Sirach’s Elijah in James

Tim Brookins at Scripta de Divinis is posting a great series on Jewish intertestamental literature. His last post highlights the Wisdom of Sirach (hat tip M. Goodacre). In his post, Brookins highlights a few parallels between Sirach and the NT, including one parallel in James:

Eccl. 15:11-13, James 1:17

  1. Ecc. 15:11-13 – “Do not say, ‘It was the Lord’s doing that I fell;’ for he does not do what he hates. Do not say, ‘It was he who led me astray;’ for he has no need of the sinful.”
  2. James 1 – “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God;’ for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.”

The NA27 has no less than 110 references to Sirach in its margins, 11 of which are in James. I’ve not seen a full length treatment on the influence of Sirach on the New Testament, and the only work that I know of that is completely focused on Sirach’s influence on James was written by Antonius Boon and published in 1860. (PDF available**). Are there any Latin scholars out there with time and the desire to translate it? (Don’t all email me at once!)

One slice of my thesis looks at Sirach 48:1-11, Sirach’s “praise” of Elijah and its relationship to James 1:1 and 5:17-18:

1 Then Elijah arose, a prophet like fire,
     and his word burned like a torch.
2 He brought a famine upon them,
     and by his zeal he made them few in number.
3 By the word of the Lord he shut up the heavens,
     and also three times brought down fire.
4 How glorious you were, Elijah, in your wondrous deeds!
     Whose glory is equal to yours?
5 You raised a corpse from death
     and from Hades, by the word of the Most High.
6 You sent kings down to destruction,
     and famous men, from their sickbeds.
7 You heard rebuke at Sinai
     and judgements of vengeance at Horeb.
8 You anointed kings to inflict retribution,
     and prophets to succeed you.
9 You were taken up by a whirlwind of fire,
     in a chariot with horses of fire.
10 At the appointed time, it is written, you are destined
     to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury,
to turn the hearts of parents to their children,
     and to restore the tribes of Jacob.
11 Happy are those who saw you
     and were adorned with your love!
     For we also shall surely live. (NRSV)

This passage is fascinating for several reasons, but for the purposes of my thesis, I am particularly interested in v. 10, where Sirach references the concluding words of Malachi:

5 Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (4:5-6 NRSV)

The second half of Sirach’s quote broadens the mission of the eschatological Elijah by dropping Malachi’s “[to return] the hearts of the children to their parents” and adding “to restore the tribes of Jacob.” Sirach blends Malachi’s prophecy of Elijah’s return with Isaiah’s description of the Servant’s mission:

6 It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
     to raise up the tribes of Jacob
     and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
     that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (49:6 NRSV)

This blending of the Servant’s and Elijah’s mission is striking. Sirach is known for having little emphasis on eschatology, but here in his praise of Elijah he not only mentions Malachi’s prophecy but develops it further. Elijah is to restore the exiled tribes of Jacob. In a vivid prayer for national vindication, this hope of restoration was voiced earlier in Sirach:

10 Hasten the day, and remember the appointed time,
     and let people recount your mighty deeds.
11 Let survivors be consumed in the fiery wrath,
     and may those who harm your people meet destruction.
12 Crush the heads of hostile rulers
     who say, ‘There is no one but ourselves.’
13 Gather all the tribes of Jacob,
16   and give them their inheritance, as at the beginning. (36:10-16; see Sirach 36:1-22.)

Scholars have questioned the originality of this eschatologically minded prayer, as Sirach wrote during the reign of Antiochus III – during a time of relative peace for the Jews. J. J. Collins suggests that it was added during the Maccabean crisis. Either way, the prayer was most likely a part of Sirach before the first century A.D.

This hope for the restoration of Israel is bound to be important for our understanding of a letter addressed to “the twelve tribes of the dispersion.” James writes to a people who while still “dispersed” are the firstfruits of the reconstituted twelve tribes. Given Sirach’s description of Elijah’s eschatological mission, I do not think it coincidental that James ends his letter citing the prophet as an example for his readers. That James may have in mind the eschatological expectations of Elijah is made plausible given the following:

First, the last chapter of James is dripping with eschatological anticipation. James instructs his readers to wait patiently for the coming of the Lord as a farmer waits for the former and latter rains. The community is to “strengthen their hearts” as the Lord’s coming is near, and they are not to grumble or swear, lest they face the condemnation of the Judge “standing at the doors.” James concludes this chapter in a no-less eschatological manner. The community is called to pray regardless of circumstances. Their prayer, confession of sins and anointing in the name of the Lord brings healing and salvation – marks of the Kingdom inaugurated by James’ brother. Finally, James explains that those who return a sinner from their wandering ways saves them from death.

Second, James seems to cite Elijah as an example in a way that would perk up the eschatological anticipation of his audience. Note how James does not cite Elijah’s healing of the widow’s son. This would seem to be the most obvious and logical example from the prophet’s resume given that James is teaching about prayer and healing. Instead, James cites Elijah’s prayer for drought and rain. This makes sense if one notices that James’ account of Elijah is sandwiched between two teachings concerning sin and repentance. In vv. 13-16 healing (both physical and spiritual) occurs in the community in the context of righteous prayer, repentance and confession. In vv. 19-20 the community is exhorted to actively pursue those who wander, calling them to repentance and saving them from death. Elijah’s drought fits this theme beautifully, as it was the result of Israel’s sin. The drought was lifted only after Israel’s repentance. That James puts this historical episode in eschatological terms is seen by his description of the drought’s length – 3.5 years (a number ripe with eschatological symbolism). Also, the drought and rain imagery evokes the rain imagery that James used to describe the coming of the Lord in vv. 7-8.

As my Bible college professor, Dr. Dippold would say, “So what?”

James places his Epistle between eschatological bookends. The community to which he writes is evidence of God’s restorative power – bringing together the twelve tribes of Jacob. These tribes are still dispersed. There is still a final consummate restoration to come, but the restoration envisioned by the prophets (and by Sirach) has already begun. The mission of Elijah, according to Sirach, was both to restore the community (turning the hearts of the fathers towards their children) and to restore these twelve tribes. This newly restored community is given an Elijah-like charge in vv. 13-20, calling the rest of the twelve tribes and the world to repentance. James reminds his readers that Elijah was simply a man, lest the community fears this to be too lofty a mission. After all, Sirach could ask of Elijah “Whose glory is equal to yours?” But while reminding his readers that Elijah is human, he also hints that they have the potential to be a community of eschatological Elijahs, calling the world to repentance. This community of prophets is evidence of the reign/rain of the soon coming Lord, as bodies and relationships receive healing as a result of a prophetic community’s prayer.

**Many thanks to Gordon-Conwell graduate – Jonathan Moo for obtaining a copy of this rare work from one of the Cambridge libraries. (Jonathan’s the son of Douglas Moo. The apple did not fall far from the tree.)

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