Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Chiastic Center of Ecclesiasticus

Alice C. Linsley

Ecclesiasticus, also known as the Wisdom of Ben Sirach, has a chiastic structure. The center of the structure is chapter 24, which begins with the Discourse of Wisdom. Here Wisdom praises herself before the Most High and in the presence of the Host of the Most High. We wonder who is she that is justified to boast in the presence of the Most High. She answers that she is of God, from God’s very mouth (24:3), and she is eternal (24:9).

From our perspective as Christians who have received the revelation of the Holy Trinity as manifested at Jesus’ Baptism, we discern Wisdom as “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets.”

Indeed, Sirach claims to be a prophet in verses 30-34. The wisdom he is passing on to future generations is like a canal of water or a small tributary that flows from Wisdom’s headwaters (ha-vilah). Sirach writes, “And behold, my canal became a river and my river became a sea. I will make instruction shine like the morning, and I will make it shine far away. I will yet pour forth teaching like prophecy and I will leave it behind for future generations. As you can see, I have not labored for myself alone, but for all who seek wisdom.” (Sirach 24:31-24)

Wisdom Personified

Wisdom is personified as the Feminine Principle (hokma in Hebrew; sophia in Greek). She is not a goddess, as feminists love to argue, but rather the source or fountainhead of life. She describes herself in language that identifies her with the ruach (breath, logos) of God in Genesis 1. She says, “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High and covered the earth like a mist… I walk in the depth of the abyss.” (24:3,5)

The antiquity of this worldview can be verified by anthropological study of the ancient world which reveals a binary and gendered framework. Speaking analogically, Wisdom represents ha-vah, the mother of life. This is the word that is rendered Eve in English Bibles. In Genesis 2:11, ha-vilah means the source of waters. Ha-vah and Ha-vilah are linguistically related, as are the idea of Wisdom as mother of life and the primal life-granting waters that covered the earth. Sirach develops this ancient conception as a central message of the book. (For more on the V as an archaic symbol representing the Feminine Principle, see note below.)

Wisdom spreads across the surface of the earth to all peoples like the great flood waters. She is like a hovering bird who seeks a place to rest. Here we have an allusion to the dove released by Noah who finds rest and returns to him with an olive branch in its beak. Wisdom says, “In the waves of the sea, in all the earth and in every people and nation (ethne) I have gained a possession.” Her resting place is with Jacob (24:8) and she is established in Zion (24:10). Her inheritance is Israel (24:8), and from Israel she plucks the olive branch that is offered to all the nations.

Wisdom as the Tree of Life

Sirach develops another image of Wisdom in verse 13-28. Here she is described using the image of trees, each with a special quality. There is the height of the mighty cedars of Lebanon, the fragrance of the cypresses of Hermon; the tamars in En-Gedi (called “Hazazon-tamar” in Gen. 14:7 and II Chron. 20:2). En-Gedi was a famous oasis which refreshed travelers. It is one of only two fresh water springs located on the western shore of the Dead Sea. It hosted date nut palms (tamars) which represented the feminine principle because to the vaginal appearance of the date nut when opened.

David Falls at En-Gedi

Solomon compared his lover to “a cluster of henna blossoms from the vineyards of En-Gedi” (Song 1:14). It is the site of the oldest temple in Palestine. The temple, dating between 4000 and 3150 B.C., had a Holy of Holies (Sanctum sanctorum) with an altar upon which animals were sacrificed. David took refuge here to avoid Saul’s men (I Sam. 23:29).

Wisdom is further described as having the beauty of the Jericho roses and the fruitfulness of the olive trees on the Jericho plain. She is described as upright like the plane tree and aromatic like the bark we know as cinnamon. She is aromatic like the tree resins myrrh and frankincense. Finally, she is likened to the Terebinth of Palestine (24:16), a tree associated with the kings and prophets of Israel.

