The Book of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, was written in the second century BC by Jewish authors in Alexandria.
To understand the text, we should remember:
- The book is mainly a collection of separate proverbs and sayings which the author(s) grouped roughly in related categories. This explains both rythmic pairs of the lines, the irregular structure and the unpolished sharpness of some of the verses.
- Since it is mainly drawn from Jewish popular wisdom, it reflects the Old Testament bias against women.
- Most of the negative passages criticise bad wives in contrast to good wives who are praised in other sections. However, through poor translation and a misunderstanding of this context, some verses were illegitimately extended as if they were a general judgment on all women! This clearly falls outside the literal sense of the text and the scope intended by the author(s).
- The negative judgments contain popular opinions and rationalizations and may not be taken to impart inspired teaching. In spite of this they were freely quoted by Fathers of the Church and theologians as God's own
The text itself: Sirach 25,13 - 16,18
I follow the translation in the Jerusalem Bible, Darton, Longman & Todd, London 1966, pp.1070-1071. The subheadings in the text are my own. I have put into italics the phrases which are most often (mis)quoted!
Life with a troublesome wife
Any wound rather than a wound of the heart!
Any spite rather than the spite of woman!
Any evil rather than an evil caused by an enemy!
Any vengeance rather than the vengeance of a foe!
There is no poison, worse than the poison of a snake,
there is no fury worse than the fury of an enemy.
I would sooner keep house with a lion or a dragon
than keep house with a spiteful wife. (verses 13-16)
A womans spite changes her appearance
and makes her face as grim as any bears.
When her husband goes out to dinner with his neighbours,
he cannot helps heaving bitter sighs. (verses 17-18)
No wickedness comes anywhere near the wickedness of a woman,
may a sinners lot be hers! (verse 19)
As climbing up a sandhill is for elderly feet
such is a garrulous wife for a quiet husband.
Do not be taken in by a womans beauty,
never lose your head over a woman. (verses 20-21)
Bad temper, insolence and shame hold sway
where the wife supports the husband.
Low spirits, gloomy face, stricken heart:
such the achievements of a spiteful wife.
Slack hands and sagging knees
indicate a wife who makes her husband wretched. (verses 22-23)
Sin began with a woman,
and thanks to her we all must die.
Do not let water find a leak,
do not allow a spiteful woman free rein for her tongue.
If she will not do as you tell her,
get rid of her. (verses 24-26)
Life with a caring wife
Happy the husband of a really good wife;
the number of his days will be doubled.
A perfect wife is the joy of her husband,
he will live out the years of his life in peace.
A good wife is the best of portions,
reserved for those who fear the Lord;
rich or poor, they will be glad of heart,
cheerful of face, whatever the season. (Chapter 26, verses 1-4)
Suffering brought by an unruly wife
There are three things my heart dreads,
and a fourth which terrifies me:
slander by a whole town, the gathering of a mob,
and a false accusationthese are all worse than death;
but a woman jealous of a woman means heartbreak and sorrow,
and all this is the scourge of the tongue. (verses 5-6)
A bad wife is a badly fitting ox yoke,
trying to master her is like grasping a scorpion.
A drunken wife will goad anyone to fury,
she makes no effort to hide her degradation. (verses 7-8)
Daughters need to be kept in check
A womans wantonness shows in her bold look,
and can be recognised by her sidelong glances.
Keep a headstrong daughter under firm control,
or she will abuse any indulgence she receives.
Keep a strict watch on her shameless eye,
do not be surprised if she disgraces you.
Like a thirsty traveller she will open her mouth
and drink any water she comes across;
she will sit in front of every peg,
and open her quiver to any arrow. (verses 9 - 12)
Blessings brought by a good wife
The grace of a wife will charm her husband,
her accomplishments will make him the stronger.
A silent wife is a gift from the Lord,
no price can be put on a well-trained character.
A modest wife is a boon twice over,
a chaste character cannot be weighed on scales.
Like the sun rising over the mountains of the Lord
is the beauty of a good wife in a well-kept house.
Like the lamp shining on the sacred lamp-stance
is a beautiful face on a well-proportioned body.
Like golden pillars on a silver base
are shapely legs on firm-set heels. (verses 13 - 18)
Additional text found in some manuscripts:
The good and evil wife compared
Search the whole plain for a fertile field,
sow our own seed there, trusting in your own good stock.
Thus your offspring will survive,
they will grow great, confident of their breeding,
A woman for hire is not worth spitting at,
but a lawful wife is as strong as a tower.
A godless wife is assigned to a transgressor as his fortune,
but a devout wife given to the man who fears the Lord.
A shameless wife takes pleasure in disgracing herself,
a modest wife is diffident even with her husband.
A headstrong wife is no more respected than a dog,
but one with a sense of shame fears the Lord.
A wife who respects her husband will be acknowledged wise by all.
but one who proudly despises him will be known by all as wicked.
Happy the husband of a good wife,
for the number of his days will be doubled.
A loud-mouthed, gossiping wife is like a trumpet sounding the charge,
and any man saddled with one spends his life in the turmoil of war. (chapter 26,19-27)
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