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

Commentary on Ecclesiasticus, or The Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach

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Part I. Chs. 1–24

( 1:1–4:10 )

( 1:1–10 ) The Source of Wisdom

The book begins with a short hymnic passage in praise of wisdom. Similar passages are found in 4:11–19; 6:18–37; 14:20–15:10 , and at greater length in ch. 24 (Marböck 1971; Rickenbacher 1973 ). The opening affirmation is characteristic of Sirach: all wisdom is from the Lord. On the one hand, this sentence affirms the priority of Yahwistic revelation over all philosophy and wisdom. On the other hand it co-opts all philosophy and wisdom into divine revelation. Wherever wisdom is to be found, it is the work of the Lord.

Two biblical passages come directly to mind here. Prov 8 asserted that the Lord created wisdom as the beginning of his way. Temporal priority here bespeaks primacy of importance. The midrash on Genesis, Genesis Rabbah, ascribes this priority to the Torah, which was supposedly created 2,000 years before the creation of the world. In Proverbs, and also later in Sirach, wisdom then becomes God's implement in creation. The second biblical passage that comes to mind here is Job 28 , which emphasizes that no one but God knows where wisdom can be found. Unlike Job, Sirach does not consider wisdom to be hidden: God has poured it out upon his works. Sirach does, however, pick up the conclusion of Job 28:28 : ‘the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom’. The fear of the Lord becomes the leitmotif of the following passage in Sirach. A few Greek MSS read ‘he lavished her on those who fear him’ in v. 10 , instead of ‘those who love him’.

( 1:11–30 ) Fear of the Lord

This passage begins and ends with reference to the fear of the Lord. The motif recurs over 60 times throughout the book. (For a tabulation, see Haspecker 1967: 48–50.) Fear of the Lord is constitutive of wisdom, and as such it pertains to the central theme of the book, which is laid out here in the opening chapter.

Fear of the Lord is primarily an attitude of reverence towards God and respect for received tradition. Some of its practical implications will become clear as the book unfolds. One fundamental requirement is noted here: ‘if you desire wisdom, keep the commandments’ (v. 26 ). Even though Ben Sira pays scant attention to the ritual commandments of Leviticus, their observance is probably taken for granted. We may compare the attitude of Philo of Alexandria, who was far more strongly inclined to emphasize a spiritual meaning than was Ben Sira. None the less, Philo faulted those who neglected the literal observance of the laws, and argued that Jews should be ‘stewards without reproach…and let go nothing that is part of the customs fixed by divinely empowered men greater than those of our time’ (Migr. Abr. 89–93). For Sirach, too, fear of the Lord entails diligence even in matters to which he does not otherwise accord importance.

Beyond observance of the commandments, fear of the Lord entails patience (v. 23 ), discipline, trust, humility (v. 27 ), and sincerity (vv. 28–9 ). These are age-old virtues of Near-Eastern wisdom. They offer a pointed contrast to the behaviour of profiteers such as the Tobiads in the Hellenistic period, but there is nothing peculiarly anti-Hellenistic about them. The fruits of wisdom and fear of the Lord are often described in rather vague terms, such as glory and exultation. vv. 12–13 are most specific. Wisdom leads to a long life and happiness even in the face of death. This is the traditional view found in the HB, especially in the Deuteronomic and sapiential books. By the time of Ben Sira, however, its inadequacy was widely perceived. Within the wisdom tradition, Job and Ecclesiastes had pointed out the all too obvious fact that wisdom does not guarantee a long life, and that those who ignore the counsels of the sages often prosper. The religious persecution of the Maccabean era would put a further strain on the traditional theology of retribution. Accordingly, notions of retribution after death were gaining credence in Judaism by the time of Ben Sira (cf. 1 Enoch, 1–36, which may date from the 3rd cent. BCE) and would become widespread in the apocalyptic writings of the Maccabean era (e.g. Dan 12 ).

At least one commentator has argued that Sir 1:11–13 implies a belief in retribution after death (Peters 1913: 13–14). He points to the parallel in the Wisdom of Solomon 3:1–11 (‘The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God…’). Cf. also the eschatology of the Rule of the Community from Qumran. The children of Light, who walk in the way of humility, patience, and goodness, are rewarded with ‘great peace in a long life, and fruitfulness, together with every everlasting blessing and eternal joy in life without end, a crown of glory and a garment of majesty in unending light’ (1QS 4). But Sirach lacks the specific references to eternal life that are explicit both in Wisdom (Wis 3:4 : ‘their hope is full of immortality’) and in the Rule of the Community. Since Sirach states unequivocally in ch. 41 that there is no retribution after death, there is no justification for importing ideas of an afterlife into ch. 1 . However problematic Sirach's belief in this-wordly retribution may be, even for his time and place, he holds to it consistently.

( 2:1–18 ) Trust in God

In one MS this passage has the title ‘On Patience’. The address to ‘My child’ suggests the paradigmatic setting of wisdom instruction, a father speaking to his son. The testing in view here consists of the normal trials and setbacks of life. It does not imply persecution with the threat of death, as it does in Dan 11:35 and in Wis 3 . Sirach echoes the language of older Scripture to make his point. The questions in vv. 10 and 11 recall the arguments of Job's friends (e.g. Job 4:7; 8:8 ) and the assertion of the psalmist that he has never seen a righteous man go hungry (Ps 37:25 ). Since Job's friends are eventually rebuked by God, we might have expected more reticence on the part of Sirach here. He could, of course, point to the restoration of Job to support his point. The scriptural warrant for Sirach's confidence is found in Ex 34:6–7 : the Lord is ‘a God merciful and gracious’. This appeal to divine mercy is exceptional in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew tradition, where God does not normally interfere in the workings of the universe, but lets the chain of act and consequence take its course (Koch 1955 ; this view seems applicable to Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, though not to Job). Sirach's view of God is informed by the Torah and the prophets in a way that the earlier wisdom books were not. The result is a more personal view of God, which also opens up a space for prayer in the world-view of the sage.

vv. 12–14 are cast in the form of ‘Woes’, a form also found in prophecy (Isa 5 ), apocalyptic literature (1 Enoch, 98–9), and Luke ( 6:24–6 ).

The notion of the Lord's visitation (v. 14 ) is also exceptional in the Hebrew wisdom literature. In Wis 5 , the visitation in question clearly takes the form of judgement after death. This is not the case in Sirach. (Sir 2:9c , which promises an everlasting reward, is an addition and belongs to the second Greek recension.) The Hebrew prophets often speak of a day of the Lord which does not involve a judgement of the dead, but brings about a dramatic upheaval on earth (e.g. Am 5:18; Joel 1:15; 2:1; Mal 3:2 ). Sirach seems to have something less dramatic in mind, but he insists that each individual must sooner or later face a reckoning with the Lord. The chapter concludes by recalling the words of David from 2 Sam 24:14 , that it is better to be judged by God than by human beings.

( 3:1–16 ) Honour of Parents

The command to honour father and mother is found earlier, in the Decalogue. In Lev 19:2 this commandment follows immediately on the command to be holy, before the injunction to keep the sabbath. It occupies a similarly prominent place in the moral instructions of Hellenistic Judaism. Pseudo-Phocylides, 8, tells the reader to ‘honour God first and foremost, and thereafter your parents’. Josephus, in his summary of the Jewish law in Ag. Ap. 2.206, likewise links honour of God and parents. (For further references see van der Horst 1978: 116.) The ‘unwritten laws’ of Greek tradition likewise demand honour first for the gods and then for parents, and this injunction is ubiquitous in Greek gnomic poetry (Bohlen 1991: 82–117). Ben Sira is the first Jewish writer to offer an extended discussion of the subject. In this, as in several other respects, he parallels the late-Egyptian wisdom book of Phibis, found in Papyrus Insinger (Bohlen 1991: 138–9; J. T. Sanders 1983: 81).

Sirach is in accordance with the Decalogue when he suggests that honouring parents leads to well-being (cf. Ex 20:12; Deut 5:16 ). The logic of this suggestion is shown by v. 5 : one who honours his parents can expect to be honoured by his own children in turn. There is then a very practical reason for admonishing the son to be kind to the father who is old and senile (vv. 12–13 ). The son may find himself in the same position one day. Sirach does not rely entirely on the reciprocity of human behaviour, however. He also offers that one who honours his parents atones for sins (vv. 3, 14 ). This idea is in accordance with the tendency in Second-Temple Judaism to associate atonement for sin with good works (cf. Dan 4:24 ). Sirach attributes potency to the blessing of a father (cf. the blessing of Isaac in Gen 27 ) but also to the curse of a mother (v. 9 ; the parallelism of the verse implies that both cursing and blessing are effective on the part of both parents).

Throughout this passage, mothers are honoured equally with fathers, although the sage mentions the father more often. This is also true in the wisdom text 4QSapA. This Qumran work also promises ‘length of days’ to one who honours his parents, and exhorts children to honour parents ‘for the sake of their own honour’ (Harrington 1994: 148; cf. Sir 3:11 ). Here again the honour of the parent is linked to the self-interest of the son, as his honour too is at stake. The theme of honour and shame will recur frequently in Ben Sira.

( 3:17–29 ) Humility and Docility

Exhortations to humility are common in Jewish writings of the Hellenistic period. It is a recurring theme in the Rule of the Community (e.g. 1QS 2:23–5; 3:8–9; 5:24–5 ), and a posture of humility is characteristic of the Thanksgiving Hymns or hodayot. Cf. also the beatitudes in Mt 5 . Sirach, however, goes on to urge intellectual modesty and to polemicize against speculation. We are reminded of the redactional postscript to Ecclesiastes, which discourages the pursuit of books and study and recommends the fear of the Lord instead (Eccles 12:12–13 ).

It is possible that Ben Sira is polemicizing here against Greek philosophy, and the inquisitive pursuit of knowledge that it represented (so Skehan and DiLella 1987: 160–1). It is equally possible that he wished to discourage the kind of speculation found in rival Jewish wisdom circles, such as those represented in the apocalyptic writings of 1 Enoch, which frequently speculate about the matters beyond the range of human experience. It is also possible, however, that what we have here is simply the attempt of a teacher to keep inquisitive pupils in line. This passage must be read in conjunction with the rebuke of stubbornness in vv. 25–9 . Ben Sira wants his pupils to accept what he says and not question it. This is not good pedagogy by modern standards (nor by those of a Socrates or an Ecclesiastes) but it is typical of much wisdom instruction in the ancient world.

