THE BOOK OF SIRACH
1 (a) SECTION OF THE BOOK
The Bible consists of 2 Sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Christian Bible has in the Old Testament 46 books and in the New Testament 27 books. Thus in all in the Christian Bible we have 73 books. The book of Sirach is in the Old Testament
(b) STRUCTURE OF THE CHRISTIAN OLD TESTAMENT SCRIPTURE:
The Christian Old Testament Scripture is divided into 4 Sections namely;
a. The PENTATEUCH (consisting of 5 books)
Pentateuch is a Greek word and it means “five scrolls”.
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
b. The HISTORICAL Books (consisting of 16 books)
i) Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings (Deuteronomistic History)
ii) 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah (Chroniclers History)
Chronicles means “things left our” (from the parallel books Samuel and Kings)
iii) Tobit, Judith, Esther.
iv) 1 & 2 Maccabees (Maccabean History)
c. The WISDOM Books (consisting 7 books)
Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Wisdom, Sirach.
d. The PROPHETS (consisting of 18 books)
i) MAJOR (6) Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Baruch, Ezekiel, Daniel
ii) MAJOR (12) Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.
(c) STRUCTURE OF THE HEBREW SCRIPTURE:
The Hebrew Scripture consists of 39 books and it is divided into 3 Major Sections namely;
a. The TORAH: The Law (law of Moses) (consisting of 5 books)
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
b. The NEBIIM: The Prophets – (‘Nabi’ in Hindi) (consisting of 21 books)
i) The Former Prophets (6) Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings
ii) The Latter Prophets (3 + 12) (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel)
(Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)
iii) The KETUBIM: The Writings (‘Kitab’ – book in Hindi) (consisting of 13 books) Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Qoheleth(Ecclesiastes), 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Lamentations, Esther, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Daniel.
The three major sections i.e Torah + Nebiim + Ketubim in Hebrew is known as “TANAK”.
The SEPTUAGINT Version LXX CONSISTS OF THE ADDITIONAL 7 BOOKS i.e. TOBIT, JUDITH, 1-2 MACCABEES, WISDOM, SIRACH, BARUCH.
d) WHERE IS THE BOOK OF SIRACH PLACED
From the above, we see that the book of Sirach belongs to the Old Testament and it is placed in the Wisdom Section or Wisdom Literature. It is also called as the Deutro-Canonical Book.
What do Wisdom Literature and Deutro-Canonical Book mean?
To understand the word Deutro Canonical we have to first understand the Word Canon.
CANON: The word Canon means Rule. In Greek it is called KANON (in Hindi it is Kanoon)
A Canonical book is one which the Church acknowledges as:
a) Belonging to its list of Sacred Books
b) As Inspired by God and
c) As having a Regulating Value for Faith and Morals.
The Palestinian Jews recognized only those 39 books which were preserved in Hebrew or Aramaic, whereas the Jewish Diaspora who had their main centre in Alexandria and who did not know Hebrew, for them the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in the 3rd Century BC by 70 Jewish Scholars living in Alexandria called the Septuagint (LXX). They included an additional 7 books which were written only in Greek or preserved in Greek and not in Hebrew i.e. TOBIT, JUDITH, 1-2 MACCABEES, WISDOM, SIRACH, BARUCH.
The Rabbis of Jamnia were considered the most important authorities in Judaism. Some time towards the end of the 1st Century AD, these Rabbis recognised the Palestinian List as Canonical.
The Canon of the Catholic Scriptures was closed by the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563) containing the 46 books and this teaching are binding on all Catholics.
The Catholics call the 1st list consisting of 39 books as PROTO CANONICAL whereas the 2nd list consisting of the 7 books as DEURO CANONICAL.
2. WISDOM LITERATURE
(i) What is Wisdom?
Wisdom in Hebrew is called Hokma & in Greek it is called Sophia
a) Wisdom is the skill or art of living a meaningful life.
b) It is practical knowledge of the laws of life.
c) Wisdom is experiential knowledge.
Wisdom has come about out of experience i.e.
a) God creates man & gives him dominion over everything.
b) The world of nature is governed by laws. There is an underlying order to the cosmos.
c) By seeking these laws of nature & living accordingly, man could ensure his peace and happiness.
d) The laws of life were not always evident or discernable to man. Hence they have to be discovered through experience.
e) From a number of experiences, man discovered certain principles of living. These he constantly reviewed, adapted, modified to suit his living.
f) These wisdom principles are not the effort of one person or group of people. The principles are therefore a communal possession. They are of universal appeal & belong to all human beings.
