Why Is There a Bible and What Do Women Have To Do With It? Gender, Ben Sira, and the Canon

What makes Ben Sira stand out within this larger cultural gender ideology is that the women he fears most are not the women on the street, or even the singing girls he expects to encounter at banquets (Sir. 9:1-9). Rather, in a far more acute manifestation of gender anxiety, the woman he fears most is his own wife.

The following essay is adapted from Ben Sira and the Men Who Handle Books: Gender and the Rise of Canon-Consciousness (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013).

By Claudia V. Camp
John F. Weatherly Professor of Religion
General editor, Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies
Texas Christian University
January 2015

Once there was no Bible. Then there was. How did that happen? Of course, the Bible did not just drop down from the sky (or get carved on a rock) one day. So the question is far more complicated than I’ve just made it look. The emergence of the biblical canon (that is, a set list of books regarded as holy and authoritative) happened over a period of centuries, and we have virtually no explicit records on how that process took place. There were in fact multiple processes that ultimately resulted in multiple canons.[1] Over the past century and a half, biblical scholars have spilled oceans of ink developing reasonable, but competing (and unprovable) hypotheses about how and when and why various oral and written traditions were created and passed down, then slowly combined into the longer pieces of literature that we know as biblical “books” (each sized to fit on a scroll), and how these books came together as parts of longer units like the Torah (Genesis–Deuteronomy) or the Deuteronomistic History (Deuteronomy–2 Kings) or the Primary History (Genesis–2 Kings).

Such scholarly reconstructions of literary history are a worthy study in their own right, but they are not my concern here. My question—how did it happen that there wasn’t a Bible and then there was?—has a different orientation. I’m curious about the shift in the cultural mindset that had to occur to even imagine, much less latch onto, the idea of a set of books both as definitive for faith writ large and as a personally meaningful route to individual encounter with the holy. This question is especially intriguing insofar as only a tiny percentage of people in the culture where it happened could read and write.[2] To understand the rise of what we might call canon-consciousness—the emerging sense that there is a list of holy and authoritative writings and that this list might be finite and moving toward closure—we need to understand something of those few literate men, the scribes of Jerusalem and the Diaspora, who were informed by and nurtured it.

One of these scribes, Jesus ben Sira, lived in Jerusalem and wrote a book (variously called Sirach or Ecclesiasticus) in the early second century BCE. While finally excluded from the Jewish canon, the book of Sirach was widely read by Jews in the ancient world, and it lives on today in the Catholic Deuterocanonical (“second canon”) corpus.[3] Sirach is the earliest source in which we find some recognition of components of what we would today call the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh. Ben Sira speaks of “the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the Torah that Moses commanded us” (24:23) as a known entity, and he draws not only on its law but on its narrative, as well as on material in the Former and Latter Prophets, in his long poem commemorating the heroic ancestors of the past (chs. 44–49).[4] What, then, can we discern in the book of Sirach about the kind of sensibility that contributed to a movement towards canon?

When scholars of religion think about the nature and function of religion, they sometimes take their point of departure in an essay by anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1964), who argued that religion can be understood as a system of symbols that mediate and synthesize a people’s ethos (the way they live, their morality and aesthetics, moods and motivations) with their worldview (their “ideas about the way things are, their most comprehensive ideas of order”; 1964, 89). Striking in Ben Sira’s text is the role that gender plays in his articulations of ethos, worldview, and their symbolic interface, and how it marks his interest in writing and books.