( 3:30–4:10 ) Charity to the Poor

Sirach rounds out this introductory section with exhortations to almsgiving and social concern. For the notion that almsgiving atones for sin, cf. Dan 4:24; Tob 4:10–11 . Concern for the poor, specifically for the orphan and the widow, is a staple of ancient Near-Eastern wisdom literature. In Proverbs, God is the guardian of the poor: cf. Prov 14:31 , ‘those who oppress the poor insult their Maker’. The rights of the poor rest in their status as creatures of God: ‘The poor and the oppressor have this in common: the LORD gives light to the eyes of both’ (Prov 29:13 ). Accordingly, Sirach argues that God will hear their prayer ( 4:6 ). For the idea that one who spurns the poor is cursed, cf. Prov 28:27 . Sir 4:10 promises that one who is like a father to the orphan will be like a son to God. The phrase recalls the covenantal relationships between God and Israel (Ex 4:22 ) and between God and the Davidic king (2 Sam 7:14 ). In Sirach, however, the relationship does not derive from a covenant but from a style of behaviour. Cf. Ps 68:5 , where God is called ‘Father of orphans and protector of widows’. Similarly, the righteous man is called son of God in Wis 2:16, 18 . For God as father, see further Sir 23:1 .

There is a significant textual variant in 4:10c d. The Hebrew reads: ‘God will call you son, and he will show favour to you and rescue you from the pit.’ The Greek reads: ‘You will be like a son of the Most High, and he will love you more than does your mother.’ The Hebrew reading is more likely to be original (Smend 1906: 38). The Greek attempts to improve the parallelism, possibly with an eye to Isa 49:15; 66:13 which compare God to a mother. The translation may also be influenced by the reference to ‘their mother’ in 10b.

( 4:11–6:17 )

( 4:11–19 ) The Rewards and Trials of Wisdom

The second in the series of wisdom poems falls into two parts. vv. 11–16 discuss the rewards of wisdom. vv. 17–19 describe, in metaphorical terms, the process by which wisdom is acquired. The ‘children’ addressed by wisdom are her pupils. Cf. Lk 7:35 . Wisdom is associated with the love of life (cf. Prov 3:16; 8:35 ). The terminology suggests an absolute, unlimited life, but the word ‘life’ is used in Proverbs and Psalms in a sense that is qualitative rather than quantitative (von Rad 1964 ). Cf. Ps 84:10 : ‘For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.’ For the term ‘glory’ in v. 13, cf. Ps 73:23–6 . In v. 14 , wisdom is a virtual surrogate for God. The verb to serve, or minister, often has a cultic connotation. The elusive relationship between wisdom and God is explored at greater length in ch. 24 . The notion that the wise will judge the nations is found in an eschatological context in Wis 3 . It is not clear what form this judging will take in Sirach, except that it affirms the superiority of those who serve wisdom to the rest of humanity. vv. 16–19 make clear that wisdom is not acquired without a period of testing. Wisdom is not mere knowledge, but is a disciplined way of life that involves the formation of character.

( 4:20–31 ) True and False Shame

The notions of honour and shame were fundamental to the value system of the ancient Mediterranean world (Moxnes 1993 . See further 10:19–25; 20:22–6; 41:16–42:8 ). Sirach seeks to modify commonly accepted notions of shame, by suggesting that one should not be ashamed to admit ignorance or confess sin. The notion of the proper time received its classic expression in Eccl 3:1–8 , but is intrinsic to ancient wisdom. Ben Sira here uses the concept in a more restricted sense. He is concerned with the proper time for speech. It is typical of Ben Sira's cautious approach to life that bold exhortations to fight to the death for the truth are tempered by warnings not to be reckless in speech. v. 31 is cited in Did. 4.9 and Barn. 19.9.

( 5:1–6:4 ) Cautionary Advice

This ethic of caution is also in evidence in ch. 5 . For the thought of 5:1–2, cf. Prov 16:1; 27:1 . vv. 1, 3–4 , ‘say not…’ make use of a literary form that can be traced back to old Egyptian wisdom (the Instructions of Ani and Amen-em-ope, ANET 420, 423) and is still found in the late-Egyptian Instruction of Onchsheshonqy. It is rare in the biblical wisdom books (but see Eccl 7:10 ). In most cases, but not all, the form is used to forestall questions about divine justice. Sir 5:1 has a parallel in the Instruction of Onchsheshonqy: ‘Do not say: I have this wealth. I will serve neither God nor man’ (Crenshaw 1975: 48–9).

vv. 5–6 qualify the emphasis on divine mercy in 2:11 . A similar warning is found in the Mishnah: ‘If a man said, “I will sin and repent, and sin again and repent,” he will be given no chance to repent. If he said, “I will sin and the Day of Atonement will effect atonement,” then the Day of Atonement effects no atonement’ (m. Yoma, 8:8–9; Snaith 1974: 32). For the ‘day of wrath’ (v. 8 ) cf. 2:14 above. The reference is not to an eschatological day of judgement, but to a day of reckoning for the individual, within this life. 5:9–6:1 deals with duplicitous speech, with emphasis on its shameful character. A good reputation is of fundamental importance for the sage. vv. 10–12 guard against even inadvertent duplicity by deliberation. Cf. Jas 1:19 : ‘Let every one be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.’ Cf. also Jas 3:1–12 on control of the tongue. The expression ‘put your hand over your mouth’ indicates restraint. It occurs in Prov 30:32b in the context of exalting oneself, and in Job as a gesture of respect in the presence of superiors (Job 29:9b ; 40:4b ; cf. Wis 8:12 ). In Sirach, the restraint is for the sake of discretion.

This section concludes with a warning against desire. The text of 6:2 is uncertain. The Hebrew is corrupt, and the Greek is also problematic (‘lest your strength be torn apart as a bull’). Skehan and DiLella (1987 ) restore ‘lest like fire it consume your strength’, which makes good sense but lacks textual support. The original text seems to have involved comparison with the raging of a bull. Sirach suggests that desire is self-destructive. The expression ‘a dry tree’ is taken from Isa 56:3 , where it refers to a eunuch. Control of the passions was a trademark of Stoicism but the ethic of restraint was typical of Near-Eastern wisdom. We may compare the various warnings against adultery and the ‘loose woman’ in Prov 1–9 . Cf. also Prov 23 on control of the appetite, and see further Sir 18:30–19:3 .

( 6:5–17 ) On Friendship

Friends should be chosen carefully and trusted slowly, but a true friend is invaluable (see further 22:19–26 ). The theme of true and false friendship is sounded briefly in Prov 18:24 (cf. Prov 19:4, 7 ). Job complains that his friends have failed him ( 7:14–23; 19:19–22 ). The closest parallels to Ben Sira, however, are found in the Greek gnomic poet Theognis and in the late-Egyptian Instruction of Phibis (J. T. Sanders 1983: 30–1; 70–1). Phibis is especially close to Sirach in warning against premature trust. On Sir 6:13 cf. Theognis 575: ‘It is my friends that betray me, for I can shun my enemy.’ Theognis also says that the trusty friend outweighs gold and silver (cf. Sir 6:15 ). Sirach strikes his own distinctive note, however, when he says that one who fears the Lord should seek a friend like himself.

( 6:18–14:19 )

( 6:18–37 ) The Pursuit of Wisdom

The third poem about wisdom resembles the second ( 4:11–19 ) in focusing on the process of acquiring wisdom, but does not speak in wisdom's name. Several analogies and metaphors are used to convey the need for discipline. The student is like a farmer who ploughs and sows, but who must be patient if he is to reap. (Cf. the NT parable of the sower in Mark 4 and par.) Wisdom is like a stone in the path, and the short-sighted fool casts it aside. Finally, wisdom is compared to various restraining devices—a net, a yoke, or bonds. Cf. the image of the yoke in the teaching of Jesus in Mt 11:28–30 and the yoke of the law in m.Abot, 3:5 . Cf. also Sir 51:26 , a passage found independently at Qumran. Another set of images describes the delight of wisdom for one who perseveres: garments of gold or purple, and a crown. A crown is often a symbol of immortality, but here it represents the glory of wisdom.

vv. 32–7 give more straightforward advice to the pupil. He should frequent the company of the elders and attach himself to a teacher. Cf. the call in 51:23 to enrol in the house of instruction. He should also reflect on the law of the Most High. It appears then that the student has two sources to study, at least initially: the discourse of the elders and the book of the Torah. Neither is simply equated with wisdom here. Rather, they have the character of a propaideutic. Wisdom is a gift of God, over and above what one can acquire by study. It is a disposition of the mind and character, and as such it can not be equated with any collection of sayings or laws, although these are indispensable aids in the quest for wisdom.

( 7:1–17 ) Humility and Piety

This passage is noteworthy in two respects. First, the sage discourages the pursuit of public office. We find later that the role of the scribe was to serve high officials, not to hold office himself (Sir 39:4 ). This advice acquires added relevance in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, when first Jason and then Menelaus sought the office of high priest by bribing the king (2 Macc 4 ). Both men subsequently came to grief. Hengel (1974: i. 133–4) has suggested that these verses fit Onias III, the high priest deposed by Jason, who had pleaded his case already before Seleucus IV, before Epiphanes came to power. It is more likely that Sirach is articulating his general approach to life, rather than responding to any specific occurrence. None of the high priests had sought to become judges. While we may admire the modesty of the sage this passage shows a serious limitation in his political commitment. While he holds strong views on such matters as social justice, he is unwilling to take the personal risks that might put him in a position to implement them.

The second noteworthy aspect of this passage is the attention given to the subject of prayer, which was scarcely noted in Proverbs. Ecclesiastes has a few comments that accord in substance with those of Sirach (cf. Eccl 5:2 ). Proper behaviour at prayer is essentially the same as in public speech. One should not be curt, but neither should one run on (v. 14; cf. Mt 6:7 ).

Respect for physical work (v. 15 ) is grounded in the divine command in Gen 3:17–19 . According to the Mishnah: ‘Study of Torah along with worldly occupation is seemly; for labour in the two of them makes sin forgotten. And all Torah without work ends in failure and occasions of sin’ (m.Abot, 2:2 ). The same Mishnah also parallels Ben Sira's reflection in v. 17 on death as the demolisher of human pride: ‘Be exceedingly humble, for the hope of mortal man is the worm’ (m.Abot, 4:4 ). The Greek changes this verse in Sirach to read ‘fire and worms,’ thereby implying punishment for the wicked after death (cf. Isa 66:24 ).

