Ben Sira’s View of the Afterlife

I finished Ben Sira last night. Something that many scholars point out is that Ben Sira didn’t really believe in an afterlife. He told his readers to enjoy the pleasures of life and the fruits of their labors, since they won’t be able to do so in Hades (Sirach 14:10-16). At the same time, he doesn’t promote gluttony, drunkenness, or fornication, since such activity can have bad effects in the here-and-now (Sirach 9; 23; 31:27-28; 37:29-31).

And his focus is not exactly “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow may bring pain or death,” for he also believes people should enjoy spiritual pleasures while they still can. He says in Sirach 17:27-28: “Who will sing praises to the Most High in Hades in place of the living who give thanks? From the dead, as from one who does not exist, thanksgiving has ceased; those who are alive and well sing the Lord’s praises” (NRSV). His message there is “Repent while you still can, for you won’t always be able to enjoy God.” You don’t hear that message in a lot of pulpits! There, it’s often “Repent, or else!”

There is one passage that presents a fiery hell for the wicked, Sirach 7:17: “Humble yourself to the utmost, for the punishment of the ungodly is fire and worms.” The deuterocanonical writings show some movement in the direction of eternal torment, for Judith 16:17 states regarding the nations: “The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever.” But Sirach 7:17 appears so out-of-sync with Ben Sira’s overall view of the afterlife, that Alexander A. Di Lella views it as a later addition in his Anchor Bible Dictionary article, “Wisdom of Ben Sira.”

Overall, Ben-Sira maintains that God punishes the wicked in this life, often with premature death (Sirach 21:10). Granted, there are wicked people who prosper up to the end of their lives, but God is able to give them a miserable death so that they forget their past pleasures (Sirach 11:26-28). And because we all live so short a time, God shows a lot of patience towards us so we have time to get things right (Sirach 18:9-13).

What is the hope of the righteous? According to Ben Sira, because wisdom disciplines us, we may go through difficult times, but God will reward us if we persevere in obedience (Sirach 2). God is able to lift the poor out of poverty, while bringing down the rich (Sirach 11:12-19). As Di Lella states, “In the long run…the upright will enjoy long life (1:12), good health (1:18), a good marriage (26:3), happiness (26:4), joy in their children (25:7c), and a good and lasting name (37:26; 39:11).”

Two puzzling verses about immortality are Sirach 46:12 and 49:10:

46:12: “May [the judges’] bones send forth new life from where they lie, and may the names of those who have been honored live again in their children!”

49:10: “May the bones of the Twelve Prophets send forth new life from where they lie, for they comforted the people of Jacob and delivered them with confident hope.”

I don’t know what it means for bones to send forth new life. Is Ben Sira saying that the words of the prophets continue to have a positive impact? That God honors the people on account of the righteous lives and deaths of the judges and prophets? That the biblical figures live on through their children? I’m not sure. In any case, these verses remind me of Elisha’s bones bringing a corpse to life (II Kings 13:21), something Ben Sira refers to in Sirach 49:13-14.

Overall, Ben Sira has an Old Testament view on life after death: God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked in this life (Deuteronomy, Proverbs); when God rescues people from Sheol, that means he’s saving them from death, not that he’s resurrecting them (e.g., Psalm 30); people live on through their descendants and the property they pass on, explaining why the Hebrew Bible has levirite marriage and inheritance laws (Numbers 27; 36; Deuteronomy 25:5-10).

I don’t understand how people could live in real life and believe that way. After all, isn’t it obvious that life is messier than that–that many righteous people suffer, while many wicked people prosper? Job eventually comes along and affirms that there are wicked people who prosper up to the time of their deaths (Job 21; 24). So much for the Psalmist’s view that the wicked get their come-uppance in this life! But did no one notice this injustice before the time of Job?

Maybe God at one time was more active in rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. In Genesis 38:7, he kills wicked Er right on the spot! Or perhaps there were biblical authors who were cloistered from society at large, so they viewed life from their ivory towers as fairer than it actually was. I don’t know.

One thing that’s interesting: You’d expect many of the biblical authors to judge the poor because of their poverty. After all, the poor are not prospering, so they must not have been obeying God! But virtually all of the biblical writings stress that God has a special concern for the poor, to the point that they have his ear when someone helps or hurts them (Deuteronomy 24:13, 15; Proverbs 19:17). And Sirach believes this too (Sirach 21:5).

