The Failure of Sirach

Sirach wrote in the period before the events which led to the Maccabean revolt. He is friendly toward the Greeks and optimistic that Jewish people can live alongside their Greek neighbors. Perhaps Israel’s religion can be presented to the nations as a rational philosophy of life, so that the Gentiles would flock to Israel and fulfill the sort of hopes found in Isaiah 2. That Sirach would try to synthesis Wisdom and Law implies that Judaism is facing a crisis between Torah and Wisdom: many of the peculiar laws cannot be made to work with Hellenism.

This kind of apologetic strategy is rarely successful. Sirach could be attacked by more liberal Jewish thinkers as antiquated, and by more conservative thinkers are giving up the heart of Judaism. Hebrew Law never was going to appeal to the Hellenist and factions on either end of the spectrum might think Sirach was wrong to even try. The Maccabean revolt will try to re-assert and enforce the Jewish boundary markers.

Perhaps an analogy would help. How do extremely conservative Christians keep their children from leaving the faith? What is their apologetic strategy”?  For some, they shelter their children and never let them think outside of the approved conservative reading list. For others, they develop rationalistic explanations for why “the world” has a keatondifferent view (creation science as a rational way to explain away evolution). On the other end of the scale, some conservatives allow their children freedom to explore, and sometimes they lose them to “the world.” Potentially this analogy works for extremely liberal parents shielding their children from the conservative worldview (Alex P. Keaton, for example).

After the Maccabean revolt, there are several movements which step forward as competitors to Sirach’s hope for a rational and intellectual Judaism.

First, although the apocalyptic movement begins before Sirach, the best representatives of this style of literature appear after the Maccabean revolt. The Enochian literature, for example would find Sirach far too worldly.  1 Enoch sees the cosmic dimension of the Jewish religion: evil angels and the war of the forces of darkness and the forces of light.

Second, martyrdom movements that produced 4 Maccabees, revolutionary prophets and the Zealots at the end of the first century would find intellectual arguments as insufficient.  Sirach never calls for the use of force, the Zealots will. The Law of Moses is recommended to people through rational persuasion – the Zealots think that violence is necessary to enforce the Law.

Third, the development of scribes and “teachers of the Law” who worked to make new connections between Torah and contemporary practice (and to undo the connections others are made). The old Torah was alive and could be made to work in a Hellenistic world, a Roman world, or even the modern world.

In the Second Temple period Jewish people are desperate because history is not actualizing their hopes. The utopia dreams of Isaiah or Ezekiel’s hope for a restoration of the tribes of Israel around a Davidic leader are not being realized. They are trying to bring together elements to give their children something which will prevent them from going to Hellenism.

It is not a stretch to say that Christianity developed as one answer to this struggle for the heart of Judaism. But Christianity finds itself in a similar place, at least in the west. How does the approach of Sirach (or Aristeas or others) help Christians who are finding it difficult to remain faithful to the core beliefs of the faith in an increasingly anti-Christian world?

9 thoughts on “The Failure of Sirach

  1. The beauty of the gospel is following faith properly is to stand out dramatically. Modern day Christianity seems more interested in evangelizing then their counterparts in intertestimental times. In a world when you want people to turn to God being a counter to the normal is the quickest way to be noticed. When bad things happen everyone gets down a bit, but when a believer chooses to be happy because they are aware of God being in control it sets them apart. And that’s really what it is from God is our call to be set apart. It is always been a hard balance to keep the faith and yet not shun the outside hard enough that they dont even know who you are.

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  2. Sirach’s idea of a informed and exposed Jew makes perfect sense in my mind. The whole approach compares practices and beliefs to evaluate the truth in each. It’s true that the contemporary Christian parent faces challenges as far as what to allow their children to discover, and what to shield them from for their own good. The idea that ignorance can produce a positive reinforcement in a person holds some substance, but I would argue that Scripture presents a completely honest and rational explanation for why Christians believe what they believe, and supports these beliefs. Young people in the Church will have a far more compelling reason to follow the faith when they are presented with the logical truths of the Bible than if they are sheltered in a typical “church environment” until stumbling upon the ideas of the world. Sudden exposure without a proper understanding of how to combat secular arguments is far more damaging than learning about them and comparing them to what Scripture says. For me, that’s a large part of why I’m at Bible College. I believe that education on the compelling truth of Scripture is far more effective in building up a believer than ignoring what the world has to say against the Bible.

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    • Thanks for your input on this issue. I agree that only exposing children to certain things that we deem “Christian” is no way to build up children who have meaningful faith. If people are never informed of both sides, can we even call it genuine faith? Everyone’s journey to faith should involver personal decisions, and when we raise kids in such a bubble, we can take those decisions away from them.
      However, I am not completely sold on the concept of combating secular arguments with scripture. I suppose I would like some clarification as to what you meant by “combat”. In my experience, you will never win an argument versus a secularist by quoting scripture. By their very nature, they deny the validity of scripture, so it is not going to even register for them as admissible truth. I do not believe that it is our responsibility to win arguments against the secular people around us. I believe that in this case, it is far more important to be willing to apply the scriptures instead of simply having the necessary knowledge of them. The pharisees had as much experience and wisdom on the scriptures as anyone, and yet failed to apply them and live as they were called to.
      However, you may have meant combat secular arguments in a personal way, as in using scriptural truth to reinforce your own faith when you hear the “sirens call” of secular reason. If this was your intention, I agree that the process of studying and applying scripture is a good way to keep our own faith sharp and strong.

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    • That is a very good point, education on the compelling truth of scripture is super important. We need to be open to society, but first, we must learn from God’s word to take the best steps we can take in the society that we are in. Scripture tells us the narrow path is the way to salvation and wide is the gate that leads to destruction (Matt 7:13). We must be precise in our tactics of how we interact within this world, but we must be open-minded enough to stay on the narrow path, so that we do not fall off of it with our own narrow thinking. This only comes from a deeply rooted sense of leaning on God first. We need to love the Lord our God with our heart, soul, mind and strength (Deut 6:5). We need to be resilient against the temptations that society tries to put on us, so that society does not run off with our heart, soul, mind, or strength.

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  3. Christianity today does face a number of issues comparable to those of the Jews during the intertestamental period. One of these is how the “top thinkers” of the time had a worldview that was very different than that of the Jews, which caused them to think that the Jews’ strange practices and beliefs were foolish. Because of this issue, it seems like several Jews tried to reconcile their beliefs with the “intellectual” beliefs of the Greeks. The big problem with that is when you try to take scriptural teaching and attempt to merge it with a worldly culture, it loses its power. God’s teaching and God’s followers are meant to stand out in a pagan world. This may be a hard fact to practice, but it is a true fact.

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  4. The thing that stands out to me the most is Sirach’s desire to make Judaism rational. The basic core of Judaism, or to experience the basic truth of the God in the Bible, is when God tells you to do something you do it. Deity obedience should be a concept that the Greeks have in their culture. Having a spine is attractive and at the very least respected in other cultures. Another issue Israel is facing is that the children of Israel are getting pulled away by Hellenism, so Jews such as Sirach are trying to figure out how to blend Jewish culture with Hellenism. This is intriguing because these struggles remind me of the struggles that were in the emerging church. They want to have the cool hip Greek coffee shops but still make sure that they don’t lose their Jewish Heritage and teachings. In Deuteronomy 6:7, Israel is commanded to teach their children daily about the laws and rules that God has placed over them. I wonder if the Jewish culture was failing to demonstrate what is mentioned in Deuteronomy 6. Were they loving the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and were they displaying that to their children?

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