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Ben Sira’s Attitude towards Foreign Peoples and Cultures

Ben Sira lived in an era when Hellenistic influences continued to spread in Palestine. This article attempts to demonstrate that Ben Sira’s relationship to foreign nations is neither thoroughly hostile nor that of uncritically embracing Gentiles. Ben Sira was deeply rooted in Judaism but this did not prevent him from being open toward foreign influences as far as they were compatible with his religious and cultural heritage.

See also: Marko Marttila, Foreign Nations in the Wisdom of Ben Sira. A Jewish Sage between Opposition and Assimilation (Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature Studies 13; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2012).

By Marko Marttila
Docent of Old Testament Studies
University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu
July 2013

It is justified to say that research on the Book of Ben Sira is currently experiencing a boom - a boom that has continued for the last two decades. The number of publications has recently increased compared to the period beginning with the discovery of the Cairo Geniza manuscripts in 1896 and ending with the discovery of the Masada scroll in 1965.1 Although we have only meager information about Ben Sira’s biography, we do know quite well the historical, social and religious circumstances in which he lived and worked. Furthermore, we know what he thought about the issues that pertained to his society, the history of his people and man’s relationship to God. This biographical information has helped to give a more precise analysis of Ben Sira’s career, and thus the origin of his book can be dated with a remarkable accuracy.

Ben Sira was active as a sage and wisdom teacher in Jerusalem in the first quarter of the second century B.C.E. It is often assumed that Ben Sira died around 175 B.C.E., as there are no clues in his book that could refer to the malign reign of the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, whose enthronement took place at that time. Ben Sira obviously had a circle of pupils. They were young men from the upper classes of Jerusalem. It is probable that Ben Sira’s teaching activity continued for a longer period, and consequently his book may contain sayings from different years and situations. Correct conduct, friendship, generosity and women are some of the central topics Ben Sira discusses, imitating the style of the Proverbs. However, Ben Sira does not confine himself exclusively to the family matters. As the first known author within Israelite wisdom literature he also considers the history of Israel. The long passage called “The Praise of the Ancestors” concludes his wisdom work (Sir 44–50) before some secondarily added poems in chapter 51. Throughout his work Ben Sira seems to have been proud of his Jewish background. The Torah of YHWH surpassed every other form of wisdom. Ben Sira even claims that the only true wisdom can be found in Israel’s Torah. It is also worth noting how greatly Ben Sira admires priests, although he himself probably was not one. His description of the high priest carrying out a service in the temple is told so magnificently (Sir 50) that the earthly service compares well to a celestial counterpart. To sum it up, Ben Sira puts main emphasis on his own people that has been the covenantal partner of God since ancient times. From such a perspective it is challenging to ask, what kind of role the other nations and their traditions play in Ben Sira’s argumentation.

Ben Sira’s attitude towards foreigners has received contradictory interpretations in critical research. This topic was vehemently guided by Rudolf Smend senior who in his famous commentary (1906) stated that the opening line of Ben Sira’s book was a declaration of war against Hellenism.2 Many scholars after Smend have retained the view that Ben Sira was hostile towards foreign influences, notably Hellenism.3 Some other scholars, however, have argued that Ben Sira actually was indebted to the Hellenistic world to a considerable extent. Theophil Middendorp attempted to demonstrate that Ben Sira had used Greek literature at several points in his wisdom sayings.4 Nowadays scholars are more cautious in their conclusions than Middendorp, but it seems nonetheless probable that Ben Sira had known at least the works of Theognis5 and that the structure of his “Praise of the Ancestors” comes close to the pattern of encomium that is often used in Hellenistic literature.6 When we compare these differing views, it must be said that we cannot find anywhere in Sirach explicit polemic against Greek wisdom.

For Ben Sira and his fellow Jews there seem to have been three major approaches how to orientate toward foreign cultures. These models were isolation, assimilation or adaptation. Several details reveal that Ben Sira represented the middle way – that of adaptation.7 But there is still another important aspect in Ben Sira’s work related to foreign influence. It is the question of how Ben Sira understood the role of the Gentiles. This issue strongly divides the biblical authors who preceded Ben Sira. Some of them (notably the authors and editors of the Book of Joshua as well as Ezra and Nehemiah) regarded Gentiles as the anti-elect, bitter enemies of the Chosen People. The most repulsive nations in such assessments were undoubtedly the Canaanites, Philistines, Edomites, Moabites, and Midianites. Ben Sira was familiar with these traditions. However, the picture is not as one-sided as it may initially appear. In several biblical stories, the foreign nations are not described as hostile powers. They negotiate peacefully and trade with the Israelites. The best definition is to call them simply non-elect.8 In some of the latest texts of the Hebrew Bible, the horizon widens to universal dimensions and we learn that even Gentiles may arrive at Zion at the end of time in order to worship YHWH (e.g., Isa 2:1–5; 56:1–8; 60:1–16; 66:18–20; Mic 4:1–4; Ps 87:1–7; 96:7–10). On the basis of these observations, it is evident that there were quite contradicting views about foreigners prior to Ben Sira. As a sage who was well aware of the books of ancestors, Ben Sira knew these different attitudes toward foreign nations. It is interesting to shed some light on the way he himself interpreted the role of the non-Israelites.