Wisdom Literature is put in a poetic form so that it can be remembered. It is imagery and oral so that it is very easy to remember. The aim of all wisdom principles is to avert harm and bring happiness to myself.
(ii) What is the goal of Wisdom?
A good life here and now in the present is the goal of wisdom. A good life in Bible is marked by long life, number of children, prosperity and prestige. (Job 30:2-20).
It also involves right relationship with God. (Fear of the Lord is awe & reverence in the presence of God) Prov 9:10, Sir 1:16, Ps 111:10.
(iii) Wisdom in Israel
a) Wisdom comes from the home (Clan, tribes etc). Wisdom was given in stories, folklore. (Prov 2:1, 3:1)
b) Wisdom was thought in the palaces – Literary wisdom
It was a more formal kind of wisdom. Young Princes were trained before coming to power. Even courtiers were thought this special training.
c) Wisdom was thought in wisdom schools by professional or wise men. (Sirach had such a school).
In Isralite wisdom one finds a divine element. As Israel’s persuit of wisdom and her thinking develops, there emerges a concept of the fear of the Lord and is identified with wisdom. Prov. 1:7.
Fear of the Lord is not physical fear of impending danger but it is the awe of the Lord. It is the reverential awe in the presence of God, a reverential astonishment of seeing the power of God. Fear of God is the reverential obedience to God.
iv. Theological aspects of wisdom
(a) Doctrine of Retribution
The biblical authors divide the world into two parts, Wisdom & foolishness.
If you are wise you will be a flourishing person. If you are foolish you will be a disaster Deut 28:30.
Divine Retribution Deut 28: 1ff
If you do good, good will follow, If you do evil, evil will follow. The good or evil deed produces of itself a good or evil consequence. Prov 26:27, Ps 7:15-16.
There is a deed consequence order of things established in creation and watched over by God. The Lord is frequently portrayed as intervening in human existence either punishing or rewarding. Jer 18:1-11, Prov 10:3,22.
Sometimes God relents of the evil he intends to inflict (Jonah & Nineveh)
A breakthrough was made through the book of wisdom. The great promise of traditional wisdom was life but it was limited to this life of sheol (place of the dead)
The author of wisdom states that justice is undying. Wis 1:15. In other words wisdom or justice does lead to life even beyond death. Thus there arises primitive concept of immorality. Immorality is understood from the point of view of one’s relationship with God and righteousness or wisdom is the key to future life with the Lord.
Israel always believed that they had special relationship with nature.
Job 12:7-9 The activity of God. How God speaks of the nature.
Prob 30:15-31 Who God is through nature.
Creation not only offers the raw material for human development but also serves as a line of communication for God. Ps 19:1-6.
(c) Personification of Wisdom
Wisdom is female in Hebrew
Who is lady wisdom Prob 8:3-36
“She is the self revelation of creation, distinct from the works of creation yet somehow present in them”- Von Rad.
Sir 1: 9-10 Wisdom cannot be seen apart from the Lord from whom she originates.
She is the voice of the Lord, the revelation of God. She is the divine summons issued in and through creation who finds her delight among the human beings God has created. Prov 8:31
Wisdom than is a communication of God through creation to human beings Sir 20, Wis 7 – 9, Bar 3:9 -4:4.
Who is lady wisdom from the book of Wisdom?
a. A spirit who fills the world Wis 1:6-7, 7:7 & 22
b. She is an effusion of divine glory Wis 7:25-26
c. She shares the divine throne Wis 9:4
d. She passes into Holy Souls from age to age Wis 7:27
e. She shows her self as a saviour Wis 10
Conclusion: Christ is later called the wisdom of God 1Cor 1-24, Heb 1:3.
1. INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOK SIRACH
The book of Sirach is a Deutro-Canonical book as explained earlier. It is also the longest book in the Bible.
The original book was written in Hebrew and named Wisdom of Yeshua (Jesus) ben Elezar ben Sira(Son) (50:27). The earliest Greek text of the Book bears the title, “The Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach”. However, later it acquired the name “Ecclesiasticus”- meaning, the Church Book, because the Catholic Church made extensive use of it in moral teaching to the catechumens and the faithful.
The book of Sirach is inspired except the prologue (which is at the beginning of the book) as it was written by the grandson of Yeshua (Jesus) who is translating the grandfather’s book to the Greek. He translated the book in Greek for the benefit of those Jews who only spoke Greek.
WHO IS THIS Sirach or Ben Sira or Yeshua?
50:27 He is the native of Jerusalem who devotes his time in studying TORAH + NEBIIM + KETUBIM i.e Law + Prophets + Writings.
51:23-30 He was a highly respected scribe and teacher who ran a wisdom school for young Jewish men.
