Are there problems in the Intertestamental book of Sirach?
First of all, it needs to be noted that Ben Sira’s son translated the work into Greek, already giving us a paraphrase. So if there is debate about what something in the book means, we need to compare it to the Greek (LXX) version. The Hebrew was not found until much later. In general, these procedures should be taken with the book of Sirach when debated renderings come about. We can rely more heavily on the LXX version considering Ben Sira’s own son, Jesus (likely one of his students in his school), was the one who translated it.
One example: Sirach 22:3 (NRSV) is often used to support non-canonicity from Protestants: “3 It is a disgrace to be the father of an undisciplined son, and the birth of a daughter is a loss.” But the LES (an English translation of LXX) says “3 The shame of a father is in an undisciplined son, but a daughter is born at a loss.” and the NAB says, “An undisciplined child is a disgrace to its father; if it be a daughter, she brings him to poverty.”
-The NRSV is too literal in not specifying what “a loss” is.
-LES refers to the “underprivilegedness” of a daughter compared to a son, she has a disadvantage from birth in a patriarchal society, obviously. Sirach does not say whether this is a good or bad thing, he just states the reality.
-NAB links the daughter in parallelism to the son, showing that the daughter referred to is one who is undisciplined.
There is also a passage about the treatment of slaves that says the following (Sirach 30:35-40 LXX):
35 * A yoke and thong will turn the neck,
and screws and tortures for a mischievous household servant.
36 * Put him to work lest he become idle,
37 * for idleness has taught much evil.
38 * Appoint him to works as are fitting for him,
and if he does not obey, add weight to his fetters.
And do not be overbearing over any flesh,
and do nothing without judgment.
39 * If you have a household servant, let him be like you,
since you have bought him with blood.
If you have a household servant, treat him like yourself,
for you will need him like your soul.
40 * If you mistreat him, and he leaves and runs away,
in which way will you seek him?
-It is clear that this passage allows discipline of evil household slaves (v. 35), but the majority of it talks counter-culturally about how to prevent evil in your slaves through appropriate labor and not being overbearing (vv. 36-38) and generally exhorts people to treat them well, specifically, like your own soul and so that he does not run away (vv. 39-40). Surely, some of the discipline in the Old Testament Torah is much more harsh (e.g. the flood and all punishments by death in the book of the Law).
Regarding atonement, Sirach says, “Almsgiving atones for sin” (Sirach 3:30)
Some other biblical passages hint at this in a way,
See Daniel 4:27: “Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you, and break off your sins by righteousness and your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor, in case there may be a lengthening of your prosperity.”
-In Proverbs 16:6, Solomon says, “Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for; through the fear of the LORD evil is avoided” (NIV).
-In Sirach, he says “almsgiving atones for sin”. Therefore, we would do a study on what it meant in the OT to “atone for sin” (3:30); Jews certainly did not understand atonement of sin as the same thing as Christ’s eternal atonement in light of OT sacrifices. Truly, the heart behind these passages is that the best way to atone for sin is to avoid it altogether, which comes by doing things instead of sinning: i.e. righteousness, showing mercy, love, faithfulness, and almsgiving. If you are participating in these acts, then you are not participating in the antithesis of these acts, which is sin (unrighteousness, withholding mercy, disobedience, hate, faithlessness, indulgence).
-Sirach 42:13-14, when speaking about women,
13 for from garments comes the moth,
and from a woman comes woman’s wickedness.
14 Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good;
it is woman who brings shame and disgrace.
One commentator says, “The paragraph is talking about father’s being strict with their daughters in order to keep them away from sexual immorality and other sins, and how women can easily undo other women through their example, thus a man’s harshness (i.e. the disciplinary father) is better than a woman’s niceness.”
-Another commentator: The sacred author is using sarcasm. The phrase "man's wickedness" does not refer to true wickedness but sarcastically refers to those actions of a righteous man which a fallen world regards as "wicked." In the same way, the phrase “woman’s goodness” does not refer to true goodness but sarcastically refers to those actions of wicked women which a fallen world regards as “good”-i.e., sexual immorality.
Conclusion: A word about cultural interpretation and women in Sirach:
Before we quickly label something as “unbiblical” we have to question if we do the same thing with our Protestant canon. 1 Timothy 2:12 is not regarded as “unscriptural” just because Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she must be silent,” but is often seen in its context as appropriate for the given situation. In 1 Cor 14:34-35, Paul says women must be silent in churches, be in submission, and that it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. In Ephesians, Paul says for wives to submit to their husbands as to the Lord.
-Instead of dismissing these 3 letters as unscriptural or invaluable, we interpret these in light of the situation of chaos in Corinth. Sirach is even further removed (by about 200-250 years) and must be seen in its context regarding the social context of women. Although there is submissive language, it does not go against Torah, but merely gives wisdom in how to deal with “the wicked daughter (or woman)” with one’s wisdom, not with the godly woman. Perhaps the situations Sirach recommends with women were appropriate and quite necessary within Sirach’s context, just as Paul’s instructions were for women of his time and in the context to which he was writing to.
-Besides, Sirach 26:13-18 speaks well of the faithful woman: “3 A wife’s charm delights her husband, and her skill puts flesh on his bones. 4 A silent wife is a gift from the Lord, and nothing is so precious as her self-discipline. 5 A modest wife adds charm to charm, and no scales can weigh the value of her chastity. 6 Like the sun rising in the heights of the Lord, so is the beauty of a good wife in her well-ordered home. 7 Like the shining lamp on the holy lampstand, so is a beautiful face on a stately figure. 8 Like golden pillars on silver bases, so are shapely legs and steadfast feet.”
-Now, remember, this is in a context where women only ran their households, they didn’t work a job. This has changed, but within the context of this passage, we should apply it to that day and say, “oh, this is what a righteous woman looked like in the Ancient Near East”.