 in Hebrew). Ben Sira implores God to let the end come quickly, that day when the Lord acts in judgment against all the nations (v. 10,קץ qēṣ). Then people will recite Yahweh’s mighty deeds, צדקות (ṣidqôt), as they did in bygone days.
For the moment, the ethic of forgiveness that Ben Sira taught elsewhere has flown out the window, and desire to see revenge poured out on foreigners dominates. That human wish to see the wicked pay for their crimes reaches a peak in vv. 8–12, after which Ben Sira concentrates on the people of God, some of whom are scattered in other countries, with one minor exception in v. 22 (the formula of acknowledgment). He recalls Israel’s unique position in Yahweh’s eyes, symbolized above all by Zion, and reminds the Lord that some prophecies have not yet come to fruition. The underlying premise of this argument was that ultimately every divine word will be fulfilled.
This plea for deliverance does not mention a messiah, although the language definitely suggests that the eschatological era is being described. Oesterley has noted that silence with respect to a messiah is not unique to Ben Sira in such contexts. Several features of this prayer resemble the Shemoneh ʾEsreh, "The Eighteen Benedictions," in the Jewish prayer book. In the first century ce the first three benedictions and the last three praises were recited in every synagogue service.
1. Fear of vulnerability in old age is matched by a xenophobia that feeds on partial truths and prejudices, when ample cause for such hatred does not exist. Citizens of the United States boast that their country has historically welcomed everyone to its shores, intent on creating a single society from the resulting melting pot. In periods of heightened conscience, the doors have been thrown open to receive immigrants from numerous oppressive societies, and at other times greed has prevailed—the desire for cheap workers in agricultural areas during recent decades is one example. Once welfare programs and other entitlements fell to these masses and the costs more and more fell to local governments, some people began to question the advisability of such open policies. In the end, economics reveals itself as the decisive issue.
Ben Sira was heir to a similar struggle, chiefly that between returning exiles from Babylonia and the people who had occupied the land of Judah for the previous seventy years or so. Descendants of Joseph who lived in Samaria also pleaded for inclusion in the new state, to no avail. Both the religious authority, Ezra, and the secular governor, Nehemiah, rebuffed the petition and protest of these foreigners, whose claim on the land certainly had merit. Instead, these two leaders enforced a rigorous policy that excluded everyone except returning exiles. That isolationism appealed to Ben Sira, and in this respect placed him at odds with his predecessors in the wisdom tradition.
Fear of those with different skin color, language, and customs comes easily, even in our moments of prayer. Perhaps if such sentiments must surface, that setting is the best one of all, for the self-examination when communicating with God offers an opportunity to purge such hatred. Like Ben Sira, we are forced to rub shoulders daily with people from many different cultures. That necessity can be taken as an opportunity for broadening one’s experience in numerous ways without having to travel to distant lands. Assuming that Christians mean what they say about all creatures being children of God, modern society assists the family of God in getting to know their brothers and sisters. From this perspective, we can transform the source of our fears into cause for rejoicing as we endeavor to be the family of God to others.
2. How should we balance idealism and realism in grasping the nature of the universe? On the one hand, so much evidence in our daily lives seems to confirm a skeptical realism, and at the same time denying that truth and beauty stand a chance in this world. On the other hand, we seem unable to relinquish a conviction that God has something better in store for us all. The biblical prophets gave voice to this optimistic hope of an era when God would establish divine rule, transforming creatures into appropriate subjects for this kingdom.
Realism forced religious thinkers to search for a credible explanation for evil; the most natural one suggested equal powers, good and evil, in charge of the universe. Binary thinking as represented by this sharp opposition of the forces of good to the forces of evil has characterized ancient peoples from various cultures, as anthropologists and literary theorists have demonstrated in great detail. Ben Sira drew on Hellenistic theories about complementary pairs, one of which encouraged virtue and rewarded it, the other functioning similarly by punishing wickedness. In this view, the universe itself assisted the Creator in achieving the divine purpose for creation.
Modern believers will probably stop short of such optimism, although they cling tenaciously to belief in a benevolent God who will ultimately, in some mysterious way, tie all the loose ends together. Ben Sira lived in a time of enormous changes but held tightly to his trust in the God of Israel despite apparent evidence that foreign powers could act with impunity against the chosen people. Christians today live in comparable circumstances, with the evidence seeming to indicate that God has abandoned the church and perhaps even the universe. In such a time, we can learn a valuable lesson from Ben Sira, who refused to give up on God. Here is realism tinged with idealism, no small achievement.
SIRACH 36:23–37:31, ON MAKING DISCRIMINATING CHOICES
36:23–31. After the passionate expression of concern that Yahweh inaugurate the messianic era, exalting Israel and bringing its foreign rulers low, Ben Sira returns to deal with mundane affairs of daily existence. First, he discusses the matter of choosing a partner in marriage. His initial remark, grounded in the social restrictions placed on women—that is, their dependence on arranged marriages—sounds cruel (v. 26). The limited choice open to a woman explains her readiness to accept any man; in contrast, men could be more selective in choosing a wife. Ben Sira’s opening remarks about a discriminating palate and foods of different quality illustrate his analogical thinking.
Although he has already commented on good and bad wives, in vv. 27–29 Ben Sira lavishes high praise on beautiful and kind wives. The language echoes the eulogy of personified wisdom in Prov 8:22–36 and the description in Gen 2:18, 20 of Eve as Adam’s helper. The remark in v. 30 that a man without a wife wanders about like a fugitive recalls the exact expression applied to the first murderer, Cain (Gen 4:12, 14,נע ונד [nāʿ wānād], "a fugitive and a wanderer"). Ben Sira credits wives with protecting property and bestowing credibility on husbands. The allusion to robbers in v. 31 probably points to mercenary soldiers who traveled wherever clients wanted them to engage an enemy in combat; the point of this reference is the comparison with a "footloose and fancy free" male.
37:1–6. The brief unit about unreliable friends distinguishes between speech and action. Pledges of friendship do not necessarily carry conviction, according to Ben Sira, and former friends sometimes become enemies. Moreover, adversity may prompt friends to abandon the individual whose fortunes have shifted, for most people act in their own self-interest (vv. 4–5). The closing remark may relate to experience in battle, but the Greek text makes the more general point that a friend who merits inner thoughts deserves to enjoy one’s prosperity.
37:7–15. By far the most extraordinary section, these verses consist of Ben Sira’s astute advice about seeking counsel from others. "Be suspicious of all counselors," he warns, "for they operate from the standpoint of their own selfish interests." Above all, do not seek advice from anyone who looks on you with suspicion. Anyone needing that counsel is naive beyond belief. In v. 11, Ben Sira lists nine kinds of people to avoid when soliciting advice; all of them would naturally render biased judgments, whether from self-interest or from character flaws. In vv. 12–15, Ben Sira suggests a hierarchy of advisers, beginning with a reliable observer of the law, then moving to self-reliance and ultimately to divine guidance through prayer. The remark that one’s own mind is superior to seven sentinels may debunk Hellenistic astrologers, although the hyperbole probably refers to persons on a watchtower who alert citizens of an approaching army.
37:16–31. Verses 16–26 address the matter of effective speech, with emphasis on God’s gift and popular applause. The national sentiment expressed in the prayer in 36:1–22 recurs in v. 25, which contrasts the limited life span of individual persons with the endless duration of the nation of Israel (cf. 2 Macc 14:15). Just as this brief opening refers back to the preceding discussion of counsel (v. 16), the unit concludes (vv. 27–31) with a comment about sickness, which becomes the topic for the following major section. Ben Sira offers some self-evident advice: Beware of foods that harm you and avoid overeating. The vocative "my child" seems especially appropriate to such banal teaching. As vv. 16–26 imply, teachers differed in their knowledge and its application to life, some divorcing the two and suffering the consequences, others enjoying the grace (charm) that elicits praise, and still others offending through arrogance, unfortunate speech patterns, and choice of words.
SIRACH 38:1–15, ON PHYSICIANS
Because ancient Israelites associated sickness with sin, the place of doctors in society presented a problem to the pious, many of whom understood illness as God’s punishment of guilty people. According to 2 Chr 16:12, King Asa had a serious ailment of the foot and consulted physicians for the malady, to no avail. The chronicler condemns him for relying on doctors rather than trusting God to heal him. A weighty tradition identified Israel’s Lord as healer (Exod 15:26; cf. Job 5:18; Hos 6:1), conceding at the same time that Yahweh brought disease on the unfortunate Egyptians.
Ben Sira endeavors to hold together both concepts, belief in a deity who punishes violators of the divine will by causing them to become sick and a conviction that God actively works to overcome illness in repentant people. In doing so, Ben Sira draws on religious tradition and practical knowledge. Citing an episode in the story of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness when Moses purified dangerous ("bitter") water by throwing wood into it (Exod 15:23–25), Ben Sira attributes healing properties to the branch from an unspecified tree. He also appealed to the best pharmaceutical information of the early second century bce, which untrained (professionally) practictioners of healing arts had accumulated over the years through trial and error. These individuals learned that some roots and herbs have medicinal value, and they transmitted that vital information from generation to generation.
Ben Sira was probably not the first to draw the conclusion that if certain plants possess healing properties, then their Creator must have intended it that way. Carried to its logical conclusion, this line of reasoning indirectly challenges the popular notion that sickness and sin go hand in hand. Ben Sira makes that step hesitantly, and in the end he returns to this former position, perhaps flinching from giving up the powerful motivation for ethical conduct residing in threatened sickness.
In Ben Sira’s view, doctors work closely with God and the various remedies the Creator placed at human disposal. Naturally, prayer enters the picture here, the physicians humbly invoking divine sanction on their efforts to bring healing to their clients. In this way, Ben Sira endorsed the exalted social status of physicians in the Hellenistic environment but subjected the medical profession to a humbling ritual at the heart of Jewish piety. Thus tradition sanctioned innovation, and everyone gained something in the process.
In the light of vv. 9–15, it seems likely that some devout Jews spurned physicians and thus jeopardized their own health. Ben Sira gently urges them to combine traditional remedies, specifically prayer and sacrifice, with more modern approaches to sickness. This section reeks with old-fashioned views: confession of sin as a prerequisite for healing, offering generous sacrifices as atonement for fault, and the belief that sinners risk divine punishment in the form of disease. Whereas the Hebrew text emphasizes the divine ordaining of physicians (lit., "to allocate" [חלק ḥālaq]) and stresses the deity’s activity in handing over sinners to illness, the Greek has "created" (κτίσις ktisis), with doctors as objects, and refers to defiance toward physicians by those persons incurring God’s anger.
Jewish ambiguity toward physicians persists into later times. The telling allusion in the New Testament to one who had exhausted all funds on physicians with no beneficial results (Luke 8:43) probably reflects more than a sense of monetary loss. A saying in the Mishnah Kiddushin 4:14 goes much further: "the best among physicians is destined for Gehenna." In Jewish rabbinic literature, hyperbole is common and is not to be pressed literally. That sentiment has continued into more recent times, as Di Lella’s citations from Benjamin Franklin, John Donne, and others demonstrate. On the other hand, a rabbinic comment on Exod 21:19 in Baba Qamma 85b gives tacit approval to physicians, for it observes that the law gave permission to the physician to practice his art. The reference in Col 4:4 to greetings from "our dear friend Luke, the physician" reveals a similar appreciation for someone in the profession of healing.
This entire discussion of physicians indicates Ben Sira’s skill in diplomacy. He avoids offending pious Jews whose understanding of sickness and its remedy was rooted in popular belief, but he also manages to accept radically new views about the cause of sickness and its cure. In the process he underscores the cooperative efforts of pharmacists, doctors, and God in bringing healing to the patient. This attitude takes into account the enormous energy expended on discovering medicinal value in roots and herbs, which is attested in ancient Egyptian papyri listing over five hundred such plants. Ben Sira acknowledges the necessity for divine instruction in assisting physicians to reach correct diagnoses (cf. v. 14, where the Hebrew has a rare loan word from Aramaic, "interpretation" [פשׁר pešer], also meaning "discovery," "diagnosis," otherwise attested in the Bible only in Eccl 8:1).
