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One of Scripture's longest books, the Book of Sirach has much to offer in its timeless advice and wise adages. Consider the significance of these cultural "words to live by" in both the ancient world and today's society.


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The Timeless Wisdom of Sirach

by Virginia Smith

Each year, as their final semester of high school began, my students asked about the "Words to Live By" assignment. It was, for them, the highlight of Senior Religious Studies. From January through May, they were to collect nuggets of wisdom that spoke uniquely to them and consign these to a notebook. Such gems might be uncovered anywhere: books, movie dialogue, billboards, bumper stickers, song lyrics, the Internet. There was even the outside chance that their parents, teachers or pastors might actually say something worth remembering.

My hope was that, having formed the habit of capturing words of wisdom on paper, some would continue the practice for a lifetime. The purpose was twofold. First, even the most profound statements tend to slide out the left ear if not relegated to writing. Second, and more important, when the students' lives were not going particularly well and they were befuddled and disheartened, their "Words to Live By" would help to center them, to remind them of their core identity, what they stand for, what, in the final analysis, really matters.

The idea did not originate with me. Societies of every time and place have passed collections of folk wisdom from generation to generation either formally in writing or, more often, informally through the spoken word. Usually, these pearls are known as proverbs, and cultural groups are not the only ones who possess them. Families are repositories of pithy sayings that have made their way down goodness knows how many generations, even centuries. "As my grandmother used to say..." For all we know, she learned it from her grandmother who heard it from her grandmother, and so on...and on...and on.

Words to Live By

The Bible contains several collections of this kind, the most obvious being the Book of Proverbs. But late in the third century b.c.e. or early in the second, one Ben Sira set about collecting sayings reflective of the Jewish way of life. Whether he can be credited as the sole author of the book that bears his name is a moot point since his grandson was responsible (c. 132 b.c.e.) for the Greek translation which made its way into the Septuagint, the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures used by Catholics.

Be that as it may, we know a good deal more about Ben Sira than is generally the case with biblical writers. He identifies himself as "Jesus son of Eleazar son of Sirach of Jerusalem" (50:27b) who evidently operated a school for young Jewish men, "Draw near to me, you who are uneducated, and lodge in the house of instruction" (51:23). Well traveled, Ben Sira learned much from other cultures (34:12-13). But it is Jewish theology and morality with which he was most concerned. "How different the one who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High!" (39:1a). This study was not to benefit himself only. "Consider that I have not labored for myself alone, but for all who seek instruction" (33:18). More may be gleaned from the prologue composed by Ben Sira's grandson whose respect and admiration for his grandfather is apparent and who begs the reader's indulgence for any inadequacies caused in translating the original Hebrew to Greek.

The original Hebrew title was "The Wisdom of Yeshua ben Eleazar ben Sira." Sirach is a transliteration of the name as rendered in Greek. Some English translations of the Bible, particularly older ones, identify the book as Ecclesiasticus from the Latin roughly translated as "Church Book." This practice no doubt stemmed from Catholicism's practice from its earliest centuries of probing its pages for the moral and ethical precepts needed to reinforce the faith, especially that of catechumens.

Although, as part of the Septuagint, the Book of Sirach has always been considered canonical in the Catholic world, it has been deemed apocryphal or deutero-canonical by Jews and most Protestant Christians because it did not appear in the original Hebrew (Masoretic) canon. Nonetheless, many later rabbis quoted extensively from Sirach and seemed to regard it as having a scriptural standing. It is unlikely, however, that any reader, Jew or Christian, would deny the value of Ben Sira's wise observations, many of which are as applicable today as they were some 2,000 years ago—although some must be viewed as products of their culture and, as such, no longer pertinent for 21st-century Americans.

Organizing a Book Not Intended to Be Organized

The genre known as wisdom literature was widely used in the Mediterranean world during the inter-testamental period, those centuries leading up to and crossing into the Christian era. Often, Wisdom is personified, given the traits of a human. In these instances, Wisdom is generally capitalized. "Wisdom was created before all other things and prudent understanding from eternity" (1:4).

Because writings of this nature are composed primarily of snippets of advice and wise adages, books like Sirach lack the kind of formal structure we customarily expect. In an attempt to help readers find their way around, biblical scholars have divided the text into eight or so segments plus the prologue and conclusion. Each of these contains some semblance of a theme. Such compartmentalization is arbitrary as are all scriptural chapter and verse numbers. The authors were totally unfamiliar with the practice, but we would be virtually lost without it. All we can hope to do here is dip into as many sections as possible in order to afford at least a taste of their rich fare.

The Prologue: Most Greek manuscripts of the time were prefaced by a rationale for their creation and an introduction of the author. The intended audience was composed of Greek-speaking Jews living in Egypt and dispersed across the Mediterranean basin. No matter what their first language was, most residents of the area knew at least a smattering of Greek. Like English today, Greek was a kind of universal language useful for transacting business and interacting with strangers.

