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.