Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Concept of Exile during the Second Temple Period: Part 2 Yeshua Ben Sira

A litany of texts from the Second Temple Period can be amassed to support the interpretation that the return to the land and the rebuilt temple had not ended the exile, in the imaginations of many Second Temple Judaism(s).[1] Here we will rehearse only a few.[2]

The evidence for a continuing exile from Yeshua Ben Sira.

The book of wisdom compiled by Yeshua Ben Sira was composed early in the second century b.c.e., and for the most part it can be compared to the book of Proverbs, where its contents concern views concerning right and wrong.[3] Although, the Wisdom of Ben Sira has a peculiar text that suggests Israel still remained in a state of oppression and that the exile was still continuing.[4] In a soliloquy reminiscent of the prophets of old, Ben Sira reminds his readers of the justice that ultimately would culminate in the eschatological judgment. In contrasting the mercy of God with the justice of God, Ben Sira speaks for God stating:

He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan, or the widow when she pours out her complaint. Do not the tears of the widow run down her cheek as she cries out against the one who causes them to fall? The one whose service is pleasing to the Lord will be accepted, and his prayer will reach to the clouds. The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds, and it will not rest until it reaches its goal; it will not desist until the Most High responds and does justice for the righteous, and executes judgment. Indeed, the Lord will not delay, and like a warrior will not be patient until he crushes the loins of the unmerciful and repays vengeance on the nations; until he destroys the multitude of the insolent, and breaks the scepters of the unrighteous; until he repays mortals according to their deeds, and the works of all according to their thoughts; until he judges the case of his people and makes them rejoice in his mercy. His mercy is as welcome in time of distress as clouds of rain in time of drought (Sirach 35).

What starts out as an appeal for justice concerning those who cannot defend themselves turns rapidly into a plea for eschatological vindication.[5] Ben Sira has taken a common conception of how that nation Israel was to practice social justice as a nation, and turned it on its ear. The implication in this text is that it is the nations that bear the brunt of responsibility for the condition of the widow and the orphan.[6] The Most High is called upon as the Divine Warrior, reminiscent of the first exodus, to repay the nations and to destroy the insolent until they are judged according to their deeds. For Israel, she will rely upon the mercy of the Most High in this present time of distress. The text continues:

Have mercy upon us, O God of all, and put all the nations in fear of you. Lift up your hand against foreign nations and let them see your might. As you have used us to show your holiness to them, so use them to show your glory to us. Then they will know, as we have known that there is no God but you, O Lord. Give new signs, and work other wonders; make your hand and right arm glorious. Rouse your anger and pour out your wrath; destroy the adversary and wipe out the enemy. Hasten the day, and remember the appointed time, and let people recount your mighty deeds. Let survivors be consumed in the fiery wrath, and may those who harm your people meet destruction. Crush the heads of hostile rulers who say, "There is no one but ourselves." Gather all the tribes of Jacob, and give them their inheritance, as at the beginning. Have mercy, O Lord, on the people called by your name, on Israel, whom you have named your firstborn. Have pity on the city of your sanctuary, Jerusalem, the place of your dwelling. Fill Zion with your majesty, and your temple with your glory. Bear witness to those whom you created in the beginning, and fulfill the prophecies spoken in your name. Reward those who wait for you and let your prophets be found trustworthy. Hear, O Lord, the prayer of your servants, according to your goodwill toward your people, and all who are on the earth will know that you are the Lord, the God of the ages (Sir 36:1-22) .

In perhaps the most violent text in Sirach, Ben Sira again uses the language of the exodus this time in an effort to plead with God to enact a new exodus, ‘Give new signs, and work other wonders; make your hand and right arm glorious…Hasten the day, and remember the appointed time, and let the people recount your mighty deeds.’[7] It is clear that while Ben Sira echoes the Scriptures of Israel, it is not for the purposes of simply recounting the glorious past, but rather like the Isaianic new exodus, he seeks to evoke the traditions of the past so as to foster a new hope in these new times of distress.[8]

[1] See, e.g., Tobit 13.5; 14.5-7; Baruch 2.7-10, 14; 3. 6-8; 4.18-23; 5.7; 2 Macc 1.27-29; 2.5-7, 18; 1QM 1.3 ; 1QpHab 11.4-6; CD 6.4-5; 4Q504-506; 1 Enoch 89.73-75; cf. 4.83-90; T. Mos. 4.8-9, 13; Pss. Sol. 8.28; 4 Ezra 13.40-48.

[2]For a more thorough reckoning of the texts see: Evans, "Aspects of Exile and Restoration in the Proclamation of Jesus and the Gospels," 299-328; Craig A. Evans, "Jesus and the Continuing Exile of Israel," in Jesus & the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N.T. Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God, ed. Carey C. Newman (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 77-100; Micheal A. Knibb, "The Exile in the Literature of the Intertestamental Period," Heythrop Journal (1978): 253-79; James M. Scott, "Exile and the Self-Understanding of Diaspora Jews in the Greco-Roman Period," in Exile: Old Testament, Jewish, and Christian Conceptions, ed. James M. Scott (JSJSup 56; Leiden: Brill, 1997), 173-218; Wright, People of God, 280-338; F. Gerald Downing, "Exile in Formative Judaism," in Making Sense in (and of) the First Christian Century, ed. F. Gerald Downing (JSNTSup 197; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 148-68.

[3] George W. E. Nickelsburg, Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 59.

[4] John Joseph Collins, Jewish Wisdom in the Hellenistic Age (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1997), 23, suggest that chapter 36 was a later addition added sometime in the Maccabean period.

[5] This text echoes Isaiah 1.10-17

[6] This implication can be taken when read within the context of the eschatological fervor of Sir 36.1-22, but may simply intimate God’s universal judgment over the unrighteous, whereby he repays all according to their deeds. See Collins, Jewish Wisdom, 111.

[7] In fact it is because of the violence of this text and the fact that no where else does Ben Sira invoke wrath upon the nations, that this text is disputed. See the discussion in Theophil Middendorp, Die Stellung Jesu Ben Siras Zwischen Judentum Und Hellenismus (Leiden: Brill, 1973), 125-32. But even if this text does comes from a latter time (i.e. the Maccabean period) the point still holds that the there were Judaism(s) of the Second Temple that still found it useful to invoke the motif of the second exodus in times of distress.

[8] Ex 15.15-16, Ex 7.3, Contra Gruen, Diaspora, 235, who, although he acknowledges Ben Sira’s plea for the gathering of all the tribes of Jacob, to be restored as from the beginning (36.10), he attributes this to mere echoes of the biblical texts, implying that these echoes have nothing to do with the longing for return felt in the diaspora. However, one might wonder why Ben Sira bothers to echo these texts at all, for what other end could the powerful images of the ‘exodus’ motif produce? The more pertinent question for Gruen’s thesis to my mind would be: Is it possible to long for an Isaianic like restoration without condemning the present diaspora? See next section.

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