Four textual passages are the most central when assessing Ben Sira’s opinions about foreign nations: Sir 17; Sir 24; Sir 36, and the “Praise of the Ancestors” (Sir 44–50). Chapter 17 reflects biblical creation stories. The Hebrew text of this chapter is unfortunately not preserved. The passage actually begins in Sir 16:24, but the creation of man is discussed from Sir 17:1 onwards. Ben Sira says that “the Lord created man (in Greek: ‘anthropos’) from the earth” (Sir 17:1). It is significant that the word “anthropos” is only mentioned in this opening verse of chapter 17. In the text that follows, the term “anthropos” is not repeated but is referred to with pronouns. This gives the impression that Ben Sira is throughout his teaching in chapter 17 speaking of the same entity – that is mankind in general. Ben Sira reminds his audience about the mortality of man that belonged to God’s original plan: “He gave them a fixed number of days” (Sir 17:2). Ben Sira also emphasizes man’s role as a “viceroy” – God’s responsible governor on earth: “He gave them authority over all things on earth” (Sir 17:2). As this requires intellectual skills, Ben Sira continues: “He filled them with knowledge and intelligence and showed them good and evil” (Sir 17:7). Up to this point, all of this information is based on the accounts of Genesis.

The most interesting transition takes place between verses 10 and 11. Sirach 17:10 says that people will praise God’s holy name. This short doxological sentence is succeeded by the statement that God added knowledge upon them and allotted the law of life to them (Sir 17:11). Certain expressions in Sir 17:13 can easily be associated with the theophany on Sinai when the Law was given (glorious majesty). But syntactically there is no break whatsoever between verses 10 and 11. Both the subject and the object seem to remain the same. God allotted to “them” the Law of life. In the context of Sir 17, this “them” can only refer to the “anthropos” introduced in Sir 17:1. Had it been Ben Sira’s plan to discuss all mankind in vv. 1–10, and focus exclusively on the people of Israel from v. 11 onwards, he could have made it more explicit. The text, as it stands, gives the impression that Ben Sira deliberately attempted to erase the border between Israel and other nations. In creation, all people were provided with wisdom that is best defined as “general wisdom”. But that was not enough in God’s plans and therefore he poured some extra measure of wisdom in the form of the Torah. Ben Sira’s inclusivity in Sir 17 implies that the “special wisdom” was not exclusively Israel’s property. Israel was the first recipient of the special wisdom but it seems that even the Gentiles can be partners of the everlasting covenant that is mentioned in Sir 17:12.9 The choice of words is noteworthy here. The attribute “everlasting” is not usually connected with the covenant of Sinai. It is more often associated with God’s covenant with Noah (Gen 9) and with Abraham (Gen 17), both of which have a universal character. It is thus likely that Ben Sira deliberately mingles different covenants. To sum it up, the non-Israelites do not appear as a threat or enemies in Sir 17. However, we have to gain more evidence before coming to a conclusion concerning Ben Sira’s attitude towards foreign people. Cumulative evidence in favour of the non-Israelites would best confirm our study. We now turn to Sir 24, a chapter that has often been considered Ben Sira’s theological core.

Sirach 24 introduces to us a personified Wisdom that first dwelled in God’s celestial court. Then she descended to earth and had dominion over every nation. She wandered and sought for a permanent resting place. It was not found until God ordered her to make dwelling in Jacob (Sir 24:8). The description continues by stating that Wisdom ministered in the holy tent before YHWH (Sir 24:10). It is thus clear that this chapter puts a strong emphasis on Jerusalem and Zion. True wisdom cannot be found elsewhere. Ben Sira’s thought here closely resembles his argumentation in chapter 17. Even in chapter 24 we are able to distinguish between general and special wisdom.