In terms of Ben Sira’s ethos, recent scholarly work on scribes and scribal writing allows us to say something about the conditions within which he worked.[5] And, based on anthropologists’ studies of comparable contemporary cultures, as well as on what Ben Sira says himself in his book, we can discern something of his culture’s gender ideology and how that impacted him personally. Because of scribes’ rare and useful literacy, their role had a certain caché, and with this came a class-consciousness that is exemplified in Ben Sira’s self-validating poem on the professions (38:24–39:11). Here he commends the labor of those who work with their hands, but reserves the highest praise for men learned in wise writing. Regarding a man like himself, he says:

Many will praise his understanding;
His fame can never be effaced;
Unfading will be his memory,
Through all the generations his name will live.
The congregation will speak of his wisdom,
And the assembly will declare his praises.
While he lives he is one out of a thousand,
And when he dies he leaves a good name. (39:9-11)[6]

On the other hand, scribes depended for their livelihood on men with more power, and typically more wealth than their own, making the scribes’ status and authority less secure than this idealized vision. Like all scribes, Ben Sira served an earthly authority, in his case the priests of the Jerusalem temple, who governed Judah under the aegis of the Hellenist colonizers. His reverence for his cultic masters is apparent in his paean to his near-contemporary, the high priest Simon (50:1-24), glorious as “the sun shining on the temple of the Most High, [as] the rainbow gleaming in the splendid clouds” (50:7).

Scribal authority supported and depended on priestly authority, but was also in some tension with it. Ben Sira presents himself as both an interpreter of authoritative tradition, as in his poem praising Israel’s ancestors (chaps. 44–50), and as himself a divinely inspired author, as when he writes, “I will again pour out teaching like prophecy and leave it to all future generations” (24:33). But here again is a rub: like its producers the scribes, writing itself was in a culturally betwixt-and-between state. As I’ve noted, literacy, not to mention access to written texts, was the preserve of a very few, and it is not clear what revelatory status such texts held for most of the population. Indeed, writing in an oral culture typically had less assumed authority than oral communication. We can, then, perhaps imagine Ben Sira as a man with enormous pride in who he is and what he does, but also a man whose status is not, in reality, entirely secure.

This sense of masculine insecurity is compounded when we look at what Ben Sira has to say about women, especially in relation to the gender ideology of his larger culture. Before turning directly to that issue, though, let me direct attention to an important aspect of the symbolic dimension of this work. Ben Sira, as scribe, also stood in the ancient line of sages who produced, among other things, the book of Proverbs. And in this tradition Ben Sira had a powerful symbol with which to develop a parallel line of authority to that of the priests. The earlier scribes had personified Wisdom as a woman who speaks like a prophet, keeps house like the perfect wife, and, most amazingly, existed with God before creation, coming to earth to mediate God’s life to her human followers.

Ages ago I was set up,
    at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
    before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
    or the world’s first bits of soil. . . .
I was daily his delight,
    rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
    and delighting in the human race. (Prov. 8:22-26, 30-31, NRSV)[7]

Ben Sira offers an equally striking adaptation of this figure, equating her with the Torah itself (24:1-29). It is she, he says, who is “the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us” (24:23). And there’s more! For this Wisdom-Torah flows like the primordial rivers—

fills full like the Pishon with wisdom,
    like the Tigris at the time of new crops;
fills up like the Euphrates with understanding . . . (24:25-26a, NRSV;
the metaphor continues through v. 27)

--and courses right through the scribe’s own work, becoming through him a veritable sea (24:25-32):

For her thoughts are deeper than the sea,
    and her counsel than the great abyss.
As for me, I was like a brook from a river,
    Like a water channel into a garden.
I said, “I will water my garden
    and drench my flower-beds.”
And lo, my brook became a river,
    and my river a sea. (24:29-31)

Thus, in a stroke, the scribe identifies his own professional work and calling with its most important product to date. But Ben Sira still has troubles.

