Thursday, October 18, 2012

Ben Sira on Adultery

For my write-up today on the Anchor Bible commentary on The Wisdom of Ben Sira, my focus will be on the topic of adultery.  The text is Ben Sira 23:18-26.

Ben Sira 23:18 criticizes the "man who dishonors his marriage bed" (Patrick Skehan's translation).  My impression is that Alexander Di Lella thinks that this passage is criticizing a man who cheats on his wife----what we today call an adulterer.  The reason that this stands out to me is that I've often read scholars who maintain that the Hebrew Bible regards adultery as a woman cheating on her husband or a man sleeping with another man's wife----but not as a man cheating on his own wife.  Some have heralded Jesus as revolutionary because Jesus contends in his teachings on divorce that a man can commit adultery against his wife by being with another woman (Mark 10:11-12).  But did Jesus come up with that concept?  In Ben Sira 23:18, we see the notion that a man can dishonor his own marriage bed.

Something else that stood out to me in my reading of his commentary was Di Lella's comments on page 325 about the penalty for adultery: "Apparently, in Ben Sira's day death by stoning, the penalty the Law decreed for adulterers (cf. Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22-24; Ezek 16:36-40; John 8:4-5), was not enforced since it is not alluded to in v 21 or in vv 22-26.  Under Talmudic law the adulterer was scourged."  At the same time, Ben Sira 23:24 affirms that the punishment of an adulteress will "extend to her children" (again, Skehan's translation), and Di Lella interprets that in light of B.T. Qiddushin 78b's statement that the offspring of adulterous unions was to be excluded from the Israelite congregation.  This is probably based on Deuteronomy 23:2, which prohibits the mamzer from entering the congregation of the LORD.

The reason that this stood out to me is that I'm interested in how elements of ancient Judaism simply regarded some biblical laws as null-and-void.  You would think that they'd see all of the Torah as eternally-binding, but that's not necessarily the case.  Some thought that certain laws were not binding anymore due to new circumstances.  For example, there is one rabbinic teaching that says that Deuteronomy 23's prohibition of certain foreigners from Israel's congregation no longer applies because people have mixed ancestry and ethnicity.

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