Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Week Ten: What is the significance of creation in Ben Sira?

            Creation has played a major role in the theology of each wisdom book we have studied so far. In Proverbs, creation functioned as a reflection of God’s wisdom and perfect order. In the book of Job, creation is a primary image as Job attempts to reverse and undo the order of God’s creation. In the wisdom Psalms, creation images are used in both Psalms 1 and 19. In Qohelet, the teacher emphasized creation as an empty, meaningless cycle. While creation theology varies greatly among biblical wisdom literature, in spite of these differences creation is a present and dominant theme in every book. The same is true for Ben Sira. In Ben Sira, creation serves as “the theme…that unites the book into a well-constructed literary composition” (Perdue 236). Ben Sira expands creation theology to encompass themes of obedience to Torah and Jewish election in addition to the traditional themes of order and retributive justice (Perdue 238).
            In the first chapter of Ben Sira, Wisdom is personified as a woman much like the poems of Woman Wisdom in Proverbs. Ben Sira, however, identifies Wisdom as “both the revelatory word of God and the divine commandments of the Torah” (Perdue 237). Here, Ben Sira’s emphasis on election and Torah stand in contrast to Proverbs’ focus on universal wisdom revealed in creation. Rather than creation being the revelation of God’s wisdom, for Ben Sira creation is simply the larger context in which God’s special revelation of Torah is given. In 16.26-30, Ben Sira presents a Torah-based view of the creation of the cosmos. Just as God spoke the cosmos into being, Ben Sira declares that the order of the cosmos is accomplished and maintained “because the works of creation are obedient to the divine imperative” (Perdue 238). While traditional creation theology explained the maintenance of order by God’s daily and continual victory over chaos, Ben Sira establishes a new theology in which the order of the cosmos is maintained by creation’s obedience to God’s command (Perdue 238). This understanding of the order of the universe “becomes the pattern for human understanding and moral behavior” (Perdue 239). As the order of creation is maintained by obedience to God’s command, humans can and should live in step with God’s order by obeying God’s command as revealed in the Torah (Perdue 240). The significance of creation in Ben Sira is explained well by Perdue, who says, “obedience to God, the foundation for order and regularity in nature and human society, is grounded in creation theology” (Perdue 242).
            Overall, in Ben Sira, creation seems to function as God’s opening act, while Torah is the real star of the show. Creation represents the universal revelation of God’s wisdom, while Torah represents God’s special revelation to the Jewish people. This shift from universal to special revelation is central to the theology of Ben Sira, and it sets the book apart from the other wisdom texts we have studied. Personally, I prefer the more universal creation theology of the earlier wisdom books, but Ben Sira’s use and expansion of creation themes in his Torah-centered theology is incredibly creative. I find it especially rewarding that I am able to identify and understand the shift throughout wisdom literature from general revelation to special revelation, from creation to Torah. I find it comforting to see these changes in perspective in biblical literature throughout history. I have experienced drastic shifts in my theology throughout my faith journey, and looking back these shifts can be overwhelming. Sometimes I wonder how I possibly found my way from where I have been to where I am today. Sometimes I even question the legitimacy of my faith because of the context in which I first experienced God. However, I am reminded by the shift in theology throughout wisdom literature that faith is indeed a journey, and the beginning of that journey is not the end of the story.

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