Part 1 (1:1—4:10): The author opens with a short discussion of Wisdom's origins: "All wisdom is from the Lord and with him it remains forever" (1:1). It then moves to a passage exhorting readers to fear the Lord. "To fear the Lord is the root of wisdom..." (1:20a) (Short aside: the numbering of verses in Sirach is contingent on which English translation is used. The version cited here is the New Revised Standard Version. Don't be surprised if there are slight differences in the New American and other popular editions.) Fear is better translated awe. We are not meant to cower abjectly before God, but to stand in awe of the greatness of God and our own insignificance by comparison. Sirach speaks next of the trust that should spring from that. "You who fear the Lord, trust in him and your reward will not be lost" (2:8). The author moves from attitudes toward God to attitudes toward parents. "The glory of one's father is one's own glory, and it is a disgrace for children not to respect their mother" (3:11). Humility is a virtue to be cultivated. "The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself so that you will find favor in the sight of the Lord" (3:18). Social duties complete this section. "Do not add to the troubles of the desperate or delay in giving to the needy" (4:3).

Part 2 (4:11—6:17): Here again, the author reminds us of Wisdom's virtues. "Whoever loves her [Wisdom] loves life..." (4:12a). The reader is advised to share such insights as Wisdom provides. "Do not refrain from speaking at the proper moment, and do not hide your wisdom" (4:23). But guard against presumption. Today, we would say, don't be a know-it-all, thinking you have all the answers, allowing you to do whatever you like. "Do not be so confident of forgiveness that you add sin to sin" (5:5). Chapter 6 brings advice on how to spot a good friend and cautions against gullibility. "Let those who are friendly with you be many, but let your advisers be one in a thousand" (6:6). Still, "Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter; whoever finds one has found a treasure" (6:14).

Part 3 (6:18—14:19): Like most parts of this book, this one begins by exhorting its readers to continue to seek wisdom. "...and when you have gray hair, you will still find wisdom" (6:18b). Chapter upon chapter of do's and don'ts follow, dealing with everything from counsel on dealing with women (it is assumed that readers are men throughout this and most biblical books, a notion that loses its potential to give offense when it is remembered that relatively few men were literate and almost no women were) to how to get along with the politicians of the day. "...the king of today will die tomorrow" (10:10b). Gender views were vastly different in that long-ago society and, although they are retained to some degree in a number of Near Eastern nations, they are unacceptable today in Western culture. This is but one example of ethnic mores which have undergone a seismic shift since biblical times. The proper use of wealth wraps up this portion. "Riches are inappropriate for a small-minded person, and of what use is wealth to a miser?" (14:3)

Part 4 (14:20—23:27): The usual ode to Wisdom is followed here by a rather uncommon plea to own up to the accountability we have by virtue of God's gift of free will. "Do not say, —It was the Lord's doing that I fell away,' for he does not do what he hates" (15:11). "If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice" (15:15). This segment continues, focusing especially on various types of sin and their potential for the ruin of the sinner.

Part 5 (24:1—33:18): A little of everything is swept up into this portion of the book. Topics as unrelated as the virtues and vices of women (25:13—26:18) and the merits and dangers of tendering loans to neighbors (29:1-20) come in for their share of the sage's advice here. Because the reader is presumed to be male, every reference to women here is done in the context of her relationship to a husband or father. While the advantages of a good wife are many (26:1-5, 13:18), the downside is horrific (25...the entire chapter). One wonders if Ben Sira's own experience had been less than positive. "I would rather live with a lion and a dragon than live with an evil woman" (25:16). "A bad wife is a chafing yoke; taking hold of her is like grasping a scorpion." (26:7). Oh, dear! Chapter 30 deals with the discipline of children. Here we must read with discernment. While there is indeed wisdom to be found here, we might balk at "...beat his sides while he is young..." (30:12b). Sirach's readers are even counseled about their behavior when guests at a dinner and also when hosting one (31:12—32:13).

Part 6 (33:19—38:23): Here, too, a number of dissimilar themes surface, including comments on property (33:19-33). This is bound to make a modern reader uncomfortable; among the items seen as property are slaves. It is well to remember that biblical writers tended to reflect the mores of their time. The fact that they frequently do not reflect contemporary understanding reminds us that our grasp of God's intent continues to develop and grow over time. Part 6 continues with commentary on acceptable trust and worship of God (34:1—36:22), the value of temperance (37:16-31), even sickness and death (38:1-23).

Part 7 (38:24—43:33): This short portion contains additional remarks on subjects previously addressed: career counseling (38:24—39:11), life's joys and sorrows (40:1—41:13), plus a lovely piece on God in nature (42:15—43:33).

Part 8 (44:1—50:24): The entire concluding segment is devoted to a hymn of praise for the great men of Israel's history. Beginning with the patriarchs, a parade of kings, prophets, judges and heroic figures of all kinds pass before the reader's eyes.

Conclusion. All that remains is the wrap-up. For this, ben Sira composed first a psalm of thanksgiving from the depths of his own soul (51:1-12) and then a psalm of praise to God (an inserted appendix in most Bibles) followed by a final salute to Wisdom (51:13-30).

Sirach, one of Scripture's longest books, has much more to teach. It is hoped that this article's short introduction will act as hors d'oeuvres, whetting its readers' appetites for the complete dining experience. Availing oneself of such an experience demonstrates great Wisdom.

Virginia Smith, co-creator of Scripture from Scratch and a frequent contributor, is the author of God for Grownups and Life Is Changed, Not Ended (Ave Maria Press).

Praying With Scripture

How often do we pray for wisdom? Perhaps we should consider making it part of our daily petitions. We live in an increasingly complex and difficult world. Certainly, we need the wisdom of the Holy Spirit more than ever both in our personal dealings with family, friends, neighbors and business associates, and in comprehending the progressively more complicated events occurring on the national and world stage.

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