SIRACH 38:16–23, ON MOURNING
Ancient Israelites had no mortuaries in which to prepare corpses for burial. The body was laid out in the home, leading to ritual contamination of those residing there. Custom dictated the length of lamentation for the dead, and special laws regulated purification rites for those who became ritually impure. Ben Sira expresses concern over extended grief, suggesting that one shorten its duration for reasons of health. Excessive grief, he argues, threatens well-being, a thoroughly modern insight into the detrimental effects of psychological states on physical health. Ben Sira urges mourners to practice elemental courtesy for the sake of appearance but to get on with life, letting the memory of the deceased rest. Elsewhere he gives more credence to the traditional notion that one should keep the memory of the dead alive and thus ensure a kind of immortality to that person (44:8).
Ben Sira does not seem to address professional mourners, who, accompanied by the music of the flute, cried aloud in the public display of grief (Amos 5:16; cf. Mark 5:38 // Matt 11:17). Their lament (גנה ginâ) took a distinctive form in Hebrew verse, a limping meter characterized by three beats that ensued in two further beats. Originally, the shrill cries and beating of breasts may have aimed at driving away evil spirits associated with the dead. Later rabbinic directives mention three days of weeping, seven days of mourning (cf. 22:12; Gen 50:10; Jdt 16:24), and thirty days of letting the hair and beard grow (Moed Katan 27b). This same text states that "whoever indulges in grief to excess over his dead will weep for another" (i.e., his own).
For this unit the Vulgate has the title De exeguiis ("On Mourning Rites"), just as it designated the previous section with the words De medico ("On Physicians"). Ben Sira’s silence with regard to prayers for the dead contrasts with 2 Macc 12:43–45, where praying for the dead is commended. For Ben Sira, death had an element of finality; he mentions one’s detiny as a matter-of-fact. What was yours yesterday will be mine today—period (v. 22). Furthermore, the occasion of someone else’s demise obliges one to contemplate one’s own departure, but not in any debilitating fashion (v. 20).
SIRACH 38:24–39:11, THE SUPERIORITY OF THE SCRIBAL PROFESSION
38:24–34a. This section contrasts four professions—farmer, artisan, smith, and potter—with that of the wise. The opening verse specifies the essential requirement for anyone hoping to become a scribe—namely, leisure time. The four trades other than that of scribe consume the workers’ time and energy, making it possible for them to study religious texts and converse with informed persons. Nevertheless, these workers contribute to the well-being of society, even if the various honors of a community regularly fall to others. These honors belong to the scribes, who offer counsel, attain public office, and associate with rulers.
An Egyptian instruction from the Twelfth Dynasty (about 1991–1786 bce) entitled The Instruction for Duauf, written by an otherwise unknown Khety and often copied, ridicules numerous occupations in Egypt so as to exalt the scribal profession. Because of the tone of this text, scholars often call it "The Satire of the Trades." The author belittles all occupations except that of scribes; he characterizes the harsh realities associated with sculptors, smiths, carpenters, jewelsmiths, barbers, merchants, brickmakers, builders, farmers, weavers, arrowmakers, couriers, embalmers, cobblers, launderers, fowlers, and fishers. Khety emphasizes the scribes’ freedom from a boss, in contrast to all other workers. If Ben Sira knew of this satire, he completely avoided mockery in his remarks about the four professions other than that of scribe. Moreover, he credits them with maintaining the fabric of the world, something entirely absent from Khety’s ridicule. Consistent with his previously stated view of greedy merchants, Ben Sira omits this occupation from the list to be compared with the scribal profession.
The Hebrew text of v. 25 has the farmer conversing with cattle rather than with the wise, although the Greek suggests that he talks about their pedigree. The emphasis on "being occupied with, setting his heart on, and being careful about" conveys the idea that farmers are totally consumed by their work, so that they can never find time or strength to improve their minds. The same emphasis occurs in the description of the artisan, the smith, and the potter. The expression "set their heart on" appears in all four accounts; other comparable phrases are "labors by night as well as day" (v. 27), "is diligent" (v. 27), and "is always deeply concerned" (v. 29). Manual skill has one advantage, according to v. 32: Those who possess it will never lack adequate food, for society cannot do without their wares. Each of them deals with something that is in great demand because of a principle of obsolescence. Food is consumed, seals and pottery are broken, implements wear out. Daily routines in towns and villages thus created sufficient need for the services of farmers, artisans, smiths, and potters.
38:34b–39:11. In contrast to these, the scribe concentrates on one thing: study. Interpreters have understood the object of this intellectual curiosity as threefold—the law, wisdom, and prophecy—corresponding to the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible, but in a different order from that of the prologue, which has law, prophecy, and the other books. The two different sequences are represented in the Hebrew Bible (law, prophets, writings) and the Septuagint (law, writings, prophets; cf. the Latin Vulgate also). The context suggests a different interpretation of 39:1–3. Ben Sira indicates that the scribes not only concentrate on the law but also apply their minds to insights from various sources: traditional wisdom, oracles, sayings, similes, and proverbs. The introduction to the initial collection in the book of Proverbs uses the following four terms: "proverb," "simile," "wise saying," and "riddle" (Prov 1:6).
Exalting the scribes as confidants of rulers, Ben Sira mentions their experience, acquired through extensive travel, which informs them about human nature. Above all, he praises the wise for their piety, which evokes divine favor and renown among humans. To communicate the exceptional reward for such devotion to learning and virtue, Ben Sira uses the expression "greater than a thousand" (v. 11), which recalls "one in a thousand" in Job (Job 9:3; 33:23) and Ecclesiastes (Eccl 7:28). The unusual divine epithet in v. 6, "the Great Lord" (cf. 46:5; Jas 4:15) occurs in a context that recalls a phrase in Isa 11:2, the promise that the Davidic ruler would be filled with an understanding spirit.
Ancient Judaism endeavored to hold together a belief in the value of manual labor and a conviction that one was obligated to study Torah. On the one hand, the following observation was attributed to Rabbi Gamaliel: "Excellent is study of the law together with worldly occupation, for toil in them both puts sin out of mind. But all study of the law without (worldly) labor comes to nothing and occasions sin." On the other hand, Rabbi Meir was remembered for a quite different view: "Do little in business and be busy with Torah, and be humble in spirit before all men."227 In Sir 7:15, 22 Ben Sira implies that the wise should also work at manual labor.
Modern technology increasingly reinforces vocational elitism, at the same time elevating professions that require advanced education and sophisticated knowledge. In this process, cerebral occupations such as law, medicine, university teaching, and comparable professions in business are placed in prestigious categories of work, whereas manual labor is demeaned. From the perspective of the elite, the nature of much manual labor contributes to their contempt; moreover, in this elitist view, minimal intelligence, skill, or ambition allows these workers to be content with assembly lines, service employment, and menial chores.
Ben Sira’s attitude toward the workers of his own day, and Khety’s before him, reveals the early roots of elitism. In Ben Sira’s defense, it should be recognized that he was fighting for an elevated understanding of intellectual pursuits in a society that valued expertise in various crafts far more than the acquisition of literary skills. His apologetic was written on behalf of poorly paid and barely respected scribes at a time when society had begun to rely on written documents more and more. Art for art’s sake hardly commended itself then any more than today; a utilitarian criterion alone seemed to justify expenditure of great time and effort. Using this measuring stick, the professions Ben Sira considers inferior to that of scribes receive high marks. For him, however, other standards canceled this advantage, particularly access to power and fame.
Contemporary disdain for menial laborers has even less to commend it, for this pejorative understanding of the work of one’s hands is based primarily on economic factors. Elitists in contemporary North America consider monetary earnings the significant factor in dismissing many occupations as beneath their dignity. This attitude has been internalized by countless workers who labor in jobs from which they receive no personal satisfaction. Lacking adequate self-respect, they take little or no pride in the finished product of their labor. Consequently, the prophecy by elitists becomes self-fulfilling, and people fall into a kind of "treadmill" existence—living out existentially the myth of Sisyphus.
Although some early Christians succumbed to the seductive lure of pre-eminence, both Jesus and the apostle Paul resisted the disciples’ desire to be first in rank. Their arguments in rejecting such efforts to attain honor and authority recommend subservience and emphasize the mutual interdependence of the corporate body, the church. Whoever wishes to be first in rank must serve others, for that kind of pre-eminence alone accords with God’s will for Christians. Moreover, just as no part of the body can boast that it is more important than another, so also all vocations in the church are complementary and, therefore, equally important.
This understanding of spiritual calling can be meaningfully applied to the diverse ways by which Christians earn a living. All worthy labor, manual or otherwise, contributes to the body politic. No type of profession has more inherent worth than another, although society still tends to value some types of work more highly than others. Manual labor is just as important as its intellectual counterpart. The important thing is that Christians do their work, whatever its nature, with pride and dignity. Having done so, they need not yield to anyone who insinuates that manual labor lacks worth. Perhaps in this way Christians can resist the debilitating trend to connect earnings and self-worth. It is worth recalling that the apostle Paul boasts that he worked night and day (1 Thess 2:9) so that he could preach the gospel without charge (cf. 1 Corinthians 9).
A carefully crafted hymn extolling the Creator for a well-ordered universe sits awkwardly alongside a harrowing assessment of life as nightmarish. On the one hand, a smooth-running world would appear to offer no refuge for evil and its woeful consequences. On the other hand, human existence is fraught with ambiguity and outright wickedness. Ben Sira endeavors to provide a rational defense of things along the same lines offered by Hellenistic philosophers of his day. The wretchedness of daily existence was compounded by the possibility of falling into shame, both as a result of one’s own failure and as a consequence of conduct by one’s daughters. Because of the economic value placed on the virginity of eligible wives and their ability to conceive, any behavior that jeopardized either was condemned by society in the strongest way possible. Ben Sira shared this concern. This topic gives way, however, to more elevated thoughts about the beauty of the created world—its wonderful mystery, the Creator’s intimate knowledge of all aspects of creation, and a summons to praise.
SIRACH 39:12–35, IN PRAISE OF THE CREATOR
This hymn in praise of the Creator (vv. 16–31), together with its introduction (vv. 12–15) and personal conclusion (vv. 32–35), is essentially a theodicy. The "very academic hymn" addresses the question about apparent anomalies in the world, specifically "What is this or why is that?" (vv. 17, 21). As we have seen, in dealing with the general problem of evil Ben Sira employs traditional arguments; for example, he promises eventual rectification, interprets undeserved suffering as disciplinary, and points out that appearances often deceive. Failing to arrive at a satisfactory answer to theodicy, he insists that God is just despite all evidence to the contrary, and humans should, therefore, acknowledge divine mystery by raising their voices in praise rather than in protest.
In addition to such traditional responses to the problem of theodicy, Ben Sira offers at least two new ways of looking at this vexing issue, one philosophical, the other psychological. He takes up the Greek rational argument that the cosmos consists of complementary pairs, good things that promote virtue and harmful things that punish wickedness. Moreover, Ben Sira insists that inner psychological states determine how people view outer experiences and that wicked persons are afflicted with anxiety. The unknown author of the book of Wisdom develops the latter idea more fully in Wis 16:24–19:22, which describes the manner in which fear transforms ordinary things into frightening sources of terror.
