Storied Space,

or, Ben Sira “Tells” a Temple

  Claudia V. Camp


Works Cited


 One of many debts of gratitude that biblical scholars owe Jim Flanagan is for the time and energy he has spent organizing us to think seriously about space in the same critical way we have become accustomed to thinking about history and society.  My own interests are less systematically theoretical than Jim’s.  Not only do I like my theory heavily applied, I don’t even mind if an application skews someone’s theoretical system a bit.  In the end, for me, heuristic possibility counts for more than theoretical purity.  I have no doubt that some impurity will taint my neophyte venture into theories of critical spatiality, but I thank Jim Flanagan for the pleasure that this effort on his behalf has afforded me. 

            Largely as a result of the joint AAR/SBL Seminar on Constructions of Ancient Space organized by Jim Flanagan, there are now available several useful summaries of the major theorists of critical spatiality.  Flanagan himself (1999a; 1999b; 2000) and Paula McNutt (in this volume) focus mainly on the work of geographer Edward W. Soja; Roland Boer (2000) summarizes and applies that of Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre; Jon Berquist (1999) offers a broader theoretical overview that includes other spatiality theorists along with the major contributions of Lefebvre and Soja.  The availability of these reviews makes yet another theoretical summary here seem redundant, yet I cannot at the time of this writing assume that my reader will be familiar with the issues raised by critical spatiality theory.  Let me then offer the briefest of summaries, focusing only on those aspects of the theory I have brought to bear in my present project, the analysis of spatiality in the apocryphal book of Sirach, and the questions or problems I have encountered in trying to use it. 


        At the heart of critical spatiality is the recognition that, like history and society, space is not encountered as a transparent or objective “reality,” but is constructed in social practice and must therefore be theorized.  Soja (1996), adapting the seminal work of Henri Lefebvre’s Production of Space (1991), analyzes space as epistemologically triune.  Firstspace indicates “geophysical realities as perceived” (Berquist, 1999: 6), “the concrete materiality of spatial forms, . . . things that can be empirically mapped.”  Secondspace is imagined space, “ideas about space, . . . thoughtful re-presentations of human spatiality in mental or cognitive forms” (Soja 1996: 10).  Thirdspace might be partially encapsulated in the notion of “lived realities as practiced” (Berquist, 1999: 6), yet, as we shall see, is also more than this.  Lefebvre names these categories perceived space (or spatial practice), conceived space (or representations of space), and lived space (or spaces of representation);         [1] Jim Flanagan sometimes substitutes for these terms material space, designed space, and lived space.  The theorists’ agreement in describing the third category as “lived” space is notable, and will be taken up below.


It is Thirdspace that has held the most interest for both non-biblical and biblical theorists.  Thirdspace as a theoretical category is understood to be at one and the same time distinct from First and Secondspace and comprehensive and transformative of them (Soja 1996: 62). “Lived space embodies the real and imagined lifeworld of experiences, emotions, events, and political choices” (McNutt, this volume: xx).  But Thirdspace is also, in Soja’s formulation, a “critical strategy” that he calls “thirding as Othering,” understood as “a creative recombination and extension, one that builds on a Firstspace perspective that is focused on the ‘real’ material world and a Secondspace perspective that interprets this reality through ‘imagined’ representations of spatiality” (1996: 5-6).  Thirdspace interests theorists because of the possibility of creative openness inherent in it, especially in resistance to the oppressive power structures that are associated with the ideologies of Secondspace.  Lefebvre regards lived space as clandestine, concealed, as opposed to the overt, frontal quality of Secondspace (Boer 2000).  Soja’s articulation of Thirdspace, like Lefebvre’s, focuses on this dimension as a space of resistance, as “politically charged” (Soja 1996: 35).  Thirdspaces “are ‘the dominated spaces,’ the spaces of the peripheries, the margins and the marginalized. . . . They are the chosen spaces for struggle, liberation, emancipation” (Soja 1996: 68), “the spaces that are ignored” (Flanagan 1999b). 


            Reader of biblical texts that I am, my interest in spatial theory is directed towards the possibilities it offers for interpretation.  I have a dual agenda.  First is the question of what new vision emerges when one focuses this critical lens on biblical texts: what happens when language and ideas about space are foregrounded and then analyzed in terms of a spatial “trialectic”?  My second interest is methodological, having to do with the intersection of social-historical with literary questions and approaches to biblical interpretation.  The effort to read literature spatially accounts for some of the challenges noted in the ensuing discussion.  Other challenges, however, are inherent in the theory itself, with its doubled understanding of Thirdspace as both distinct from and encompassing the other spatialities.


