The Apocrypha in Lent – 15 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

15 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 23-26

Yesterday’s chapters focussed on the dangers of inappropriate speech, and the first part of chapter 23 continues that theme with warnings against swearing – both in the older sense of “taking God’s name in vain” and in the more contemporary sense of “foul language”.  The writer warns that “a man in the habit of using improper words will never break himself of it however long he lives”.  That reflects experience, it is indeed a hard habit to break.

However I beg to differ with the writer over verse 14: “Remember your father and mother when you are sitting among princes, in case you forget yourself in their presence and behave like a fool”. The implication is that our parents would have been shocked by hearing us use foul language.  But actually, experience suggests that the habit of swearing is usually learnt from parents, or from childhood friends.  For such people, ‘foul’ language is just ‘normal’ language.

The next section (chapters 24-26) is largely about sexual relationships and marriage.  The boundaries of what is acceptable do of course change across times and cultures, and much of what was considered sinful in Biblical times is usually not considered wrong in liberal 21st century Britain (such as loving same-sex relationships, or sex before marriage).  But on the other hand, we would now consider it wrong to marry off adolescent girls, as was normal in those days – not that that is specifically mentioned here, though there is a warning about the risk of “headstrong daughters” (girls who turn out to be promiscuous) in 26:10-12.

Some relationships, though, such as adulterous ones (23:22-27), are still considered immoral by most people, though not illegal, and incest (23:17) is both.  Let it never be said that the Bible is dull or out of touch with reality!

What modern readers will find most shocking about these chapters, though, is not the sexual references, but the attitude to women generally in chapters 25-26.    While it is true that there are unhappy marriages as a result of a wife’s jealousy or nagging (25:17-20) or alcoholism (26:8), the text is silent about the much more common problem (almost certainly prevalent then as now) of violent and controlling husbands.  In fact, these passages display a contempt for women that is quite alien to modern thought, although perhaps still seen in the Sharia law of traditional Muslim communities. They still consider it bad for a wife to support her husband (25:22), good for a woman to remain silent (26:14) and allow a man to divorce his wife because she will not obey him (25:26)

At the end of chapter 26 there is, at least, praise for a good wife – though even here, silence, modesty and chastity are the prized virtues, and “a beautiful face on a well-proportioned body [with] shapely legs on firm-set heels” being regarded as a virtue betrays a thoroughly male-dominated culture.

All  this “wisdom” about relationships between men and women is a reminder that cultural attitudes of 2200 years ago  are still alive and well among us.



The Bible in a Year – 28 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

28 July. Proverbs chapters 7-9

We first saw mention of the “loose woman” in chapter 2, and she appears also in chapter 5 (part of yesterday’s reading that I did not comment on). In chapter 7 she takes centre stage.  Although most translations use the word “prostitute”, the woman here is not like the modern “sex worker”, rather she is portrayed as a married woman who dares to go out in the streets looking for a lover while her husband is away.


Given the number of references I found in the prophets to prostitution, which were nearly always metaphors for idolatry, it might be the same here – is the word of wisdom really about not being lured away by exotic religions, and attractive-sounding philosophies (which nowadays might include some of the self-help crazes and health fads that actually harm people rather than help them)?   Possibly, but I think it is probably meant literally.  Even in our libertarian society where adultery is not a crime, it is still socially frowned on and an acceptable ground for divorce.  Not only does it lead to jealous partners who might turn to violence in revenge, but affairs rarely last long and only end up damaging everyone involved.


There is also a clear parallel between the adulteress of chapter 7 roaming the streets and charming young men astray, and Wisdom as presented in the first half of chapter 8, likewise as a woman roaming the streets, but this time offering to share her virtues such as prudence and honesty.  Which way will a young man turn?  To the obvious but harmful attractions of a promiscuous lifestyle, or to a more virtuous and ascetic one that leads to wisdom?  Fortunately, many people who try the former when they are young do end up happily and faithfully married, but not everyone.


In chapter 9, Wisdom is contrasted again (v.1-9) with another woman, this time Folly (v.13-18). Both invite people into their houses – to eat either the bread and wine of insight, or the or the “stolen water” and “secret bread” of death.


In the second half of chapter 8, Wisdom is presented, astonishingly, as having existed before Creation itself. It is for that reason that Christians have often understood her to be the personification of the holy Spirit, or of the Word of God who became incarnate in Jesus, who is acknowledged in the Nicene Creed as “begotten, not made … through him all things were made”.