Wisdom is, after all, a woman. And Ben Sira’s vocational insecurities are matched by anxieties about women, anxieties endemic to the cultural system of honor and shame that pervades his lived experience. Shame threatens a man’s honorable name, which is his most valuable possession. “A bad name incurs shame and reproach” (6:1) and shame may even cause one to lose his life (20:22). On the other hand, “one who is wise among his people will inherit honor, and his name will live forever” (37:26). As we saw in the passage quoted above, Ben Sira’s poem in praise of the learned scribe (himself, of course!) concludes with the affirmation that he will leave a memory deserving of everlasting praise from the congregation. It is precisely through writing that the glory of his eternal name will be assured. Notably, Ben Sira is the first person we know of in the biblical tradition to sign his work with his own name:

Training in wise conduct and smooth running proverbs
    I inscribed in this book
of Yeshua, son of Eleazar, son of Sira,
    who poured them out from his understanding heart. (50:27).[8]

But Ben Sira’s writing repeatedly reveals a deep-seated fear of women’s shame—their infective, often sexual, immodesty and self-will—that threatens the honor of men. Now it’s true that women appear as dangerous creatures in earlier literature—Delilah and Jezebel, for example, have (rightly or wrongly) become tropes for women whose sexuality draws men to their doom—and the book of Proverbs, from which Ben Sira has taken his figure of Woman Wisdom, also depicts a stereotypical “strange woman” who accosts a young man on the street and lures him with the pleasures of her bed straight into the depths of Sheol (Prov. 7:5-27; cf. 2:16-19; 5:3-6, 20; 9: 13-18).

What makes Ben Sira stand out within this larger cultural gender ideology is that the women he fears most are not the women on the street, or even the singing girls he expects to encounter at banquets (Sir. 9:1-9). Rather, in a far more acute manifestation of gender anxiety, the woman he fears most is his own wife:

Any wound, but not a wound of the heart!
    Any wickedness, but not the wickedness of a woman!
Any suffering, but not suffering from those who hate!
    And any vengeance, but not the vengeance of enemies!
There is no venom worse than a snake’s venom,
    and no anger worse than a woman’s wrath.
I would rather live with a lion and a dragon
    than live with an evil woman.
A woman’s wickedness changes her appearance,
    and darkens her face like that of a bear.
Her husband sits among the neighbors,
    and he cannot help sighing bitterly.
Any iniquity is small compared to a woman’s iniquity;
    may a sinner’s lot befall her! (25:13-19, NRSV)

Up to a certain point, a husband’s plaint against his garrulous and overbearing wife may seem to have a certain unfortunate cross-cultural currency, even to the present day, where it still passes as humor in sit-coms and newspaper comic strips. But the repetition of the accusation of wickedness (vv. 13, 16, 17, 19) puts an uglier spin on his words, as does his wish that “a sinner’s lot befall her” (v. 19).

This poem goes on to specify one of the ways a woman may gain power over her husband, again with contemporary resonances:

Do not be ensnared by a woman’s beauty,
    and do not desire a woman for her possessions.
There is wrath and impudence and great disgrace
    when a wife supports her husband.
Dejected mind, gloomy face,
    and wounded heart come from an evil wife.
Drooping hands and weak knees
    come from the wife who does not make her husband happy. (25:21-23, NRSV)

Women’s economic power in the ancient world would have come from their families of origin, suggesting that men in Ben Sira’s group may have sometimes “married up” in order to achieve higher status and its accompanying wealth and security. But such marriages clearly brought insecurities of their own. Then as now, when women are not economically dependent on their husbands, their need to play the role of subservient little woman diminishes!

This poem on the evil wife concludes with a striking assertion:

From woman is the beginning of sin,
    and because of her we all die.
Allow water no outlet,
    nor an evil wife boldness.
If she does not go as you direct,
    cut her off from your flesh. (25:24-26).

Ben Sira, perhaps the most misogynist of ancient Jewish writers, thus becomes the first to “blame Eve” for the sin and death that marks the human condition.