            The application of a social-scientific theory to literary interpretation always presents a potential methodological stumbling block, and this theory could end up as particularly reductionistic.  For Secondspace—space that is constructed in mental or cognitive terms—is closely connected to language itself.  Space is “conceived” precisely through the spoken or written word.  Secondspace is also construed as the space of domination, “of power and ideology, of control and surveillance” (Soja: 67), constructed and maintained through the word.  Those in power make the “maps” that both design and control experiential access to Firstspace and that validate their right to do so.  It would seem possible at first glance, then, that any written text could be so simply classified as Secondspace as to obviate further analysis.  This would be particularly true of canonical literature, given its apparent status as the record of the winners.  Such a move, I suggest, would be too quick.  In literature as in life, spatialities exist in complex interrelationship. 


            The problem of the theory’s literary application is exacerbated by the problem of keeping in balanced focus all the complex interrelationships among the spatialities in the theory itself.  People “live” in geophysical space, which is ordered, coded, “conceived,” by those living in it and at the same time sometimes impacts life so as to change conceptions. Soja discusses these intersections in epistemological terms—his focus, that is, is on the ways theorists have thought about these spatialities—but his analysis is already value-laden with his preference for Thirdspace (1996: 74-82).  Thus, his discussion of the Firstspace-Secondspace interface highlights the problem of binary thinking, in which one spatiality is subsumed by the other in some way or other, depending on the theorist.  Thirdspace, understood comprehensively and transformatively, appears as the solution to this problem.  But this epistemological critique taken on its own weakens the usefulness of the tri-spatial model for analyzing the actual experience and production of space; for, in comparison to Thirdspace, First and Secondspace become here oddly discrete and narrow categories, these two aspects of the spatial trialectic no longer playing the lively roles they have in real human life. 

Wesley Kort (2001), whose work on human/place relations in literature adds an important alternative dimension to analyzing spaciality, provides a basis for rethinking the theoretical dilemma posed by Soja’s analysis and, at the same time, reformulating the methodological issue of applying it to analysis of literature.  Kort critiques Soja for his prioritizing of percept and concept as “basic or prior to lived space,” an ordering based on the social scientific presupposition of a gap between concepts and percepts and, thus, between “facts and value, reality and mind.” [2]   Kort proposes instead the analytical primacy of lived (Third) space over perceived and conceived space and, likewise advocates narrative discourse as "basic, generative, and necessary" to a spatial theory because it holds together space, time, and ideas.  “Why not begin with the welter of lived space and recognize both our perceptions and our conceptions of spaces and places as abstracted from that primary, fluid, and open sense of place and space that is so important a part of our lives?”  Narrative embodies a kind of Thirdspace within which concepts and percepts can be identified and analyzed, but which is also more than the sum of those two parts.

These moves address, at least in part, the problem identified above in using texts to imagine ancient spatiality, namely, the assumption that if it's written, it must be conceptualized, and if it's concepts, it must therefore be Secondspace.  One could already appeal, against that assumption, to the notion of the text "creating a world," i.e., a space in which the reader as well as the characters "live."  Human "living," both inside and outside texts, inescapably involves language and concepts.  So one issue of spatial analysis—is it First? is it Second? is it Third?—is not decided on the basis of "is it written?"  It depends on what kind of literature is involved.  Narrative literature potentially supplies both a model for thinking Thirdspatially and a site of Thirdspace from which lived First and Secondspatial possibilities can be abstracted and analyzed.  Spatial analysis that brings narrative to bear can, in other words, provide a window, precisely through literature, into the ancient world.  Critical spatiality theory provides, then, one tool with which to theorize in turn the use of narrative texts in social-historical reconstruction.

Another crucial issue in spatial theory is that of how power gets parsed, especially in terms of the relationship of Secondspace to Thirdspace.  Soja and Lefebvre hold up of Thirdspace as a place of marginality and a possibly empowering counter-culture.  This naming makes a valuable contribution to imagining social change in the direction of a more just society.  While the theoretical focus on the creative possibilities found in the kind of space that is normally suppressed and invisible is salutary, I struggle with this formulation of Thirdspace as “lived” space.  There are two issues here.  First, in what we usually call “real life,” lived space is infused with the ideologies that would in the spatial trialectic be categorized as Secondspatial.  This is not true simply in the sense that Secondspace represents the power that Thirdspace resists.  Rather, as Foucault has taught us, power is multi-faceted and diffuse.  Resistance is also a form of power and demands its own ideology, all the more so if it is to be used effectively.  Second, oppressors also have lived spaces.  Critique and resistance are not the sum of experience in what all these theorists agree in calling “lived” space.  Living involves a lot of things, including the production of power that makes critique and resistance necessary.  But “life” as we usually live it, including its spatially-based power relations, tends to be untheorized.  Thus, thirding as Othering is most often the spatially unrealized work of intellectuals, while the heterotopias of resistance that make life livable for the oppressed usually do little in the way of actual social transformation.  Most of the time, life just goes on.  It is the power-mongering and maintaining potential of Thirdspace, enhanced if not defined by its capacity to assert the naturalness of its own primary reality, that is my concern in this paper. 