Verses 6–7 indicate that Wisdom was in touch with other nations. Such a statement is understandable, since neither Ben Sira nor his fellow sages could deny the wisdom traditions of other cultures in the environment where the Hellenistic influence was constantly growing. Wisdom had left her traces among other people but they had remained in an unfinished state. Their wisdom had not become complete. Israel had received wisdom in its fullest form, but the door seems to be open for foreigners to achieve their share of this special wisdom. It is significant that the personified Wisdom calls everyone who longs for her (Sir 24:19). It is an open invitation to enjoy the fruits of wisdom. Nothing in this text explicitly says that this call would be confined solely to the Israelites. Gaining wisdom is a lifelong process; one actually cannot ever be fully satiated. According to Ben Sira, Lady Wisdom says: “Those who eat me will still hunger, and those who drink me will still thirst” (Sir 24:21). There are simply no limits for one’s association with wisdom.

Ben Sira’s national prayer in chapter 36 is a challenge to the picture previously drawn before us. Ben Sira has shown sympathy towards other nations’ endeavours to achieve true wisdom. However, the tone of this prayer is completely different. Its language contains expressions that closely resemble eschatological texts. A foreign people referred to by a pseudonymous epithet “Moab” (v. 10) is depicted in extremely dark colours, and the prayer includes a clear appeal to God to execute revenge upon this hostile nation. It is thus no wonder that many scholars have regarded Sir 36:1–17 as a later addition. It has also been suggested that Ben Sira took this prayer from a liturgical tradition and inserted it to his own composition.10 A close reading of the passage, however, supports the view that this prayer was written by Ben Sira himself. It uses many of his favourite phrases. This leads us to ask, why Ben Sira’s text here is so unparalleled with the rest of the book. What are the reasons that foreigners are nearly cursed in this prayer?

Despite the prayer’s apparent particularism, the concluding sentence opens up a universal perspective: “And all the ends of the earth will know that you are the eternal God” (Sir 36:17). There is still hope for people outside the realm of Zion. Nonetheless, God hates arrogant people who try to replace the only true God with their own glory and boasting. We must keep in mind that Ben Sira’s career as a sage and wisdom teacher probably lasted a few decades. He experienced changes in political circumstances. Around 200 B.C.E. the Syrian Seleucids defeated the Egyptian Ptolemies and took the control of Palestine. In the beginning, this change looked favourable to the Jews of Palestine, but gradually the Seleucids tightened their grasp. It is possible that Ben Sira wrote the prayer of chapter 36 during the reign of Seleucus IV (187–175 B.C.E.), as he had to cancel those privileges that his father Antiochus III had granted to the citizens of Jerusalem. Seleucus desperately needed money, and it is understandable that the Jews were worried about the fate of their Temple's treasures. Annihilation is not the ultimate fate of the foreign nations. Chastisement rather serves educational purposes, since the punished people should repent of their arrogance and confess YHWH’s superiority.

The long passage “Praise of the Ancestors” (Sir 44–50) contains several smaller passages that discuss the role of foreign nations. All of them cannot be analysed in this short article, but some examples will elucidate Ben Sira’s attitude. First of all, Ben Sira’s approach to Phinehas in Sir 45:23–26 is interesting. Ben Sira stresses that Phinehas and his descendants were granted the high priesthood forever. This is a detail that the background story (Num 25) does not mention, since it only speaks of the hereditary priesthood. Ben Sira puts an emphasis on the rank of the high priest. Ben Sira not only adds but he also omits. His text does not explicitly mention the manner in which Phinehas atoned for Israel. There are no references to the Israelite man and his Midianite woman whom Phinehas executed. It is truly astonishing how veiled the language is that Ben Sira uses at this point. At least we can say that the Midianite woman of Num 25 was not a major character for Ben Sira. Much more important was to highlight Phinehas’s high priesthood. Consequently, foreign nations do not appear in a problematic light in this context.

Another example is closely related to the description of Phinehas. Ben Sira portrays King Solomon in Sir 47:13–22. Ben Sira does not turn a blind eye to Solomon’s misdeeds. The description of Solomon can be divided into two parts. In the first part, Ben Sira marvels at Solomon’s wisdom and wealth (vv. 13–18), but in the final part, he points out the king’s offences (vv. 19–22). First Kings 11 tells us that Solomon’s numerous foreign wives seduced him into idol worship. This was, of course, a severe crime in the eyes of the Deuteronomistic editors, and Ben Sira shared their verdict. Ben Sira criticises Solomon for surrendering himself to women, but surprisingly, Ben Sira does not mention at all that Solomon’s wives were foreigners. Again his language is veiled. Without the background story from 1 Kings 11, a reader of Ben Sira might think that Solomon’s transgression was perhaps adultery or a kind of sexual insatiability.