39:12–15. Ben Sira’s invitation to sing God’s praises mentions "faithful children" (υἱοὶ ὅσιοι huioi hosioi), a departure from the usual vocative without a qualifying adjective (v. 13) following an appeal for attention. Furthermore, he actually states that this particular hymn should be recited (v. 15). The admission in v. 12 that the author has not exhausted his teachings echoes the initial remarks at the opening of book two, where Ben Sira describes his renewed effort to deal responsibly with a mighty stream of ideas (24:30–34). The dominant image there was that of a canal that grew into a river and then into a sea; here the emphasis falls on the full moon and flowers growing alongside a flowing stream. There the imagery was restricted to the author; here he moves a step further to include his students in the circle of praise, recalling in the process the pleasant fragrances of nature and also those associated with worship. He likens hymnody and the accompanying music to the beauty and fragrance of oleanders, lilies, and incense. Just as personified wisdom flourished in 24:13–34, so also the scribe, who in 39:1–11 represents Ben Sira’s ideal, thrives in the same way.
39:16–31. The hymn in these verses echoes the refrain in Genesis 1, affirming the goodness of everything that God created. Such an extraordinary claim in the face of so many things that seem out of place in an orderly universe must surely have encountered resistance. In the end, claim and counterclaim seem to cancel each other out, just like Ezekiel and his vocal opponents who insisted that Yahweh was unjust (Ezek 18:25–29). Ben Sira has learned a valuable lesson from Qohelet that everything is good in its time (vv. 16–17; cf. Eccl 3:11). The allusion to waters piling up, usually applied to the story about Yahweh’s victory over the pursuing Egyptian army (Exod 15:8), may actually recall the separating of waters in Gen 1:9–10.
The stress on divine power and clarity of sight functions to reinforce Ben Sira’s theodicy. Because no one can limit God’s ability to reward virtuous people (the actual Hebrew word isתשׁועתו [tĕšûʿātô], "his saving deeds") and nothing can obscure God’s vision, nothing stands in the way of dispensing accurate justice. To accomplish that end, Ben Sira insists, the Lord looks on human beings in blessing and wrath, depending on which is appropriate at a given moment. The beneficial things, intended for the faithful, consist of ten basic ingredients to a good life—an extension from the four necessities of life mentioned in 29:21 (water, bread, clothing, and a house). The six additional items raise the level of comfort: fire for warmth and cooking; iron (and fire) for the making of tools and weapons; salt for flavor; milk, honey, wine, and oil to complement bread. Curiously, Ben Sira thinks that even these necessities bring misfortune to the wicked (the Hebrew word הפך [hāpak] implies a total overthrow as at Sodom and Gomorrah or Nineveh). This language links up with v. 23, perhaps an allusion to Gen 19:24–28.
Like the blessings, which manifest themselves as basic necessities and for which Ben Sira uses the image of the Nile and the Euphrates rivers, the wrath of God comes to expression in nine natural elements (vv. 28–31). Powerful sirocco winds, a mighty tempest from the southeast, wreak havoc even on solid mountains; fire, hail, famine, pestilence, wild animals, scorpions, vipers, and the sword do the divine bidding to execute sinners. The last of these alone involves human agents. Ben Sira implies that all of nature stands ready to carry out God’s wrathful decrees, as do human armies. A contrast may be implied between an obedient nature and willful human beings. To some extent, this list of natural calamities resembles that found in the account of plagues affecting Egypt in the book of Exodus (Exod 7:14–12:32).
39:32–35. In an epilogue to the hymn, Ben Sira reaffirms his long-held conviction that all of God’s works are good, and he reiterates the invitation to praise the Creator. This time, at least in the Greek text, he formulates popular sentiment denying divine justice as a statement, "This is not as good as that," instead of repeating the earlier interrogative form, "What is this? What is that?" Pride of authorship prompts him to boast about leaving a written legacy of his intellectual conclusions. Although the Greek text has "Lord" (κύριος kyrios) in vv. 16 and 33, the Hebrew has "God" (אל ʾēl); in v. 35 a marginal note to the Hebrew has "his holy name" (שׁם קדשׁו šēm qodšô; cf. שׁם הקדושׁ šēm haqqādôš in the text), while the Greek uses kyrios (the Hebrew text has survived in ms B from 39:15, beginning with the reference to songs, to the end of the book). In the Talmudic tractate Sabb. 77b a similar statement to Ben Sira’s affirmation uses the customary rabbinic epithet, "the Holy One." It reads: "Not a single thing of those which the Holy One created in this world has been created in vain, as though it did not fulfil its purpose."
1. The primary basis for lauding the Creator, according to Ben Sira, is the goodness of creation. That optimism does not come easily, for some things seem out of place in an orderly universe. Even persons who believe in the essential harmony of creation occasionally adopt the interrogative mode: Why do bad things happen to decent people? What possible justification for cancer cells can one posit?
The beauty of Ben Sira’s position resides in the way he situates doubting questions within the framework of spontaneous praise. This manner of facing up to the anomalies of existence prevents skepticism from becoming counterproductive. Confident that the maladies of existence, which Ben Sira calls curses, are divine instruments for punishing sinners, he assumes that time alone will convey fuller knowledge to doubters who refuse to turn away from their Creator.
2. The familiar phrase from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, "A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou," sums up a famous lover’s effort to articulate the bare necessities of life. Perhaps Ben Sira’s version of the essentials in terms of bread, water, clothing, and a home (Sir 29:21) is more realistic, although his additional reflection expands this list further still. The move from four necessities to ten (Sir 39:26) speaks volumes about human nature, for it reflects the desire to make life not merely tolerable but to some degree comfortable as well. People who have enjoyed the pleasures of the good life may have moments of nostalgia in thinking about a simpler existence, but rarely do they voluntarily relinquish the comforts they have come to know.
In some ways Ben Sira’s list strikes modern readers as somewhat one-sided, for it is slanted entirely toward the needs and desires of the body. For an intellectual, as he surely was, the absence of anything cerebral, spiritual, or aesthetic in this list of essentials for living is surprising. Can one imagine life without a book, worship, or music? Whether one agrees with Ben Sira in this regard or wishes to extend the list even further, religious enthusiasts ought to give him credit for asking an important question: What absolute minimum can one possess and still live? Because many citizens of impoverished countries face this question every day, the issue for them is existential rather than hypothetical. Our pondering of the matter may open up the floodgates of compassion as we grasp the magnitude of the gulf between them and us.
The enormous pressure to buy more and more will undoubtedly continue, for it fuels the international economy. So will pangs of guilt when Christians succumb to its persuasive power. Caught in the middle between external forces and inner compulsion, thoughtful individuals grope for adequate criteria for deciding how to spend their financial assets. Asking Ben Sira’s unstated question and reaching a conclusion about the essentials for living will equip them to act morally in this situation.
SIRACH 40:1–41:13, LIFE’S WRETCHEDNESS
Ben Sira’s description of human bondage to sin and death is broken only by a series of comparisons in which the second-mentioned item is preferred (40:18–27), and to some degree by a brief unit about contrasts in conduct, the second of which brings lasting joy (40:12–17; in 40:14, however, the positive one appears first). This grim depiction of the human situation stands in the shadow of Ben Sira’s lofty expression of praise for the goodness of creation.
40:1–11. The initial section depicts the heavy yoke worn by all creatures but felt seven times more severely by the wicked. Ben Sira observes that the yoke cannot be lifted from birth to death; he uses the expression "mother of all the living" with reference to the earth. Naturally, this thought echoes the ancient story about the creation of Adam and Eve from dust and the identification of Eve as the mother of all living persons. The language, now traditional, occurs also in the prologue to the book of Job: "Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there" (Job 1:21 NRSV). In this instance, "there" is probably a euphemism for Sheol, not a reference to the mother’s womb. Not only do people endure trouble (this word,עסק [ʿōseq] does not occur in the HB) and anxiety during their waking hours, but at night they have dreadful nightmares, waking at their moment of greatest need (reading χρεία [chreia] for σωτηρία [sōtēria], "salvation"). No one escapes this yoke, neither the ruler nor the subject, neither rich nor poor. Ben Sira associates the flood with other calamities that God created especially for the wicked. The only relief comes at death, according to v. 11, when dust returns to dust (Gen 3:19), and lifebreath goes back to its divine source (Eccl 12:7).
The poetic niceties of this poem include interlinear parallelism: "the one who sits on a splendid throne" (v. 3) and "the one who wears purple and a crown" (v. 4); "the one who grovels in the dust and ashes" (v. 3) and "the one who is clothed in burlap" (v. 4); the symbolic reference to seven sources of misery (v. 5), signifying fullness, and the explicit statement in v. 8; the portrayal of inner anxiety and the comparable depiction of external dangers; the reference in v. 3a to the civil authority and in v. 4a to the religious authority.
In this section Ben Sira borrows ideas from a tradition about the miserable lot entrusted to humans: e.g., the curse on rebellious Adam in Gen 3:17–20; Job’s reflections about the awful plight of human beings in Job 7 and 14; and the unflattering opinion about the human imagination in Gen 6:5. Although these ancient texts describe a universal human bondage, Ben Sira qualifies this misfortune by attributing far more trouble to sinners than to good people. For Job, divine watchfulness exacerbated suffering, whereas Ben Sira thinks of God’s surveillance as assurance of justice.
40:12–17. These verses reaffirm Ben Sira’s belief in the divine ordering of things to benefit the righteous on earth. True to precedent, he employs images from nature to reinforce his point. Wealth unjustly acquired resembles wadis in winter, temporarily filled with water from torrential downpours, only to dry up in summer. Similarly, possessions are like deafening thunder, all sound and fury and soon vanished. Children of evil parents are like trees growing on a rocky precipice, their roots clinging to unsubstantial soil and lacking adequate moisture, or like reeds along a riverbank inviting passersby to pull them up (cf. Job 8:11–12). Deeds of kindness, however, flourish for a long time, like a well-tended garden.
40:18–27. Ben Sira introduces ten comparative sayings that lead up to his favorite concept, fear of the Lord. Ancient sages were fond of this device, which modern interpreters label "better-than proverbs." Each of these sayings juxtaposes two ideas, the second of which is deemed more desirable than the first. Such sayings greatly assist scholars in understanding a relative scale of values in a prominent sage from second-century bce Judah. The positive valence of good wives, mentioned twice in the superior category (vv. 19, 23), and of friendship (v. 20; cf. the Greek, which has "wisdom") is noteworthy. Some of the sayings occasion no surprise; the discovery of hidden treasure is better than having to work for one’s fortune; help from God (as reward for almsgiving) is superior to assistance from family and friends.
Other sayings make one raise an eyebrow, at least momentarily: Intelligent advice is preferable to wealth; a pleasant voice is better than music; green shoots of grain bring more pleasure than grace and beauty (because they indicate a bountiful harvest); wisdom is preferable to progeny and an honorable reputation, acquired through building a city. Ben Sira may reflect the Greek practice of naming cities after prominent figures in society (e.g., Philippi, named after Philip of Macedon; Alexandria, named after Alexander the Great; Antioch, named after Antiochus III).
The threefold use of the phrase "the fear of the Lord" in the final couplet (vv. 26–27) reinforces the importance of piety to Ben Sira, a note already struck indirectly in v. 24, perhaps also in the initial allusion to wisdom, inasmuch as fear of the Lord both leads to and comprises the essence of wisdom. Ben Sira emphasizes the sufficiency of religious devotion; safe in divine solicitude, the one who fears the Lord flourishes like a garden and basks in honor.
40:28–30. Verse 28 introduces the two subjects of the next section as begging and death. In 29:24–27 Ben Sira discussed the indignity of having to eat at someone else’s table. Here he raises that topic again, reiterating the loss of respect associated with such dependence. Verse 30 highlights the hypocrisy involved in begging, the necessary self-effacement that masks a bitter resentment within, aptly likened to a fire. Reduced to such non-life, one would be better off dead (v. 28). Burton Mack has conjectured that Ben Sira may have in mind the Cynic practice of begging as a form of social critique. Even if one assumes that Ben Sira’s audience comprised an elite group, it does not follow that he would remain silent about the subject of self-reliance. Advice against begging may simply be a traditional topic in such sapiential advice.