Tr-bnt means “daughter of the priest” and predates Hebrew. The word bint means "daughter" as in Qasr Bint Far'um (temple of Pharaoh’s daughter at Petra) and tera an extremely archaic word for priest found among Abraham’s ancestors. In full flower the Palestinian Terebinth is adorned in scarlet and wide branching. Its leaves are egg shaped with soft fuzz or hair around the edges (having a vaginal appearance). In the ancient world the terebinth and the tamar were associated with fertility and the feminine principle.

Terebinths and tamars marked the shrines of the morehs or judges before the time of the monarchy. Judges 4:5 tells us that Deborah judged from her tamar between Bethel and Ramah (north-south axis).

Terebinths are mentioned in Genesis 12:6, 13:18, 14:13 in reference to the place where Abraham camped between Ai and Bethel (east-west axis). The terebinths of Mamre are usually rendered "oaks of Mamre" in English Bibles, but the terebinth (elah) should not to be confused with the oak (el). They were assigned different genders among Abraham’s people. There is evidence that female prophets judged from tamars and terebinths while male prophets judged from oaks and other hard trees that represented the masculine principle.

The association of the terebinth with the ruler-priest lines is evident in the Hebrew Scriptures. 1 Samuel 17:2, 19 tells of how David, of the ruler-priest line of Jesse, defeated Goliath in the Valley of Terebinth. The wife of Heber, a kinsman of the ruler-priest Jethro, killed the enemy general Sisera while he was sleeping in her tent (Judges 4:21). In Judges 9:6, we read that Abimelech was crowned at the terebinth in Shechem.

Wisdom Flows as a Great River

The description of Wisdom as the Tree of Life is bracketed by the theme of flowing waters. Earlier Wisdom is pictured as walking upon the waves, hovering over the waters, and spreading out like the flood. In Sirach 24:25-29, the image of water is taken up again.

Here we find a significant difference between the Septuagint and the Masoretic texts. The Greek list only 5 rivers whereas the Hebrew lists 6 rivers. The Greek omits the Nile and in doing so, breaks the Hebrew parallelism. The Pishon and the Tigris are paralleled (24:25). They are the great rivers at the western and eastern boundaries of the ancient world. From them Wisdom brims over like trees weighed down with the first fruits. The Euphrates and the Jordan are paralleled (24:26). These are the two great rivers controlled by Abraham’s people. From these, intelligence flows like an abundant harvest. And in the Hebrew, the Nile and the Gihon are paralleled (24:27). These are the great rivers of East Africa from which discipline springs forth like grapes at the time of harvest.


Ecclesiasticus has a chiastic structure, albeit, a loose one, and chapter 24 is the central message. The chapter is rich in evocative images drawn from the oldest narratives of the Creation and the Flood. These stories reflect the oldest known metaphysics and ontology, that of the ancient Afro-Asiatic rulers who controlled the great water systems thousands of years ago when the Sahara, Arabia, Mesopotamia and the Indus River Valley were much wetter. Among them were the Horites, a caste of ruler-priests, and among the Horites are the greatest figures of Israel's history: Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David and Jesus Christ. Jesus ben Sirach was of the Horite caste. His wisdom does not originate with him. He received this as a living tradition from his horim/Horite ancestors. Today their voices continue to proclaim Wisdom!  In the Eastern Orthodox churches the priestly call to "attend" is heard in the Divine Liturgy. May God grant us ears to hear and hearts to receive the timeless Wisdom of God.


The honorific title Pharaoh originates in the term pr-aa, which means "great house." In Vedic tradition, pra-jna means "wisdom of the great house." The words have multiple, related meanings (polysemic). In Vedic tradition the a-laya-vijña-na is the seed of the receptacle-world, but literally it means the receptacle of the seed, as in va-gina, symbolized originally by the pictograph V. Karmic seeds - bija - are laid down in Alaya-vi-jña-na to produce karmic fruition. Alaya (aalaya) refers to a house, dwelling, or a receptacle. Bi appears to be a variant of Vi.

vi or bi - separation
jna - wisdom / to know
pra- intensifier

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