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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Ben Sira (Sirach)

Like an Everlasting Signet Ring: Generosity in the Book of Sirach by Bradley C. Gregory  (Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature Studies: De Gruyter) This work explores the theological and social dimensions of generosity in the book of Sirach and contextualizes them within the culture and thought of Second Temple Judaism. Ben Sira's understanding of generosity is predicated on the tension between affirming the classic wisdom principle of retributive justice and recognizing its breakdown in the socio-economic circumstances of Seleucid Judea. He forges a new Wisdom-Torah ethic of mercy in which giving generously is an integral part of living ""the good life"".While loans and surety are essential practices, almsgiving is the preeminent act of generosity. The fundamental theological logic at work consists in viewing the poor as proxies for God and is based on the economic structure of Proverbs 19:17. Giving to the poor is, in reality, a deposit in a heavenly treasury and will pay future dividends. By situating Ben Sira's view of almsgiving within the wider framework of retributive justice and its breakdown, new light is shed on the practical tensions regarding the extent of almsgiving and its relationship to the support of the Jerusalem priesthood. The various dynamics of Ben Sira's thought on generosity are situated within the broader Hellenistic world and in their foundational role for later Jewish and Christian thought.

Excerpt: "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be as well." These words by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount reflect the common belief that how people handle money reflects the core of who they are and what they believe. Many people, ancient and modern, have recognized that how people use money is a barometer of their inner values. The wealthy are perceived quite differently if they are philanthropists than if they use their wealth for manipulating and controlling, or even oppressing, others.

It is well known that in early Judaism and Christianity generosity was an important feature of ethical visions of the pious life. So important was almsgiving in early Judaism that it was considered by many rabbis to be the commandment that equals, or even surpasses, all the other commandments combined (cf. Tosephta Peah 4:19). Similarly, the Didache opens its exposition of "the two ways" by recalling Jesus's command to love one's enemies and fleshes this out through the virtue of generosity. It is only after this that it addresses the commandments regarding topics such as murder and adultery. While the virtuous nature of generosity can be seen throughout the ancient Near East and Mediterranean region, the Second Temple period was the formative era for many of the theological dimensions of generosity found in late antiquity among Jews and Christians. In this regard, the book of Sirach is a marvelous work for appreciating the way some Second Temple Jews appropriated earlier traditions about generosity and developed the theological dimensions that became foundational for later Jewish and Christian thinkers. The purpose of this study is to explore Ben Sira's thinking on the use of finances for generous purposes and to assess his indebtedness to earlier patterns of thought as well as the role of his own social environment in the formation of his theological perspective.'

He in whose veins there whirls a quiet shudder before God, Let him kiss the nails of a pauper. -- Abraham Heschel

Our human neighbor now becomes a "sacrament" of God's hidden presence among us, a mediator between God and humanity. Every authentic religious act is directed toward the concreteness of God in our human neighbors and their world. There it finds its living fulfillment and its transcendent point of contact. Could humanity be taken more seriously than that? --Johannes Metz2

Over the centuries the central theological commitments studied here have retained an abiding theological power in both Judaism and Christianity, as can be seen in these quotes from eminent thinkers, one Jewish and the other Christian. One's use of financial resources and the treatment of the poor frequently have been viewed as exhibiting in a powerful way the fundamental religious disposition of a person. This is so because the poor are understood as proxies for God such that how a person treats the former implies his disposition towards the latter (cf. Prov 14:31). This common Judeo-Christian heritage has deep roots in the ancient Near East and in Israel's formative traditions, but many of the key concepts that would be foundational for early Jewish and Christian thinkers can be detected first in the thought of Ben Sira and in the nearly contemporary book of Tobit. It has been the aim of this work to delve into the theological and social dimensions of the topic of generosity in Sirach and to contextualize them within Israel's heritage and in Ben Sira's subsequent heirs in rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity.

The essential matrix of thought in which Ben Sira develops his understanding of generosity is the principle of retributive justice and the dissonance caused by the disjunction between the principle's implications and the social realities of Seleucid Judea. It is on this tension, applied especially to the area of economics, that Ben Sira's thinking on charity is predicated. The principle of retributive justice predicts that the righteous will enjoy economic success, while the wicked will suffer deprivation, but in reality it is frequently those who are oppressive who, through their wickedness, obtain wealth and power. To a degree, this tension is ameliorated through various strategies. Ben Sira believes in limited deferral of divine justice, but also trades in the alternative currency of honor from God. Ultimately, however, these strategies for resolution are not fully sufficient, which leads to a robust understanding of the role of generosity.

One of the key difficulties with the problem of retributive justice is the finality of death, which excludes the possibility of deferring recompense into the afterlife. But the finality of death also plays an important role in Ben Sira's vision of generosity. Unlike many other Hellenistic works, both Jewish and pagan, Ben Sira integrates the virtue of generosity into his understanding of the motif of carpe diem, such that the use of wealth directly affects one's quality of life. Ben Sira, thus, relativizes wealth both intrinsically and functionally. While intuition may lead someone to believe that hoarding money is the best way to enjoy the finer things in life, Ben Sira argues that money should be used for the enjoyment of one's own life and that of one's friends. Since death approaches relentlessly and the time of death is unknown, one should put money to good effect in the present. This is done in two ways. One should spend money in the present on the finer things in life, but it is also worthwhile to "invest" one's money through generosity for future benefits. Synthesizing the perspectives explored in chapters 3-5, it appears that Ben Sira has a qualified view of carpe diem: it is not sheer indulgence in the present that is the best course of action, but the aggregate enjoyment averaged over the years that will prove to provide the best quality of life.

