Omniscience in the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach

The book of Sirach was written somewhere in the second century BC. This book was written during the height of Hellenization of Israel. The author of the book Yeshua Ben Sira writes that he traveled from Israel to Egypt and translated the Hebrew original work into Greek, stating:

You are urged therefore to read with good will and attention, and to be indulgent in cases where, despite out diligent labor in translating, we may seem to have rendered some phrases imperfectly. For what was originally expressed in Hebrew does not have exactly the same sense when translated into another language. Not only this work, but even the law itself, the prophecies, and the rest of the books differ not a little as originally expressed.

He urges caution in reading his work. This work incorporates various sayings found in Israel. It makes at least two allusions to outside works, Aesop’s Fables (Sir 13:2–3) and The Egyptian Satire of the Trades (Sir 38:24-39:11). The work seems to show familiarity with outside literature.

Within Sirach, there are various omniscience claims about God.

Sir 15:18 For great is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power and sees everything;
Sir 15:19 his eyes are on those who fear him, and he knows every deed of man.…

In Sirach 15:18 God is said to see everything. The picture is a common one in Jewish writings in which God is watching everything as it occurs. God’s “eyes” are said to be on those who fear Him, signaling God’s protection of his own people. The statement appears to clarify that God knows all deeds of man, even though that man might not be God’s.

Sir 17:19 All their works are as the sun before him, and his eyes are continually upon their ways.
Sir 17:20 Their iniquities are not hidden from him, and all their sins are before the Lord.

Sir 17:23 Afterward he will arise and requite them, and he will bring their recompense on their heads.
Sir 17:24 Yet to those who repent he grants a return, and he encourages those whose endurance is failing.

In Sirach 17:19-20 God is said to see the works of man as the sun lights up the day. Whereas the Sun gives vision to people, God is able to see as if the Sun is always lighting everything. God records man’s sins. The context is God’s judgment. If man does not repent of his sins then God will punish them in measure.

Sir 23:18 A man who breaks his marriage vows says to himself, “Who sees me? Darkness surrounds me, and the walls hide me, and no one sees me. Why should I fear? The Most High will not take notice of my sins.”
Sir 23:19 His fear is confined to the eyes of men, and he does not realize that the eyes of the Lord are ten thousand times brighter than the sun; they look upon all the ways of men, and perceive even the hidden places.
Sir 23:20 Before the universe was created, it was known to him; so it was also after it was finished.

Sirach 23:18-20 concerns itself with the impious man. A common claim in Israel was that God does not see man’s sin. In verse 18, the reason the impious man believes God cannot see what he does is that he does it in the dark. God’s omniscience, to the impious, was thought to be a function of God’s visibility during the daylight. The author counters this by ascribing a light to God’s eyes.

In these verses, God’s eyes are said to burn 10,000 time brighter than the Sun. The Sun is not the source of God’s knowledge. God’s eyes generate their own light, which sees all things.

The number 10,000 is very interesting and has pagan counterparts. Pettazzoni writes:

The vain fancy of the impious man that he can escape the all-seeing vision of Deity is to be found also in the Avesta, with reference to Mithra, who is a sky- and sun god… Also the “ten thousand eyes” of the Iranian Mithra (Yasht x. 7, 24, 82, I4I) and the thousand eyes of Varuna (Atharva-Veda iv, I6, 4) recall the pronouncement of ben Sirach that “the eyes of the Lord are ten thousand times brighter than the sun”…

Zeus also is ascribed three times ten thousand spies on Earth who spy on his behalf. Of course, in Israel, Yahweh is not ascribed monstrous eyes. He is not given a multiplicity of eyes, and when the Bible does talk about his eyes (i.e. his seven eyes in Zec 4:10) it is more likely referring to angels of God who act as spies.

Instead of having ten thousand eyes, Yahweh’s eyes burn 10,000 times brighter than the Sun, suggesting a visual omniscience or a figurative claim that nothing in secret will be hidden from God.

Sir 34:16 The eyes of the Lord are upon those who love him, a mighty protection and strong support, a shelter from the hot wind and a shade from noonday sun, a guard against stumbling and a defense against falling.

Verse 34:16 describes the particular focus of God’s omniscience as being towards the fate of those who follow him. God watches His people and protects them and provides them comfort. This mirrors Sirach 15:19, in which God pays particular focus on those who fear Him.

Sir 39:19 The works of all flesh are before him, and nothing can be hid from his eyes.
Sir 39:20 From everlasting to everlasting he beholds them, and nothing is marvelous to him.
Sir 39:21 No one can say, “What is this?” “Why is that?” for everything has been created for its use.
Sir 39:22 His blessing covers the dry land like a river, and drenches it like a flood.
Sir 39:23 The nations will incur his wrath, just as he turns fresh water into salt.
Sir 39:24 To the holy his ways are straight, just as they are obstacles to the wicked.