This more jaundiced approach to Thirdspace is not the result of abstract reflection on my part regarding Soja’s theory of critical spatiality.  It is, rather, the result of my attempt to apply this theory to the book of Sirach. [3]   Sirach has spatial discourse aplenty and seems ripe for this sort of analysis.  Yet I have struggled in applying the spatial trialectic here, partly because the boundaries between one sort of space and another keep collapsing when the matter of power comes into play.  Flanagan suggests that  “[s]omething is lost when space is translated into words or texts” (1999b: 1).  But words also create space; certainly they create Secondspace, as well as providing an essential part of the texture of Thirdspace.  Indeed, in the writing of Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sira, texts create space; specifically, Bible-texts create the space of the Jerusalem Temple as and at the center of the author’s lived world, a Temple that the author also encountered in its Firstspatial concreteness.  One finds in Sirach a fair amount of Thirdspatial expression (experiences, emotions, events, political choices, indeed narrative itself), yet this book is one of the most ideologically (Secondspatially) oppressive pieces of literature imaginable. Ben Sira’s text thus manifests the interpenetration of spatialities that one would expect of Thirdspace, but not its liberating transformation of them.  This is a space of struggle, yes . . . but not as part of the list including periphery, liberation, and emancipation.  This is Thirdspace as power.


             So, my title:  storied space, or, Ben Sira “tells” a Temple.  I want to walk around three points.  First is a reading of chs. 44-50—Ben Sira’s famous poem in praise famous men—as a text in which the scribe constructs a Temple space by means of compressed, hymnic allusions to the stories of great men from the about-to-be-biblical tradition. [4]   The second point in my walk is that the spatial experience created by these stories is one of stories:  levels stacked on top of levels, that is, vertical space—a tower with its top in the heavens.  The third point returns to Thirdspace as periphery and resistance: under critical analysis, especially feminist analysis, the Temple crumbles; the telling leaves but a tell whose broken stories are excavated by the scholar. 


            One final prefatory observation needs to be made before turning to the text of Ben Sira, arising from the work of applying spatiality theory to this writing, and perhaps in turn informing the theory.  Just as Kort has identified narrative as a definitive site of complexly interwoven spatialities, study of Sirach points to another such site, namely, the experience of ritual.  In ritual as in narrative, lived reality, with all its spatialities, weaves itself into a slubbed and hole-y web: concrete materiality, concepts and ideologies, experiences, emotions, political choices are joined, validated, and illumined.  In ritual even more than narrative, moreover, the body presents and represents itself as lived space.  Soja’s discussion indicates the important role of the body in spatial feminist literature as

the most intimate of personal-and-political spaces, and affective microcosm for all other spatialities.  The spatiality and sensuality of the body is being given a central positioning in the critical interpretation of the real-and-imagined geographies of everyday life . . . (Soja 1996: 112)

While feminist geographers focus on the contemporary world and, hence the relationship of the city to the body, Ben Sira’s ancient text suggests a different point of departure, the relationship of the body to the altar.


            Conventional scholarly wisdom has it that Ben Sira wrote in Jerusalem during the first quarter of the second century BCE, making his book one of the most precisely dated and located of ancient Bible-related texts.  Although both the date and location have come under recent scholarly challenge, I think we have enough contextual mud to wrestle in for now. [5]   Two contextual things are important to me at the moment.  They have to do with text and Temple.  First, whether we date Ben Sira in the first quarter of the second century or a bit later, our scribe writes in a time of Bible-building.   Ben Sira’s grandson, who translated the book from Hebrew to Greek in Egypt sometime after 132, refers in his prologue to his grandfather’s study of “the law and the prophets and the other books of our fathers.”  While few scholars today take this phrasing as a transparent reference to the current tripartite Hebrew Scripture, it certainly suggests a sense of the canonical, a body of literature with significant social heft, sufficiently well known that it can be referenced with a few tag-terms.  Canonical, indeed, even in the more popular, current Christian usage of “revealed” literature.  And Ben Sira does not simply promote the divine origin of ancient wisdom but of his own as well.  His relationship with personified female Wisdom, who is herself identified with the book of Torah, authorizes his own (written) voice as prophetic.  At the end of his poem glorifying Woman Wisdom, he announces,


I will again pour out teaching like prophecy

and leave it to all future generations.   (24.33)


“Personified Wisdom’s commission is partially fulfilled through [Ben Sira’s] own activity,” concludes Randy Argall in his comparative study of Sirach and 1 Enoch  (1995: 72, 93).  This claim to revelation, however, is a bold one, contestable and surely contested, as Argall’s comparison of the similar claim in 1 Enoch makes plain.