41:1–4. Two different particles in Hebrew, the one (הוי hôy) signifying grudging reluctance in the face of an unpleasant decree (חק ḥōq) and the other (האח heʾāḥ) connoting open arms, contrast reactions to death by people in opposite circumstances. The first interjection refers to a person who has adequate resources, personal and otherwise, to enjoy life, whereas the second indicates someone whose aged body "stumbles and trips," having grown weary of the accompanying aches and privations. Naturally, death appears differently to these persons. One thing they have in common, however, is a date with the Grim Reaper. Ben Sira, therefore, urges acceptance of the divine decree as universal and implies that questioning the wisdom of that statute makes no sense. The Hebrew of this verse in ms A has "individual decree" or "statute" (חק ḥōq) and "laws," "instruction" (תורות tôrôt), but the scroll from Masada reads "end" (קץ qēṣ), as does the Syriac (ms B has "portion" [חלק ḥēleq]). Presumably, he thinks the interrogative mode, so typical of existence on earth, vanishes at death, whether it comes early or late. Ben Sira assumes that all distinctions, and hence inequities, disappear in Sheol.
41:5–13. This disquisition on death prompts Ben Sira to reflect on those left behind, particularly children, in his view a person’s only access to a kind of immortality. The emphasis falls on offspring of the wicked who have spurned the Most High God, for to them clings a heavy curse. Ben Sira turns to describe the opposite situation of parents whose virtue endures in memory long after their bodies have returned to dust. True to form, he praises reputation over gold, which disappears long before an honorable name does. The three uses of "memorial" (שׁם šēm, lit., "name") in vv. 11–13 reflect Ben Sira’s high assessment of reputation. The contrast between the ungodly and a lasting name could hardly be starker. According to v. 10, the wicked will vanish into nothingness ("waste" [תהו tōhû]; cf. Gen 1:2; Isa 40:17 for tōhû and אפס [ʾepes], "cessation" together as here).
1. For Ben Sira the highest priority went to religious devotion, which he called "the fear of the Lord." In two ways he signaled the importance of religion, first by mentioning it three times and, second, by leading up to the subject as a sort of crescendo. Closely behind religious service were wisdom and reliable counsel, which Ben Sira prized more than a lasting memory or wealth respectively. Next came a good wife, followed by love, pleasant speech, and the early signs of a bountiful harvest. This corrective to the essentials of life shows that Ben Sira did not let physical appetites dictate important decisions.
From the items he uses in comparing favored things with less desirable ones, Ben Sira opens a door into his own system of values. None of the less-desirables deserves to be labeled as undesirable, least of all children—the only immortality accessible to Jews in ancient times. Likewise, gold and silver, wine and music, grace and beauty belong to the good things in life.
If one really can be known by what one treasures most dearly, then we would do well to explore Ben Sira’s question of priorities for ourselves. Precisely where does our treasure lie? In spiritual things or in material comforts? Once we have settled that question decisively and honestly, we shall be ready to go a step farther and ask how the newly ascertained list of priorities can transform our lives and enrich our spirits.
Ben Sira did not conceal the fact that a religious value system often clashes with the dominant mores of society, but when that occurred he urged people to dare to be different. In Christian terms, that may mean courageously saying no to any number of activities, such as excessive spending, unethical financial dealings, cheating in school, immoderate drinking, casual sex, supporting political candidates who are racist or otherwise corrupt, voting for those who think the United States should traffic in weapons. Positively, daring to be different may mean spending time working at unselfish causes and volunteering to help those members of society who have difficulty fending for themselves.
2. What explanation for this treadmill existence makes the most sense? Ben Sira could not make up his mind. Some of his remarks point toward death and the unpleasantries leading up to it as part and parcel of the human condition from the very beginning, whereas other comments place the blame on Eve for disobeying a divine prohibition. Perhaps his inability to opt for one or the other testifies to Ben Sira’s awareness of the complexity of the problem.
In one sense, the failure to resolve this dilemma leaves human beings vulnerable to enormous anxiety about death, when ready acceptance of mortality as the human condition has the potential of reducing such concern greatly. To Ben Sira’s credit, he realized that the lion’s share of worry is self-generated, like a nightmare. In our time, a decisive shift is taking place in that many people worry more about the manner of death than the fact of death itself. Death with dignity has introduced a new factor into the discussion of one’s eventual demise. If a person views death as something other than punishment, then death’s stigma disappears.
For Christians, death does not signify the ultimate word, for they place their hope in God’s gracious activity aimed at drawing humankind into a kingdom of the redeemed. The last word, according to Christian hope, is one of divine acceptance, symbolized by the story of Jesus’ resurrection and the anticipation of a resurrection of believers. If that hope is firmly grounded, Christians have a far better reason than Ben Sira had to lift up their voices in constant praise of the Creator and redeemer.
SIRACH 41:14–42:8, ON SHAME
Honor and its negative counterpart, shame, were strong motivating forces in ancient Mediterranean cultures. Ben Sira demonstrates the appeal this ethical system had on the Jewish world, although he seems to represent the minority opinion on several specifics. After underscoring the areas in which Jewish readers ought to feel shame (41:17–42:1a), he mentions some types of behavior that, he thinks, should occasion no sense of embarrassment (42:1b–8). Some of these may have been disputed because they represent a clash between Hellenistic and Jewish values.
42:1b–8. First and foremost, the Mosaic legislation made demands on Jews that set them apart from their Hellenized compatriots and gave the impression of provincialism. Ben Sira admonishes Jews not to be ashamed of the law and covenantal obligations. In a highly mercenary environment, the temptation to make a profit through unethical means must have overtaken many individuals. Ben Sira urges them to keep accurate records of expenses and to give honest measures, keeping weights and scales completely free of the slightest particles of dust or grain. This concern for accuracy of weights is reinforced in the m. B. Bat. 5:10, where merchants are enjoined to clean their measures twice a week, polish weights every week, and clean their scales after every business transaction. Ben Sira also reinforces traditional sexual mores in an era of free attitudes toward sensuality; moralists, he says, ought not to be ashamed of rebuking even their elders for sexual impropriety.
This section actually treats merchants neutrally, accepts profit as appropriate in dealing with them, and insists on written records for deposits or withdrawals. The Zenon papyri from third-century bce Egypt furnish exceptional evidence of at least one royal official’s obsession with an exact account of all business transactions. Ben Sira’s own students were probably literate, but the extent of literacy among average citizens is unclear. If it never exceeded 10 percent in classical Greece,238 not many Jewish citizens in Ben Sira’s day likely would have known how to read and write, for the agrarian economy offered few incentives to literacy.
The remarkable comment in 42:1b about sinning to save face reveals the dilemma in which many Jews found themselves at this time. Rather than following Jewish custom and calling attention to their foreignness to Greek culture, those Jews who sought a place of honor in the eyes of Hellenists found themselves breaking the Mosaic law for the sake of appearing to be like their cultured rulers. Ben Sira thinks that such Jews should not be ashamed to be different.
41:17–42:1a. The list of conduct unbecoming to Ben Sira’s students contains no surprises, unless it be the paucity of sins mentioned. Ben Sira includes some observations about social location, specifically the authoritative figures in second-century bce Judah—parents, rulers, judges, the assembled congregation, friends. The list begins in the family circle and ends there: "the place where you live" (v. 19). As usual in sapiential literature, sexual sins dominate, perhaps because of the youthful age of the students, but not entirely so, because sages also warn against the sexual follies of old men. Even lust—for a prostitute or for another man’s wife—is included here, because it leads to unfortunate consequences. Notably, Ben Sira mentions abuse of authority, the use of a slave girl for sexual purposes (v. 22), and poor table manners (v. 19).
The Greek translator seems to have misunderstood v. 19, readingאלה (ʾālâ, "oath") as אלה (ʾĕlōâ, "God") and then rendering the phrase "before the truth of God and the covenant."
41:14–16. The introduction to this section on shame includes two verses that also occur in 20:30–31, except for the vocative and accompanying imperatives with their objects ("My children, be true to your training and be at peace"). The Hebrew text has a title above v. 16, "Instruction Concerning Shame" (מוסר בשׁת mûsār bōšet).
SIRACH 42:9–14, ON PROTECTING DAUGHTERS’ HONOR
This brief section takes up one additional area in which unwanted shame easily arises: the disgraceful conduct of a young woman. Ben Sira fails to note that a man is also implicated in her offense, and even if one emends the text of v. 14 to read "Better a religious daughter than a shameless son" the misogynism remains nonetheless. In this regard, Ben Sira was by no means alone, as shown by the Jewish prayer thanking God that the male speaking the words is not a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.
Ben Sira’s observations grew out of the importance Jewish society attached to virginity, primarily because of its value when young women entered into marriage. Fathers, whose role in selecting husbands for their daughters became precarious in cases of lost virginity, worried prior to the wedding date, and even subsequent to it, lest the bride be either unfaithful or barren. To protect unmarried daughters, Ben Sira advises parents to guard them closely and thus prevent them from becoming known as women of easy morals, a byword. To hide a young daughter from a male’s gaze and resulting seduction, Ben Sira urges precautionary measures such as preventing her from looking out a window and enjoying the relative freedom—and conversation—of married women. The well-known ivory carving depicting a woman peering from a window reveals this religious motif as common in the ancient Near East, although its full implications are still unclear (cf. Prov 7:6).
The concluding remarks in vv. 13–14, which are textually uncertain, leave no doubt that Ben Sira held a low opinion of women. The analogy of moths may mean that just as garments attract moths, so also wickedness lures women, or that insects fly from one piece of cloth to another and women go from man to man. Ben Sira’s comment that a man’s wickedness is better than a woman’s goodness invites modern readers to suspect that he has taken leave of his senses at this point. True, some women bring shame and disgrace, but they have not seized a monopoly on such conduct. Many men do the same, as Ben Sira surely knew. Perhaps his extreme remarks reveal how far an ancient Jewish teacher would go to protect ethnic identity in a context of cultural and personal subservience.
SIRACH 42:15–43:33, THE WONDERS OF CREATION
This majestic hymn about the wonders of creation introduces the much longer praise of famous men in 44:1–50:24, as the probable use of "to the pious" (לחסידים lĕḥăsîdîm) in v. 33 (cf. the Greek "to the devout ones" [τοῖς εὐσεβέσιν tois eusebesin]) and "men of kindness" (= "pious men" [אנשׁי חסד) ʾanšê ḥesed]) in 44:1 makes clear. This hymn consists of a poem on the inscrutable knowledge of the Creator (42:15–21), a long section describing the wonders of nature (42:22–43:26), and a conclusion inviting readers to praise the sovereign Lord (43:27–33). In many respects this hymn resembles Psalms 29; 104–105; and Job 38:1–38, as well as noun lists (onomastica) from Egypt and Mesopotamia, which include, among other things, lists of astrophysical phenomena. Such lists were used in educational circles to teach foreign languages and knowledge about the natural world.
42:15–21. The idea that the universe came into existence as a result of divine utterance recalls Gen 1:1–31, a concept that comes to prominence in Wis 9:1; 2 Esdr 6:38; Jdt 16:14; and in the prologue to the Gospel of John. Ben Sira concedes that the task of declaring the full scope of God’s works exceeds the capacity of the angelic hosts, specifically astrophysical phenomena enlisted in divine service (cf. 1 Enoch 1:9). Even the abyss (תהום tĕhôm, "Tiamat," the chaos dragon of the deep) and the depths of the human heart lie open before the Most High’s penetrating gaze, Ben Sira asserts, and nothing is hidden. That includes the future, which God knows as intimately as the past, without benefit of counselors (cf. Isa 40:14). This theme echoes a similar one in Deutero-Isaiah. Such bold claims function as a theodicy, one based on the view that the Creator sees everything. The Persian notion of the roving eyes of the deity and the Egyptian concept of the eye of Ra, the sun god, reinforced the belief in a harmonious universe. Believing that the Creator is the same yesterday, today, and forever, Ben Sira found reason to trust in divine consistency.
