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WISDOM BOOKS: Sirach

“Come to me, all you that yearn for me,
and be filled with my fruits;
you will remember me as sweeter than honey.”
Sirach 24:18-19

In the book of Sirach, Wisdom again makes her appearance as a woman. She is poured out by God over all creation, and those who hunger for her and find her also find their appetites not fulfilled but whetted, for, after all, a taste of wisdom should leave you ready for more.

The author of Sirach does not claim the name of King Solomon, as do many other writers in the wisdom literature. His name was most likely Jeshua ben Eleazar ben Sira, with the name Sirach being a Greek mutation applied to the text. The book as we have it was translated to Greek by Ben Sira’s grandson, who admits that the act of translating the words leads to some changes in meaning. Recently large portions of the Hebrew text have been found, leading to some excitement in scholarly circles. The text was translated into Greek in Egypt, and Ben Sira himself was most likely actively writing and teaching around 180 B.C.

Ben Sira identifies himself as a scribe and a wisdom teacher, and his main concern is for Jews to follow the law of Moses. Politically there was a good deal of strife within the Jewish religious hierarchy, with contenders vying for the high priesthood, which gets some oblique reference in the book. However, most of the advice is not so much politically-based but practical information on how to deal with many issues in life, from friendship relations to speaking in public meetings.

The Book of Sirach borrows a lot from other writing traditions, especially the book of Proverbs. However, this book has its own style in the striking combination of pragmatic advice and poetic imagery. A pool of water taking on ice is seen as putting on a breastplate, and Wisdom is shown spreading out her bright and beautiful branches. There is also the depiction of an erotic relationship between Wisdom and the student, which seems a fairly good reason to study!

In the midst of this lovely language is advice on good and false friendships, the cherishing of a good wife, the way to handle a troubled marriage, kindness to the poor, and duty to one’s parents. The author is concerned that his Jewish readers follow the traditional ways not just in philosophical matters but also in the details of everyday life. The writing style beats most of our current self-help books hollow, and the advice was probably appreciated and listened to by the students of Ben Sira’s teachings.

 
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