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The Amazing Book of Sirach

After awakening in 1971 to the shakings of the Sylmar, California, earthquake, my husband and I decided it would be prudent to take out earthquake insurance. We had moved to the Golden State in 1967, and this was the first sizeable quake we had experienced. As the insurance agent filled out the forms, he assured us that we didn’t have much to worry about. Recent studies had shown, he said, that houses made of wood and stucco like ours tended to ride out earthquakes well. I pondered the irony of his phrase “recent studies.” The biblical book of Sirach contained the same information-“A wooden beam bonded firmly into a building will not be torn loose by an earthquake” (22:16)-and it was written before the birth of Christ.

Other statements in Sirach have been confirmed by “recent studies.” Several contemporary research projects indicate that married men are likely to live longer than single men. This fact was expressed also-though somewhat hyperbolically-in Sirach, where it says, “Happy the husband of a good wife; the number of his days will be doubled” (26:1).

For years we were told that teetotalers tended to have a longer life span than drinkers. More recent findings suggest that the moderate drinker might live even longer than the teetotaler. Again, we find this information in Sirach: “Wine is like life to men, if you drink it in moderation” (31:27). However, this book also cautions that wine can be a snare and warns against drunkenness.

Sadly, millions of people have been robbed of the wisdom and beauty of Sirach -it is one of the seven books that were removed from some versions of the Bible. These seven books, which Catholics refer to as the deuterocanonical books, were written for the most part between the time of the penning of the protocanonical books of the Old Testament and the writing of the New Testament. They are placed in the Old Testament of Catholic Bibles but may be found between the Old and New Testaments in some translations.

As a child growing up in a Fundamentalist congregation, I often heard that the Catholic Bible contained seven more books than our Scripture. We looked upon these seven books as inventions of the Catholic Church that had been included in the Bible to legitimize false doctrine. It was surprising to learn many years later that Catholicism could not possibly have invented these books. They were written before the birth of Christ and were included in the Septuagint.

Sirach, which is sometimes called Ecclesiasticus, was written in Hebrew between 200 and 175 B.C. The author was Jesus, son of Eleasar, son of Sirach. The purpose of the book was to give instructions on proper behavior in all areas of life. Some Christians have considered the twenty-fourth chapter of Sirach a foreshadowing of the Logos or Word of God in the first chapter of John’s Gospel. The author’s grandson translated Sirach into Greek after 132 B.C. and added a foreword. Sirach is considered by Catholics and Orthodox to be an inspired writing.

If we had never heard of Shakespeare, we would not recognize his words when they were used by others but would think they had originated with the speaker who was quoting them. The same is true of the writings of the deuterocanonicals: Many people have never seen these books and thus do not realize that some of the words of Christ and Paul are either quotes from or illusions to the deuterocanonical books. It is obvious that Christ and Paul were familiar with these books.

Part of the Lord’s Prayer may have its roots in Sirach. Christ said to his followers, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matt. 6:14). Sirach advises, “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray” (28:2). The Lord’s Prayer, which includes this thought, has been prayed for centuries. Paul wrote in Romans, “Weep with those who weep” (12:15). It is written in Sirach, “Do not fail those who weep, but mourn with those who mourn” (7:34).

Since I didn’t become a Catholic until adulthood, I was unfamiliar with Sirach in my youth. But when passages from it were read at Sunday Masses, I was impressed. The first time I sat down to read this book straight through, I both laughed and cried. Of course, Sirach was probably not intended to be humorous, but the descriptions of the consequences of certain human actions are so true to life and eloquently stated that we laugh two thousand years later in recognition of ourselves.

Sirach gives advice concerning duties toward God and duties toward parents. It has lessons about humility, sincerity, justice, moderation, the training of children, attainment of wisdom, giving of alms, choice of friends, and use of wealth. It warns against sins of the flesh, gossip, lies, and people with shifty eyes.

This book was probably the Emily Post of its day. Chapter 31 contains a lesson on table etiquette. Sirach teaches that one should not put out a hand for what his neighbor has his eyes on nor reach for the same dish when his neighbor does. In Matthew’s Gospel, Christ revealed that the one who would betray him was the man who dipped his hand into the dish with him (26:23). Apparently Judas, the betrayer of our Lord, was guilty also of poor table manners.

Many maxims we are familiar with today probably have had their origins in Sirach. “Virtue is its own reward” sounds very much like “Whoever does good has his reward” (Sir. 16:14). We have also heard that “birds of a feather flock together.” Sirach says, “Birds flock with their kind” (27:9). We have been cautioned that “where there is smoke there is fire,” which actually has more than one meaning. Sirach also gives this warning: “The vapor and smoke of the furnace precede the fire; so insults precede bloodshed” (22:24).

We have been warned, “Let the buyer beware.” Sirach explains why: “As a stake is driven firmly into a fissure between stones, so sin is wedged in between selling and buying” (27:2). With tongue in cheek, we may even say that Sirach prefigured the lottery: “It is easy in the sight of the Lord to enrich a poor man quickly and suddenly” (11:21). But there are also cautions about wealth in Sirach. The one I like best is found in chapter 12, verse 8: “A friend will not be known in prosperity, nor will an enemy be hidden in adversity.”

There are religious groups whose members do not believe in seeking medical help from physicians, instead relying entirely on faith and prayer. We all believe in the power of faith and prayer. Yet there is nothing in the New Testament that speaks disparagingly of physicians. It is recorded that Christ said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). The expression “gift of healing” does not necessarily eliminate doctors.

Sirach too speaks out in defense of physicians: “Honor the physician with the honor due him, according to your need of him, for the Lord created him; for healing comes from the Most High” (38:1-2). This, of course, does not eliminate faith and prayer. Sirach follows with, “My son when you are sick do not be negligent, but pray to the Lord, and he will heal you” (38:9). For those who wish to study further, there is strong language in this thirty-eighth chapter of Sirach for those who do not “give the physician his place” (v. 12-15).

“Do not find fault before you investigate; first consider, then reprove,” Sirach warns (11:7). This is good advice for all of us. It is good advice for those who have said in the past and continue to say that the Catholic Church “invented” the deuterocanonical books.

As mentioned above, the deuterocanonical books, including Sirach, were contained in the Septuagint. Since the Septuagint was a translation of the Hebrew text into Greek, it was only natural that the early Greek-speaking Church would adopt it. Protestants and Jews refer to these deuterocanonical books as the Apocrypha, a term Catholics use for other writings that are not included in their canon of Scripture. These seven books were included in the Protestant King James Version when it was first published in 1611-though with a warning that they weren’t to be considered inspired-and continued to be included until well into the 1800s. Many Protestants are unaware that these books were once a part of their own Bibles.

When the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in the late 1950s, parts of these deuterocanonical books were found among the other ancient manuscripts. This shows that many of them once existed in Hebrew. It is interesting that the text of the Catholic Old Testament, which was taken from the Septuagint, follows the text of the Dead Sea scrolls more closely than some other translations. This exhibits the care the Church has taken over the centuries to preserve the authenticity of Scripture. Some Jewish and Protestant Bible scholars have taken a renewed interest in the deuterocanonical books since their discovery among the Dead Sea scrolls.

I have chosen to write about Sirach because it is not as well known as some books of Scripture, and it is entirely unknown to millions. It has been well over two millennia since Sirach was written, but many of its lessons are as applicable to contemporary life as they were in the age in which they were first put to writing.

The flute and harp make pleasant melody, 
but a pleasant voice is better than both. 
The eye desires grace and beauty, 
but the green shoots of grain are more than both.

—Sirach 40:21-22

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