Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Week Eleven: What is the role of chapters 44-50 in Ben Sira?

            The combination of creation and salvation history is a theme unique to Ben Sira (Perdue 257). By celebrating the faithful ancestors of Israel, chapters 44-50 in Ben Sira illustrate God’s work through God’s people in history, rooted in the order of God’s creation. These chapters are written in the Greek style of encomium, which was characterized by “the glorification of human beings.” As such, “the object of praise in this great ‘hymn’ is not Yahweh, but rather ‘Men of Piety’” (Perdue 257). However, Ben Sira was not advocating for worship of humans over God, but rather celebration of God’s work through humans.
Ben Sira specifically praises individuals in Israel’s history who have lived radical lives of obedience to Torah, which for Ben Sira is the revealed wisdom of God. Specifically, the offices of priest, prophet, king, and judge are upheld as righteous (Brenneman 11/9/10). This would have supported Ben Sira’s personal interests, as a “scribal interpreter of Scripture” (Perdue 228). As someone working in the temple, Ben Sira would have benefitted greatly from the temple-centered Jewish culture of his day. Therefore, it makes sense that he would intentionally uphold Torah and temple as central to Jewish life and religious devotion. Perdue speaks to the type of history portrayed in chapters 44-50, saying, “Ben Sira often engages in revisionist, romanticized history…in which he selects, omits, rewrites, and praises the great heroes of the past who were pious, righteous, faithful, honored, and therefore to be remembered” (258). Essentially, Ben Sira crafts a hymn praising the Jewish heroes whose lives uphold and affirm his theology and agenda.
In praising these individuals, Ben Sira praises the ongoing work of God throughout history. For Ben Sira, creation is the framework in which God’s saving acts, through righteous people, occur throughout history.  Perdue illustrates this point by saying that chapters 44-50 are “introduced by a majestic hymn on creation…thus there is a close relationship between creation and salvation history effectuated through the acts of the pious heroes” (260). For Ben Sira, according to the order of creation these ancestors were predestined to live righteous lives which should be remembered (257). Therefore, their very lives are a witness to God’s creating, ordering, sustaining power. Finally, Ben Sira’s “account of Israel’s salvation history served as the outgrowth of the progressive realization of the redemptive purpose of God’s sustaining power” (Perdue 259). According to Ben Sira, obedience to Torah and temple served as a means of sustaining creation. By living in obedience to Torah and leading righteous lives, these righteous ancestors had actually worked alongside God in the work of sustaining the order of creation (Perdue 261). Thus, in chapters 44-50 Ben Sira proclaims a theology in which salvation history and creation are interconnected, sustaining the cosmos and God’s chosen people throughout the history.
To me, Ben Sira represents a sort of theological evolution of sapiential themes. Central themes such as creation and justice have continued throughout the wisdom books, but depending on the historical context and social location of the authors, these themes have been portrayed very differently. In Proverbs, creation was God’s revealed wisdom, and as history moved forward Torah came to be understood as God’s revealed wisdom. However, even with this shift, creation remained the general revelation of God through which Torah wisdom was given as a gift to God’s chosen people. This shift alone reflects great theological evolution in Jewish theology. It seems to me that as wisdom theology has evolved throughout the books we have studied, it has become increasingly complex and intentionally interconnected. I am actually not sure if this is because Ben Sira’s theology is more complex than the theology of Proverbs, or if this is because I am more aware of the complexities and able to understand them. Overall, much of Ben Sira’s theology is similar to my own. Ben Sira’s theology of retributive justice is the one critical exception to that statement, but none of the wisdom books articulate a theology of justice that is close to my own, which is influenced strongly by the prophets and the teachings of Christ. However, Ben Sira’s combination of creation and Torah is compelling, shaping a theology in which truth is found at the intersection of God’s world and God’s Word.

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