34:11-12 He travelled extensively and came in contact with other cultures and wisdom traditions thus acquiring much cleverness.
39:1-11 whatever he learnt he made it conformed to his Jewish heritage and tradition.
51:25 He did not write for personal gain, 33:18 but for all who seek instructions.
Ben Sira lived during the 3rd century and early 2nd Century B.C. His birth is around 250 B.C. and his death around 175 B. C.
2. DATE OF THE BOOK
King Euergetes Ptolemy reigned in 170 to 117 B.C. The grandson of Sirach came to Egypt in the 38th year of King Euergetes Ptolemy. (i.e 170 – 38 = 132). Therefore the translation was made in 132 B.C. But the original book was written by his grandfather i.e two generation ahead. Therefore 25 x 2 =50 added to 132B.C accounts to 182 B.C. Therefore the book was written around 180 B.C. by Sirach and was later translated by his grandson in Greek. The grandson’s name is not mentioned in the book but he translated the book in Greek for the Diaspora Jews as they did not know Hebrew. He is bilingual as he knows Hebrew as well as the Greek language.
3. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
After their return from exile to Palestine in 538 BC, (exile period 587BC to 538BC) the Jews were never masters of their own history. Politically they had no say as they were under the imperial rule of a succession of empires – Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Hellenistic (or Greek) and Roman. In 333 BC, Alexander the Great swept aside the Persian domination, and heralded the beginning of the Hellenistic Age, that is, the spread of Greek culture and domination from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea to the borders of India. It had been Alexander’s aim to achieve a union of East and West under the banner of Greek culture. So, Palestine came under Greek domination. Alexander died in 323 BC after which his empire was divided between 3 generals. The activities of only 2 of these generals are important to us. Namely; (1) Ptolemy who rules over Egypt, Palestine and Africa and made Alexandria his capital, (2) Antiochus Selecus who ruled over Syria and Mesopotamia. These 2 kingdoms were frequently in confrontation with each other.
The Ptolemies of Egypt, following the example of Alexander, were benevolent despots who granted their subject nations a good deal of autonomy and freedom to follow their own religion and culture. Under Ptolemies, the Jewish High Priest was asked to function both as spiritual and political head of the Jewish Community. As a result the relationship between the Jews and Egypt was relatively peaceful. As long as the taxes were paid and order maintained, the Ptolemies apparently did not interfere in the internal affairs of the Jews at all. They used the policy of persuasion rather than enforcement for promoting Hellenism. But in 198 BC, Palestine passed into the hands of the Antiochians of Syria i.e. the Selecuids. Selecuid made propaganda in Palestine to the Jews to leave their Jewish ways for Greek culture and gave examples of their Gymnasiums, dresses, art, military saying success was only in Greek Culture. They also offered material enticements and told them that they will be successful. Sirach lived during this Hellenistic period in Palestine.
[ The following happened after the book was written hence it is just for knowledge purpose ]
Under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, this became the most cruel oppression and persecution. He forbade all Jewish religious ceremonies like circumcision, burnt offerings and sacrifices and suppresses the Sabbaths and other feast days. Instead, he compelled the Jews to attend Greek-style religious ceremonies. Refusal to comply with the decree of the king incurred death penalty. He even desecrated the temple in 167 BC. Many Jews adapted to their policies but many others resisted and suffered dearly for it.
1. PURPOSE OF THE BOOK
Sirach’S purpose was to demonstrate that the Jewish way of life was superior to Hellenistic (Greek) culture and that true wisdom was to be found primarily in Jerusalem and not in Athens. Hence a good Jew should not give in to the temptation of following the Greek way of life. Sirach wrote the book to counteract the dangers of Hellenization. He was a sage who had absorbed the wisdom of the Middle East with which he became acquainted during his extensive travels and who now tried to demonstrate that a superior wisdom was contained in his own Hebrew tradition. His book was a religious reaction to Hellenization, which was later followed by the political revolt under the Maccabees. The Book, in other words challenges the Jews to find their own roots.
There are a lot of poems praising wisdom and its author God. You will also find a number of exhortation/advice.
The book of Sirach is a kind of hand-book of moral behaviour or a code of ethics that a Jew of the early 2nd century BC was expected to follow.
2. LITERARY FORM
If we see the book of Job we find that it is one of the highest literary works, a great work. It is a classic piece of world literature. It is the most difficult text of the Old Testament. There are 100 words that appear only once in the Bible (“hapax legomena”in Greek) and those 100 words you find it in the book of Job. Sirach was not a creative thinker like Job. He simply used the forms of expression and literary styles he found ready made in the scriptuires specially the book of proverbs.