Sirach 39 might contain a claim of exhaustive divine foreknowledge. God is said to see everything. He sees everything “from everlasting to everlasting”, which could be a claim that He sees the entire future or it is a claim that God watches everything always. God is said in Sirach 42:21 to be from “everlasting to everlasting”, a common claim in the Hebrew Bible. The phrase possibly could mean that while God is living everlasting to everlasting that He sees all.

There is also a hint that nothing takes God by surprise. Verse 20 says “nothing is marvelous to him”. This could be another indication that the author has exhaustive divine foreknowledge in mind. Alternatively, it could be due to mankind not being able to build novelty (as Ecclesiastes 1:9 claims, “Nothing is new under the Sun”).

This passage goes on to affirm some sort of divine determinism. God makes everything for a reason (could this be why God is not taken by surprise?). The same resources God uses for good for those who love him, God uses for evil for those who reject Him. Nothing happens outside God’s providence. This is not to be confused with individuals not having free will, as the idea seems to be that people can repent of their evil and be forgiven (Sir 17:24).

Sir 42:16 The sun looks down on everything with its light, and the work of the Lord is full of his glory.

In Sirach 42:16, omniscience is ascribed to the Sun in a figurative sense. The Sun illuminates all God’s great works. This phrase “looks down on everything” is a type of light-based omniscience that the impious would ascribe to God. Yes, God knows everything, but because He sees everything in the light. The phrase was limited to this understanding. The author of Sirach rejects this. The Sun might be omniscient in a sense, but God is much more so.

Sir 42:18 He searches out the abyss, and the hearts of men, and considers their crafty devices.
For the Most High knows all that may be known, and he looks into the signs of the age.
Sir 42:19 He declares what has been and what is to be, and he reveals the tracks of hidden things.
Sir 42:20 No thought escapes him, and not one word is hidden from him.
Sir 42:21 He has ordained the splendors of his wisdom, and he is from everlasting and to everlasting. Nothing can be added or taken away, and he needs no one to be his counselor.

In Sirach 42:18, God is said to “known all that may be known”. This seems to mirror a common Open Theist claim about God’s omniscience. God’s knowledge is limited to actual facts. God is said to search people and figure out the “signs of the age”. These statements do not appear to affirm exhaustive divine foreknowledge.

God is then said to declare “what has been and what is to be”, signifying, in context, God’s wisdom (verse 21). This also could be a function of divine determinism spoke about in Sirach 39:21. If this is a statement about exhaustive divine foreknowledge the surrounding phrases sound awkward. God “looks into signs” and “searches out the abyss and the hearts of man”. God is said to “consider their ways”. The concept of divine timelessness is definitely not in the mind of this author.

The last statement that God “nothing can be added or taken away” appears in context of “no one to be his counselor”. Is this a claim of Platonistic perfection? It likely is rather a claim of divine wisdom, claiming that God is the wisest of all creatures. God does not need counsel.

Sir 48:22 For Hezekiah did what was pleasing to the Lord, and he held strongly to the ways of David his father, which Isaiah the prophet commanded, who was great and faithful in his vision.
Sir 48:23 In his days the sun went backward, and he lengthened the life of the king.
Sir 48:24 By the spirit of might he saw the last things, and comforted those who mourned in Zion.
Sir 48:25 He revealed what was to occur to the end of time, and the hidden things before they came to pass.

In Sirach 48, Hezekiah is said to be a prophet of God. He is said to have revealed “what was to occur to the end of time.” Could this mean he revealed what was to occur “at” the end of time? This is more likely the case, as with the other prophets (specifically of the exilic timeframe). There is not word in this passage what type of knowledge Hezekiah is imparting. Is this foreseeing the future in a clairvoyant way? Are these loose prophecies which God has plans to fulfill although it is not a literal representation of the future? The context is not clear.

In all, Sirach shows some signs of Hellenization, as one might expect with a text translated to Greek in Egypt. Do Hebrew concepts of omniscience and everlastingness translate well to a Greek speaker? Is the author adopting Hellenistic terms to help give the text a wider audience? Is there leeway in the text to allow traditional Hebrew theology to retain acceptability? It is hard to know the answers.

The Sirach seems to affirm a visual omniscience of all things, in the context of God continued effort to watch the actions of man in order to dispense justice. God is given control over the happenings of the world, creating everything for a divine purpose, but giving individuals the opportunity to choose their own outcome in the divine play.

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