It’s not that Ben Sira cannot imagine having a good wife. He does indeed spend a few verses on such a woman (26:1-4, 13-18), praising her loyalty (v. 2) and ability to “put flesh on his bones” (v. 13). Even in its words of praise, however, this poem also gives voice to the writer’s fears:

A gift from the Lord is a silent wife,
    and nothing is so precious as her self-discipline.
Charm upon charm is a wife with a sense of shame,
    And nothing is more valuable than her bound-up mouth. (26:14-15)

Silence, and above all, chastity (a “bound-up mouth” being an obvious double entendre) are the requirements for “goodness” in a wife, but the poem that sings her praise is damningly interrupted by verses that yet further excoriate her opposite number:

A bad wife is a chafing yoke;
    taking hold of her is like grasping a scorpion.
A drunken wife arouses great anger;
    she cannot hide her shame.
The haughty stare betrays an unchaste wife;
    her eyelids give her away. (26:7-9, NRSV)

It is worth taking an aside from this poem for a minute to note the development of the chastity/unchastity concern in another extended poem (26:16-27) that portrays an adulterer and an adulteress in almost iconic fashion. The first half of the unit (vv. 16-21) depicts a man for whom “all bread is sweet,” and who “sins against his [marriage] bed,” sneaking around the city in darkness to assuage his “hot passion.” Is this man merely a prostitute-chaser, or is he one who threatens the marital possessions of other men? Ben Sira does not say, but the point could not be clearer where the wandering wife is concerned (vv. 22-27): she is “a woman who leaves her husband and presents him with an heir by another man.” Though she will be punished—“she will leave behind an accursed memory and her disgrace will never be blotted out”—one can well imagine that her cuckolded husband’s shame will also linger on.

Returning to the poem in ch. 26, it is perhaps even more shocking when Ben Sira turns his baleful eye from his wife onto his daughter as well:

Keep strict watch over a headstrong daughter,
    or else, when she finds liberty, she will make use of it.
Be on guard against her impudent eye,
    and do not be surprised if she sins against you.
As a thirsty traveler opens his mouth
    and drinks from any water near him,
so she will sit in front of every tent peg
    and open her quiver to the arrow. (26:10-12, NRSV)

Ben Sira returns to the daughter in 42:9-14, which makes explicit both the anxiety the women of his household cause him and its intimate connection to his fear of public shame:

A daughter is a secret anxiety to her father,
    and worry over her robs him of sleep;
when she is young, for fear she may not marry,
    or if married, for fear she may be disliked;
while a virgin, for fear she may be seduced
    and become pregnant in her father’s house;
or having a husband, for fear she may go astray,
    or, though married, for fear she may be barren.
Keep strict watch over a headstrong daughter,
    or she may make you a laughingstock to your enemies,
a byword in the city and the assembly of the people,
    and put you to shame in public gatherings. (42:9-11d, NRSV)

As in ch. 26, the daughter is portrayed as a woman whose natural mode is that of “asking for it”:

See that there is no lattice in her room,
    no spot that overlooks the approaches to the house.
Do not let her parade her beauty before any man,
    or spend her time among married women . . . (42:11e-12, NRSV)

As the last line suggests, moreover, one woman learns from another:

. . . for from garments comes the moth,
    and from a woman comes woman’s wickedness. (42:13, NRSV)

Thus, he concludes:

Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good;
    it is woman who brings shame and disgrace. (42:14, NRSV)

What we have learned in the meantime, though, is that however much Ben Sira might indict “woman” in general, it is his own women, wife and daughters, who present the greatest threat. His honor, and with it his eternal name, depend on his ability to control these signal possessions, and his fear of failure is palpable.

This, then, is Ben Sira’s gender dilemma: a woman (Wisdom) can admit him to eternity but his own women can keep him out. It is thesis of my own work on the book of Sirach that the conflicted perceptions of gender it expresses are fundamental to Ben Sira’s appropriation and production of authoritative religious literature. His work is marked by representations of women and uses of female imagery that are interwoven with the way he expresses both his self-identity as a sage and scribe and his relationship to the texts that materially embody this identity. A critical analysis of Ben Sira’s gender ideology is thus essential for understanding his relationship to an emerging canon. Torah, conceived as female—that is, in gendered terms, as Other—was the core of this canon, but Ben Sira adds his own literary production to this female “body,” or feminized corpus, and thus also identifies with it, an ambiguity that reproduces his combined hatred and idealization of the feminine. Ben Sira writes a book and, one might say, writes himself into his book, creating a possession into which he can sublimate his anxiety about the women he cannot possess.

