The Apocrypha’s “The Wisdom of Sirach” II – Robbing History of its Context
I was terrible in History class, especially in ninth grade World History, in part because I ditched often, in part because I usually did not read the assigned chapters in our text book. I was careless with my education then, counting on, well, what I’m not really sure, to get me through the tests. Perhaps I assumed that like most of my high school tests, I’d have a Scranton sheet in front of me and one of four chances of guessing the right answers—which, when you think about it, are pretty good odds. Perhaps I counted on being able to glance at a neighbor’s sheet, a peer whom I knew had read and paid attention in class. Perhaps I didn’t see the point: even if I knew the “answers” that didn’t mean I understood a thing. More likely: I was lazy and didn’t care about all the details.
Robbed of its context, mere historical facts tell you very little of what’s important about meaningful people and events. But of course, sometimes people want a simple overview—the bullet points; tell me what I need to know, and that will stand in for genuine, deep understanding. And sometimes—heck, perhaps even often in life (sadly), this is enough. The Apocrypha’s “Wisdom of Sirach” counts on this idea: the truncated historical people and events detailed near the end of the book provide just enough of some of the heavy hitters and what they did in the Old Testament.
For those readers (or listeners) to this Bible book—especially unfamiliar with the Old Testament—the author provides snapshots of the important figures that need to be known and respected. Providing a few sentences each about the Twelve Tribes, Moses, Aaron (45), Joshua and the Judges (46), Nathan, David, and Solomon (47) Elijah (48), and Josiah (49), the author provides a bare-bones lecture that arms the listener with just enough to have some meager sense of who the important players have been.
Although it’s useful to know these people (especially if you are of the faith), this brief content doesn’t do justice to the very people he is honoring.
Take, for example, his discussion of David (47:1-11). Sure, the author mentions his most famous moment of slaying the giant (Goliath) and how he prayed for strength and contributed to the defeat of the Philistines, but there is nothing about what lead up to his being in a position to face the giant—nothing about how all other soldiers (of which he was not one) shrank from that challenge, nothing about what he endured after the defeat, running from Solomon’s jealousy. These details deepen his character and add weight to why someone would study his story. Sure, the slaying of Goliath is huge (it’s now a metaphor), but to get the whole picture, you shouldn’t just reduce all he did to this one moment. This focuses on what he did rather than on the strength of character that guided him through life (the real lesson).
Given how well these summarized people and events are handled elsewhere in the Bible, it makes sense that that this book was cut—or at least this final chunk if it was worth cutting. The danger would have been had a reader (or listener to someone reading this aloud) only encountered this version of things and took it for the complete picture. Think of this like a teacher banning the use of Cliff’s Notes in class, demanding that the students take the time to read the whole book in order to achieve the appropriate level of understanding. People need to decide for themselves whether the short version or the whole story is important.