            The second important contextual item is Ben Sira’s focus on the Jerusalem Temple.  Whether or not he actually lived in the city as he wrote, his text’s climactic moment is the vision of a high priest called Simeon, pouring out libation at the altar.  Significantly, just as Ben Sira’s paean to personified Wisdom in chapter 24 concludes with reference to the prophetic quality of his own teaching, so also his hymn to Simeon in chapter 50 segues into self-authorization of his own text.


Training in wise conduct and smooth running proverbs

have been written in this book

of Yeshua, son of Eleazar, son of Sira,

who poured them out from his understanding heart.

Happy the one who reflects on these,

wise will he be who takes them to heart!  (50.27-28; translation with    Skehan and DiLella 1987: 556)


Ben Sira’s own book, then, stands with one foot on the shoulder of the written tradition and one on the shoulder of the cult.  Lest these two bearers should walk off in different directions, it behooves him to bind them closely to each other.  Ben Sira snaps two intersecting chalk lines, one horizontal, one vertical.


            Horizontal:  In chs. 44-49, Ben Sira reads the textual tradition as story line.  Such reading is not dissimilar to that of certain psalms (78; 89; 105; 106; 135; 136) that recount moments from the past either to praise God or challenge him. [6]   Ben Sira not only expands the genre, however, but also re-orients the telling from events to persons.  His praise “of famous men” is exactly that: reference to events, often allusive in any case, is cast in terms of what particular men did, or what happened to them; their characteristics of faithfulness, strength, and piety are emphasized. [7]   I call this line horizontal because it moves for the most part in chronological order through points in time, and this chronology is experienced textually: it is experienced from side to side (which side to which side depending on the direction one writes and reads).   Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Phinehas, David, [8] Joshua, Caleb, the judges, Samuel, Nathan, David again, Solomon, Rehoboam, Jeroboam, Elijah, Elisha, Hezekiah, Isaiah, Josiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, and Simeon. [9]   Nowhere in Hebrew scripture is there such a catalogue. [10]   But to what end?


            The most obvious end is the high priest Simeon.  But how do we get there?  And what do we find when we arrive?  What sort of map is this?  Compared to the strong geographical sensibilities of much of Bible—with its narrative movement from place to place and its tales of places won, places lost—this hymn of men is curiously ungrounded.  It seems to happen a few feet (at least) above the surface.  Enoch is taken up.  Abraham’s progeny will inherit not the land of Canaan (which is never named in these chapters), but “from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”  Jacob’s “inheritance” is established as “portions” for the twelve tribes, but no actual territories are ever identified or distributed, [11] and especially not to Aaron, who is explicitly denied inheritance in the land (though he gets a portion in the Lord and a fair amount of space in Ben Sira’s text).  Moses meets God face to face, but nowhere else.  Depending on your textual variant, there may or may not be one city named in particular as conquered by Joshua, though the people did finally make it to the equally unnamed land flowing with milk and honey.  Samuel established a kingdom . . . somewhere, and also managed to defeat more specifically the leaders of Tyre and the rulers of the Philistines, though again it’s people not places in view. 


            David, who is of the people (“tribe”) but not the place of Judah, finally arrives somewhere, and we finally get a hint about the journey’s end. 


He placed singers before the altar,

to make sweet melody with their voices.

He gave beauty to the feasts,

and arranged their times throughout the year,

while they praised God’s holy name

and the sanctuary resounded from early morning. 

The Lord took away his sins,

and exalted his horn forever;

he gave him the statute of royalty

and established his throne over Jerusalem.  (47.9-11)


David captures time (“arranging” times throughout the year) and commands space:  “before the altar” and “over Jerusalem,” both amounting to essentially the same thing.  The Thirdspatial experience of ritual worship occurs in the Firstspace of power and is, accordingly, mapped onto the Secondspace of royal ideology, which itself is enacted in the First/Thirdspace of the royal bed, complete with sounding (and sinless) horn.  Thus is the Thirdspace of the worshipping subject and the fertile king united in authorized power.