42:22–43:26. The idea of opposites, expressed already in 33:15, recurs in 42:24, in this instance connoting variety and thus contributing to the beauty of the universe. Beginning in 43:1, Ben Sira describes astrophysical phenomena (sun, moon, and stars) before turning to geophysical phenomena, such as the rainbow, lightning, clouds, winds, snow, frost, ice, and dew. Finally, he mentions the ocean, that unexplored abyss in which mythological beings were believed to cavort, according to Job 38:8–11; 40–41 and various mythological texts in Deutero-Isaiah (Isa 51:9–10; cf. Isa 27:1; 30:7; Ezek 29:3) and Psalms.
Although the sun is the first to be introduced, the emphasis falls on the moon, presumably because of its determination of the religious calendar. Biblical precedent observed the solar calendar, as did the community at Qumran, whose opponents observed the lunar calendar. Verse 8 contains a play on the words for "moon" (חדשׁ ḥōdeš) and "renew" (חדשׁ ḥādeš), while using the analogy of a fire signal indicating an army’s beginning to march at night. Ben Sira waxes poetic in comparing snow to the deft and orderly descent of birds and locusts, icicles to thorns, frost to ashes scattered on the ground, and a frozen pond to a warrior’s breastplate. He concludes this section by returning to the thought of the creative word, this time extending the idea to its cohesive power (43:26).
43:27–33. The final admission that such praise only touches the surface makes a daring assertion: "Let the final word be: ‘He is the all’ " (cf. Eccl 12:13). The similarity of this confession to Stoic pantheism is undeniable, although Ben Sira goes on to insist that the Creator is greater than all the wonders of the universe (v. 28). In Ben Sira’s view, a single divine principle holds the universe together, but God is not encompassed by that entity (cf. the Vg’s ipse est in omnibus, "He is in all"). This hymn utilizes both Jewish and Stoic ideas of creation and the ordering of things. According to Stoic philosophy, the logos (divine rationality) permeates the cosmos and holds it together. In the ancient world, mythological creatures representing chaos were thought to have threatened the divine order; according to v. 23, the Creator brought these creatures, here called Rahab, under control (cf. Job 9:13; 26:12). The God of such power and exquisite artistry justly deserves Ben Sira’s adjective "awesome" (נורא מאד ונפלאות nôrāʾ mĕʾōd wĕniplāʾôt, "exceedingly terrifying and wondrous," v. 29; cf. Joel 2:11, ונורא מאד [wĕnôrāʾ mĕʾōd, "exceedingly dreadful"]).
Anyone who genuinely cherishes the spiritual dimension of reality finds it impossible to restrain songs of praise, for we are surrounded by signs of grace from our waking moment to the second our eyes close in sleep. Grateful hearts seem capable of bursting if we do not express appreciation for the supreme gift of life.
Traditionally, believers have tried to buttress their faith by using the argument from design, believing that the Creator planted in the created world witnesses to the source of all things. We know today that equally cogent arguments against the existence of God can be mustered from apparent flaws in nature and that adaptability is the very nature of things as they evolve. Nevertheless, believers are encompassed by a vast universe almost as mysterious as the God they worship.
The ancient world, like certain segments of the modern population, believed that the mysteries of the universe were revealed to a small band of initiates, who guarded that knowledge zealously from that time forward. Ben Sira acknowledged no such sect, choosing instead to confess his own ignorance in the face of overwhelming mystery. That lack of knowledge did not rule out personal acquaintance with God in some small way, and he readily claimed to have direct experience of the Holy One. Nevertheless, in the end he confessed that his best effort to praise God only scratched the surface, that the moment he arrived at the end of his song he had merely reached the beginning. That perceptive insight cautions modern worshipers against assuming that we have exhausted what can and should be said about the one who dwells in utter darkness.
Ben Sira’s endeavor to provide an easy guide to extolling the Creator unites him with countless writers of hymns that have enriched worship over the years. Poets, theologians, and musicians have collaborated to provide a rich repertoire of hymnody that both instructs and motivates, songs that express the unutterable and lead to noble aspirations and deeds.
This poetic section praising Israel’s ancestors follows naturally from the hymn extolling God’s creative activity (39:12–43:33), for Ben Sira emphasizes divine election of the heroes lifted up for memorializing. The long account of past worthies concludes with an encomium of Simeon II, the high priest contemporary with Ben Sira (50:1–21), and a brief personal word from Ben Sira (50:22–24). An introduction (44:1–15) mentions a dozen categories of leaders deserving commendation, which then leads to a selective record of Israel’s history, beginning with Enoch. The following names complete the list: Noah; Abraham; Isaac and Jacob; Moses; Aaron; Phinehas; Joshua and Caleb; the judges, with specific reference to Samuel only; Nathan; David; Solomon; Rehoboam and Jeroboam; Elijah; Elisha; Hezekiah; Isaiah; Josiah; Jeremiah; Ezekiel; Job; the Twelve Prophets (unnamed individually); Zerubbabel; Jeshua the son of Josadak; and Nehemiah—with a sort of "lest we forget" Enoch, Joseph, Shem, Seth, Enosh, and Adam.
SIRACH 44:1–15, INTRODUCTION
The Hebrew text (ms B) has the title "Praise of the Ancestors of Old"; a shorter title, "Praise of the Ancestors," appears in most Greek, Latin, and Syriac manuscripts. The phrase "in their generations" (v. 1) implies a listing in chronological order. Verses 3–6 specify twelve categories of greatness: rulers, men of valor, counselors, prophets, wise leaders, guardians of tradition ("lawgivers"), instructors, compilers of wise sayings, composers, authors, the rich, and the peaceful. This entire unit has a striking end rhyme,תם (tām; except for ם [ām] in v. 2 and תב [tāb] in v. 5). Ben Sira makes a surprising concession in vv. 8–9 that some pious individuals died without leaving a "name," despite his earlier assurance that good people can count on a living memory. Presumably, he offers this brief introduction as a eulogy to these forgotten and nameless persons, together with all others who will be mentioned in the body of the epic poem. The latter have received appropriate burial and are called to memory by the assembled congregation.
The choice of the number twelve to indicate classes of people probably derives from its general use to designate completeness, as in twelve tribes of Israel, twelve months, twelve memorial stones, twelve disciples. All of these men are called "devout persons" (אנשׁי חסד ʾanšê ḥesed), the legacy of Elyon, the Most High.
The emphasis on sages in vv. 3–5 reflects Ben Sira’s particular bias, one that does not manifest itself in the actual selection of heroes that follows. A priestly preference easily surfaces in that portrait of great figures of the past with whom God has worked, and this sacerdotal interest expresses itself in both content and scope. This type of historical retrospect has remote antecedents in Neh 9:6–37; Psalms 78; 105–106; 135–136; Ezek 20:4–44 (cf. Jdt 5:5–21; 1 Macc 2:51–64), although none of these texts focuses on specific human figures. The closest text is Wis 10:1–12:27, which traces Israel’s early history by means of allusions to easily identified persons, beginning with Adam. The other historical surveys differ qualitatively in the manner of extolling God, and any human being mentioned is incidental. Some interpreters think Hellenistic encomia serve as the model for this historical survey, although conceding that Ben Sira has made many adjustments in the process. (See Reflections at 50:1–24.)
SIRACH 44:16–45:26, THE SEVEN COVENANTAL FIGURES
44:16. Beginning with Noah, seven recipients of covenant promises are praised: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and Phinehas. Actually, the section opens with a brief comment about Enoch, an increasingly popular biblical character because of the implication that he escaped death. Later speculation credited him with heavenly journeys, during which time he received revelations of divine mysteries. Ben Sira ignores all this extra-biblical tradition, contenting himself with repeating biblical language about Enoch’s pleasing the Lord and being taken up (cf. Wis 4:10; Heb 11:5). An unusual aspect of this reference to Enoch sets it apart: He is said to be an example of repentance, or knowledge. The Greek text implies that Enoch’s acquisition of mysteries led to pride, for which he repented. The other figures are not lifted up as examples for readers in this way. The Hebrew fragments of Sirach from Masada do not refer to Enoch; neither does the Syriac text. This evidence suggests that the remark about him may not derive from Ben Sira, although the comment on Enoch seems rather tame. One expects more lavish praise of the kind found in later speculation about heavenly journeys and remarkable wisdom. Its absence in the text from Masada and the Syriac, therefore, may be accidental.
44:17–18. If the praise really starts with Noah, and if v. 16 constitutes a later addition, the entire section begins and ends with the two founders of civilization, Noah and Adam (v. 17; 49:16). Noah’s blameless conduct elicits praise-he is "just" (צדיק ṣaddîq) and "perfect" (תמים tāmîm)—and his name gives rise to a pun on the word "remnant" (נוח nûaḥ). Ben Sira explicitly refers to the covenant in Gen 9:8–17, of which the rainbow served as a perpetual reminder.
44:19–21. Ben Sira cites a phrase from Gen 17:4 describing Abraham as "father of a host of nations" and attributes to him a life of obedience to the law, although God had not yet revealed the Sinaitic legislation. The covenant refers to the act of circumcision (Gen 17:9–14), which was widely practiced in the ancient world. Because the Philistines did not submit to this practice, they received the nickname "the uncircumcised" (1 Sam 17:26, 36). The test that Abraham passed alludes to Gen 22:1–19, which is specifically called a divine test (Gen 22:1). Later traditionists developed various features of this incident, interpreting the binding of Isaac as an atonement for sins. The divine oath, reiterated in Gen 22:15–18, incorporates promissory language from Gen 15:5 (cf. Ps 72:8).
44:22–23a. The observations about Isaac and Jacob derive from Gen 17:19; 28:1–4, as well as the poetic blessing in Gen 49:1–27. The Hebrew text of v. 22 reads "son" (בן bēn), but the margin has "in like manner" (כן kēn), for Isaac did not have a son for Abraham’s sake. Curiously, Ben Sira says nothing about Joseph at this juncture (cf. 49:15), and this omission accords with this patriarch’s minor role in subsequent tradition. At least one feature of the text applies better to Joseph than to Moses, specifically the acknowledgment that he won everyone’s approval (cf. Gen 39:4, 21, but see also Exod 2:5–10; 11:3).
44:23b–45:5. Although Ben Sira uses a variant of the traditional invocation for blessed memory ("Moses of blessed memory," rather than "may his name be blessed"), the nine bicola (five verses), as opposed to thirty-two (17 verses) for Aaron and ten (4 verses) for Phinehas, reveal Ben Sira’s preference for priestly matters. The Greek translator weakened the comparison of Moses to God, renderingאלהים (ʾĕlōhîm) as "angels" (v. 2; cf. the Greek text of Ps 8:5). Moses’ ability to terminate the plagues (cf. Exodus 8–10), his receipt of the Decalogue, indeed the entire Sinaitic legislation, and his unique admittance into the divine presence (Exod 33:18) place in relief the ancient assessment of him as the humblest of men (Num 12:3). The rest of the observations are more general, including direct conversation with the Lord and the commission to instruct Israel from life-giving commandments.
45:6–22. The long section praising the priest Aaron is matched only by that extolling Simeon II in 50:1–24. According to Exod 29:9; 40:15, God established a perpetual covenant of priesthood with Aaron, Moses’ brother. Psalm 106:15 calls Aaron a holy man, as Ben Sira does in v. 6. The description of priestly vestments in Exodus 28–29 includes four that were worn by all priests (tunic, trousers, turban, girdle) and four worn exclusively by the high priest (breastplate, apron, the upper garment, and the frontlet). Ben Sira omits the girdle, while emphasizing such decorative features as pomegranates, the golden bell, embroidery of various kinds, precious stones, and a gold crown. He thinks of the bells as a reminder to the people, unless the Hebrew implies that the sound calls God’s attention to the people, for whom the high priest makes intercession in the holy of holies. This whole description throws little light on the nature of the ephod, which seems to have been a sort of apron with a pouch for holding the Urim and the Thummim, sacred stones. These garments could not be worn by outsiders (v. 13), although soon after Ben Sira made this claim the office of high priest became a prize to be granted by Antiochus IV to the highest bidder (2 Macc 4:7–8, 23–27).
