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Did the Book of Sirach pinpoint the Church’s abuse crisis?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 28, 2018

“What is the difference between the scandals of the Church of the 16th and 17th centuries and the Church of today? The lust, narcissism, pride, and abuse of power are pretty much the same. The difference we see now lies in the nature of the lust. We are forced today to face the tragic revelation of scores of accusations of predominately homosexual behavior and abuse.”

Bishop Robert J. Baker, August 21, 2018

I was reading the wisdom book of Sirach the other day, and I came across a puzzling text—a text in chapter 42 which appears to be violently prejudiced against women:

12Do not look upon any one for beauty,
 and do not sit in the midst of women;
13for from garments comes the moth,
 and from a woman comes woman’s wickedness.
14Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good;
 and it is a woman who brings shame and disgrace. [Sir 42:12-14]

Let me explain the thought process I followed in concluding that this text is actually a condemnation of the root behavior that has led to the Church’s abuse crisis.

I began by remembering what I already know, that the Old Testament is not anti-woman. Every book that includes passages identifying the faults of women also includes passages identifying the feminine virtues. Every book that bemoans how unhappy a bad wife can make her husband also notices the happiness that a good wife brings. (Consider this simple verse from Sirach itself: “A wife’s charm delights her husband, and her skill puts fat on his bones” (26:13).) In the Old Testament, for every Jezebel there is a Judith; for every Delilah there is a Ruth.

Then I considered how the nuptial theme of God’s relationship with His chosen people colors many texts which may seem to us to be too much focused on harlotry. Both the harlots and those who seek them are condemned, and the overriding lesson is that Israel’s unfaithfulness to the LORD is rank harlotry. This theme understandably—and justly—pervades all of Scripture.

Finally, with the help of a New Testament passage—chapter 5 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians—I realized how our own cultural blinders make it difficult to interpret Scripture without instinctively distorting the meaning of key texts. Thus St. Paul’s exhortation to husbands and wives explores a relationship of great beauty and depth, rooted in both mutual subordination and headship, with its model found in the sacrificial relationship of Christ and the Church.

But today, as soon as we hear the words “wives be subordinate to your husbands” or (God help us!) “wives obey your husbands”, we run from the sacred text, certain that it is trampling over the truths of which we are most certain, our own precious twenty-first century take on reality! Unfortunately, reading Scripture with cultural blinders and personal prejudices is rarely fruitful, as these make it almost impossible for spiritual insights to penetrate our thick skulls.

Rules of interpretation

My first rule of Scriptural interpretation is the desire to be instructed; and the second is like unto it: a refusal to jump to conclusions. The third rule is to be guided in all interpretation by the whole of Scripture. If we accept the inspiration of the sacred text, then manifestly we cannot choose an interpretation of one text that contradicts what we learn from another text. The fourth rule is that Scripture is never simple, for it must convey the infinite wisdom of God into the finite, cramped, and even distorted minds of human beings. And the fifth rule is that, whatever insight we draw from a text, we may not declare it to be either definitive or exhaustive.

Only the authority of the Church can do that. But we might still find on our own something surprising in the hard text I have chosen for interpretation here. This text follows a passage on the relationship between men and women, namely that of father and daughter, and how anxious a father is until his daughter is properly settled in life. This is clear enough, but the sacred author then turns to another aspect of the relationship between men and women, in the text I have quoted.

Some of this next topic appears to be readily intelligible as well. Thus, verse 12 bids us not to “look upon any one for beauty”. This may mean not to look upon anyone lustfully or as if beauty is sufficient or even the most important quality. We can probably also find good reasons for the sentiments of the middle portion of the text, which advises men (and clearly only men) not to “sit in the midst of women”, lest perhaps we find ourselves chasing mere beauty, or find ourselves sunk in an effeminacy which is not appropriate to the character and virtues of a man—for, as verse 13 states, it is a woman’s wickedness that comes from women. That could be taken as a self-evident statement, but then we run smack into the apparently harsh conclusion in verse 14: “Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good; and it is a woman who brings shame and disgrace.”

Better is the wickedness of a man?

At this point, I could have simply said I did not understand the passage at all, despite a promising start. Or I might have suspected a bad translation, and so consulted the original languages (whether Hebrew or Greek or both), except that I do not read these languages. Or I might have further investigated what is known of idioms in these languages, for “do not sit in the midst of women” does seem to have the flavor of an idiom. But neither did I have good resources at hand for quick research.

But wait—a glimmer of light! The most problematic statement sounds very much like a proverb. Proverbs are in fact the stuff of wisdom literature, and proverbs themselves are generally idiomatic, understood only in their common application to particular realities. Yes, the moral clincher does sound like a proverb, the wisdom of which would be recognized by all who understand its particular idiomatic application: “Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good.” By now I suspected the Holy Spirit was trying to give me something through prayer and reflection that was initially opaque to me in the literal text.

It is at least possible to read these three verses all together as a warning against effeminacy—that is, homosexual desires—in men. In this context, we might well discern that for a man “better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good”. Better, in other words, for a man to be a bad man than to act like even a good woman. Again, the warning against looking “upon anyone for beauty” and desiring “to sit in the midst of women” is clearly directed at men. Might it not be a guarded description of homosexual desire that must be resisted and rejected, in which a man desires the beauty of a man—a desire which can be properly ordered only in women?

I cannot say for certain, of course. But if this passage is read as something hostile to women, it would contradict not only other passages in the same book but Scripture’s frequent praise of heroic women, pure women, accomplished women, and good wives. It would also render nonsensical the words “better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good”, which could only be understood as the grossest of moral idiocy. But as a proverbial allusion to effeminacy and homosexuality, even this statement would make perfect sense, and the final clause might simply drive home the thought: The woman within the man—that is, womanish desire in a male—brings shame and disgrace

Understood in this way, the entire passage would be consistent with the condemnations of homosexuality and effeminacy throughout the rest of Scripture. Therefore, what I see in Sirach here is an insight into one of the root causes of today’s ecclesiastical crisis. Am I inspired by God? No, but the author of Sirach was. Even if this is not a definitive interpretation, it suggests an insight, drawn from God’s Word, that may be remarkably apt for our culture, extraordinarily pointed in our Church, and seriously needed in our time.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: glenndickinson - Aug. 31, 2018 4:21 PM ET USA

    Thanks, well done. I think of rendering the proverb, "Better is the wickedness of a man than [acting like] a woman who does good". or maybe "Better [for a man] is the wickedness of a man than the goodness of a woman"

  • Posted by: westbrook5465 - Aug. 31, 2018 11:19 AM ET USA

    If the verse "better the wickedness of a name than a woman who does good," is proverbial, as Dr. Mirus suggests, another interpretation could be a call to resolute action. Masculinity is usually symbolic of action and activity, while femininity suggests less active, more patient virtues. This might be advice for the Church in dealing with the present crisis: ACT! Do not let the desire to be "nice" or "gentle" get in the way of needed action.

  • Posted by: Edward I. - Aug. 29, 2018 3:18 AM ET USA

    Brilliant as usual, Dr. Mirus.