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Wisdom's Root Revealed: Ben Sira and the Election of Israel (review)

From: Hebrew Studies
Volume 53, 2012
pp. 399-401 | 10.1353/hbr.2012.0018

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Goering, assistant professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, became acquainted with the question: "Who is a Jew?" That led him to consider the relationship of Wisdom and Torah, about which scholars have written extensively. He states that his purpose is "to show that the concept of election enables a profitable discussion of the relation of Wisdom and Torah in the book of Sirach" (p. xi). This book is a revised and expanded version of his doctoral dissertation at Harvard Divinity School (Jon D. Levenson director). Chapter 4 is the most extensive expansion.

The book has seven chapters, the titles of which provide a good idea of the contents: 1. "Wisdom, Torah, and Election; An Introduction to the Study"; 2. "Election and Creation: The Sun, the Moon, and Israel's Chosenness"; 3. "Election and Revelation: General and Special Wisdom"; 4. "Election and Tradition: The Preservation and Transmission of Wisdom"; 5. "Election and Piety: The 'Fear of YHWH'"; 6. "Election and Eschatology: Israel among the Nations"; 7. "Conclusion: Ben Sira and the Election of Israel." Goering arranged the chapters with a certain symmetry: chapter 1, which establishes the initial problem, corresponds with chapter 7, which synthesizes his findings; chapter 2, which speaks of Ben Sira's creation theology, with chapter 6, which explains Ben Sira's eschatology; chapter 3, which deals with general and special wisdom, with chapter 5, which speaks of non-Jewish and Jewish piety. Chapter 4 stands in the center where Goering analyzes the tradition of transmitting wisdom from one generation to another (p. 17).

In chapter 1, Georing suggests that Ben Sira speaks of two kinds of wisdom, each of which originates in YHWH. YHWH gives to all persons general wisdom available through creation; but to Israel, His chosen people, he gives a special wisdom available through YHWH's commandments. In chapter 2, Georing shows how Ben Sira distinguishes one person from another on the basis of two unequal apportionments of divine wisdom. The first apportionment endows wisdom on all creation, including all humanity; the second gives an extra measure of wisdom to a select group, namely, Israel. These apportionments are forms of divine revelation. In chapter 3, the special wisdom granted to Israel is a special inheritance preserved and passed on from generation to generation. Chapter 4 identifies the mechanisms Ben Sira viewed as the means of safeguarding special wisdom for each Israelite generation. While marginalizing the role of the king, he stresses the role of the scribe as well as the role of the priests who preserve and transmit wisdom. These sociological realities reflect the new political configuration of Jerusalem in Ben Sira's day.

Chapter 5 examines the content and purposes of the special wisdom Israel's elect are heir to and pass on to their children. The Jewish "fear of YHWH," implies loyalty to the stipulations of the covenant, which for Ben Sira are the Pentateuchal ethical and cultic commandments that enable the elect to conform their lives to the primeval order on which the world is built. This order connotes a piety that applies to non-Jews as well. In chapter 6, Goering explores Ben Sira's understanding of election for his eschatology. In Ben Sira's theology, non-Jews can experience fear of YHWH by recognizing God as Creator. Thus, the elect exercise a passive role in effecting the eschatological reality wherein all nations come to recognize YHWH as God alone. In chapter 7, Goering synthesizes the results of his study; he compares Ben Sira's theology of election with that of the Book of Jubilees as well as that of Philo. Jubilees, like Ben Sira, embraces a particularistic understanding of election originating in God's primordial decision to charge one people to practice a special piety. But Philo tended toward the universal view that any person could have an intimate relationship with the Lord by the philosophical quest of seeing God. From this comparison, it is clear that other Second Temple Jewish authors also struggled with the problem of particularism and universalism, offering a range of solutions.

Goering has done his research carefully and competently. He utilizes judiciously the vast literature now available on Ben Sira (the bibliography...

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