Moreover, Marx said that religion is the opium of the masses, which means that the poor workers look to a “pie-in-the-sky” afterlife because their present situation is so miserable. And the rich love this sort of set-up, since the poor will keep on enduring their misery as they work for the rich, deluded that their afterlife will be a lot better. But if that’s the sum-total explanation of religion’s origin, how’s it account for the Old Testament’s religious strands that lack an afterlife?

These themes relate to the Feast of Tabernacles. I once read a book by Rabbi Harold Kushner about the Book of Ecclesiastes, which many Jews read on Succoth. Ecclesiastes is about life being short, and nothing really satisfying a person because of that fact. It ends with a message of “Enjoy life while you still can, and don’t forget to fear God, for that’s your purpose in life” (Ecclesiastes 11-12). My last post interpreted the Feast of Tabernacles in terms of waiting for the afterlife. But maybe it can also communicate a message of enjoying this life to the full, since life is a sort of temporary dwelling.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Ben Sira’s View of the Afterlife

  1. James,

    Just read your post and had a few thoughts for you.

    Though we see blessing for obedience and curses for disobedience in Deuteronomy, we also see in the Psalms that the Psalmist realized this wasn’t always the case.

    Starting with Job 21:30 
    “For the wicked is reserved for the day of calamity;
    They will be led forth at the day of fury.

    Job noticed wicked men all around whose lives were full of good things until the day he ‘went down to Sheol.’ Job’s friends tried to convince him that the reason the wicked man didn’t get disciplined by God is that God would punish the wicked man’s sons for his sins. But Job said, No, the wicked is reserved for the day of calamity; they will be led forth at the day of fury. Someday the wicked will be judged by God. For this judgment to occur, the wicked will be resurrected. What does God’s judgment look like?

    Ps. 37:10
    “Yet a little while and the wicked man will be no more; and you will look carefully for his place and he will not be there. But the humble will inherit the land and will delight themselves in abundant prosperity.”

    Some would read a verse like this and immediately assume that the Psalmist is saying that the wicked will find trouble in this life, but the humble righteous will ‘delight themselves in prosperity.’ That is a nice platitude, but it didn’t work that way in Job’s life. That is even the argument his friends came to him with.

    What about Isaiah, the mighty prophet of God, who supposedly was sawn in half by Manasseh? Did he ‘delight himself in abundant prosperity?’
    What about Jeremiah? He was thrown into a dry cistern to keep him quiet, and then got shipped off to Egypt.

    These righteous men did not receive peace and prosperity on the earth. Their blessings will be poured out on them in the NEXT life, not this one.

    Ps. 37:20
    But the wicked will perish; and the enemies of the LORD will be like the glory of the pastures, they vanish-like smoke they vanish away.

    Ps. 50:3 Fire devours before him, and it is very tempestuous around Him.

    Ps. 50:22 Now consider this, you who forget God, or I will tear you in pieces, and there will be none to deliver. He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors Me; and to him who orders his way aright I shall show the salvation of God.”

    Ps. 69:28 May they be blotted out of the book of life and may they not be recorded with the righteous.
    David is angry. The wicked have been persecuting him. He is being mocked, God is being mocked. And in the future he asks God do something…blot the wicked out of the book of life.

    The blessings on the righteous and the punishment of the wicked does not necessarily happen in the here and now, but it will happen someday, when the Great Judge of all the earth comes. On one hand, God desires the wicked to turn from sin and consequently, be saved from his wrath. But on the other, for those who persist in evil, his desire is to utterly wipe out evil.

    Some of my thoughts come from reading Edward Fudge’s book, “The Consuming Fire.” Great stuff!


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your comment, Nathan! I find your comments on Job 21:30 interesting. You’re taking the chapter to mean that the wicked may thrive in this life, but they won’t in the afterlife. The NIV (I just randomly looked at the translation), however, renders v 30 as “that the wicked are spared from the day of calamity,that they are delivered from[c] the day of wrath?”, as if Job is continuing his argument that life is unfair. But perhaps the verse can be rendered both ways—-I’d have to check the Hebrew.


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