But his anxious, gender-coded ambiguities correlate to others as well, including the ambiguity of authority involved in the transition from orality to textuality and, ultimately, the terrible mystery of a God who cannot be counted on to protect men from the name-destroying danger that women represent. The scribe must depend for his glory on the endurance of the texts he transmits and the texts he creates. Eternal honor for a scribe, though, requires one more thing: Ben Sira needs to enter the canonical roster with his own book. But in 190 BCE, the cultural window of opportunity was narrowing—the canon was taking shape—and uncertainty remained as to whether such a self-promoting product of the scribal school could take its place alongside the Torah and the prophets.

What I hope these reflections have shown is that focusing a gender-conscious lens on Ben Sira’s text opens up the question of how a given individual appropriates, internalizes, and contributes to such a significant cultural shift as that of an emerging canon-consciousness. In the process, it exposes as well the implicit ideological agendas at stake. And, if Ben Sira can be considered representative of his scribal class and context, his work may also provide a window into aspects of the larger cultural process, including the question of whether we would have a canon—or have the canon we have—if the men in that particular patriarchal culture had not coded it in the gendered terms that Ben Sira did.

For Further Reading

Carr, David M. Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Davies, Philip R. Scribes and Schools: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures. LAI; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998.

Geertz, C. “Religion as a Cultural System.” Pp. 87-125 in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

van der Toorn, Karel. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.


[1] The Jewish, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant faiths today are in some degree of disagreement as to what books are included and what are not. There were proponents of other literature as well, the “losers” of history whose views were already overridden in ancient times. And there are those who would argue that the reliance of Judaism on its later rabbinic interpretive traditions means that the Jewish canon never did actually reach full closure.

[2] Perhaps a sense of the mysterious power involved in writing, precisely in a non-literate culture, provided impetus to ascribing magical power to books, but this factor seems insufficient to explain the monumental, culture-defining achievement of what became the biblical canon(s).

[3] The sixteenth-century Protestant reformers returned their Old Testament to the shorter Jewish list (though in a different order), placing Sirach among the so-called Apocrypha.

[4] Later in the century, Ben Sira’s grandson translated the Hebrew work into Greek and added a Prologue, which speaks in even more reified terms of “the saw, the prophets, and the other books of our fathers.”

[5] See, e.g., David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Philip R. Davies, Scribes and Schools: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures (LAI; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998); and Karel van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).

[6] Translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.

[7] See also the whole of Prov. 8, as well as 1:20-33; 4:3-9; 9:1-6)

[8] And see also 51:30 in at least one of the several Hebrew manuscripts.

Comments (1)

Ben Sira is schooling future sages on how to choose the proper wife. A lawful man will get a pious wife, while the sinner will receive his "lot": the ungodly female Ben Sira describes as a "hater". He is NOT speaking of any wife he has; he is counseling against taking such a wife. He also counsels against taking a wife for her many possessions, as a wife who supports her husband is a shameful thing.

Ben Sira is the first to describe the Jewish concept of bashert, or matched male-female pairs, but the idea goes back to Genesis and the concept of the correct, Heaven-sent woman being the completing 'rib' of the man. They were one united whole in the beginning, and are reunited by Heaven. It is this kind of match Ben Sira is counseling the future sages to wait for. Then they will have received their "most precious possession," the one woman whose lasting inner and outer beauty lights up the man's face, "and there is nothing [in life] he desires more."

#1 - Kelly Green - 07/15/2015 - 04:51

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