Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Timeless Wisdom of Sirach
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
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
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 (25:1326:18) 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 (31:1232:13).
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 (34:136:22), 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 (38:2439:11),
life's joys and sorrows (40:141:13), plus a lovely piece
on God in nature (42:1543:33).
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