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Sirach

Author: Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sirach

Date Written: 200-175 BC

 

Sirach was written by a Jewish scribe who lived in Jerusalem in the early third century BC.  His name was Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sirach.  He is often called simply "Ben Sira."  The book has taken several different titles including "The Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira" and "Liber Ecclesiasticus" (Church book).  Ben Sira wrote in Hebrew, but his grandson later translated the book into Greek.  Most Bibles include the grandson's preface even though it is not canonical.  The Hebrew of Sirach was lost about a thousand years ago, but in the late 19th century and early 20th century Hebrew fragments of Sirach were found which comprise about two-thirds of the book.  Sirach is a deuterocanonical book of wisdom literature.

 

Sirach is very similar to Proverbs in that the majority of the material is presented in short sayings.  The sayings are generally grouped by theme, so the book is loosely organized.  Ben Sira speaks in the first person, sometimes giving autobiographical details (34:11; 38-39).  In 1:1-42:14, He calls on his readers to seek wisdom and offers sayings on many issues.  42:15-43:35 is a song of praise to God the Creator, which is followed by a long section that honors the heroes of Israel's history (44:1-50:29).  The book concludes with a song of praise and thanks (51).

 

Sirach addresses many issues related to human life including money, relationships, worship, business and even table manners!  Its focus is to help the reader know how to live within the covenant, how to be faithful to God even in the small things.  Ben Sira has much to say about choosing friends, dealing with practical problems of life and watching one's words carefully.  Like other authors of wisdom literature, he praises wisdom and personifies it as a virtuous woman to be earnestly sought (4; 14-15).  Much of the book is couched in terms of a father giving advice to his son.  Some scholars think that the book was used to train young Jewish men for positions of leadership.  Ben Sira wrote in a time when Jewish identity was threatened by the extensive influence of Greek culture.  His writing invites his contemporaries to return to their spiritual and scriptural roots.

 

The reader faced with Sirach may get very frustrated by trying to read it too quickly, looking for an all-encompassing intent.  While the book is not organized by a central argument, it does propose a radical new idea that reinterprets the earlier wisdom books.  That is, it identifies wisdom with the Law of Moses (24:22-27).  This important idea shapes the way Ben Sira understands wisdom in relation to Israel's history and destiny.  The wisdom he offers is not simply good advice, but it is an explanation of the Law of Moses.  Like the Law, Sirach reaches its fulfillment in the life of Jesus.

 

Sirach ought to be read in small doses and thoroughly meditated on.  Many of its lessons are not new or startling, but they are tried and true principles about how to live in the light of God.  Each one is meant to be food for meditation and prayer. 

 

By Mark Giszczak

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September 1, 2014

Monday of the Twenty-Second Week in Ordinary Time

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