I tingled with delight upon setting my eyes on the photographs of four previously unknown pages of Hebrew Ben Sira published by Shulamit Elitzur in Tarbiz (2008). No one has seen these lines of ancient Hebrew poetry for a thousand years. The discovery is significant, but you might not guess it for an absurd and ridiculous quirk of fate. All of Hebrew Ben Sira recovered so far, even the parts that were published more than a century ago, remains largely "undiscovered." In most recent commentaries and in all translations of Ben Sira – for example, NRSV, REB, NAB, and NJB – Greek Ben Sira is the point of departure, corrected here and there to a Hebrew witness and/or the Syriac. The Hebrew for itself (and the Greek and Syriac for themselves) has not received sufficient attention. A running translation of Hebrew Ben Sira insofar as it is known to us is not available.
In this post, I introduce, translate, and comment on a little gem found in ms C, a five-line composition we now possess in entirety thanks to the discovery of four additional pages.
ms C is not a copy of Hebrew Ben Sira per se. It contains a selection of Ben Sira’s wisdom re-organized and reshaped according to principles that have yet to be sufficiently studied. Sayings and clusters of sayings have been remixed into new thematic units. It is sometimes said that the result is chaotic. Judging by the example presented below, the opposite is true.
1 בני מנוער קבל מוסר
ועד־שיבה תשיג חכמה
2 כחורש וכקציר קרב אליה
וקוה לרוב תבואתה
3 כי בעבודתה מעט תעמוד .
וׄלמחר תאכל פריה .
4 כי לאחור תמצא מנוחתו
ותהפך לך לתענוג .
5 כל שיחה חפוץ לשמוע
ומשל בינה א[ל] יצאך .
My son, from youth on accept correction:
into hoary old age you will attain wisdom.
As one who ploughs and as one who reaps approach her,
and wait for her bountiful harvest.
In your tilling of her you will till just a little:
the day after you will eat of her fruit.
Afterward you will find a place of rest in her,
and she will be a delight to you.
Every lecture desire to hear:
do not let a keen saying escape you!
Wisdom (חכמה) is first of all described as correction/discipline which a son expects to receive in his youth. Discipline/instruction (מוסר contains within it connotations of both terms in a context such as this) is to be accepted gladly, according to the promise that one will attain wisdom into hoary old age so long as such discipline is accepted.
Wisdom is then described under two concurrent figures: that of a piece of tillable land and that of a young woman with whom one makes love. The erotic overtones are vivid and subtle at the same time. It would be a mistake of course, to press every detail for literal references. The agricultural and erotic figures are kaleidoscopic, not narratological, in terms of presentation.
I take שיחה to be a technical term for a discourse or lecture consisting of, in context, a series of משלים. Ben Sira is full of שיחות ‘discourses’ andמשלי בינה ‘keen sayings.’ This piece of hortatory discourse is meant to point to the contents of ms C, the particulars of which, like Ben Sira, must be understood to exemplify wisdom, not exhaust it. Ben Sira refers to but does not reproduce song, saying, dilemma, and epigram of Solomon (ms B 47:14-15, 17). Ben Sira knew himself to be a continuator, not a repeater, of Solomon’s wisdom. This is in line with the concept of wisdom in Prov 1-9, in which wisdom inhabits all knowledge to which human beings are made privy (8:12). As Ben Sira 3:29 notes, ‘the mind of the wise person understands the sayings of the wise.’ This has always been the task of the wise. It is typical of such a person that he will draw from treasures old and new.
The only part of the above composition that comes from the new discovery is the first half-line: בני מנוער קבל מוסר. Still, the discovery makes all the difference. The use of the segholate noun formation נוער and the verb קבל are very interesting from the point of view of the language of Ben Sira. Ben Sira’s language, insofar as it has not been “biblicized” in the manuscript tradition, provides a window into the Hebrew of the 3rd cent. bce, more than one remove, clearly, from the language of the book of Proverbs, closer, but by no means identical to, the language of Pirke Avot.
The five-line, ten-stich composition hangs together beautifully. The key operative terms, מוסר, חכמה, שיחה, and משל בינה, act as bookends to the figurative substance in between. The unit is composed of a selection of lines from a larger original composition, 6:18-37 in Greek Ben Sira, a poem of exactly 22 lines:
1 = 6:18
2 = 6:19a
3 = 6:19b
4 = 6:28
5 = 6:35
In future posts, I will present other new content this discovery provides.
Shulamit Elizur, “A New Fragment from the Hebrew Text of the Book of Ben Sira,” Tarbiz 76 (2008) 17-28 (in Hebrew); Renate Egger-Wenzel, “Ein neues Sira-Fragment des MS C,” Biblische Notizen 138 (2008) 107-14.