( 7:18–36 ) Social Relations

Similar manuals on social relations can be found in Pseudo-Phocylides, 175–227, Jos. Ag. Ap. 2. 198–210. The household codes in the NT differ in so far as they often prescribe the duties of wives, children, and slaves as well as those of the master, husband, and father (e.g. Col 3:18–4:1; see Balch 1988 ). None of the relationships is discussed in detail here, but several are treated at greater length elsewhere (friends in 6:5–17 and 22:19–26 , wives in 26:1–4, 13–18 , slaves in 33:25–33 , sons in 30:1–13 , and daughters in 26:10–12 and 42:9–14 ). All the relationships here are viewed in the light of the interest of the patriarchal male, with the unfortunate consequence that wives, slaves, cattle, and children are all on the same level (cf. the tenth commandment, Ex 20:17; Deut 5:21 , where wife and animals are grouped together as possessions).

The advice not to ‘reject’ (v. 19 ) or ‘abhor’ (v. 26 ) one's wife probably concerns divorce (but see the objections of Trenchard 1982: 26–8, who points out that this is not the usual divorce terminology). Divorce appears to have been widespread in Second-Temple Judaism. We have several divorce documents from Elephantine in Upper Egypt in the fifth century BCE and from Nahal Hever near the Dead Sea from the early second century CE. Divorce was the prerogative of the husband. According to the Mishnah, ‘A woman is divorced irrespective of her will; a man divorces of his own accord’ (m. Yebam. 14:1 ). Notoriously, Hillel ruled that a man was entitled to divorce his wife even if she spoiled a dish for him and Akiba allowed it even if he found a fairer woman (m. Git. 9:10; Archer 1990: 218). The Jewish community at Elephantine was apparently exceptional in allowing women to initiate divorce. There has been much debate as to whether women could initiate divorce in the Roman era, but the evidence is at best ambiguous (Collins 1997a). Ben Sira here cautions against gratuitous divorce, but he does not challenge the right to divorce as such. Such challenges first appear in the Dead Sea scrolls (CD 4:20–5:2 ) and then in the NT (Mk 10:2 ). Sir 7:26b is ambiguous. The Hebrew literally reads ‘do not trust a woman who is hated’. Skehan and DiLella (1987 ) render ‘where there is ill-feeling, trust her not’. The verb ‘to hate’, however, is often used in the sense of ‘divorce’ (e.g. at Elephantine). Ben Sira here is most probably advising against trusting a divorced woman, probably on the pragmatic grounds that ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’ So the advice is: be slow to divorce, but do not trust a woman you have sent away.

On the subject of slaves, Ben Sira counsels kindness, but again he does not question the institution of slavery. His ethic is based on enlightened self-interest. Slaves and animals are more profitable when they are well treated. It has been suggested that 7:21 b is an allusion to the biblical law that Hebrew slaves should be released after six years (Ex 21:2; Skehan and DiLella 1987: 205), but Sirach only recommends freedom for a wise slave (cf. Paul's plea for Onesimus in the letter to Philemon).

Ben Sira takes a somewhat stricter view of children than does Pseudo-Phocylides, who counsels ‘be not harsh with your children but be gentle’ (Ps.-Phoc. 207). But he shares with the Hellenistic Jewish author the concern for the chastity of unmarried daughters (cf. Ps.-Phoc. 215–16). See SIR 42:9–14 . The debt to one's parents, and especially to one's mother, is often noted in Egyptian wisdom literature (J. T. Sanders 1983: 65).

Sirach departs from the conventions of wisdom literature when he dwells on the honour due to priests (vv. 29–31 ). Sirach's admiration for the priesthood is clear especially in praise of the high priest Simon in ch. 50 . Deut 14:28–9 associates the Levites with the aliens, orphans, and widows as people who need support. Sirach, however, does not view the offerings to the priests as charity, but as the fulfilment of a commandment.

It is not clear what kindness to the dead (v. 33 ) is supposed to entail. The simplest explanation is that it means a decent burial for the poor (cf. Tob 1:16–19; 2:4, 8 ). It is possible that it entails the placing of offerings at the graveside, a custom noted in Sir 30:18 , but with apparent disapproval. Cf. also Tob 4:17 . Sirach concludes this section by reminding people of their own latter days, when they too may be in need of kindness. The thought of death reminds us of our common humanity. Cf. m.Abot, 3:1 : ‘Keep in mind three things and you will not come into the power of sin: whence you come, whither you go, and before whom you are to give strict account.’

( 8:1–19 ) Prudential Advice

Caution and prudence are fundamental virtues in the wisdom tradition. This passage warns against contention with the powerful, the rich (vv. 1–2 ), or a judge (v. 14 ), since in each case there is an imbalance of power. It also warns against becoming ēmbroiled with people of a foolish or violent disposition (vv. 3–4 ), sinners (v. 10 ), the ruthless or the quick-tempered (vv. 15–16 ), because the situation can get out of control. The dangers of dealing with a ‘heated’ man figure prominently in the Egyptian Instruction of Amen-em-ope (ANET 421–4, esp. ch. 9 ). Cf. Prov 22:23 . The image of fire in v. 10 captures both the way in which anger flares up and its destructive consequences. This image is more commonly used to describe sexual passion (cf. Job 31:9–12; Sir 9:8 ). The warning against giving surety beyond one's means is another time-honoured piece of sapiential advice, nicely captured in Prov 22:27 : ‘why should your bed be taken from under you?’ In all of this the concern of the sage is not with principles of right and wrong but with practical consequences.

Two of the admonitions in this chapter are of a different kind. vv. 4–7 warn against making fun of others or treating them with disdain. Here as in 7:36 mindfulness of one's own mortality is the key to the sage's ethics. The Talmud also forbids reproaching the reformed sinner (y. B. Mes. 4:10 ). The warning not to slight the discourse of the sages (vv. 8–9 ) is also positive advice, of a line of action to be pursued rather than one to be avoided. Warnings against revealing one's thoughts (v. 19 ) can be traced back to old Egyptian wisdom (e.g. the Instruction of Ani, 4:1; 7:7 ; ANET 420). The Egyptian instruction warned not to reveal one's thoughts to a stranger. Sir 8:19 (lit. do not reveal your mind to all flesh) should probably be read in the same vein as a warning against indiscretion, rather than as against ever confiding in anyone at all.

( 9:1–9 ) On Women

Ben Sira now applies his ethic of caution to the subject of women. The meaning of 9:1 is disputed. It is usually taken to mean that the husband's jealousy might suggest the idea of infidelity to the wife (so Snaith 1974: 50: ‘and so put into her head the idea of wronging you’). Trenchard ( 1982: 30) suggests that the wife might then become jealous of the husband and discover infidelity on his part. Camp (1991: 22) takes the verb qn᾽ to refer to ardour rather than jealousy, so that ‘the evil the wife learns from the husband is sexual ardor itself’. Against the latter suggestion, it must be said that the sense of ‘jealousy’ is far better attested. Cf. the notorious ritual for the woman suspected of adultery in Num 5 , and the use of the word in Prov 6:34; 27:4 . The word qn᾽h most probably means sexual passion in Song 8:6 , however (although even there the nuance of jealousy may also be present). Ardour provides a better parallel than jealousy to 9:2 (‘do not give yourself over to a woman’; the Hebrew text is corrupted by dittography of the word qn᾽) and the theme of the following verses is the danger of yielding to sexual attractions. The notions of jealousy and excessive passion are not unrelated. In view of the usual usage of the word, the meaning ‘jealousy’ should probably be retained in 9:1 . For the general sentiment of this passage cf. Ps.-Phoc. 194: ‘For “eros” is not a god, but a passion destructive to all.’

Sirach follows Proverbs in his warnings against the ‘strange woman’ (cf. Prov 5:1–6; 7:1–27 ; note esp. the motif of wandering the city streets in Sir 9:7 and the decline to the pit or destruction in 9:9 ). The danger of losing one's inheritance ( 9:6 ) recalls Prov 5:10 . Sirach's admonitions also bear the stamp of the Hellenistic age. The enticements of the singing girl ( 9:4 ) recall the story of Joseph the son of Tobias, who allegedly fell in love with a dancing girl during a visit to Alexandria (Jos. Ant. 12.186–9). The motif of gazing at a virgin recalls the elders in the story of Susanna, but cf. earlier Job 31:1 where Job protests his innocence in this respect. Descriptions of female beauty become somewhat more common in Hellenistic Jewish writings than in the HB—e.g. contrast the description of Sarah in the Genesis Apocryphon from Qumran (1QapGen 20 ) with the text of Genesis. Public banquets and symposia were a feature of Hellenistic life (cf. Sir 31:12–32:13 ), but married women were normally excluded from them (Corley 1993: 24–79). The only women found at such gatherings were courtesans and dancing girls. Roman women enjoyed more liberty in this regard, but even they were often criticized for participating in public meals. Roman practice, however, can scarcely have made an impact on Ben Sira in the early second century BCE. It is all the more remarkable then that such socializing with married women appears as a problem in his historical setting. There was a precedent for married women who revelled in wine in ancient Israel (Am 4:1 ) but they are not said to have done so with men other than their husbands.

( 9:10–16 ) Heterogeneous Advice

On the subject of friendship, see SIR 6:5–17 . On loyalty to old friends cf. Theognis, 1151–2: ‘Never be persuaded by men of the baser sort to leave the friend you have and seek another.’ Ben Sira often reassures himself that the wicked will yet be punished: cf. 3:26; 11:28 . ‘Those who have power to kill’ (v. 13 ) are presumably rulers. Cf. the advice against seeking office in 7:4–7 , but the advice here would seem to be in tension with the sage's desire to serve before the great and mighty ( 39:4 ). The tales of foreign courts in the books of Esther and Daniel typically portray the king as erratic and the courtiers in danger of sudden death (cf. the king's peremptory decision to put all the wise men of Babylon to death in Dan 2 ). The importance of making friends with the righteous was already noted in 6:16–17 . Contrast Mt 5:43–8 , where Jesus reminds his disciples that their Father in heaven makes his sun shine on the wicked and the righteous alike. The reference to the ‘law of the Most High’ in v. 15 is not found in the extant Hebrew text, which reads ‘let all your counsel be among them’ (i.e. the wise). For an example of dinner-table conversation that a Hellenistic Jewish writer considered edifying see the Epistle of Aristeas, 187–294.

