The book the rabbis loved but rejected from the Bible

 

The book “The Wisdom of Ben Sira” was composed around the year 180 BCE by Yeshua ben (son of) Eleazar ben (son of) Sira, about a decade before the 167 BCE onset of the Chanukah story. It is a book that the rabbis did not include in the Hebrew Bible despite respecting it immensely and quoting from it some 82 times with approval in the Talmud and other rabbinical writings.[1] The author Yeshua is called after his grandfather Sira.[2] His book is also called “Ecclesiasticus.” The book is included in the Catholic Bible, but not the Jewish Hebrew Scriptures nor the Protestant New Testament. It comprises 51 chapters and is the longest volume in the Catholic Bible. It is part of what scholars call the Wisdom literature of Israel, together with Job, Proverbs, Qohelet (Ecclesiastes), the apocryphal[3] Wisdom of Solomon, and some of the Psalms that are called wisdom Psalms because of what they teach.

General content

The Ben Sira book is pragmatic, not theological, and reflects the traditional Jewish mentality of the Hellenistic world of second century BCE Jerusalem, Israel, where Ben Sira lived. The author was a teacher in Jerusalem, and his book, generally written in poetry, addresses subjects such as showing proper honor to one’s father and mother and the beneficial results of that behavior, humility, almsgiving, true and false friendships, proper behavior to neighbors, advice concerning wicked and virtuous women, the use of wealth, as well as many other subjects such as malice, anger, vengeance, loans, eating, wine, servants, and the like.

Life after death and women

Significantly, Ben Sira did not believe in life after death. All rewards and punishments occur during the lifetime of the actor. He also had the terrible ideas about women rampant in his age, and which have not been totally resolved even in the twenty first century.[4]

Wisdom

But of most interest to many and this reviewer is his views about wisdom and the fear and love of God, which Ben Sira felt were related to each other and to wisdom. Ancient Jews believed that the world was created with wisdom. Proverbs 8:22 has wisdom say: “The Lord begot me as the firstborn of the ways, the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago.”[5] Ben Sira reflects this view at the start of his book in 1:4, “Before all things wisdom was created, and prudent understanding from all eternity.” In his autobiographical poem, in 51:13-14, he stresses the importance of wisdom: “When I was young and innocent I kept seeking wisdom. She came to me in her beauty, and until the end I will cultivate her.”

What is wisdom? In 6:18-37, Ben Sira encourages his readers to strive for wisdom, as he said he did, and he also identifies wisdom with the Law: people can obtain wisdom by fearing and loving God and keeping the divine commandments. “The whole of wisdom is fear of the Lord; complete wisdom is the fulfillment of the Law” 19:20. By so doing, people are living out God’s wisdom, which is revealed in the Law, and will obtain many benefits.

Curiously, while he disparages women, Ben Sira personifies wisdom as did the author of Proverbs as a woman; as a teacher (4:11-19), mother and wife (14:20-15:8), and lover to be wooed (51:13-21).

Fear and Love God

To Ben Sira, fear and love of God are synonyms and neither expresses an emotion. He equates fear and love of God with wisdom; they are all three the same. What does he mean?

I understand “fear” and “love” of God suggesting a high degree of respect for nature that God created. He is saying seek wisdom by doing two things. First, obey the Law, and by Law he means the Torah, for the Torah contains wisdom, and wisdom brings personal and social benefits. This is also the view of Maimonides (1138-1204) who in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:28 described three purposes of the Torah: to teach some truths and to aid people in improving themselves and society. Second, by the words fear and love[6] he is suggesting, as did Maimonides, that we need to study the universe that God created or formed because it reveals even more than the Torah how we can improve ourselves and others.

 

 

[1] Such as in BT Hagigah 12a, BT Nidah 12b, and JT Berakhot 11c.

[2] As was done with Jesus, whose name was most likely Yeshua or the fuller version Yehoshua, Christians prefer to use the Greek version of the name to diminish the Jewish origin. So in Christian commentaries on this book Yeshua is called Jesus.

[3] The term “apocrypha” is popularly understood to describe the fifteen books or parts of books composed before the common era (BCE) that Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Eastern churches accept, wholly or partially, as canonical scripture but Protestants and Jews do not.

[4] There are statements such as “There is scarce any evil like that in a woman” 32:19. “In a woman was wrongdoing beginning: on her account we all die” 25:24. “My son, keep a close watch on your daughter, lest she make you a sport of your enemies” 49:11. “Give no woman power over you” 9:2.

[5] This probably means that there is wisdom in all that was created or formed.

[6] The expressions “fear of God” and “wisdom” are the key words of the book. The first, or its equivalent, occurs about sixty times in the volume, only the book of Psalms has a larger number of occurrences, 79. Wisdom is repeated about 55 times. The opening two chapters, which gives the theme to the book, uses the word 17 times, 11 in the first chapter alone.

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