The Origin and Significance of Medicaments According to Ben Sira (Sir 38:4-8)

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In his reflection on doctors’ work and the process of treatment (Sir 38:1-15), Ben Sira draws attention to the usage of medications (Sir 38:4-8). Many contemporary Jews were probably recalcitrant to use them, as ancient medicine resorted to magic. Magic was also employed in the production of medications. The first part of the article synthetically presents the usage of medicines in ancient Israel on the basis of the Old Testament. Then a literary analysis and exegesis of Sir 38:4-8 is attempted. The present article takes into consideration the Greek version of this pericope, for it constitutes the canonical text of the Book of Sirach (the article nevertheless compares the Greek text to its Hebrew original). The pericope evinces a concentric structure (A – 38:4-5; B – 38:6; A’ – 38:7-8). The verses that frame the pericope refer to medicines (vv. 4–5 are devoted to the justification of their use, while vv. 7–8 mention the reasons they are used for). The central part (38:6), in turn, focuses on the origin of medical knowledge. Ben Sira strives to persuade his fellow Jews to use medications, as they are not related to magic and pose no threat to believers. It is God who created them, and they come from him. The sage refers in his argumentation to what happened in Marah (cf. Exod 15:25) to justify the use of medicines and their natural origin. Medicaments help cure diseases and afflictions and they restore harmony of creation, disrupted by disease and suffering (38:8). Their divine provenance is also corroborated by the fact that knowledge of medicine and medications was given to people by God (38:6). Hence, people should worship God for this great gift. In Sir 38:4-8, Ben Sira performs a perfect synthesis of contemporary medicine developed by neighboring (pagan) peoples with Israel’s faith (only God can cure a person, but he does so through medications; medicine is thus a tool in his hands). The sage noticed the positive value and usefulness of medications, but through referring to God and showing the divine provenance of medicine, he dispelled any doubts the believers might have had concerning the use of medications to cure a disease.
The Wisdom of Sirach, Sir 38:4-8, medications, medicine, God-Doctor
"The Biblical Annals" 2021, T. 11, nr 1, s. 25-62