A curious detail that has long bothered scholars is the omission of Ezra from Ben Sira’s “Praise of the Ancestors”. Many explanations have been offered to solve this riddle but the most convincing one seems to be the assumption that Ben Sira represented a more universal view than Ezra’s strict particularism. In the cases of Phinehas and Solomon, Ben Sira was silent about the non-Israelite women. Ezra’s violent way of bringing mixed marriages to an end did not please Ben Sira. It is also noteworthy that Ben Sira, when introducing Nehemiah, does not refer to Nehemiah’s deeds against mixed marriages. Nehemiah was an important ancestor because he raised the fallen walls of Jerusalem (Sir 49:13).

The final example is from the end of the “Praise of the Ancestors” (Sir 50:25–26). Whether this short passage is to be understood as an epilogue preceding the long hymn in praise of the high priest Simon II, or as a passage that had been later inserted into its present context, is open to interpretation. Both the style and content reveal, however, that this is very likely Ben Sira’s own text. These two verses heavily attack three neighbouring nations. The nations are best identified as follows: 1) The name ‘Seir’ designates Idumeans (or Nabateans); 2) The epithet ‘Philistines’ refers to the citizens of the Hellenistic cities which were established in the region that had once belonged to the Philistines; and 3) the people of Shechem signifies the Samaritans. Ben Sira’s extremely negative statement about the Samaritans is actually the oldest known reference to the Samaritans in a Jewish source text. At this point, foreign nations are certainly not described in a favourable light. What might have caused Ben Sira’s vehement outburst? The most obvious answer is that the neighbouring nations represented the most potential threat to the Israelite religion. The Samaritans had gone so far in that they claimed to have a temple for YHWH on Mount Garizim. In Ben Sira’s eyes, this was a step too far. He could not tolerate such a blasphemy. The Samaritans, in particular, were to be classified among the group of anti-elect people. However, as the survey above has shown, Ben Sira usually speaks in positive terms of foreign nations. Apart from a few exceptions, foreign nations definitely belong to the “neutral” group of non-elect, and moreover, they seem occasionally to have an access to the category of the elect if they are willing to accept the Torah of Israel.


1 Scholarly publications on Ben Sira are well documented from the early origins up till 1998 in Friedrich V. Reiterer (ed.), Bibliographie zu Ben Sira (BZAW 266, Berlin: De Gruyter, 1998).

2 Rudolf Smend, Die Weisheit Jesus Sirach erklärt (Berlin: Reimer, 1906).

3 For the sake of brevity, I refer here only to some most famous scholars who regard Ben Sira as an anti-Hellenist: Martin Hengel, Judentum und Hellenismus. Studien zu ihrer Begegnung unter besonderer Berücksichtigung Palästinas bis zur Mitte des 2. Jh.s v. Chr. (WUNT 10; 2nd edition; Tübingen: Mohr, 1973), 243, 258; Alexander A. Di Lella, “Conservative and Progressive Theology: Sirach and Wisdom,” CBQ 28 (1966): 139–154.

4 Theophil Middendorp, Die Stellung Jesu Ben Siras zwischen Judentum und Hellenismus (Leiden: Brill, 1973).

5 Patrick W. Skehan & Alexander A. Di Lella, The Wisdom of Ben Sira (AB 39; New York: Doubleday, 1987), 47–48. Ben Sira’s familiarity with the works of Theognis is not completely turned down by Hans Volker Kieweler who otherwise doubts Ben Sira’s supposed knowledge of the Greek literature; see, for instance, Kieweler, Ben Sira zwischen Judentum und Hellenismus. Eine Auseinandersetzung mit Th. Middendorp (BEATAJ 30; Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1992), 143.

6 Thomas R. Lee, Studies in the Form of Sirach 44–50 (SBLDS 75; Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1986), 206–239.

7 Marko Marttila, Foreign Nations in the Wisdom of Ben Sira. A Jewish Sage between Opposition and Assimilation (Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature Studies 13; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 31.

8 Joel S. Kaminsky, Yet I Loved Jacob. Reclaiming the Biblical Concept of Election (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 2007), 121–136.

9 In a recent article, Shane Berg does not draw such a far-reaching conclusion but admits that for Ben Sira knowledge of the law is not an esoteric possession of some select group but rather is available to serve the public good of Judea; Shane Berg, “Ben Sira, the Genesis Creation Accounts, and the Knowledge of God’s Will,” JBL 132 (2013): 139–157 (151).

10 Greg Schmidt Goering, Wisdom’s Root Revealed. Ben Sira and the Election of Israel (JSJSup 139; Leiden: Brill, 2009), 212–224.

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