            But the king will not finally get to fix the books.  The “beauty” that King David gives to the feasts but anticipates the ultimate “beauty” of Simeon the priest (50.1). [12]   Likewise, the covenant with David was “the inheritance of one man with respect to his honor,” while that of Aaron was “for all his seed” (45.25).  David’s son built the Temple, but his honor did not measure up (47.13, 20).  Before recording the wise king’s fall, however, Ben Sira describes Solomon’s glory with expansive spatial language, expressed here in an intimate second person discourse instead of the poem’s typical third person.


How wise you became in your youth!

You overflowed like the Nile with instruction.

Your breadth of understanding covered the earth,

which you filled with sayings of hidden meaning.

Your name reached distant coasts,

and you were known for your peace. [13]

With song, proverb, riddle,

and with your interpretations you stormed the nations.  (47.14-17)


The shift to this sort of spatial language establishes connections between three of Ben Sira’s famous men—Abraham, Aaron, and Solomon—connections that provide a framework for the Temple story he wants to build in his own day.



      The idealized spatial language of universal dominion in the Solomon passage calls to mind the one other passage where such expansive spatial language is used, that dealing with Abraham.  Abraham’s seed, in claiming their world-wide inheritance, will multiply like the dust of the earth, bringing blessing to the nations (44.21).  Solomon’s verbal wisdom is similarly earth-covering, but, notably, the fruit of his mouth has replaced the fruit of his loins as the means of domination. [14] The latter of course is stained by his sexual dishonor, the reverse of Abraham’s honor, on whose sexual flesh the covenant was marked and who proved himself faithful by his willingness to take the knife to the product of that flesh (44.26).  Thus the similarity in spatial language used of these two men highlights their difference with respect to honor and offspring. <

            Ben Sira has already suggested, however, in the opening section of his hymn, that the best of men will produce both seed faithful to the covenant and lasting wisdom (44.10-15).  It is Aaron, the original priest, drawn into connection with the more recent Simeon, who fulfills the agenda—or almost, at any rate.  Aaron, like Abraham, has honor (45.20) and, like Abraham, has a single son (Eleazar) and grandson (Phinehas), through whom the covenant is passed, and who ultimately become a multitude. [15]   In the days of Simeon, the sons of Aaron surround the high priest at the sacrificial altar, splendid, shouting, and sounding trumpets (50.12-13, 16).  Aaron, like Solomon, also has words:  the authority to teach the sons of Israel the statutes and commandments (45.17).  It is of no little consequence, however, that although Simeon continues to speak words of blessing (50.20), the work of instruction in understanding has passed to the scribe, Ben Sira (50.27-29)!


In one sense, this language of expansive, indeed universal, space that unites Abraham and Solomon, seems precisely to exclude Aaron, whose extended description—the longest of any save Simeon—places him nowhere and, indeed, denies him a portion of space.  In fact, however, one of the effects of totalizing discourse is that nowhere can easily become everywhere, and everywhere be condensed to a single point.  Aaron, or Aaron cum Simeon, is the perfect union of the issue of Abraham’s loins and Solomon’s mouth.  We need to consider Aaron’s (no)space in this light.  Though Aaron is denied a portion of space, he receives instead the Lord himself as “his portion and inheritance” (45.22).  But the Lord is, at least in some sense, everywhere: “he is the all” (43.27).  Thus does nowhere quickly take on a universal cast.  Aaron’s space is the space of holiness itself. 


            With Aaron, however, no-space/all-space remains, as in all of the hymn up to Solomon, ungrounded in any clearly designated Firstspace.  Solomon as Temple-builder, the encloser of David’s altar, marks an important transition in the poem’s spatialization.  Increasingly, space is both materialized and named.  In the first part of the poem, space was construed narratively and, with Aaron and David, ritually—in a word, Thirdspatially—in and through the texts that form the bodies of men.  The people-centered narrative continues in the poem’s second half, but now becomes identified with the First-and Secondspace of physical experience—the Temple—and conceptual designation—Zion.  Thus Hezekiah fortifies “his city” and brings water into it through tunneling (48.17).  His faithfulness helps save “Zion” from the Rabshakeh (48.18-22).  Likewise Isaiah comforts “Zion” (48.24).  The few good kings cannot finally save “the holy city,” however, which burns in spite of the words of Jeremiah (49.4-6).  Perhaps predictably, Ben Sira does not mention Exile—change of place—before turning to Zerubbabel and Jeshua, who rebuild the altar and the holy Temple, and to Nehemiah who restores the walls, gates, and houses (49.11-13).   The first remarks about Simeon also describe his Firstspatial activity: fortifying the Temple, building walls and corners, and, once more, excavating for water (50.1-3).  He fortifies the city as well (50.4). 