Verses 14–17 describe the priestly duties, and vv. 18–22 mention the rewards for faithful service. First, Ben Sira refers to the two daily offerings, called Tamid in his time. Second, the priests pronounce blessings on the people (cf. Num 6:23–27). The instructional responsibility comes next (v. 17), and nothing is said of the rendering of judgment by means of the sacred Urim and Thummim. Instead, Ben Sira mentions a heinous conspiracy, the offering of strange fire by Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Num 16:1–17:13), as a contrast to Aaron’s faithfulness. Ben Sira concludes by referring to the legitimate portion of offerings that belong to the priestly functionaries, a kind of compensation for the omission of the tribe of Levi during the allocation of the land to the twelve tribes.
Ben Sira’s generous remarks about an everlasting covenant with Aaron (vv. 7, 15) suggest that the earlier rivalry between Zadokites and Aaronites has been settled, with Zadokites now incorporated into the line of Aaron. The HB mentions an eternal covenant with Phinehas, and not with Aaron (Num 25:12–13). Under King David, the Zadokites gained sole control of priestly duties and privileges.
45:23–26. The following section jumps over Aaron’s son Eleazar in favor of the grandson Phinehas, as if to settle the dispute over priestly lineage once and for all. The struggle for control of the priesthood by the Oniads and the Tobiads illuminates this particular observation. The Oniads were related to Aaron on the paternal side, but the Tobiads laid claim to Aaronite ancestry through the maternal side. The latter group sought to wrest the priesthood from the Oniads in the early second century bce. Ben Sira’s reference in v. 25 to a covenant with David, though out of place here, nevertheless legitimates priesthood alongside royalty as the important social institutions of the day with divinely ordained succession. The expression "third in glory" alludes to Phinehas’s place in a line of succession including Moses and Aaron. His zeal, recorded in Num 25:11, earned Phinehas a covenant of peace. This unusual praise of Phinehas as "third in glory" indicates that he was far more important in certain Jewish circles than among Christians, who hardly recognize the name (cf. Ps 106:30–31, a recollection of his zeal, which earned him righteousness for endless generations). The concluding call to bless the Lord, the "Good" (cf. 2 Chr 30:18), also wishes that divine favor will fall on the kingly figure-namely, the high priest, who in Ben Sira’s time had acquired considerable political power. In essence, the high priest had become ethnarch. Verse 25 suggests that Davidic kingship was transmitted by direct succession to a single son, whereas the priestly heritage belonged to all descendants of Aaron. (See Reflections at 50:1–24.)
SIRACH 46:1–20, JOSHUA, CALEB, THE JUDGES, AND SAMUEL
This unit divides naturally into vv. 1–10 and vv. 11–20, the former praising Joshua and Caleb, the latter lauding unnamed judges and Samuel. Ben Sira unites both of these with puns on the names "Joshua" and "Samuel": v. 1, "Yahweh is salvation"; v. 13, "obtained by request."
46:1–10. Moses’ two lieutenants succeeded in one respect where he failed: Joshua and Caleb were allowed to enter the land of milk and honey. Joshua’s expertise in battle consisted of timely signals (Josh 8:18, 26); his intercession caused the sun to pause (Josh 13:13; cf. the LXX, which mistakenly has the sun go backward as the shadow does in Isa 38:8) and brought hailstones upon the enemy (Josh 10:11). Together with Caleb, Joshua brought a favorable report about the land of promise and urged Moses to advance there in the hope of defeating its occupants (Num 14:6–10). The number 600,000 appears in various accounts (cf. 16:10; Num 11:21; 14:38; 26:65; Deut 1:36, 38). Caleb’s extraordinary strength in advanced years (Josh 14:7, 10–11) enabled him to gain mastery over his enemies, the meaning of the expression "to tread on the high places of the land" (cf. Deut 33:29).
The epithet for God in v. 5 ("the Most High, the Mighty One") occurs here for the first time in Sirach. The Hebrewאל עליון (ʾēl ʿelyôn) is used in v. 5 (twice); 47:5, 8; 48:20; 50:15 (where the Hebrew is missing, but the Greek has ὔψιστος παμβασιλέυς [hypsistos pambasileus, "the Most High, the king of all"]). The Hebrew title ʿElyôn occurs nine times by itself in Sirach (41:4; 42:2; 44:20; 50:16; 49:4; 41:8; 44:2; 50:17; 50:14). Before chap. 41, the names יהוה (Yahweh) and אלהים (ʾĕlōhîm) occur, the former usually abbreviated ווו (yyy).
46:11–20. The two most prominent judges, Gideon and Samson, probably prompted Ben Sira to discuss the larger group without naming anyone, for these two men certainly succumbed to deceit (v. 11). The remark about their bones flourishing (cf. 49:10) implies that ancient Israelites believed that bones, like roots, could extend themselves vigorously (cf. the vision of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 and the story in 2 Kgs 13:21 about the power of Elisha’s bones to revivify a corpse).
Samuel’s claim to fame is based on his extraordinary birth, his role in anointing both Saul and David to kingship, his priestly function, his prophetic office, and his unimpeachable integrity. Even his appearance after death to a frightened Saul only confirmed for Ben Sira Samuel’s prophetic office, already affirmed by the deuteronomistic criterion of accuracy in predicting future events. The failure to mention Saul by name reveals how little regard Ben Sira had for Israel’s first king. (See Reflections at 50:1–24.)
SIRACH 47:1–25, NATHAN, DAVID, SOLOMON, AND REHOBOAM/JEROBOAM
47:1–11. Eager to indicate prophetic continuity, Ben Sira briefly refers to Nathan, who served ("stood before") David, according to the Hebrew (the Greek has "prophesied in the days of David"). The description of David, almost entirely favorable, resembles that in 1 Chronicles 11–29, a selective use of available traditions. The opening image in v. 2 derives from the sacrificial cult; David is set apart in the same way the choice fat of an offering was lifted off for priestly consumption (Lev 4:8, 10, 19; cf. Ps 89:19). From the story about David’s defeat of Goliath, Ben Sira chooses several incidents, particularly David’s skill in killing lions and bears, here euphemistically called "play" (1 Sam 17:34–36); the victory over the Philistine champion (1 Sam 17:32–51); the exuberant song of triumph by local women (1 Sam 18:7); and the suppression of surrounding enemies—Moabites, Aramaeans, Edomites, Ammonites, and Philistines—as recorded in 2 Samuel 5–21. Ben Sira mentions the Philistines as the supreme instance of hostile neighbors, noting that their defeat at David’s hands was permanent. That is the function of the traditional expression "until our own day" (v. 7).
Beginning with v. 8, Ben Sira concentrates on David’s contribution to religious worship, especially his composition of psalms and his musical interests. The chronicler also credits David with musical instruments associated with the chanting of psalms (1 Chr 23:5; cf. Amos 6:5), as well as solemnizing religious festivals (1 Chr 23:31–32). Not until the final verse does Ben Sira acknowledge David’s sins, and then only generally as a recipient of divine pardon. Like the chronicler, who does not even mention David’s adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah, Ben Sira prefers to dwell on David’s virtues—after all, the genre requires praise rather than blame. The last word, however, remains one of grace, the perpetual covenant of kingship (v. 11; cf. 2 Samuel 7).
47:12–22. Ben Sira attributes Solomon’s peaceful reign to his father’s influence, although he seizes the opportunity to create a pun on the meaning of Solomon’s name ("peace"). The chronicler goes so far as to credit David with making preparations for building the Temple in Jerusalem; Ben Sira merely suggests that peaceful conditions, the result of David’s victories, made it possible for Solomon to build the sanctuary. Defying all odds, Solomon is reputed to have received wisdom as a youth—utterly impossible in traditional sapiential texts, which assume that wisdom can be acquired only through wide experience and over a long period. Ben Sira alludes to the traditions pertaining to Solomon’s wisdom preserved in 1 Kgs 3:9–12, 16–28; 5:9–11; 10:1–12. The reference to his fame’s having reached distant islands probably echoes the story about the queen of Sheba, and the observation about the composition of songs, proverbs, riddles, and answers (v. 17) refers to the ancient tradition that Solomon spoke 3,000 proverbs and composed 1,005 songs (1 Kgs 5:12 [Eng. 4:32]). Later traditionists credited Solomon with considerably more compositions: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, the book of Wisdom of Solomon, the Odes of Solomon, and the Psalms of Solomon, to name a few.
The legendary traditions in 1 Kings also speak of huge sums of gold and silver that the king amassed from distant lands, and Ben Sira does not overlook this feature of Solomon’s fame, despite the condemnation in Deut 17:17 of such royal practice. Only with v. 19 does Ben Sira allow himself to mention Solomon’s weakness for women, for which the author of 1 Kgs 11:1–10 faults him (cf. Prov 31:3, "Give not your vigor to women, nor your strength to women who ruin kings"). Curiously, Ben Sira ignores the other complaint in 1 Kgs 11:1–13, 33: the sin of idolatry. Verses 21–22 concede the grief occasioned by Solomon’s sins and the ensuing rupture in the kingdom, but not without an emphatic affirmation of the Davidic dynasty. That explains the reference to a remnant of Jacob’s descendants and a root from David’s own family (v. 22).
47:23–25. These verses describe the division of David and Solomon’s kingdom into two national states led by Rehoboam in the south and Jeroboam in the north. Ben Sira plays on the meaning of the name of the former, calling him "great in folly" (fromרחב [rāḥab, "to be wide"]). The contrast between Solomon’s wideness of heart (1 Kgs 5:9 [Eng. 4:29]) and his son’s arrogance could hardly be greater. In the Hebrew, Ben Sira omits the name "Rehoboam," using instead the adjective for "broad, open place" (rāḥāb) plus the noun "people" (עם ʿam) to indicate the king, whose folly consisted of increasing forced labor against the advice of senior statesmen (1 Kgs 12:1–24). Instead of naming Jeroboam, archvillain in the deuteronomistic history, Ben Sira uses a clever formula, "let his name not be mentioned" (אל יהי לו זכר ʾal yĕhî lô zēker). The present Hebrew text has the names of both kings written out. Jeroboam’s chief offense was the construction of the two rival sanctuaries at Bethel and Dan, the southernmost and northernmost borders of the new kingdom, each featuring a golden bull. (See Reflections at 50:1–24.)
SIRACH 48:1–16, THE PROPHETS ELIJAH AND ELISHA
The transition in 47:25 sets the stage for Elijah’s appearance. Unlike the chronicler, who virtually ignores the history of the northern kingdom, Ben Sira focuses on the activity of the two prophets from the ninth century, passing over in silence the prophetic ministry of Amos and Hosea a century later.
48:1–11. Verse 1 continues the thought of 47:25. Wickedness ran unchecked "until a prophet arose." Ben Sira withholds the prophet’s name until v. 4, once more creating a pun from familiar epithets for Elijah, "man of God" (אישׁ אלהים ʾiš ʾĕlōhîm), who called down fire from God upon his enemies (אשׁ אלהים ʾēš ʾĕlōhîm). From Mal 3:19, Ben Sira derives the metaphor for Elijah’s word as a hot furnace, but most of the references come from 1 Kings 17–19 and 2 Kings 1–2. That includes the famine Elijah announced to the Omride ruler Ahab (1 Kgs 18:3); his zeal (1 Kgs 19:10, 14); his summoning of fire three times (1 Kgs 18:38; 2 Kgs 1:10, 12); his resuscitation of the son of the widow from Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:17–22); his condemnation of kings (1 Kgs 21:19–24); the divine rebuke at Horeb (1 Kgs 19:8–18); the anointing of kings (indirectly through Elisha; 2 Kgs 8:7–15; 9:1–13); and his ascension into heaven (2 Kgs 2:1–11). In v. 10, Ben Sira uses the formula for citing Scripture, "it is written," with reference to Mal 3:23–24 (cf. Luke 1:17; Matt 11:10, 14; 17:10–13). The phrase "to reestablish the tribes of Israel" appears in Isa 49:6. In Sir 48:10–11 it gives way to uncertain speculation about people who saw Elijah. Apparently it contains a play on the ancient account of Elisha’s persistence in seeing his master ascend to heaven, but in the present form it is confused with a blessing on those who might see Elijah’s return to earth. The later popular idea that Elijah would precede the Messiah does not find expression here. The strange gloss in v. 11 shifts away from the unusual form of address, which began in v. 4. This second-person speech has a precedent in 47:14–21, where Ben Sira addresses Solomon directly. In Ben Sira’s view, Elijah lived up to his name, "Yahweh is my God," for his deeds were awe-inspiring (v. 4).