( 9:17–10:18 ) On Rulers and Pride

9:17 contrasts the skill of the tradesman with the wisdom of the ruler (cf. ch. 38 ). The Hebrew of 9:17b is corrupt. Read bînâ instead of the unintelligible bîtâ, so the ruler of the people is wise in understanding. Wisdom is associated with kingship in Prov 8:15–16 . Cf. also Plato's ideal of the philosopher king. Skehan and DiLella (1987: 223) assume that Ben Sira is thinking of the high priest, the ruler of Jerusalem at that time, but this passage is more likely to be a traditional wisdom reflection on the nature of authority. Cf. the discussion in the Epistle of Aristeas, 187–294. (The need for discipline on the part of the king is emphasized in 205, 211, 223.) The motif of the loud-mouthed person, who is hated by all, is also found in Theognis, 295–7.

The discussion of kingship passes over into a discussion of arrogance. It is because of human hubris that sovereignty passes from nation to nation. The belief that God brings low the proud and exalts the lowly is widespread in both Testaments: cf. 1 Sam 2:1–10; Lk 1:46–55 . For the notion that God disposes of kings and kingship, cf. Dan 2:20–3; Wis 6:1–8 . The motif that God overthrows nations and raises up rulers at the proper time is common to wisdom and apocalyptic literature, and this led von Rad (1972: 281–2) to speculate that apocalypticism developed out of wisdom tradition and the activities of the sages. But the similarity between Sir 10 and Dan 2 is quite limited. Daniel envisages a historical progression, with a climactic conclusion. Sirach sees no such progression, but only a principle that is always at work. This principle, moreover, applies to individuals as well as to kingdoms. The fundamental critique of pride is that human beings are only dust and ashes, living under the shadow of death. Nations are like individuals writ large.

( 10:19–11:6 ) Honour and Shame

Cf. SIR 3:1–16 and 4:20–31 . Honour should attach to the fear of the Lord, and there should be no shame in poverty. Appearances are often misleading. Yet Sirach does not entirely abandon conventional wisdom. He acknowledges that one who is honoured in poverty will be honoured much more in wealth, and vice versa (v. 30 ). In part this is simple realism, a recognition of the way honour is actually conferred in his society, but there is an undeniable tension between this realism, which tends to accept things as they are and adjust to them, and the more idealistic affirmation that the intelligence should be honoured even in poverty (cf. Camp 1991: 9–10). Hengel (1974: i. 151–2) has argued that this passage constitutes a social commentary on Hellenistic Judea, where people such as the Tobiads won honour and glory by opportunistic disregard for law and traditional ethics. Ben Sira is not so specific, and he surely intended to formulate general principles that would apply to any situation. None the less, it is not unreasonable to assume that he was influenced to some degree by the events of his time.

The virtue of humility, extolled in 10:26–31 , is quite alien to the Greek sense of honour. In part this is the mentality of the sage, who does not want to occupy centre stage but gains honour through the service of others. In part it is a strategy to guard against humiliation: cf. Prov 25:6–7; Lk 14:7–11 ; cf. further Sir 13:8–13 . 11:1–6 refers back to 10:6–18 for the notion that God brings low the proud, even kings and rulers. It also barely mentions a theme that will be treated at length in chs. 39–44 , the wonderful works of the Lord.

( 11:7–28 ) Patience and Trust

vv. 7–8 involve elementary courtesy as well as being a prerequisite for wisdom: cf. Prov 18:13 ; m.Abot, 5:10 . The advice in v. 9 is expressed more pungently in Prov 26:17 : ‘Like somebody who takes a passing dog by the ears is one who meddles in the quarrel of another.’

In much of this section Sirach expounds a theme that is surprisingly reminiscent of Ecclesiastes: the futility of toil and effort. Success is determined by the favour of the Lord (cf. Eccl 2:26 ). Even if someone thinks he has acquired wealth, the acquisition is not secure. God can change a person's fortune, and whatever has been accumulated must eventually pass to another when the person dies (cf. Eccl 2:18–22; 6:1–3 and the parable of the rich fool in Lk 12:16–21 ). These observations lead to an attitude of resignation. The principle enunciated in v. 14 , that all things, good and bad, life and death, come from the Lord, will be developed in Sir 33:14–15 into a systematic theory that the world is constituted by pairs of opposites. A similar view leads to resignation in the face of death in ch. 41 . While Sirach has no place for judgement after death, he accords great significance to the manner of death. The sentiment expressed in 11:28 is a commonplace of Greek tragedy (e.g. Aesch. Ag. 1. 928; Soph. Oed. Rex, 1. 1529; see further Skehan and DiLella 1987: 241).

vv. 15–16 were added in a secondary recension, apparently by way of theological correction. v. 14 ascribes both good and evil to the Lord. v. 15 ascribes various good things to the Lord, but v. 16 goes on to say that error and darkness were formed with sinners from their birth. Cf. WIS 1:13, 16 , which denies that God made death, and claims that the wicked brought it about by the error of their ways.

( 11:29–12:18 ) Care in Choosing Friends

Sirach here picks up the theme of true and false friendship, already broached in 6:5–17 , but here the tone is more directly imperatival. The Hebrew text of 11:29–34 is garbled: see Skehan and DiLella (1987: 244). Much of the advice is practical. One must exercise some caution in inviting people into one's home, and beware of the friendship of an old enemy. The notion that prosperity attracts false friends is nicely illustrated in the book of Job, where his friends suddenly reappear after he is restored (Job 42:11; cf. Prov 19:4, 6 ). Theognis, 35–6, also counsels against mingling with the bad. For the image of the snake charmer, cf. Eccl 10:11 .

What is most striking about this passage, however, is the vigorous insistence that one should only do good to the just, and give no comfort to the wicked ( 12:2–3 ) and even that God hates sinners ( 12:6 ). Cf. the Qumran Rule of the Community, where those who enter the covenant commit themselves to hate all the sons of darkness, with the implication that God detests them (1QS 1:4, 10 ). A similar proverb is found in Midr. Qoh. Rab. 5. 8f. §5 (Soncino edn.): ‘Do no good to an evil person and harm will not come to you; for if you do good to an evil person, you have done wrong.’ The contrast with the teaching of Jesus in the NT is obvious (Mt 5:43–8; Lk 6:27–8, 32–6 ). But the idea that God hates sinners is also exceptional in Jewish literature. Contrast Wis 11:24 : ‘For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it.’ This idea is illustrated in a colourful way in T. Abr. 10:14 , where God tells the archangel Michael: ‘Abraham has not sinned and has no mercy on sinners. But I made the world, and I do not want to destroy any one of them.’ Ben Sira presumably could not claim to be as innocent of sin as Abraham was.

( 13:1–23 ) The Rich and the Poor

v. 1 continues the theme of selective friendship. This saying became a popular proverb and is quoted by Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing, 111. iii. 61, and 1 Henry IV 11. iv. 460). The passage goes on to speak of the inequities of rich and poor. These inequities are often noted in wisdom literature—e.g. Prov 14:20; Eccl 9:16 ; Sayings of Ahikar, 55. The need for caution in dealing with the rich and powerful is also commonplace. The Egyptian Instruction of Ani warns against indulging oneself at the table of a rich man (ANET 412) and the warning is repeated in the Instruction of Amen-em-ope, ch. 23 (ANET 424) and in Prov 23:1–3 . vv. 9–13 have a parallel in the late-Egyptian Phibis (J. T. Sanders 1983: 92–3). Similar warnings are found in m. ᾽Abot, 2:3 : ‘Be cautious with the authorities, for they do not make advances to a man except for their own need.’ The subject of proper behaviour when invited by the mighty is taken up at length in Sir 31:12–18 . The notion that a powerful person may test his guests by conversation is illustrated (somewhat artificially) in the Epistle of Aristeas, 187–294.

None of these parallels, however, express the antagonism of rich and poor as sharply as vv. 17–20 . The wolf and the lamb may be reconciled in eschatological prophecy (Isa 11:6 ) but not in historical experience. Sirach uses vivid imagery to express the violence of the rich towards the poor. They are lions; the poor are their fodder. (Cf. Job 24:4–5 for the poor as wild asses.) It is reasonable to assume that this picture is coloured by the social context in which Sirach wrote, in which families such as the Tobiads grew rich at the expense of the common people (Tcherikover 1970: 146–8). The general picture is reminiscent of the Epistle of Enoch (1 Enoch, 94–105), which may have been written about the same time. The Epistle pronounces woes against the rich and tells them that they will not have peace ( 94:6–8 ). Sirach's tone, however, is detached. He observes the antagonism of the classes as if it were an unalterable fact of nature. The wise man will avoid the excesses of this situation, but he will not attempt to overthrow it.

v. 14 has the character of a pious gloss, and belongs to the secondary Greek recension.

( 13:24–14:19 ) Miserliness and Generosity

For Sirach, wealth is good in itself ( 13:24 ); the guilt which is often attached to it is not intrinsic to it. Conversely, while a good person may be poor, poverty is not good in itself. Even though Sirach qualifies his condemnation of poverty by attributing it to the proud, he does not contradict it. The value of wealth is undercut, however, if the person has a guilty conscience or is a miser. For the notion that the heart is reflected in the countenance ( 13:25–6 ), cf. Prov 15:13; Eccl 8:1 . The implication of 14:2 is that a person with a guilty conscience has no hope, presumably because of Sirach's belief that retribution must strike sooner or later. Cf. Ps. 1 .

Sirach's exhortation to generosity is, again, in the spirit of Ecclesiastes. Since there is no joy in the netherworld, one should treat oneself well in the present. Cf. Eccl 8:15 : ‘So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat and drink and enjoy themselves,’ and, centuries earlier, the advice given to Gilgamesh by the ale-wife Siduri: ‘When the gods created mankind ǀ Death for mankind they set aside ǀ Life in their own hands retaining. Thou Gilgamesh, let full be thy belly, ǀ Make thou merry by day and by night…’ (ANET 90). Sirach's endorsement of enjoyment, however, is limited to the correct use of wealth. It is not a goal to be pursued in its own right.