This counterintuitive economic move is paralleled in Ben Sira's discussion of loans and surety. Although social conditions cause many to be wary of practicing these kinds of generosity, Ben Sira views them as essentially issues of mercy. The sage who is obedient to a Wisdom-Torah ethic must trust in the divine economy and assist those in need. This Tendenz towards a mercy ethic is so strong that Ben Sira even incorporates the topic of surety into this ethical vision, despite the fact that the Torah is silent on the matter and sapiential predecessors advised against it. His theological-economic trajectory, therefore, moves him beyond the deductions of his predecessors and into direct conflict with some of his contemporaries (e.g. 4QInstruction). Although social realities may suggest otherwise, Ben Sira is adamant that giving generously will pay dividends, precisely because it adheres to his Wisdom-Torah ethical vision.

However, the concrete ways in which generosity can actually lead to "the good life" become especially clear in the topic of almsgiving. The core of Ben Sira's theology of almsgiving proceeds on the basis of (a) the belief that there is a special relationship between the poor and God such that the former serve as proxies for the latter (e.g. Prov 19:17), and (b) the (re)reading of earlier biblical texts (e.g. Prov 10:2; 11:4; Ps 112:9) through the lexical shift in the meaning of almsgiving. On the basis of these, Ben Sira and others derived the idea of a heavenly treasury. Almsgiving served as a "deposit" into this treasury and God can be trusted to repay in the form of future benefits and deliverance, especially from death. While many might consider generosity to the poor as a "loss," Ben Sira assures his students that it is actually "more profitable than gold." Generosity is thereby shown to be superior to the hoarding of money. Because charity brings greater benefits, including a longer life, it is a wise contribution to a life that embodies the principle of carpe diem. Since death is final, money should be used now both for present enjoyment and to secure future benefits from one's heavenly treasury. Because the divine economy is not subject to a zero-sum dynamic, giving to the poor aids them in the present and the giver in the future. It is a win-win situation.

Yet, this heavenly treasury can function in another way. In addition to a deposit to be drawn upon in the future, it can also serve as an atonement for sin. This is because of another linguistic and conceptual shift in the Second Temple period. Sin and forgiveness began to be conceptualized through the metaphor of debt and repayment. With this new paradigm it is possible for thinkers like Ben Sira to view almsgiving as containing sacrificial efficacy in that it can "pay down" a debt. For Ben Sira, this sacrificial functionality of almsgiving is applicable to both past and future sins. This does not render the cult moot; in fact, Ben Sira is a great supporter of the priesthood and the sacrificial cult. Rather, this characterization of almsgiving is frequently connected with the demands of social justice and demonstrates a "cultizing" of the Torah's ethical demands. Ultimately, the support of the priesthood and the care for the poor cannot be set in opposition because they are viewed as theologically complementary. Both the priests and the poor are viewed as proxies for God and thus to honor God, therefore, requires the honoring of the priests and generosity to the poor. Even more fundamentally, Ben Sira characterizes both of these Torah demands as an ethic of imitatio sapientiae. When one honors God by giving to the cult and to the poor one walks the path of Wisdom.

The ethical paradigm of "imitation" also supplies the key to resolving the problem of the recipients of almsgiving. In Sir 12:1-6 Ben Sira admonishes his students to give only to the righteous poor, while in other places he advocates almsgiving without limitations (4:1-10 and 7:32-36). However, this is not simply a surface contradiction, but is derived from two positions that are both based on the view that almsgiving is an act of imitatio Dei. In the model of limited almsgiving, the potential giver imitates God by enacting the principle of retributive justice: he gives to the righteous and withholds from the wicked. In the other model, though, the giver primarily relates to the poor qua poor such that the operative dynamic of imitation is coordinated with the nexus between the poor and God. Both models presuppose that the current socio-economic situation is out of accord with the principle of retributive justice. In other words, it is the more fundamental tension between the principle of retributive justice and its practical breakdown that is the source of this tension in the giving of alms. But just as God shows mercy even to the wicked, Ben Sira hints that, if one is in doubt, it is better to "err" on the side of mercy. Although the trajectory of the ethic of mercy carries Ben Sira beyond the pragmatic problems involved in assessing the moral constitution of the would-be recipient, he does allow the practical tension to stand.

In some ways, this synthesis brings us back to the beginning: the problem of retributive justice. Ben Sira affirms the principle but also adapts his social ethic in light of its breakdown. The dynamics and tensions in his understanding of generosity flow directly from this problem and Ben Sira does not appear to have been willing to settle for easy answers. While in some sense the problems involved in the topic of generosity are not resolved by Ben Sira, the sympathetic reader will perhaps recognize that there simply is no forthcoming resolution to the problem. In fact, the theological difficulties that have surfaced in this investigation are characteristic of any endeavor to appropriate a religious heritage for a new day, in order to answer new questions. The inherently accommodated nature of the theological enterprise is inescapable in any negotiation between tradition and one's contemporary world and a lack of systematic consistency does not always imply a defect or shallowness of a particular thinker; rather, it may reflect a mature awareness that in the task of theology answers are not always straightforward in this complex world, but must be negotiated and discerned through wisdom.


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