            At the same time, the Secondspace of universal dominion, narratively constituted in the Thirdspace of Abraham’s seed and Solomon’s words, attaches itself to the Temple through Aaron’s seed and words and, above all, through his universal portion in the Lord.  If in Aaron space is holiness, in the Temple holiness will take on space.  The real physical waters provided by Hezekiah and Simeon recall the universal waters of Abraham’s and Solomon’s Second/Thirdspace.  The house that Simeon builds is “visited” by God (50.1), who has also “visited” Joseph’s bones, as well as the primordial men, Shem, Seth, and Enosh (cf. Hayward 1996: 47).  Divine visitation is ideological language, to be sure, but also the language of personal encounter, of Thirdspatial experience.  Thus it is no real surprise when the ritual experience of Thirdspace returns dramatically in the poem’s finale, once more encapsulating the worshipper’s experience of the Temple in the body and name of a man, Simeon, as beautiful as the first man of creation, coming out of the inner sanctuary.  We realize finally where we’ve been all along, not moving through time and narrative, but located in one place, meeting body after body, name after name, as the Temple has been erected before us, enclosing the body of the scribe.  The names and bodies of men constitute the Thirdspace that contains the name of God.


            It’s a tall building.


            As we see when the vertical line finally snaps.  The magnificent layering of imagery for Simeon begins in the heavens.  The high priest emerging from the inner sanctuary is


like the morning star among the clouds,

like the moon when it is full;

like the sun shining upon the temple of the Most High,

and like the rainbow gleaming in glorious clouds . . .   (50.6-7)


Once planted in the earth, he grows tall above it, “like a cypress towering in the clouds” or “a young cedar on Lebanon”; he is surrounded by his brother-priests “like the trunks of palm trees” (50.10, 12).  This vertical heaven to earth, earth to heaven imagery also identifies Simeon at sacrifice with Woman Wisdom of ch. 24, who has descended from heaven to lodge in Israel and minister in the tabernacle in Zion (24.10-11).  She too is compared to a cedar, a cypress, and a palm tree (24.13, 14).  Wisdom and Simeon share in other complementary similes as well:  both are like olive trees, roses, incense.  This sharing is also a displacement, however, of female by male.  Once Simeon appears, Woman Wisdom disappears, a point we’ll return to in a moment.


            The verticality of the Temple experience embodied in Simeon can be seen also by means of contrast to another famous biblical constructor of Temple space, namely, Ezekiel.  As demonstrated by Kalinda Rose Stevenson (1996) in her book on the territorial rhetoric of Ezekiel 40-48, the prophet “uses horizontal language” to construct his Temple.  The essential thing for Ezekiel is the establishment of boundaries; status is determined by how near or far one is from sacred space, how much access one has to it.  Ben Sira’s vision is, with the exception of his elevation of Simeon, more democratic (though equally male!):  “the whole congregation of the sons of Israel” observes the libation, participates in prayer, and receives the priestly blessing (50.17-21).  Access to heaven is available to all, but through a single point in space alone, that point manifest in the body of the high priest in whom the whole space and meaning of the Temple inheres.


            Ben Sira, then, having built a Temple through textual bodies, identifies all those bodies with one human body, authorizing text with flesh, flesh with text, and both with the affective power of the ritual experience as preserved in his textual space.  The sage’s own text seems to embody Flanagan’s dictum regarding the organization and perception of space in segmented social systems:  “in such societies, people move through people, not through space.  Spatiality and people are organically linked” (1999b: 11).  Ben Sira allows us to extend this insight to texts as well:  people also apparently read through people, not through books (or scrolls).  Textuality and people are organically linked.  As we have observed, however, Ben Sira is not only interested in his readers’ reading through ancient textual persons, but also through himself as represented in his text. [16]   The dynamic of mutual authorization that he brings to bear between text and Temple is also at work between this author and his text.  For this reason, even though his book reaches an emotional climax in Simeon at the altar, it does not end there.  He turns almost immediately from the blessing of the priest and a prayer for the well-being of Simeon and the eternal priestly covenant (50.20-24) to a self-naming and the assurance that those who concern themselves with the matters in his book will also find blessing (50.27-29).  The book concludes with an acrostic, an arguably erotic—or at least eroticized—autobiographical poem about the author’s relationship with female Wisdom. 


            This last unit is of particular interest to me here.  It links Ben Sira to Simeon in terms of both space and person.  Both men preside over a house:  the house of God for the priest, the house of instruction for the scribe.  Whether or not Ben Sira refers to an actual school in his own case is an interesting historical question, but misses the multi-spatial point.  He claims for himself a divinely authorized space that is the equivalent of the priest’s.  But the two houses involve a separation of functions:  the priest speaks ritual blessing but the scribe speaks instruction in wisdom.  In the end neither Temple nor schoolhouse matter so much as the mouths of their authorized presiders.  But this reality is not merely conceptual; it is also lived.  People move through people.  People read through people. 