None the less the inferences drawn from mortality here provide an interesting contrast with the reasoning of the Wisdom of Solomon. In Wis 2:1–11 , it is the wicked who reason ‘unsoundly’ that life is short and sorrowful and that therefore we should ‘crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither’. They go on to argue that might is right in a world where there is no post-mortem retribution. Sirach, in contrast, insists that there is retribution in this life. The lack of judgement after death, then, gives no licence to sin. But neither is there any reason for asceticism. Life has its fulfilment in the present and should be enjoyed. Moreover, wealth and enjoyment should be shared, since there is no reason to hoard it.

The comparison of generations to leaves ( 14:18 ) is found in Homer, Iliad, 6:146–9 : ‘As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity…So one generation of men will grow while another dies.’

( 14:20–23:27 )

( 14:20–15:10 ) The Pursuit of Wisdom

This wisdom poem resembles 6:18–37 in so far as it describes the quest for wisdom in poetic images, and adds a brief comment associating wisdom with the law of the Lord (cf. 6:37; 15:1 ). The poem falls into two halves: 14:20–7 describes the quest of the student for wisdom, 15:2–10 describes wisdom's rewards. 15:1 , which associates wisdom with the law, stands as an editorial comment by Ben Sira, repeating a recurring theme in the book.

14:20–7 has the form of a beatitude or makarism, a form found about a dozen times in Sirach and almost as frequently in Proverbs (Rickenbacher 1973: 83). The wisdom text 4Q525 declares blessed ‘the man who attains wisdom and walks in the law of the Most High’ (García Martínez 1994: 395). There is probably an allusion in 14:20 to Ps 1 , which pronounces blessed those who meditate on the law of the Lord, with the implication that wisdom can be substituted for the law. Ps 154 , previously known only in Syriac but now found in Hebrew at Qumran, commends those whose meditation is on ‘the law of the Most High’ (García Martínez 1994: 305). The passage goes on to describe wisdom as bride and mother. The pursuit of wisdom has a mildly erotic connotation in Prov 4:6–9 , while wisdom is cast as the nourishing mother in Prov 9:1–5 . Erotic motifs will appear more prominently in 51:13–28 . Here the imagery of peering in at the window recalls Song 2:9 ; cf. also Prov 8:34 . The maternal side of wisdom is expressed through the images of tent and tree, both of which give shelter. For the image of the tent or canopy, cf. Isa 4:6 .

The identification of wisdom with the Torah in 15:1 is a favourite theme of Ben Sira, but it has little impact on the way in which wisdom is described. Rather, the poem continues with the images of bride and mother, but shifts from the agency of the student/suitor to that of wisdom. The imagery of food and drink ( 15:3 ) will be developed in ch. 24 . In the HB the support of the righteous is usually the Lord (Ps 18:19; 22:5; 25:2 ). Here wisdom acts as the surrogate of the Lord. This notion too will be developed in ch. 24 . The crown ( 15:6 ) is often a symbol of a blessed afterlife (see SIR 1:11 ). Sirach's hope, however, is for an everlasting name. This is not a standard expectation in the wisdom books of the HB. It does not appear at all in Job or Ecclesiastes. According to Prov 10:4 , the memory of the righteous is a blessing but the name of the wicked will rot, but the motif is far more prominent in Sirach (Rickenbacher 1973: 95–8). This interest reflects Sirach's heightened sense of honour and shame and reflects his Hellenistic milieu. It appears prominently in the Praise of the Fathers in chs. 44–50 .

It is not immediately clear to what the ‘praise’ of 15:9–10 refers. Smend (1906: 141) takes it as the praise of God. Peters (1913: 129) thinks the reference is to the preceding praise of wisdom. In either case, the point is that the sinner cannot secure prosperity by reciting hymns; they must arise from wisdom if they are to be efficacious.

( 15:11–16:23 ) Freedom and Responsibility

The discussion of freedom of choice in 15:11–20 is complemented by a long discourse on the punishment of sinners in ch. 16 . The closing unit ( 16:17–23 ) harks back to 15:11–12 in its use of the formula ‘Do not say’. (See the comments on the form at SIR 5:1–4 .) The passage on worthless children ( 16:1–4 ) appears abruptly after the discussion of free will, but leads into the theme of punishment, which rounds out this treatise on sin. Sirach returns to the theme in 17:1–24 . 15:11–12 testifies to a lively debate on the origin of sin and evil. One current explanation was provided by the Book of the Watchers in 1 Enoch, 1–36, which expanded the story of the sons of God in Gen 6 and attributed various kinds of evil (violence, fornication, astrology) to the intervention on earth of the fallen angels. Even within the Enoch literature, however, this explanation of evil was questioned. In the Epistle of Enoch, which may be roughly contemporary with Ben Sira, we read: ‘I swear to you, you sinners, that as a mountain has not, and will not, become a slave, nor a hill a woman's maid, so sin was not sent on the earth, but man of himself created it’ (1 Enoch, 98:4 ). In the next generation, the Qumran Rule of the Community would adopt a new proposal, with overtones of Persian dualism, according to which God created two spirits within humanity, and so was ultimately the source of evil as well as good (Collins 1995 ).

In this passage, Sirach comes down unambiguously on the side of free will, with echoes of Deuteronomy. Cf. Deut 11:26–8; 30:15–20; Sir 15:17 alludes directly to Deut 30:15 . The entire wisdom tradition represented in Proverbs presupposes free will. The clear-cut assertion that the Lord hates evil ( 15:13 ) accords with what we have read in 12:6 . But Sirach is not consistent. He also maintains that God has made both good and bad ( 11:8 ) and reckons the sinner among the works of the Lord ( 33:14–15 ). There is evidently some tension between the belief that all the works of the Lord are good ( 39:33 ) and the actuality of sinners, whom God allegedly hates.

The origin of human sin is addressed most directly in 15:14 . Sirach echoes Genesis in saying that God created man in the beginning, but then adds, according to the Hebrew, ‘and set him in the power of his plunderer (hōtĕpô) and placed him in the power of his inclination (yēṣer)’. There is evidently a doublet here. The plunderer is most probably Satan (Peters 1913: 130; cf. Sir 50:4 , where the same word is parallel to ṣār, enemy) and this phrase is probably inserted as a theological correction. It has no equivalent in the Greek. The word ‘inclination’, however, becomes a loaded term in rabbinic literature, according to which human nature was endowed with both a good and an evil inclination. The Talmud attributes to R. Jose the Galilean the view that ‘the righteous are ruled by the good inclination…the wicked are ruled by the evil inclination…average people are ruled by both’ (b. Ber. 61b; Urbach 1975: 475). The potency of the evil inclination (or ‘evil heart’) is recognized in 4 Ezra, written at the end of the first century CE (2 Esd 3:20–1 ). 4 Ezra stops short of saying that God created the evil heart, but the Sages are explicit on the point (Urbach 1975: 472). The notion of an evil inclination is now attested close to the time of Sirach in a fragmentary wisdom text from Qumran (4QSapA), where we encounter such phrases as ‘the inclination of the flesh’ and ‘the thoughts of evil inclination’ (Elgvin 1994: 187). The reference to ‘the inclination of the flesh’ follows a statement ‘so that the just man may distinguish between good and evil’ (García Martínez 1994: 383). The Damascus Document attributes the recurrence of sinful behaviour throughout history to following ‘the thoughts of a guilty inclination’ (yēṣer ăšāmâ), which seems to be equated with stubbornness of heart. The Greek text of Sirach also refers to the evil inclination in 37:3 , but the Hebrew does not support this reading. In view of the history of the term ‘inclination’, the usual translation here as ‘free choice’ (NRSV) is inadequate. To be sure, Sirach emphasizes free choice in the following passage, but the exercise of that choice is conditioned by the inclinations with which human nature is fitted at creation. Sirach stops a long way short of the teaching of two spirits that we find in the Qumran Rule of the Community, but we can see that he is wrestling with the same problem, in attempting to explain the presence of evil while preserving the sovereignty of the creator God.

The worthlessness of impious children is also emphasized in Wis 4:1–6 . In ancient Israel, children provided a kind of immortality. The Wisdom of Solomon could dispense with this, because it preached personal immortality. Sirach maintains that the wicked come to grief in this life. On 16:4, cf. Wis 6:24 : the multitude of the wise is the salvation of the world, but cf. also Eccl 9:15 .

For the examples of divine punishment in 16:3–14 , cf. CD 2:15–3:12 . The sinners in CD follow their guilty inclination. Sirach seems to imply a similar view, in the light of 15:14 . Both Sirach and CD also note the role of stubbornness. A similar tendency to view history as a series of examples is found in Wis 10–19 . Wisdom underlines the typological character of the events by suppressing all names; cf. the reference here to ‘the doomed people’ in 16:9 .

On the impossibility of hiding from the Lord ( 16:17–23 ), cf. Wis 1:6–11 , which explains that the spirit of the Lord, which is closely associated with wisdom, fills the whole world and hears whatever is said.

Two additions to the Greek text of this chapter have theological significance: 16:15 recalls that God hardened Pharaoh's heart, by way of illustrating that God's mercy is balanced by severity towards sinners. The point is of interest, however, because of the preceding discussion of free will. 16:22 adds that ‘a scrutiny for all will come at death’, which is one of several attempts by a Greek redactor to introduce a belief in judgement after death into the text of Sirach. Contrast Sir 41:4 .

( 16:24–18:14 ) Wisdom and Creation

The direct call for attention in 16:24 marks the beginning of a new section. Such calls are rare in Sirach after chs. 2–4 . In v. 25 , Ben Sira appropriates words attributed to Wisdom in Prov 1:23 when he says that he will pour out his spirit. 16:26–30 develops the theme of creation which had been touched on briefly in the preceding section. Here the emphasis is on the order of nature. Cf. Ps 104 , or, closer to the time of Sirach, 1 Enoch, 2–5, 73–82. There are several allusions to Gen 1–3 : from the beginning ( 16:26 ); he filled it with good things ( 16:29 ); all living creatures must return to the earth ( 16:30; 17:1; cf. Gen 3:19 ). In 17:1–10 the focus shifts to the creation of humanity, following the order of the biblical text. (The same progression is found in a fragmentary paraphrase of Genesis and Exodus from Qumran, 4Q422.) Again, there are several echoes of Genesis. Human beings are granted authority and dominion over the other creatures. They are made in God's image, an idea which is explained by juxtaposition with the statement that they are given strength like that of God. (The Gk. redactor adds a reference to the senses at this point.) Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of this meditation on Genesis is that it ignores the sin of Adam completely. (Sir 25:24 ascribes the original sin to Eve.) Death is not here considered a punishment for sin. God limited human life from the start ( 17:2 ). In contrast, the sin is highlighted in other second-century retellings of the Genesis story, notably Jubilees, 3. Cf. also the Words of the Heavenly Luminaries (4Q5048; García Martínez 1994: 417). Sirach chooses instead to emphasize here that the first human beings were endowed with wisdom and understanding.

