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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Major Themes.

1.

The major theme of the book is the pursuit of wisdom. In accordance with Proverbs ( 1:7 ) and Job ( 28:28 ), wisdom is identified as ‘fear of the Lord’: ‘The whole of wisdom is fear of the Lord, and in all wisdom there is the fulfilment of the law’ ( 19:20 ). Wisdom finds its objective expression in ‘the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us’ ( 24:23 ). Yet Ben Sira's emphasis is not on the fulfilment of the specific commandments of the Torah. It is rather on wisdom as a discipline: ‘My child, from your youth choose discipline, and when you have grey hair you will still find wisdom’ ( 6:18 ). The discipline involves meditating on the commandments of the Lord ( 6:37 ) but also requires that one ‘Stand in the company of the elders. Who is wise? Attach yourself to such a one. Be ready to listen to every godly discourse, and let no wise proverbs escape you’ ( 6:35 ). The hymn in ch. 51 informs us that wisdom is to be found in ‘the house of instruction’, but it can also be sought by travel and requested in prayer. Fear of the Lord, then, is an attitude which requires obedience to the commandments but reaches beyond this. It entails reverence towards received tradition, and towards the elders who transmit it. It is a conservative attitude to life. It is often said to be opposed to the Hellenistic wisdom that attracted many in Jerusalem in the pre-Maccabean period (Hengel 1974: i. 131–53). Ben Sira does not polemicize against Hellenism, and is not averse to borrowing Hellenistic notions on occasion. He has little sympathy, however, for the spirit of adventure and innovation and does not appear to advocate new ideas consciously. In so far as Hellenization led some people to reject established Jewish traditions, as eventually happened in the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (cf. 2 Macc 4 ), Ben Sira would surely have opposed it.

2.

The Lord revered by Ben Sira is all-powerful and little short of overwhelming. The hymnic passages in chs. 39 and 42–3 affirm that ‘all the works of the Lord are very good, and whatever he commands will be done at the appointed time’. He is closely identified with the power of nature. The climactic declaration ‘He is the all’ sounds close to pantheism, but Sirach quickly adds that ‘he is greater than all his works’ ( 43:28 ). In these passages Sirach seems to affirm that all that is, is good. God has made everything for a purpose. The world is constituted by complementary pairs, so that evil is necessarily the opposite of the good, and as such contributes to the harmony of the cosmos. All humanity can do is submit to the will of God. Sirach would seem to be influenced by Stoic philosophy here, if only unconsciously. In other passages, however, Sirach affirms a more traditional, Deuteronomic theology of free will: ‘Do not say “It was the Lord's doing that I fell away”; for he does not do what he hates. Do not say, “It was he who led me astray”; for he has no need of the sinful’ ( 15:11–12 ). When Sirach is praising God's creation, even evil has a purposeful role, but when the focus is on human behaviour it is an abomination to be rejected.

3.

The problem of theodicy, or the justice of God, recurs intermittently throughout the book. It is made more acute for Sirach by his steadfast rejection of any belief in reward or punishment after death, beliefs which appear in apocalyptic literature around the time that Sirach wrote. ‘Whether life lasts for ten years or a hundred or a thousand, there are no questions asked in Hades’ ( 41:4 ). Having ruled out the possibility of retribution after death, Sirach offers a range of considerations, from simple submission to the divine will to the unconvincing claim that death and bloodshed fall ‘seven times more’ heavily on sinners than on others ( 40:8–9 ; see Crenshaw 1975 ). There is, of course, an inevitable tension between the affirmation of the omnipotent goodness of God and the reality of evil in the world. While he is less than consistent, Sirach generally insists on human responsibility. When God created humanity, ‘he left them in the power of their own inclination [NRSV: free choice]. If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice’ ( 15:14–15 ). Sirach does not pause to ponder the origin of the human inclination, a subject that fascinated later writers such as 4 Ezra (cf. 2 Esd 3:20–6 ).

4.

Ben Sira breaks with the tradition of biblical wisdom by devoting extensive attention to the history of Israel. This history is not presented, however, as the history of the acts of God, or even as a sequential narrative. Instead it is cast as the praise of famous men, who stand as examples for future generations. The examples are chosen primarily because of leadership in their exercise of the offices of priest, king, judge, or prophet (Mack 1985: 11–65). Aaron is praised at greater length than Moses, and Phinehas is singled out for his role in securing the covenant of the priesthood. The whole series ends with a eulogy of Simon the Just, who was high priest at the beginning of the second century BCE. It seems fair to conclude that Sirach was an admirer and ally, and perhaps a protégé, of the high priest Simon. History for Sirach is not a process leading to a goal but a storehouse of examples from which the scribe may draw lessons that are essentially ahistorical.

5.

Much of Sirach's instruction is taken up with the traditional wisdom concerns of family and social justice. The social teaching is quite conventional. Sirach has a keen sense of class distinctions: ‘What peace is there between a hyena and a dog? And what peace between the rich and the poor?… Humility is an abomination to the proud; likewise the poor are an abomination to the rich’ ( 13:18, 20 ). Observations of this sort are commonplace in Proverbs and in Egyptian wisdom literature. More distinctive is Sirach's negative characterization of merchants: ‘A merchant can hardly keep from wrongdoing, nor is a tradesman innocent of sin. Many have committed sin for gain, and those who seek to get rich avert their eyes’ ( 26:29–27:1 ). Martin Hengel has argued that such passages reflect the conditions of the early Hellenistic period in Palestine, as exemplified in the story of the Tobiad family in Josephus (Ant. 12.154–236; Hengel 1974: i. 138). But Sirach's admonitions lack historical specificity, and his remarks on merchants must also be read in the context of his general condescension to the trades in ch. 38 .

6.

The family ethic is also grounded in tradition, but here again Ben Sira strikes some original notes, especially in his negative view of women (Trenchard 1982 ). He affirms the authority of mothers as well as fathers, and is aware of the benefits of a good wife. He discourses at greater length, however, on the bad wife. His most distinctive utterance is found in 25:24 : ‘From a woman sin had its beginning and because of her we all die.’ There is no precedent in the biblical tradition for this interpretation of Genesis. He regards daughters as occasions of anxiety, lest they lose their virginity before marriage or having married, be divorced ( 42:9–10 ). In part, Ben Sira's worries reflect the reality of life in ancient Judea. Honour and shame loom large in the value system of the society, and the danger of shame through a daughter's indiscretion was all too obvious (Camp 1991 ). If a woman should be divorced, she would return to her father's house, and become, again, his responsibility. Yet Ben Sira is exceptional in so far as his worries are not relieved by any joy or delight in his daughters. In part this may be attributed to his anxious personality—compare his view of the human condition at 40:2 : ‘Perplexities and fear of heart are theirs, and anxious thought of the day of their death.’ But for whatever reason he also shows a personal antipathy for women that goes beyond the prejudices of his society: ‘Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good; it is a woman who brings shame and disgrace’ ( 42:14 ). Negative statements about women are more plentiful in Greek literature than in the Hebrew scriptures (see Lefkowitz and Fant 1982 ). Familiarity with Hellenistic views may have been a contributing factor of Ben Sira's view of women, but he was quite selective in his borrowings from Hellenistic culture, and so a deeper explanation must be sought in his personality.

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