For my write-up today on the Anchor Bible commentary on The Wisdom of Ben Sira, I will talk about Alexander Di Lella’s discussion of Ben Sira 33:4-6. The passage says, according to Patrick Skehan’s translation:
“Prepare your words and you will be listened to; bind your training to your person, and then give your answer. Like the wheel of a cart in the mind of a fool; his thoughts revolve in circles. An unscrupulous friend is like the distracted stallion that neighs, no matter who the rider.”
Di Lella states the following:
“‘The mind of the fool’ is like a cartwheel, and ‘his thoughts revolve in circles’ (33:5)—-strong and distasteful images—-because he lacks instruction, discipline, and firm convictions. In other words, because his folly makes him incapable of weighing his words before speaking, as the wise are urged to do in 33:4, he constantly changes his mind like a wheel that is revolving. Hence, what he says makes little or no sense. ‘An unscrupulous…friend is like the distracted [lit., rutting…] stallion’—-another forceful image—-‘that neighs, no matter who the rider,’ i.e., such a ‘friend’ speaks up or acts impulsively, no matter who is present; considerations of time or place, of courtesy or confidence, mean nothing to him.”
I have two reactions to this:
1. I think that people can get the impression that my thoughts revolve in circles—-that I do not have firm convictions, and that my thoughts are not exactly linear. Some have applied to me Ephesians 4:14, in which Paul (or, for liberal scholars, “Paul”) exhorts his congregation not to be tossed about by every wind of doctrine. For those who apply that verse to me, I need to make a decision about what I believe and act according to it, rather than entertaining different perspectives and evaluating their strengths and weaknesses.
I do not believe that my thinking in circles is a sign that my mind lacks instruction. Actually, it’s because I think things through that I am reluctant to consider one dogmatic perspective to be the end-all-be-all. I have difficulty committing to one perspective and thinking in a linear fashion because a “Yes, but” or a “What about this?” interrupts me from doing so. And I should note that Ben Sira himself acknowledges that there are shades of gray. For example, is modesty a good thing? At one point, Ben Sira says that it is, but he also believes that too much modesty is not that good.
But do I believe in any black and white? Is everything for me a shade of gray? I think that there is better and worse when it comes to how I live my life. In some cases, there is black and white—-I should not harm somebody else. In other cases, there is better and worse, and that can be adaptable based on the situation. Instruction perhaps can help me to learn what to do in different situations.
But, when it comes to doctrinal issues, such as whether everyone has to keep the Sabbath on Saturday, or if there is a true religion, or what not, I tend to leave that up in the air. I have some convictions. I just don’t think that some of the issues that people expect me to have convictions on are overly vital, or can even be successfully arbitrated.
2. Thinking before you speak. Well, I admit that there are times when I say socially-inappropriate things. It’s difficult when I’m pressured to talk in order to fit into a social situation and to stand out, and when I don’t have much time to think before I speak because the conversation is moving rapidly from one topic to another. So why should I beat myself up if I flub things up, at times?