The ‘law of life’ in 17:11 is most probably the Mosaic law. Cf. 45:5 , where ‘the law of life and knowledge’ is given to Moses on Sinai. The designation ‘law of life’ is derived from Deut 30:11–20 . In the context, the ‘eternal covenant’ of v. 12 must also refer to the Sinai covenant, although 44:18 uses this phrase for the covenant with Noah. Cf. Bar 4:1 , where the Torah is ‘the law that endures forever’. v. 13 refers to the revelation at Mt. Sinai; cf. Ex 19:16–19 . In 17:17 , the rulers of the nations are angels, or ‘sons of God’, cf. Deut 32:8 . 17:19–20 recapitulates the theme of 16:17–23 . Nothing is hidden from God. On the value of almsgiving, cf. SIR 3:30 .

The call to repentence in 17:25 is more characteristic of prophetic than of sapiential literature. Here again Sirach uses the ambivalence of death for his purpose. No one sings the praise of God in the netherworld (cf. Ps 30:9; 88:11–13; 117:17; Isa 38:18–19 ). For the Wisdom of Solomon, the lack of a significant afterlife would undermine the demand for a moral life. For Sirach, it rather adds urgency to the present and so supports the appeal for repentance. The concluding verses of ch. 17 and 18:1–14 constitute a hymn praising the mercy of God. Sirach emphasizes the surpassing power of God and the insignificance of humanity. 18:8 echoes Ps 8:5 (cf. Ps 144:3 ) but Sirach will not conclude that human beings have been crowned with glory and honour, only that God has mercy on them. The estimate of life expectancy is slightly higher than Ps 90:10 , but the difference is inconsequential. (In contrast, Isa 65:20 promises that in the new creation death before the age of 100 years will be premature.) Just as Sirach regards the imminence of death as a reason that people should be moral, he also regards it as a reason for divine mercy. 18:13 , which extends the divine compassion to every living thing, is in sharp contrast to 12:6 , where God has no pity on the wicked, but is in accordance with Hos 11:8–9; Wis 11:23 : ‘you are merciful to all because you can do all things’. Sir 18:14 , however, seems to restrict God's compassion to those who submit to his law. The latter notion is more typical of Sirach, and is likely to reflect his own view over against a more generous tradition.

( 18:15–19:17 ) Caution and Restraint

After the extensive theological reflections in 14:20–18:14 , Sirach now reverts to practical advice and admonitions. The sage guards against impulse and anticipates what needs to be done. The first admonition in 18:15–18 is an exception to this theme, and indeed to the usual moralism of Ben Sira. Even he recognizes, however, that there are times when admonition is inappropriate. On the spirit of giving, cf. 2 Cor 9:7 (God loves a cheerful giver) and Jas 1:5 (God gives ungrudgingly). 18:19–27 gives various examples of prudence and caution. The advice on vows in 18:22–3 recalls Eccl 5:4–5 : it is better not to vow at all than to make a vow and not fulfil it. Characteristically, Ben Sira undergirds his advice with a reminder of the day of death, seen as the day of reckoning when God settles accounts.

Sirach goes on to admonish against self-indulgence and against gossip. The main argument put forward against licentiousness is that it leads to poverty. Cf. Prov 5:10; 21:17; 23:20–1 . There is also the threat of disease and early death ( 19:3; cf. Prov 2:16–19; 5:3–6, 11–12; 7:27 ). The argument against gossip is likewise grounded in self-interest. It may cause someone to hate you ( 19:9 ). Cf. Hesiod, Opera et Dies, 721: ‘If you say a bad thing, you may hear a worse thing said about you.’ This subject evokes a rare flash of humour from Ben Sira, when he compares the gossip to a woman in labour. Cf. Jas 3:1–12 on the need to bridle the tongue.

Both the Qumran Rule of the Community and the Gospel of Matthew advocate pointing out faults to offenders rather than rejecting them out of hand. Cf. 1QS 5:24–6:1; Mt 18:15–17 . This procedure has a biblical warrant in Lev 19:17–18 . Cf. Prov 27:5; 28:23 . Sirach differs from all those passages, however, in leaving open the question of the person's guilt, and allowing that there may a mistake or a case of slander.

( 19:18–30 ) Wisdom and Fear of the Lord

Like some other passages on the fear of the Lord (e.g. 15:1 ), this passage stands out from its context and has the character of an editorial comment by Ben Sira. vv. 18–19 belong to the second Greek recension, and include a trademark reference to immortality. v. 20 is ambiguous in principle. It could mean that the person who acquires wisdom, from whatever source, thereby fulfils the law, or it could mean that the fulfilment of the law constitutes wisdom, even if one draws on no other source (cf. Bar 3:4 : ‘Happy are we, O Israel, for we know what is pleasing to God’). v. 24 makes clear that Ben Sira intends the latter interpretation. Better a person with little understanding who keeps the law than a learned and clever person who violates it. Ben Sira would probably contend that a truly wise person will keep the law in any case, so there is no necessary conflict between the two interpretations. But he recognizes that a person may have many of the attributes of wisdom without the fear of the Lord. Keen but dishonest shrewdness was always a problem in the wisdom tradition. Cf. the advice of Jonadab to Amnon in 2 Sam 13 , which leads to the rape of Tamar. Already in Gen 3:1 the serpent is recognized as crafty. The Hellenistic age offered several models of wisdom to the people of a city such as Jerusalem. The resourcefulness of v. 23 is illustrated in the tale of the Tobiads in Josephus, Ant. 12, and appears again in the enterprising ways in which Jason and Menelaus secured the high-priesthood shortly after the time of Ben Sira. Sirach evidently does not restrict wisdom to the observance of the Torah, but he regards the rejection of law and tradition as incompatible with wisdom. He thereby stakes out a conservative position in the spectrum of Jewish opinion in the period before the Maccabean revolt.

The discussion of duplicitous behaviour in vv. 25–8 is suggested by the topic of false wisdom in vv. 22–3 . vv. 29–30 , however, are at odds with this passage, as they seem to disregard the possibility of being duped by appearances. Proverbial wisdom does not lend itself easily to consistent, systematic thought. In the book of Proverbs, contradictory maxims are sometimes placed side by side (Prov 26:4–5 ). Similarly, Sirach here brings together traditional advice on a topic, even though it is somewhat inconsistent.

( 20:1–32 ) Miscellaneous Advice

Like much proverbial wisdom, the maxims in this chapter are only loosely connected. The general theme is true and false wisdom. vv. 1–3 reprise the topic of admonition. Timely silence (vv. 5–8 ) is a favourite theme of prudential literature. Cf. Prov 17:28; Eccl 3:7 ; Plutarch's Moralia, 5.2 (for further examples see Skehan and DiLella 1987: 300–1). vv. 9–11 reflect on the variability of fortune. vv. 13–17 comment on the fool's lack of perspective, and impatience. The fate of the fool is to be laughed to scorn. While the fool is not guilty or subject to divine punishment, he incurs shame.

v.18 echoes a proverb attributed to Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism: ‘Better to slip with the foot than with the tongue’ (Diog. Laert. 7.26). v. 20 shows the crucial importance of timing in the wisdom tradition. The principles laid out in Eccl 3:1–8 are fundamental to the application of all proverbs. Cf. Prov 26:7, 9 . vv. 21–3 point out ambiguities in some commonly accepted values. Poverty is not desirable, but if it keeps one from sinning it can be beneficial. Honour is a good to be sought, but it can also mislead a person and lead to downfall. These comments, however, do not put in question Ben Sira's acceptance of conventional wisdom on these subjects; they merely allow for exceptions.

Condemnations of the liar (vv. 24–6 ) are ubiquitous in moral literature (cf. Prov 6:17, 19; Sir 7:13 ). The particular nuance that Sirach brings to it here is the shame that the liar incurs. For the comparison with the thief, cf. Prov 6:30 : ‘The thief is not despised who steals only to satisfy his appetite.’ None the less, neither sin is excused. The most notable advice in vv. 27–31 is that the wise should please the great. This advice contrasts with that given in 9:13 , which warns people to keep their distance from the powerful, but accords with Sirach's account of the sage in 39:4 , and is likely to reflect his own opinion. The wise courtier was a stock character in ancient wisdom literature (cf. Ahikar, Joseph, Daniel, etc.). Most remarkable is the statement that those who please the great atone for injustice (v. 28 ). It is not clear for whose sin the wise person would atone. The question of atonement for sin comes up in Dan 4 in the context of a wise man serving the mighty. In that case, Daniel advises the king that he can atone for his (the king's) sin by almsgiving. Smend (1906: 188) assumes that the phrase ‘who pleases the great’ is copied carelessly from the previous verse, so that the text is corrupt.

( 21:1–12 ) Sin and Forgiveness

Ben Sira differs from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in his concern for atonement and forgiveness for sin. The serpent in v. 2 is not the tempter of Gen 3 but is avoided because it bites; cf. Am 5:19 . Mention of the serpent here may be prompted by Prov 23:32 which compares a drunken hangover to the bite of a snake. 1 Pet 5:8 compares the devil to a roaring lion. The pit of Hades in v. 10 is not the hell of Christian tradition but Sheol, abode of all the dead. vv. 11–12 repeat the association of wisdom with the Torah, but here a new rationale is given. The law is an instrument for controlling impulses. This understanding of the law is developed at length in 4 Maccabees, which was written in Greek, probably in Antioch or Alexandria, more than two centuries after Sirach. Cf. 4 Macc 1:13–17 , which sets out the enquiry of the book as to whether reason is sovereign over emotions, and then associates reason and wisdom with education in the law. Control of the passions was a matter of high priority in Greek philosophy, especially in Stoicism. As in 19:25 , Sirach distinguishes wisdom from mere shrewdness, but he acknowledges that resourcefulness is a necessary component of wisdom.

