Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Goering, Greg Schmidt, Wisdom's Root Revealed: Ben Sira and the Election of Israel (Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism, 139; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2009). Pp. xvi + 313. US$158.00. ISBN: 978-9-00416-579-3.

This book began as a dissertation at Harvard University, but underwent significant revisions before publication. As the subtitle indicates, the work focuses on the theme of election in Ben Sira, that is, primarily on its “conceptual framework” (p. 15). Nevertheless, the sociological significance of establishing “insiders” and “outsiders” through this idea remains constant throughout Goering's discussion, as he indicates in the opening lines of his preface (p. x). He seeks, then, to explain the sage's position on the different types of wisdom available to Israel and the Gentiles, and how Ben Sira understood Israel's special status within history and the world.

In order to unravel the problems generated by the idea of election, the author first discusses the notion of “special revelation” given to Israel as opposed to “general revelation” available to the rest of humanity, or as he labels these categories: “particular” and “universal” revelation (p. 5). The concern about these categories, indeed, arises in part from within Ben Sira's work itself, for the sage claims to have in his possession “two authoritative bodies of literature...the corpus of international wisdom literature, on the one hand, and the national literature of ancient Israel on the other” (p. 5). To explain the relationship between the two, Goering relies on Ben Sira's own metaphor of “wisdom's root” (Sir 1:6). While wisdom exists in one plant, the visible portion of the plant represents the general revelation visible to all humanity, but wisdom represented in the hidden root is the possession of Israel alone (p. 9). Thus, for Ben Sira, wisdom is neither completely particular nor universal. In interpreting wisdom in Ben Sira in this way, Goering maintains that the simple identification of wisdom with Torah becomes impossible (p. 9). Further, he argues that election has a crucial role in this dualistic construal, though Goering will nuance this idea of “dualism” later in the volume.

For Goering, Ben Sira does not develop his concept of election from an “us versus them” position (p. 24). Rather, election emerges from the sage's theology of creation (p. 21), and this appears in the opening poem as God pours out wisdom on all creation but also a special portion upon “those who love him,” a reference to Israel (1:10; p. 22). This does not mean that YHWH's selection of one group necessitates the exclusion of others. A key element of Goering's argument at this point relies on ordering the terms that appear in Sir 33:7–15 not as oppositions, but as analogues to the idea of the sacred and profane. The order within the creation indicates that while some days are sacred, others are not. Yet all are days. So it is with people; some people have a special status while others do not (pp. 49–61). Further, this differentiation remains God's prerogative because God is sovereign over the creation (pp. 27–49). The author returns to the issue of sovereignty later in the volume where he attempts to distinguish between YHWH as universal God and as universal king (pp. 230–5). As creator, God's sovereignty extends over all creation. However, in regards to peoples, God rules directly only over Israel and appoints rulers over the other peoples, which he may remove if they become insolent (see Sir 9:17–10:18; p. 232, and also pp. 98–100).

Ben Sira understands wisdom as revelation, a development but not a revolutionary notion in the ancient Near East (p. 71). Of course, the key passage for any statement about wisdom and revelation is Sir 24, in which Ben Sira casts both the sage and Wisdom as prophetic figures (pp. 74–75). Also important is the way in which ch. 24 relates Ben Sira's concept of election with creation theology, for Wisdom created the world, yet “came to have a particular home in Israel” (p. 77). In regard to general wisdom and this text, Goering identifies three qualities: “it is revealed through creation, it is universally available, and it is codified in the teaching of the sages” (p. 79). The elect receive a “second apportionment of wisdom” that relates to the observance of Torah; that is, God lavishes additional wisdom on those who practice and meditate on Torah (pp. 90–91; see Sir 1:10b; 6:37; 15:1; 17:11–14). This type of wisdom constitutes a “subset” of universal wisdom (p. 101). Universal wisdom should produce a sense of awe among the nations. However, the wisdom available to Israel alone should lead to “the fear of YHWH” which includes the practice of piety (p. 143). Goering then explores various types of piety and the motivations for these within Israel (pp. 146–85), concluding that “by studying and enacting the ethical and ritual commandments of the Torah” the people brought “their lives into harmony with…special wisdom and primeval order” (p. 185).

The book culminates with an explanation of the way in which Ben Sira relates election and eschatology. Goering notices that Ben Sira does make some negative statements about Israel's neighbors (e.g., the Edomites and the Philistines, see 50:25) and foreigners in general (39:22–24). Nevertheless, Goering shows that Ben Sira believed that God judged the nations according to their deeds, and not according to “national affiliation” (16:12; p. 193). With the recognition of this nuance in Ben Sira's thought, Goering rejects past positions of scholars like Smend, Hengel, and Tcherikover who thought that the sage established a strong dichotomy between Israel and the nations (p. 193).[1] Because God has provided a general revelation of wisdom to all humankind, some among the nations may come to the “fear of YHWH,” especially in the sense of awe or reverence (p. 194). If this general revelation of wisdom does not effect a proper response, then Ben Sira believed that the deliverance of Israel from the nations, that is, a gathering of the Diaspora, would elicit a correct reaction from the Gentiles (pp. 198–235). At this point in the argument, the author closely exegetes the prayer for deliverance in Sir 36:1–22. While Goering concludes that the sage did not compose the prayer, Ben Sira has structured 34:21–35:26 with the prayer in mind. According to Goering, the teleological goal of the rescue of God's people is “for the nations to practice a piety that includes awe before the creator and the performance of traditional wisdom” (p. 234). In other words, the nations would then live according to their appropriate kind of wisdom—i.e., general wisdom, while the wisdom that comes from practicing Torah would remain the goal for Israel.

In the conclusion, Goering rehearses his book's argument. However, he also introduces a brief examination of the attitude toward Gentiles and the election of Israel in Jubilees and Philo's writings. Jubilees, he determines, shares several features with Ben Sira, but the book also depicts Israel as a “radically holy people, completely separate from other human beings” (pp. 242–3). Philo, on the other hand, shapes the “category of Jews” in such a way that it becomes potentially universal (p. 245). From the brief portrait of these two works, Goering concludes: “Ben Sira's approach represents a via media between the extreme of universalism and particularism, even between the positions occupied by Philo and Jubilees, respectively” (p. 247). As a result, scholarship should abandon the notion that Ben Sira presents a dualistic understanding of election. “Rather, election serves as a means for the sage to meaningfully relate the particularities of Israel's existence to the universal well-being of humankind” (p. 249).

Goering's special contribution to the topic lies in his careful reading of Ben Sira's wisdom sayings. Sometimes scholarship proceeds through the parallelisms and collections of terms within wisdom texts in what Goering refers to as a “mathematical equation in which all the important terms [are] linked with a series of equal signs” (p. 16). In distinction to this, Goering proposes more nuanced and complex readings of texts. Certainly, this is a welcomed addition to wisdom studies in which dualistic interpretations of many poetic structures and terms abound. However, this will also become the testing point of the volume. The volume's proposal of a more moderate attitude of Ben Sira toward the Gentiles and on the idea of election relies on a series of key interpretations. If a modern scholar rejects one of these interpretations, for that scholar the book's thesis and argument may suffer. Nevertheless, Goering provides many rich insights about this constellation of ideas that will secure a place for this book in the ongoing conversations about Ben Sira. In addition, the book offers a useful model for navigating wisdom materials.

Rodney Werline, Barton College

[1] Rudolf Smend, Die Weisheit des Jesus Sirach (Berlin: George Reimer, 1906); Victor Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (repr.; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1990); Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in their Encounter in Palestine During the Early Hellenistic Period (vol. 1; trans. John Bowden; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974). reference