48:12–16. Verse 12 serves as a transition from praising Elijah to lauding his successor, but Ben Sira misunderstands the concept of inheriting a double portion to mean twice as much rather than twice one’s equal share, the portion received by the oldest son. This confusion leads Ben Sira to say that Elisha performed twice as many signs as did his master (see 2 Kgs 2:9–15 for the idea that Elisha was filled with the Spirit). The story about the extraordinary power of his bones—giving life to a corpse that had come in contact with them—shows once more that Ben Sira understood prophetic activity as miraculous power rather than the communication of the divine word (cf. 2 Kgs 13:20–21). He endorses the earlier explanation for the dispersion of the ten tribes, specifically their refusal to repent (2 Kgs 18:11–12). The Hebrew text states that Judah was left-that is, continued under the rule of a legitimate descendant of David. (See Reflections at 50:1–24.)
SIRACH 48:17–25, HEZEKIAH AND ISAIAH
48:17–19. Although the deuteronomistic history gives qualified approval to six kings in Judah (Asa, Jehoshaphat, Joash, Azariah, Hezekiah, and Josiah), Ben Sira’s less generous assessment restricts itself to Hezekiah and Josiah. A wordplay on the name "Hezekiah" (חזקיהו ḥizqiyyāhû) enables Ben Sira to speak about the king’s strengthening of the capital city, Jerusalem ("he fortified" [חזק ḥāzaq]). To provide water for the inhabitants of the city, Hezekiah ordered workers to dig a tunnel 1,749 feet from the Spring of Gihon to the Pool of Siloam (2 Kgs 20:20; 2 Chr 32:30). In 1880, this tunnel was discovered, along with an inscription describing how this remarkable feat was accomplished.
Ben Sira mentions the legendary account of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah during Hezekiah’s reign, one for which three different versions have survived (2 Kgs 18:13–27, retold in 2 Chr 32:1–20; Isa 36:1–22; and the altogether different account in the annals of Sennacherib). Whereas the biblical story attributes Sennacherib’s withdrawal and the death of 185,000 of his soldiers to the Lord’s angel, Ben Sira states that a plague ravaged the invading camp. The reference in Herodotus to a bubonic plague, often used to support the account in Isa 36:1–22, lacks evidentiary force. Such a plague would not have been restricted to the invading army, assuming that Herodotus recalled the incident. The account in 2 Kgs 18:17–35 and 19:14–19 (cf. Isa 37:15–20) about the arrogance of the Rabshakeh ascribes the prayer to Hezekiah, but Ben Sira credits the people with this invocation.
48:20–25. Spreading the hands was the usual gesture during prayer (v. 20); Ben Sira attributes the deliverance of Zion to Isaiah’s mediation. The rare title for God in this verse, "the Holy One," reflects Isaianic terminology; Ben Sira probably used "Most High" (עליון ʿelyôn), as "From heaven" (ἐξ οὐρανοῦ ex ouranou) in the Greek suggests. In v. 22, another pun on the name "Hezekiah" occurs: "he kept firmly to the ways of David." The reference to Isaiah’s visions (cf. Isa 6:1–13) introduces specific praise of the prophet: the sign that promised an extended life span to the king—namely, the backward movement of the shadow on a stairway (2 Kgs 20:6–11; Isa 38:5–8); the proclamation of comfort (Isa 40:1); and the revelation of future events (Isa 40:3–11; 41:9, 24–27). Various legends about Isaiah arose in later Judaism and survive in The Ascension of Isaiah and The Martyrdom of Isaiah (cf. Heb 11:37, "they were sawn in two," NRSV).250 (See Reflections at 50:1–24.)
SIRACH 49:1–16, JOSIAH AND SUBSEQUENT HEROES
49:1–7. A poem consisting of twenty-two bicola concludes Ben Sira’s eulogy of Israel’s heroes. Josiah’s eradication of idolatrous worship throughout Judah earned him the approval of the deuteronomist and the chronicler (2 Kgs 23:4–24; 2 Chr 34:33), and moved Ben Sira to liken Josiah’s memory to incense and honey. The remark that he grieved over Judah’s betrayals refers to Josiah’s reaction upon hearing the contents of the book of the law, reportedly uncovered during repairs to the Temple (2 Kgs 22:10–19). In v. 4, Ben Sira sums up the monarchy as being wicked, with three exceptions: David, Hezekiah, and Josiah. Consequently, God had given the holy city and its inhabitants into the hands of the Babylonians (vv. 4–6), as Jeremiah had prophesied (v. 7). Ben Sira refers specifically to Jeremiah’s call and uses the language of the divine commission (Jer 1:5, 10). The designation of Jerusalem as "the holy city" occurs elsewhere in Neh 11:1, 8; Isa 48:2; 52:1; and Dan 9:24.
49:8–10. Ben Sira’s allusion to Ezekiel comes from the visionary account in Ezek 1:4–28, which describes a sort of chariot. He mentions Job, whom Ezekiel also refers to as a righteous individual from ancient times, along with Noah and Dan’el. The inclusion of Job among the other great prophets accords with the loose sense of the word "prophet" in Gen 20:7 with respect to Abraham; with the view of Josephus, who includes the book of Job among the prophets; and with later rabbinic literature. The other prophets appear in Ben Sira’s list as a single entity, like the book of the Twelve in the HB. He uses for the second time the formula "May their bones send forth new life from where they lie" (cf. 46:12, with reference to unnamed judges). The assertion that the so-called minor prophets overwhelmingly provided hope places extraordinary weight on such passages as Amos 9:11–15; Joel 3:1–21; and Zech 9:9–17.
49:11–13. Ben Sira mentions only three people from the post-exilic period, all of them associated with restoring the Temple (Zerubbabel and Jeshua) and the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah). The designation of Zerubbabel as a signet ring derives from the messianic aspirations reflected in Hag 2:23, which seem to have surfaced in connection with the newly founded community and its cult in 516 bce. Ben Sira’s silence about Ezra in v. 13 has occasioned much discussion, although the individuals mentioned here—Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and Nehemiah-actively participated in rebuilding the city of Jerusalem and restoring its cult. Ezra’s activity resembled that of Josiah, for he endeavored to purge the worship of everything foreign. That zeal should have earned him honorable mention at least.
49:14–16. To provide transition from the heroes of the past to the high priest during his own time, Ben Sira gives a brief survey of global history. First, he mentions Enoch, that subject of endless speculation; then Joseph, the patriarch whose body was so painstakingly cared for and transported from Egypt to the land of promise; next Shem, the ancestor of the Semites; Seth, the son of Adam; Enosh, Seth’s son in whose day people first began to call on the name of Yahweh (Gen 4:26); and finally Adam. The expression "the splendor of Adam" (תפארת אדם tipʾeret ʾādām) eventually led to speculation about a second Adam who would appear in the messianic age. In addition, the word translated "splendor" links v. 16 with 50:1, "the splendor of his people" (תפארת עמו tipʾeret ʿammô). (See Reflections at 50:1–24.)
SIRACH 50:1–24, SIMEON THE HIGH PRIEST
Evidently the last of Israel’s heroes whom Ben Sira eulogizes has recently passed from the scene, having served as high priest 219–196 bce. The language of v. 1 implies that Simeon was deceased (cf. the Greek for "in whose life" [ὃς ἐν ζωῆ αὐτοῦ hos en zōē autou]). Simeon II, called "the Just," made an indelible impression on Ben Sira, which he conveys by means of exquisite similes and sensory language. Verses 1–4 continue the dominant theme of the praise of Hezekiah, Josiah, and Nehemiah—the strengthening of the city and improvement of its supply of water. A similar account of repairs in the early second century appears in Josephus, who quotes a letter attributed to Antiochus III to the governor of Palestine after the Battle of Paneas in 199 bce. If these reports are trustworthy, they indicate enormous political power resting in the hands of the religious leader at this time. The Hebrew words for "temple," בית (bayit) and היכל (hêkāl), although often used synonymously, can refer to the Temple and to a house generally. The inner sanctuary was called the דביר (dĕbîr), usually translated "Holy of Holies."
In vv. 5–21, Ben Sira describes Simeon’s appearance on a special occasion in the Temple, either on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) or at a celebration of the Daily Whole-Offering. Most interpreters opt for the first of these, largely on the basis of the proclamation of the ineffable name (v. 20). Naturally, this view rests on the assumption that by Ben Sira’s day the divine name "Yahweh" had become so holy that no one pronounced it, with a single exception: the high priest on the Day of Atonement. This interpretation has recently been challenged, primarily on the basis of the description of the Tamid offering in the Mishnah tractate Tamid 6:3–7:3, but this new understanding of Ben Sira’s text makes two major assumptions: (1) that the later tractate accurately describes the sacrificial ritual from the second century bce and (2) that the differences between the two accounts (the omission of the incense offering and the placing of the blessing last instead of third) derive from an accident (the incense offering) or from an intentional change to achieve dramatic effect. The issue cannot be decided on the basis of the evidence available today, and the description in vv. 5–21 may be purposely general.
The emotional language of vv. 6–10 draws on the realms of nature and religious worship to convey Ben Sira’s awe at witnessing the high priest in splendid vestments. Ben Sira’s exuberance is contagious, as the similes show. Simeon is like a star, the full moon (which governed the timing of festivals), the sun, the rainbow, blossoms, a lily, the lush growth of Lebanon, incense, gold vessels, precious stones, an olive tree. Verses 11–13 describe the scene when a host of priestly attendants hand Simeon the carcasses and other offerings, reminding Ben Sira of a circle of trees. Verse 14 emphasizes the proper ordering of the sacrifice, and v. 15 mentions the drink offering poured out at the foot of the altar. At a blast of the trumpets, everyone falls to the ground. Verse 18 mentions singing, and shouts of joy follow. Then the high priest, having completed the offerings, blesses the people and utters the name "Yahweh." Martin Rinckart’s hymn "Nun danket alle Gott" ("Now Thank We All Our God") captures the religious intensity of this text magnificently.
According to Josephus, "the sacred trumpets were long straight metal tubes of hammered silver … about a half a yard long … composed of a narrow tube, somewhat thicker than a flute and ended in the form of a bell, like common trumpets." The people’s response to hearing the name "Yahweh" is underscored in the Mishnah tractate Yoma 6.2: "And the priests and the people, who are standing in the court, when they hear the ‘Ineffable Name’ proceeding forth out of the mouth of the High-priest, bow down and worship, and fall upon their faces saying: ‘Blessed be the Name of the glory of His kingdom for ever and ever.’ " The expression "people of the land" (עם הארץ ʿam hāʾāreṣ, v. 19) originally referred to persons who had high social standing, but eventually it came to refer to those lacking society’s esteem. Here they represent the congregation, singing and praying in the presence of the merciful God.
