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.
And yet, 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 world.
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 resurrection.
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 Greek philosophy.
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.
But 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!
Second, 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.