            People move through people, and yet something different is going on with both Simeon and Ben Sira than what Flanagan has in mind with this phrase.  His observation about the nature of space in segmentary societies refers to the networks of kin associations, real and fictive, that constitute the space of tribal peoples.  In Ben Sira’s hymn to the fathers, the reference to kin is much more attenuated; indeed, it is for the most part metaphorical.  Simeon has a house but no wife, brothers but no mother.  He appears as born of the sanctuary itself, from whose inmost space he emerges.  Indeed, real women are missing in general from the Temple built of Ben’s Sira’s books.  Except for one site:  Solomon.  The man who built the Firstspace Temple had real women.  But these wives were the source of stain and shame for the male body, causing its issue in foolish sons (47:19-24).  Simeon’s honor cannot be marred by the presence of women; his beauty is that of Adam, that of Aaron; he is the new man, the perfect man-alone.  But women do not depart from his space of their own accord, as the reference to Phinehas, both at the end of the Aaron pericope and at the end of Simeon’s, shows.  Ben Sira discreetly refrains from expounding on the exact nature of the “zeal” that won Phinehas’s descendents the eternal covenant of priesthood (44.23-24).  But every (implied) reader knows the untold story of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, plunging his spear through the bellies of the Simeonite(!) Zimri and his Midianite wife Cozbi in the sacred space of the tent of meeting (Numb. 25.6-18).  How ironic, then, Ben Sira’s plea that God fulfill the covenant of Phinehas with the present Simeon (50.24).


Ben Sira hints that he himself would like to have the zeal of Phinehas; indeed, he names himself “son of Eleazar.”  But in most respects it seems that he identifies more with Solomon.  He has traveled the world, acquiring wisdom and sharing it (34.11-12; 39.4).  Like Solomon his wisdom is universal.  He compares himself, like Solomon, to an overflowing river, expanding to a sea (24.30-31).  But there are also hints that, like Solomon, he does not quite measure up on the sexual purity front.  His anxiety that he will be brought to shame by women in general and wives in particular is one of the most striking aspects of his textual self-revelation. [17]   Notably, his concluding poem begins with the line:  “when I was a youth, before I went astray, . . . she came to me in her beauty” (51.13-14).  His burning desire for Wisdom (51.19), whom he attains with his “purified” hands (51.20), is covered by the shadow of the “short time” he paid heed to her (51.16).  How this short time before going astray fits in with his claims that his desire is “never relenting” and that he will “never forsake her” (51.19-20) is a mystery.  Except of course to a psychoanalyst.  The apparent incoherence between his values and his body is only partially resolved by sharing his house with a wife who, though luscious, is actually just a book that has proceeded from his own mouth.  For this is the same Woman Wisdom whose presence in the Temple the scribe has suppressed by transferring her attributes of glory to Simeon. [18]   The shame he casts out of God’s house by means of the tradition’s stories and the priest’s body he cannot quite cast out of his own. 


            To conclude:  Ben Sira’s Temple is a monument of Thirdspace, a monument to the male textual body.  It is a monument that exists only in Thirdspace, in the lived experience that generates such texts and that these texts in turn (re)generate.  For the texts become the kind of texts they are—Bible text—by virtue of having made this space, a space in which the authority of heaven is channeled through the body of the priest, but only by means of the mouth of the scribe.  Ben Sira’s text was not always divorced from Firstspace.  He lived in a real city—called, typically, Jerusalem rather than Zion—and worshipped in a real Temple made of earthly substances.  In this Temple a real male priesthood celebrated before a male god (whose reality I will not comment on here).  Women and their impurity could be ritually, though no less really, expunged.  Here is one space in which the Bible begins its odyssey. 


            But writing takes place in the scribal house, one step removed from the purity of the Temple, as the presence of Woman Wisdom hints.  And it must address real men, who cannot drive all women from their houses, however much they may hate or fear them.  Ben Sira’s effort to construct an all-male Temple from the tradition must fail in the face of a larger lived space, as well of the tradition itself, where women’s stories are not absent.  But what to make of these?


            I think that this effort to understand one moment of Bible-making in spatial terms may help us cut through an interpretive dilemma introduced by feminist analysis.  It begins with the early feminist question of whether the “text itself” is patriarchal or “only” its subsequent interpretation, and it lingers in later, more radical feminist insistence that the problem lies indeed with the text.  Both answers to the question implicitly theorize a clear distinction between text and interpretation.  A spatial approach to biblical genesis suggests instead a more integrated process.  To make a Bible is to make a space in which the Bible can be Bible.  Bible only happens to the degree it can keep making this space.  In one sense, biblical Thirdspace divorced of any material Firstspace and challenged by other conceptual Secondspaces, as it is in Western culture today, has to work all the harder to naturalize itself as lived space.  The fact that one of its spaces of departure was gynophobic at best, misogynist at worst, does not predestine all its spaces to be so.  But it was not a good start, and the residues of biblical patriarchy leave one wondering about the cost of further construction. 