( 21:13–22:18 ) Wisdom and Folly

The sayings in this section are not overtly theological, and may well be part of the traditional lore that Ben Sira passed on. 21:13–28 contrasts the wise person and the fool, a contrast that is ubiquitous in Proverbs. For the comparison of the wise to a spring, cf. m. ᾽Abot, 6:1 . The fool is like a broken vessel because he cannot retain instruction. On the chatter of fools, cf. Eccl 10:13–14 . Sir 38:32 notes that artisans are not sought out for the assembly. Presumably, the prudent man who is sought out in 21:17 must also be educated in wisdom. Education in itself, however, does not suffice. It has quite a different effect on the fool and on the wise person ( 21:18–21 ). 21:22–6 describes the impetuosity of the fool, especially regarding lack of verbal restraint (cf. 19:8–12 ). In 21:27 , the Greek ‘Satan’ reflects the Hebrew sāṭān, adversary. The reference is to an ordinary human adversary, not to a demonic figure, although the Hebrew term is used to designate a specific supernatural figure in Job 1–2 and in 1 Chr 21:1 .

22:1–2 characterizes the sluggard, who is the target of barbed wit in Proverbs ( 6:6–11; 24:30–4; 26:13–16 ). Sirach's analogies are crude. The ‘filthy stone’ is one that has been used as toilet paper (Smend 1906: 196; Skehan and DiLella 1987: 312). Hence the parallelism with ‘a lump of dung’ in v. 2 . The Syriac adds: ‘and everyone flees from the stench of it’.

22:3–5 comments on sons and daughters. On the unruly son, cf. 16:1–5 . 22:3 may be influenced by Prov 17:21 , which says that the father of a fool has no joy. Sirach switches the reference from the apparently male fool to a daughter (Trenchard 1982: 135). He appears to regard the birth of any daughter as a loss; cf. his comments on daughters in ch. 42 . Later, the Talmud says that a man should bless God for not having made him a woman or a slave (b. Menaḥ 43b), and blesses the man whose children are male rather than female (B. Bat. 16b). The misogyny of Sirach's statement is modified only slightly by the concession that a daughter may be sensible and obtain a husband (v. 4 ). It is clear from 7:25 that the daughter does not get the husband on her own initiative. She is given in marriage. Ben Sira's great fear about daughters is that they will bring shame on their fathers (or husbands) by ‘shameless’ behaviour. He will urge precautionary measures in 26:10–12 and 42:11 . The second Greek recension adds the interesting comment that children who are well brought up can hide the ignoble origins of their parents ( 22:7 ).

22:7–12 is a scathing dismissal of the fool, whose life is said to be worse than death. The seven-day mourning period is observed by Joseph for Jacob (Gen 50:10 ), by all Israel for Judith (Jdt 16:24 ), and by orthodox Jews today. 22:13–15 counsels against the company of a fool; cf. the advice to avoid the wicked in ch. 12 . In 22:13b the Syriac reads ‘and do not travel with a pig’, and this reading is preferred by Smend (1906: 199) and some others. The second Greek recension seems to presuppose this reading when it warns ‘you may … be spattered when he shakes himself’ (13d). 22:16–18 stresses the importance of steadfastness and resolve in contrast to the fool's lack of conviction.

( 22:19–26 ) On Friendship

This section on friendship continues the sequence of advice on assorted matters; cf. SIR 6:5–17 . The concern in vv. 19–22 is with dangers to friendship. v. 23 is an attempt to overcome a common pitfall—friendship that is contingent on prosperity. Cf. Sir 6:8–12 and the parallels cited there. vv. 25–6 are cast in the first person in the Greek. Thus the author reassures himself that his friend's reputation is at stake in the friendship. Many scholars think, however, that the first person here is a corruption, influenced by the following section ( 22:27–23:6 ) and that the reader was warned that his or her reputation was at stake in friendship (Smend 1906: 202). Friendship for Sirach is grounded in mutual self-interest, and in this he is typical of the wisdom tradition. This cautious approach can legitimately be contrasted with the NT commandment to love one's enemies (Skehan and DiLella 1987: 317; Lk 6:27–38 ), but the same NT passage contains the maxim: ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Lk 6:31 ). This suggests that mutual self-interest may none the less also have a part to play in Christian ethics.

( 22:27–23:27 ) Verbal and Sexual Restraint

It is rare indeed to find a prayer of petition in a wisdom book. The only other example in this book, the prayer for national restoration in ch. 36 , is very different in spirit and is probably not the work of Ben Sira. The prayer here introduces the themes that follow in ch. 23 : sins of speech and of lust. The section concludes with another affirmation of the fear of the Lord and obedience to the commandments.

For the opening of the prayer in 22:27 cf. Ps 141:3 . The main concern of the prayer is protection from sin but it is noteworthy that Sirach's concern for honour and shame intrudes in v. 3 (but cf. Ps 13:4; 38:16 ).

The most noteworthy feature of the prayer is undoubtedly that God is addressed as ‘Father’. God is only rarely called father in the HB, and is never so addressed by an individual. (God is called father of the people of Israel in Isa 63:16; Mal 2:10 , and possibly in 1 Chr 29:10 , where ‘our father’ could refer to either God or Israel.) In the Apocrypha, God is addressed as father in 3 Macc 5:51 and 6:3 and in Wis 14:3 , passages that were composed in Greek. The Hebrew text of the psalm in Sir 51:10 reads: ‘Lord, you are my Father’, although the Greek has a confused reading ‘Lord, father of my Lord’. The Hebrew of ch. 23 is not extant. Joachim Jeremias argued that there was no evidence for the use of ‘my father’ as a form of direct address to God in Hebrew before the Christian era (Jeremias 1967: 29) and suggested that ch. 23 originally read ‘God of my father’. The direct address, however, is now attested in the Prayer of Joseph (4Q372), which is dated tentatively about 200 BCE (Schuller 1990 ). The Prayer begins, ‘My father and my God’. In view of this parallel there is no reason to question the authenticity of the Greek text of Sir 24:1, 4 . The familial title ‘father’ balances the appellation ‘Master’, which emphasizes rather God's power (Strotmann 1991: 83). For Sirach's understanding of the fatherhood of God, cf. SIR 4:10 .

The phrase ‘instruction of the mouth’ in 23:7 is lifted out and set as a heading for this section in several MSS. The subject of loose talk has been treated in 19:4–12 and 20:18–20 . The present passage, however, is not concerned with gossip but with swearing (vv. 9–11 ) and coarse talk (vv. 12–15 ), which are matters of Jewish piety rather than common Near-Eastern wisdom. Avoidance of swearing is a matter of respect for the divine name. Cf. Ex 20:7; Deut 5:11; Mt 5:34–7; 23:18–22; Jas 5:12 . Sirach evidently believes that oaths have consequences, even if they are sworn inadvertently (v. 11 ). The reference of 23:12 is not clear. Some commentators take it to refer to blasphemy (Smend, Skehan and DiLella), for which the death penalty is prescribed in Lev 24:11–16 (cf. Mt 26:65–6; Jn 10:33 ). Others think the ‘speech comparable to death’ is that which is described in the following verses (so Peters 1913 ). It is more likely, however, that v. 12 refers to a separate offence, and that Ben Sira deliberately avoids mentioning it directly. On respect for parents, see SIR 3:2–16 . To curse the day of one's birth is the depth of despair. Cf. Job 3:3–10; Jer 20:14 . The point here is the acute embarrassment of the person who disgraces himself or herself in the presence of the mighty. Remembering one's parents is a way to keep on guard.

The treatise on adultery ( 23:16–26 ) is introduced by a numerical proverb. For a cluster of such proverbs see Prov 30:15–31 . Other examples are found in Sir 25:1–2, 7–11; 26:5–6, 28; 50:25–6 (see Roth 1965 ). The form ‘two kinds…and three’ invariably introduces the latter number. So in this case there are three kinds of sinner: the person of unrestrained passion, the person guilty of incest, and the adulterer.

Sirach gives equal time to the adulterer and adulteress. The discussion of the adulterer can be viewed as an extrapolation from Prov 9:17 , which refers to the sweetness of stolen water and bread eaten in secret. Sirach speaks of sweet bread and dwells at length on the issue of secrecy. On the futility of hiding from the Lord, cf. 16:17–23 above. Here Sirach adds that God knows everything even before it is created. Cf. 1QH 9:23 (formerly numbered 1:23 ): ‘What can I say that is not known?’ In the Qumran theology, however, God not only knows what will happen but determines it (1QS 3:15–16 ; 1QH 9:19–20 ). Sirach is closer to the position attributed to Akiba in m. ᾽Abot, 3:19 : all is foreseen, but free will is given. Sirach does not specify how the adulterer will be punished. Proverbs implies that the adulterer will be beaten up by the wronged husband and publicly disgraced and that he will have to pay a heavy fine (Prov 6:31–5 : ‘sevenfold’, ‘all the goods of his house’). Sirach evidently envisages public disgrace. Neither Proverbs nor Sirach make any mention of the death penalty for the adulterer prescribed by biblical law (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22 ).

The treatment of the adulteress differs from that of the adulterer in several respects. Her sin is said to be three-fold—the offence against God and her husband and the fact that she produced children by another man. Sirach implies that the adulterer sins against God (v. 18 ), although he does not say so directly. There is no implication, however, that the adulterer sins against his wife. The imbalance in this regard reflects the common ancient tendency to group the wife with the possessions of her husband (see SIR 7:22–6 ). The sin against the husband is that she has violated his rights and his honour. The production of children by adultery is considered a separate offence. Sir 23:23 does not imply that the woman's adultery was prompted by the desire to have a child (against Trenchard 1982: 99). Neither is there any reason to think that the woman acts out of economic necessity (so Camp 1991: 27–8). If an adulterous affair ended in pregnancy, the woman would have little choice but to try to pass the child off as her husband's offspring. One of the main reasons for prohibiting adultery was to guarantee the legitimacy of a man's children. At issue here is the right of inheritance, and so the adultery has economic consequences, which are deemed to constitute a separate, third, offence.

While the adulterer will be punished in the streets of the city, presumably by the cuckolded husband, the adulteress is led to the assembly. Sirach is not explicit as to what action the assembly may take. The story of Susanna, which may be roughly contemporary, comes to mind. Since Susanna is not married, she is accused of fornication rather than adultery, but she is sentenced to death. The death sentence is also proposed for the woman taken in adultery in Jn 8 . It is very unlikely, however, that these stories reflect actual practice in the Hellenistic or Roman periods. In the Elephantine papyri (5th cent. BCE), the punishment for adultery is divorce, with loss of some property rights. The extension of punishment to the children recalls Ezra 10:44 , where the foreign wives were sent away with their children. Ben Sira, however, seems to indicate a divine punishment rather than a human one. His contention is that the children of an adulteress will not prosper. Cf. Wis 3:16–19 . Sirach does not provide any human mechanism to ensure that this punishment will be effected.

