I finished the Anchor Bible commentary on The Wisdom of Ben Sira. In this post, I will discuss an item from my latest reading of this book, and then I will talk about another item that is from my previous readings.
1. In Ben Sira 48:1-15, the topic is the prophet
Elijah. Not only is the prophet Elijah's past deeds praised, but Ben
Sira also has the eschatological expectation that Elijah will return to
(in the words of Patrick Skehan's translation) "put an end to wrath
before the day of the LORD, [t]o turn back the hearts of parents toward
their children, and to reestablish the tribes of Israel." And, because
Ben Sira says "it is written" when discussing his belief that Elijah
shall return, he probably has in mind Malachi 3:23-24.
Ben Sira does not believe in the resurrection from the dead, nor does he
have a rigorous conception of the afterlife. Ben Sira 48:11b affirms
that "we too shall certainly live", but Skehan's argument
appears to be that the verse originally meant something quite different:
that some people would see Elijah before they die and then come to
rest, which means that they are comforted at their deaths by the
realization that Elijah has come and is doing his part to renew the
I find it interesting that eschatology can co-exist with a traditional view that denies the resurrection from the dead.
At times, one can get the impression that those things are
incompatible. At one time, it was believed that the Pharisees believed
in eschatology, the resurrection, and the prophetic writings, whereas
the Sadducees denied those things. But, while the Sadducees most likely
denied the resurrection, that does not mean that they rejected the
prophetic writings (see here).
Perhaps they, like Ben Sira, held to some sort of eschatology, in
accordance with prophetic writings, even as they denied the
2. In my posts thus far on Ben Sira, I have not
gotten into the political situation of Ben Sira's day, at least not in
much detail. Alexander Di Lella does not know if Ben Sira wrote when
the Ptolemies had power over Palestine, or when the Seleucids had power
over it. Di Lella says that both regimes promulgated Hellenism, and Ben
Sira was reacting to that by saying that Jewish tradition is as good as
(and better than) Greek philosophy. At times, Ben Sira quotes Greek
sources, which may show that he's not entirely against the wisdom of the
Greeks. And yet, when Ben Sira condemns speculation about
things that are hidden, Di Lella interprets that to be a criticism of
I think that Di Lella is probably right
to argue that Ben Sira is seeking to present Jewish tradition, which
includes the Torah and the biblical writings, as better than Greek
philosophy. Ben Sira equates wisdom with the Torah, elevates the
scribes, and lauds the historical heroes of Israel. Ben Sira asserts
that Israel is in special possession of God's wisdom, the Torah.
Wisdom, for Ben Sira, was around at creation, but Adam did not fully
know wisdom because the Torah had not yet been revealed (or so Di Lella
interprets Ben Sira 24:28, which is about how wisdom is so deep that we
cannot completely fathom it). Wisdom sought a home in the world among
every people and nation, but then God commanded wisdom to dwell in
Israel (Ben Sira 24). According to the prologue by Ben Sira's grandson,
scribes are to teach the laity about wisdom. And yet, while Ben Sira
is all for manual labor and wants for the wise to work with their hands,
he desires for them to spend most of their time contemplating the
depths of wisdom (Ben Sira 38-39). Wisdom is for every Israelite, but
blessed is he who has the opportunity to study it more deeply!
But is Ben Sira's book only
a defense of Jewish tradition? Why does it also have a bunch of pithy,
proverb-like sayings, which appear to be unrelated to Jewish
tradition? Perhaps Ben Sira believes that he derived those principles
from a study of the Torah, or that he got them from divine inspiration,
or observation of life. His point may be that Jewish leaders
have the resources to come up with wisdom about life, and so one should
not think that the Greeks have a monopoly on wisdom.
onto the political situation of Ben Sira's day! Ben Sira condemns the
arrogance of rulers (Ben Sira 10:14). According to Di Lella, Ben Sira
may have the Seleucid Antiochus III in mind when he asks God to smash
rulers who say "There is no one besides me." And yet, Ben Sira offers
wisdom on how the Jews should interact with their Gentile captors. Ben
Sira 9:13 exhorts Jews to keep away from those with the power to kill,
but, if they find themselves near such people, to avoid offending them
so as to preserve their own lives. Di Lella states on page 220 that
"In Egypt, the Ptolemaic king, who was considered to be a god, had the
absolute right of life or death over his subjects; military commanders
had this right over their troops, and governors of subject provinces
over the people."
I have a few questions about Di Lella's scenario.
First, I wonder why Ben Sira would criticize Antiochus III, when, as Di
Lella points out earlier in the commentary, Antiochus III provided the
Jews with wood to repair their temple after a war, exempted temple
officials from certain taxes, and allowed the Jews in Palestine to live
according to their own laws. Di Lella says that Antiochus III
was presumptuous and fell to the Romans due to his presumption, but I
have a hard time believing that Ben Sira would lambaste a ruler who had
been so good to Israel. Perhaps Ben Sira didn't care for being at the mercy of foreign rulers, even if they were relatively benevolent!
how would Ben Sira have gotten by with criticizing his Gentile rulers?
In ancient and medieval Jewish literature, there were many times when
the Gentile captors are not referred to explicitly, but in code, and the
basis for that was supposedly that the Jews did not want to be viewed
as subversives. But the Gentile rulers are criticized, and I'd be
surprised if agents of the Gentile tyrants couldn't figure out that the
Jews were talking about the Gentile tyrants! Perhaps the Gentiles did
not monitor everything that occurred in Israel, and thus Ben Sira had
some leeway to write a document that criticized the Gentile rulers.