Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Note on Sirach 42:18b

(Tristan, this post is for you.)

The Hebrew text of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus ) 42:18b, from the Masada manuscript, says of God ‏יׄביט אתיות עולם, "he sees from of old the things that are to come" (NRSV). The word אתיות is everywhere taken to be the feminine plural participle of the verb ‏אתי, "to come." This is a reasonable supposition since that form does occur in the Hebrew Bible, in Is 41:23; 44:7; 45:11. On the other hand, in the next verse a different word, ‏נהיות, is used for future events.

Nevertheless it occurred to me while reading the text with a seminar class today that an alternative understanding of the word might be "letters," understood as "elements." In post-Biblical Hebrew the word ‏אות "sign, letter" has two plural forms: ‏אותות when the meaning is "signs, miracles" and אתיות when the meaning is "letters."

If God is said to "see the letters of the world," what could that possibly mean? It might mean the same as the expression τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου, "the elements of the world" used in Paul's letters; στοιχεῖα means not only "elements," but also "letters." It is possible that Hebrew "letters" could also mean "elements," and that Ben Sira's expression refers to the four elements, the building blocks of creation.

But also possible — if this reading is accepted — is the idea that the 'otiyyot `olam are the "eternal letters," the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet through which, according to later tradition, the world was created. This idea plays a role in the later Sepher Yezirah and in the thought of Kabbalah. I doubt that Ben Sira had a fully developed Kabbalistic concept in mind, but the intersection in meaning of Greek stoicheion and Hebrew 'ot may have worked on his strongly Torah-centric theology to influence his expression in this one verse, which in turn influenced or foreshadowed later developments.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ed, your proposed reading might be compared to the following not on the etymlogy of "element":
Elements. Michael David Coogan has written two excellent articles
showing that the Latin elementum then English element may have from L-M-N in several alphabets. "Alphabets and Elements," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 216 (1974) 61-3; ")LP, To Be an Abecedarian," J. of the
American Oriental Society 110.2 (1990) 322. His work has been cited
approvingly, e.g. by Victor Avigdor Hurowitz in articles on Hebrew acrostic psalms) and Wm. Hallo (in his book on Ancient Near East Origins). And before Coogan, F.A. Wolf, J. B. Greenough (Harvard St. Class. Phil. 1 (1890) 97-99 and
others supported this origin. But the Oxford English Dictionary etymology offers:
[a. OF. element, ad. L. elementum, a word of which the etymology and primary meaning are uncertain, but which was employed as transl. of Gr.
{sigma}{tau}{omicron}{iota}{chi}{epsilon}{gifrown}{omicron}{nu} in the various
senses--a component unit of a series; a constituent part of a complex whole (hence the 'four elements'); a member of the planetary system; a letter of the alphabet; a fundamental principle of a science.]
Etymology books by Klein and Shipley propose an origin from Greek for elephant, ivory letters. But they provide no good examples. Does anyone here have further
information? Thanks.
Stephen Goranson