Sir 23:27 brings this section to a conclusion by making the disgrace of the adulteress into a moral lesson that it is better to keep the law. It is noteworthy that his discussion of the punishment of the adulteress does not call for literal fulfilment of the law. Sirach's concern is with conformity to the tradition in principle, with the attitude of reverence rather than with legal details. The second Greek redactor adds a gloss (v. 28 ), which promises great glory and length of days to one who follows after God. In accordance with the usual theology of this redaction, ‘length of days’ probably means eternal life (so Skehan and DiLella 1987: 326).

( 24:1–33 ) The Praises of Wisdom

The great hymn to wisdom in ch. 24 may be regarded as the centrepiece of the book. It is often regarded as the introduction to the second part of the book (e.g. Segal 1972; Roth 1980; Skehan and DiLella 1987 ), with a view to finding a symmetrical structure in the book as a whole. Since each of the wisdom poems in 1:1–10, 4:11–19, 6:18–37 , and 14:20–15:10 , introduces a section, so it is argued does ch. 24 . Against this, however, the second half of the book is not punctuated by wisdom poems as the first had been. The only true wisdom poem in the remainder of the book is found in 51:13–30 , which serves as a conclusion, and may be added as an epilogue. That passage is cast as a personal declaration by Ben Sira; vv. 30–4 are also a personal declaration. It seems better then to see ch. 24 as the conclusion of the first part of the book (Marböck 1971: 41–3). It sums up the theme of wisdom that has been treated intermittently in chs. 1–23 , and will be paralleled by the concluding poem on wisdom in ch. 51 .

Ch. 24 differs from other wisdom poems in Sirach in so far as vv. 3–22 constitute a declaration by Wisdom in the first person. As such, it is most accurately designated as an aretalogy, and is properly compared to the aretalogies of the Egyptian goddess Isis (Marböck 1971: 47–54). There is an obvious biblical precedent in Prov 8 , which may itself be influenced by Egyptian prototypes. The argument that Sirach drew directly on the aretalogies of Isis has been made especially by Conzelmann (1971: 230–43). In addition to the formal similarity, there are also thematic parallels. Both Wisdom and Isis are of primeval origin, exercise cosmological functions, and claim dominion over the whole earth. Isis claims to have established law for humanity. v. 23 , which stands outside the first-person aretalogy, equates wisdom with the law of the Lord. It is quite likely then that the concept of Wisdom singing her own praises, in both Sirach and Proverbs, is indebted to the Egyptian Isis hymns. Sirach, however, also draws heavily on biblical phraseology, and so adapts the aretalogy form for his own purpose (Sheppard 1980: 19–71).

vv. 1–2 provide the setting for Wisdom's speech. v. 2 clearly locates her in the heavenly council (cf. Ps 82:1 ), with the implication that she is imagined as a heavenly, angelic being. It is possible that ‘her people’ in v. 1 refers to this heavenly assembly (so Smend 1906: 216), but it is more likely to refer to Israel, among whom Wisdom settles in vv. 8–12 . She speaks, then, on both earthly and heavenly levels simultaneously. vv. 3–7 describe the origin and nature of Wisdom. The first-person pronoun (Gk. egō) is especially characteristic of the Isis aretalogies, but cf. also Prov 8:12; 17 . Even though the Hebrew text is not extant, the original Hebrew is clearly reflected in the idiom of v. 1 , lit. ‘Wisdom praises her soul’. The divine origin of Wisdom is also stressed in Prov 8:21 and Sir 1:1 . The idea that Wisdom proceeds from the mouth of God may be suggested by Prov 2:6 (‘For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding’). This motif lays the foundation for the identification of Wisdom with the word of God, which also proceeds from the mouth (cf. Isa 45:23; 48:3; 25:11 ). The identification is clear in Wis 9:1–2 . The Greek word logos, however, had far-reaching connotations in Greek, especially Stoic, philosophy, where it referred to the rational spirit that pervades the universe. This concept was also developed by the Jewish philosopher Philo (Mack 1973 ). The fusion of the Jewish wisdom tradition and Greek philosophy on this point is essential background to the use of the Logos/Word in Jn 1:1 . The notion that Wisdom proceeds from the mouth also invites association with the spirit/breath of God (Gk. pneuma) which had similar philosophic connotations in Stoic philosophy (cf. the use of pneuma in Wis 1:7 ). The association with the spirit is suggested here in the statement that Wisdom covered the earth like a mist, which recalls Gen 1:2 , although the allusion is not precise.

The statement that Wisdom lived ‘in the heights’ is suggested by Prov 8:2 , but here, unlike Proverbs, the heights should be understood as heavenly. What is most striking about the following verses is how language used of God in the HB is now applied to Wisdom. The pillar of cloud of the Exodus (Ex 13:21; 33:9–10 ) is also identified with the Logos by Philo (Quis Heres, 203–6) and Wisdom is given a key role in the Exodus in Wis 10 . Here, however, it is removed from the Exodus context, and associated with the primordial enthronement of Wisdom. While Prov 8:27 says that Wisdom was there when God established the heavens, Sir 24:5 has Wisdom circle the vault of heaven alone. Cf. rather Job 9:8 , where God alone stretched out the heavens. In Job 38:16 God challenges Job whether he ‘has walked in the recesses of the deep’. Rule over the sea is a divine prerogative in the HB (Ps 65:8; 89:10; 93:3–4 , etc.). Wisdom is never said to be divine, but it appears to be the instrument of God's presence and agency. The quest for a resting place has been compared to the wandering of Israel in the wilderness (Sheppard 1980: 39). Ben Sira however shows no interest in the historical process by which Israel settled in its land. Wisdom's quest for a resting place completes the process of creation. There is an enigmatic passage in 1 Enoch, 42:1–2 , that dramatically reverses Sirach's account: Wisdom found no place to dwell and so withdrew to heaven.

vv. 8–12 describe how Wisdom settles in Israel. The command to settle in Israel may be compared to the command given to Israel to seek out the designated place of worship in Deut 12 (Sheppard 1980: 42). But Sirach implies that Wisdom had settled in Israel before Israel settled in its land. So Wisdom ministered already in the tabernacle, the tent-shrine of the wilderness (Ex 25:8–9 ). v. 9 suggests that the association of Wisdom with Israel is primordial. The most apt parallel to this passage in Sirach is found in Deut 32:8–9 , which says that when God divided the nations among the ‘sons of God’ he took Israel as his own portion. Sirach has God exercise the election of Israel through Wisdom. The passage is remarkable, however, for its cultic emphasis. Wisdom finds expression in the cult of the Jerusalem temple. This idea is exceptional in the wisdom tradition, but it accords with Sirach's high esteem for the priesthood (cf. 44:6–26; 50:1–21 ). The notion of Wisdom making its dwelling in Israel is picked up in Jn 1:14 , where the Word comes to dwell with humankind.

vv. 13–17 compare Wisdom to the luxuriant growth of various trees and plants. Such imagery is not found in Prov 8 , but is familiar from other parts of the HB. Cf. Ps 1 , which compares the righteous man to a tree planted by water, and in general Num 24:6; Hos 14:5–7 . The cedar of Lebanon is the most celebrated tree in the Bible (Ps 92:12; Song 5:15 ). v. 15 changes the imagery to perfumes, and again evokes the cult by mentioning the incense in the tabernacle. vv. 19–22 compare Wisdom to food and drink. Cf. John 6:35 , where Jesus says that whoever eats of him will never hunger and whoever drinks of him will never thirst.

v. 23 introduces a short commentary on the words of Wisdom, drawn in part from Deut 33:4 . The word ‘inheritance’ also picks up a motif from vv. 8, 12 . The fact that the verse has three cola is exceptional in Ben Sira, and has led to the suggestion that the first colon, which refers explicitly to the book and which is not paralleled in Deut 33:4 , is a secondary addition, influenced by Bar 4:1 (Rickenbacher 1973: 125–7). Sirach was certainly familiar with the Torah in its written form (cf. 38:34 ), but this is the only passage that identifies wisdom specifically with the book. The identification of wisdom with the law is implied again in the hymn at the end of Sirach, by the metaphor of the yoke in 51:26 . The repeated association of wisdom with the Torah is one of the principal ways in which Ben Sira modifies the wisdom tradition he had received. It has its basis in Deut 4:6 , but is never hinted at in Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. Yet for Sirach, in contrast to Deuteronomy, wisdom is the primary category which is the subject of hymnic praise. The Torah is mentioned secondarily, by way of clarification. Wisdom is older than Moses, having been created ‘in the beginning’. Later, rabbinic authorities would claim that the Torah too was created before the world, and was even the instrument with which the world was created (Urbach 1975: i. 287). On this understanding, the law revealed to Moses was implicit in creation from the beginning (Marböck 1971: 93–4; for a contrary interpretation see Schnabel 1985 ). Cf. Rom 1:20 , although Paul evidently did not regard all details of the law as part of the law of creation. Sirach also ignores most of the levitical laws, and does not address the question whether the whole law was implied in Wisdom from the beginning.

Sirach proceeds to compare Wisdom/Torah to the four rivers associated with Eden in Gen 2 , and also to the Nile and the Jordan. The comparison with foreign rivers may be significant. Wisdom was always an international phenomenon, and its character is not changed in that respect by the identification with the Jewish law. The reason that the first man did not know wisdom fully (v. 28 ) is not because it was not yet revealed (so Skehan and DiLella 1987: 337). Sir 17:7 claims that when God created humanity he filled them with knowledge and understanding and gave them knowledge of good and evil. Besides, the last man is no wiser ( 25:28 ). No human being can fully comprehend Wisdom (cf. Job 28 , which has a decidedly more negative view of human wisdom).

The chapter closes with a stanza in which Sirach compares himself to an offshoot of the great river of Wisdom. For the metaphor of light, cf. Prov 6:3 . He also compares his teaching to prophecy, without claiming to be a prophet. Sirach views prophecy as part of the textual lore to be studied by the sage ( 39:1 ). It is not apparent that he recognized any active prophets in his own time. The specific point of comparison with prophecy here is that it remains for future generations. Sirach concludes with a protestation of disinterestedness. He has not laboured for himself alone. Cf. 51:25 , where he invites the uneducated to acquire learning without money.

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