Ben Sira concludes this eulogy of Simeon with a short personal blessing (vv. 22–24). Because of the gracious gift of life, he calls on God to grant permanent well-being to Simeon and his descendants from the line of Phinehas. That wish was quickly frustrated with the assassination of his son Onias III (cf. 2 Macc 4:34); hence the translator removes this hope entirely from the Greek text, making the specific reference a general one applying to all Israel.
1. The people whom one admires reveal much about oneself. A nation whose young people choose only celebrities for celebrity’s sake—sports heroes, movie stars, and rock musicians—as idols has done a poor job of educating its public to appreciate those who contribute to the improvement of the human race. When the names of people like Jonas Salk, Marie Curie, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, and countless others do not move young and old to expressions of gratitude for noble actions, something seriously wrong has infected the populace.
The deeper problem rests in the loss of imagination, the failure to seek challenges that inspire conduct of an extraordinary nature borne of discipline, achievement, and courage. Belief that God works in and through those who make significant strides toward nobler lives and who help to eradicate disease, crime, and poverty may require unconventional assumptions, but surely such thoughts merit serious consideration.
In looking around for heroes, we seldom pause long enough at home to reflect on our parents’ qualifications in this regard. The obvious reason why is immediacy, the fact that we know their flaws too well as a result of constant exposure to them. Discovery that mothers and fathers have feet of clay often comes as a rude awakening, removing them permanently from the list of potential heroes. Ben Sira’s willingness to weigh his heroes’ complete lives and to make concessions for momentary lapses, some quite serious, stands as a marvelous example for contemporary readers.
Furthermore, he offers another clue with respect to a valid resource for locating heroes. For him, the written tradition of sacred texts—his Bible—contained the list of persons whom he most admired. Naturally, one must choose persons for such a list with care, and in doing so the operative criterion makes a world of difference. Religious persons who ponder seriously the definitive criteria for selecting heroes, and honestly give thought to various alternative criteria, will gain insight into their own values and character. Such meditation could well become a companion piece to annual reassessments at the turn of the year.
In a very real sense, our choice of heroes becomes a kind of sacred story, a record of temptations overcome, obstacles bypassed, goals achieved, and dreams realized. Together their stories move us to greater resolve, warm our souls, and open our eyes to needs and opportunities.
2. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews acknowledged the presence of a cloud of witnesses hovering over us, a holy memory that lives on in our minds and evokes feelings of solidarity with the past (Heb 12:1–2). Modern believers also sense a presence of the extended family, persons who have preceded us into the great unknown. Those whom we especially cherish continue to have an important place in our lives.
In trying to link up with representatives of a bygone era, we tend to employ expressions from the past that communicated effectively at that time but may have become dead metaphors over the years. Ben Sira’s contrivances, such as alphabetic hymns and ancient titles, certainly evoked an earlier time, while risking the alienation of persons in his own day whose language of discourse had become highly charged with Hellenistic ideas and expressions. Religious leaders almost inevitably face this sort of situation. Wishing to recapture the idyllic past, they use concepts appropriate to that period; at the same time, they hope such language has not lost its capacity to communicate in a new context.
Sometimes conservative by nature, religious people can tend to reject new ideas and expressions, and thus to lose touch with much of the population, particularly the young. Here, too, we need to be ever alert to the reasons for conservatism and to abandon this rejection of new ideas if the basis for refusing to change lacks merit. Knowing what to preserve and what to discard may be one of the most significant achievements in life.
3. What place do pomp and circumstance have in worship? Few people have reached a satisfactory answer to this vexing question. On the one hand, it seems entirely appropriate to honor God in as lavish a manner as possible; that includes a whole range of things, such as majestic cathedrals and places of worship; elaborate and expensive vestments; copious means of enrichment, including incense, intonation, music, dance, and so forth. On the other hand, simplicity has extraordinary appeal too. Combining the two, whenever attempted, has not been particularly successful, and yet we respond to both approaches to the holy.
Then, too, the place of religious fervor and a sense of the numinous come into play. Unless devotion to God gives birth to overwhelming gratitude and reminds one of ultimate dependency, it does not seem sufficiently compelling to deserve one’s total allegiance. Ben Sira shamelessly gives voice to his religious passion, ultimately bowing before divine mystery. That degree of self-abandonment in the presence of the living God and celebration of gracious divine character challenges ordinary worshipers to ponder why so many days of worship lack this sense of ultimacy and fail to evoke zeal and awe.
SIRACH 50:25–29, A NUMERICAL PROVERB AND AN EPILOGUE
The internationalism of the sage vanishes in this bitter invective about three of Judah’s neighbors: Canaanites, Edomites, and Samaritans, for whom Ben Sira uses ancient designations. The Philistines, who gave their name to the land of Palestine, had vanished long before Ben Sira’s time, thus he may be referring to the pro-Hellenistic people dwelling along the seacoast. By Seir he indicates the Idumeans, loathed because of their ancestors’ treatment of Jews during the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem; soon after Ben Sira’s time, they were forcibly converted to Judaism by John Hyrcanus. The Samaritans, inhabitants of the area around Shechem, had intermarried with the population settled in the vicinity after the expulsion of the Jewish landowners into Babylonian captivity. In the fourth century bce, Ezra and Nehemiah rebuffed the Samaritans’ offer to help restore the sanctuary at Jerusalem. Hostilities between the two groups increased because of the existence of a rival temple on Mt. Gerizim near Shechem, exacerbated by their claim to be the legitimate descendants of Phinehas. The extent of the Jews’ hatred of the Samaritans can be measured by a comment in The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs: "From this day forward Shechem will be called a city of imbeciles, for as one mocks a fool, so we mocked them" (Testament of Levi 7.2; cf. Deut 32:21, "a foolish nation" [גוי נבל gôy nābāl]; Luke 9:51–55; John 4:9). Such intense dislike led to the destruction of the temple on Mt. Gerizim in 128 bce.
The epilogue (vv. 27–29) contains Ben Sira’s full name and a sort of summary of the advantages that come to those who study his teachings and embody them in their lives. Both meditation (cf. Ps 1:1) and praxis (cf. Eccl 7:2; 9:1) come into play here, and Ben Sira echoes the introduction to the book of Proverbs (1:1–3) and the epilogue to Ecclesiastes (12:9–10).
Even good people have weak moments and blind spots that lead them into embarrassing situations, for which they genuinely repent. Ben Sira’s hatred for three neighboring peoples may have been entirely justified, humanly speaking, by their repeated offenses. Nevertheless, his attitude toward Samaritans, Idumeans, and Hellenists along the coastal strip seriously compromised his teachings, for sages should have been able to rise above such petty hatred. The very context of this sentiment, so terribly out of place, corresponds to its place in Ben Sira’s life. It did not belong anywhere if he truly lived up to his teaching.
From this text we easily observe that even great men, and by extension women, at some time will have to rely on others’ tolerance. No one need hurl the first stone at Ben Sira, for we all are guilty. Such momentary lapses bring dishonor, to be sure, but they should not destroy one’s reputation. In judging Ben Sira’s character, one needs to consider the total picture rather than a single moment.
Besides the psychological release and honest confession before God, the positive contribution of such expression of hatred may be found in what it generates in good people, specifically extensive self-examination. Perhaps this soul-searching will enable us all to see the error in judging others by nationality, class, or whatever group they belong to rather than seeing each individual as a person deserving the same respect.
SIRACH 51:1–30, A PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING, A HYMN OF PRAISE, AND AN ACROSTIC POEM ABOUT WISDOM
51:1–12. The first twelve verses of this chapter comprise a prayer in which Ben Sira employs traditional language to give thanks for deliverance from an unspecified threat. The prayer is sufficiently general to be used by almost any worshiper. An anthological style draws on the language of biblical psalms to recount the author’s subjection to verbal abuse, his descent into the abyss of despair, and his remembering the Lord’s mercy. Addressing Yahweh as "my father" (אבי ʾābî), Ben Sira begs God not to forsake him. The prayer concludes with the declaration that the Lord listened to the plea and acted on behalf of the supplicant (cf. Pss 17:9; 30:3; 55:9; 116:8). In a study on the poetic structure of this declarative psalm of praise, Di Lella identifies six stanzas and isolates instances of artistic balance or correspondence, inclusion, chiasm, breakup of stereotyped phrases, rhyme, and parallelism.
The dual epithet for God, "Lord and King" (v. 1), together with "Father" (v. 10) recall common expressions in ancient Jewish prayers, e.g., "Our Father, our Sovereign" in the prayer by that name, in "Great Love," and in "The Eighteen Benedictions," where the clauses begin with "Our Father" and "Our King" alternately.
A litany of praise follows this prayer in ms B, but it does not appear in the Greek, the Syriac, or any translations based on them. Moreover, the Greek text has a title for the entire chapter, "The Prayer of Jesus, son of Sirach," which applies only to vv. 1–12. Although the litany does not appear to have been written by Ben Sira, it dates from before 152 bce, when the Hasmonean Jonathan received the high priesthood as a reward for supporting Alexander Balas of Syria (cf. 51:12 ix, which implies that Zadokites are still in control of the priesthood). Di Lella conjectures that a member of the Essene community at Qumran wrote the psalm and inserted it into a copy of Sirach that found its way into a cave near Jericho and eventually into the hands of Qaraites, who made copies that were discovered in the Cairo Geniza between 1896 and 1900.
Like Psalm 136, this psalm contains the refrain "for his mercy endures forever" in fourteen of the sixteen verses (cf. Pss 106:1; 107:1; 118:1, 29 for the same expression). The language is entirely biblical ("the Guardian of Israel" in Ps 121:4; "who fashioned everything" in Jer 10:16; 51:19; "the Redeemer of Israel" in Isa 49:7; "who gathered Israel’s dispersed" in Isa 56:8; "who rebuilt his city" in Isa 60:13; "who makes a horn to sprout for David’s house" in Ps 132:17; Ezek 29:21). Similarly, the divine epithets in 51:12 x–xii derive from the patriarchal narratives—the Shield of Abraham, Rock of Isaac, Mighty One of Jacob.
51:13–30. An alphabetical poem about wisdom concludes the book of Sirach, as in Prov 31:10–31—even though Ben Sira never uses the noun "wisdom" in the poem. Verses 13–21 describe Ben Sira’s search for wisdom, and vv. 22–30 contain a personal appeal to others to follow his example. A copy of this poem has been found in a scroll from Qumran (11QPs) containing linesא (aleph) through כ (kaph; ll. 1–20). In the translation by J. A. Sanders, this poem is interpreted as an erotic text, and various scholars have offered alternative readings.265 An erotic understanding of personified wisdom certainly exists in Proverbs 8 and Wisdom 7, however one views Ben Sira’s acrostic.
The poem tells how a young Ben Sira determined to cultivate wisdom from youth to old age and how wisdom gave herself to him as he pursued her paths and set his heart on her. As reward for faithfulness, he received a gift of eloquence (cf. Isa 50:4), which equipped him to teach others. He thus invites people to come to his house of learning (ms B has "into my house of instruction" [בבית מדרשׁי bĕbêt midrāšî]; Di Lella claims that both the Greek and Syriac texts demand a reading of "into the house of learning" [בבית מוסר bĕbêt mûsār] and sees a play on words based on סור [sûr, "to be remote"]). Ben Sira’s language about money, reward, and thirst may be purely metaphorical, like Prov 4:5–7; Isa 55:1–3; Amos 8:11. Too little is known about education in second-century bce Israel to ascertain whether one should assume that Ben Sira received payment for instructing students.
The final two verses nicely juxtapose the complementary theological concepts of grace and merit. Remembering the Lord’s mercy, one ought to do good works and await a reward in God’s own time. In this short statement, Ben Sira effectively combines religious and social teachings.
The Hebrew manuscript closes with a long subscript stating that the work has reached its conclusion and identifying its author as Simeon, the son of Jeshua who is called Ben Sira. It adds: "The Wisdom of Simeon, the son of Jeshua, the son of Eleasar, the son of Sira. May Yahweh’s name be blessed from now unto the ages" (cf. Ps 113:2).
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