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Argall, Randal A. 

1995        1 Enoch and Sirach: A Comparative Literary and Conceptual Analysis of the Themes of Revelation, Creation and Judgment (SBL Early Judaism and Its Literature, 8; Atlanta: Scholars Press).

Berquist, Jon

1999        “Theories of Space and Construction of the Ancient World.”  Paper presented in the Constructs of the Social and Cultural Worlds of Antiquity Group.

Boer, Roland

2000        “Henri Lefebvre and the Production of Space.”  Paper presented in the Constructions of Ancient Space Seminar.

Camp, Claudia V.

1991        “Understanding a Patriarchy: Women in Second Century Jerusalem Through the Eyes of Ben Sira,” in A.-J. Levine (ed.), “Women Like This”: New Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World (SBL Early Judaism and Its Literature, 1; Atlanta: Scholars Press): 1-39.

1996        Honor and Shame in Ben Sira: Anthropological and Theological Reflections,” in The Book of Ben Sira in Modern Research (BZAW, 255; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter): 171-87.

2001        Wise, Strange and Holy: the Strange Woman and the Making of the Bible (JSOTSupp, 320; GCT, 9; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press).

Flanagan, James W.

1999a  “Ancient Perceptions of Space/Perceptions of Ancient Space,” in R. A. Simpkins and S. L. Cook (eds.), The Social World of the Hebrew Bible: Twenty-Five Years of the Social Sciences in the Academy (Semeia, 87; Atlanta: The Society of Biblical Literature): 15-43. [Volume released in 2001]

1999b  “Mapping the Biblical World: Perceptions of Space in Ancient Southwestern Asia.” Paper presented in the Social and Cultural Worlds of Antiquity Group.  [Published in J. Murray (ed.), Humanities Group Working Papers 5 (Windsor, ONT: University of Windsor, 2001): 1-18.]

2000        “Space,” in Handbook of Postmodern Biblical Interpretation (St. Louis: Chalice Press): 239-44

Hayward, C. T. R.

1997        The Jewish Temple: A Non-Biblical Sourcebook (London and New York: Routledge).  

Hjelm, Ingrid

2000        The Samaritans and Early Judaism (JSOTSupp, 303; CIS, 7; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press).

Kort, Wesley

2001        “A Narrative-Based Theory of Human-Place Relations.” Paper presented in the Constructions of Ancient Space Seminar.

Lefebvre, Henri

1991 [1974]            The Production of Space (Trans. D. N. Smith; Oxford: Blackwell).

Mack, Burton

1985        Wisdom and the Hebrew Epic: Ben Sira’s Hymn in Praise of the Fathers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

McKechnie, Paul

2000        “The Career of Joshua Ben Sira,” Journal of Theological Studies 51: 3-26.

Skehan, Patrick W. and Alexander A. DiLella

1986        The Wisdom of Ben Sira (AB, 39; New York: Doubleday).

Soja, Edward W.

1996        Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places (Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell)

Stevenson, Kalinda Rose

1996        The Vision of Transformation: The Territorial Rhetoric of Ezekiel 40-48 (SBLDS, 154; Atlanta: Scholars Press).



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[1] The present paper refers to Soja more than to Lefebvre, mainly for pragmatic reasons.  Lefebvre presents a far denser version of the three spatialities in comparison to Soja’s (relatively!) accessible version, and one that is highly informed by Marxism.  My own work on spatiality theory has not yet allowed sufficient time for me to sort out how to move from Lefebvre’s complex account of spatialities in relation to capitalist means of production to the analysis of biblical texts.  Roland Boer’s ongoing work in applying Marxist analysis to biblical studies will make a significant contribution to further discussion (see Boer 2000).  Likewise, I am indebted to Soja for my introduction to spatiality theory done from a feminist perspective.  The directions for my future theoretical expansion are clear, but remain to be undertaken.  In this sense, the present paper may be regarded as a work in progress.

[2] “Soja, it seems to me, alters Lefebvre, by draining first and second and loading third space. There is a greater difference between thirdspace and first and second space in Soja than in their counterparts in Lefebvre.”  The quotations are taken from remarks contributed by Kort to an online discussion of the Constructions of Ancient Space Seminar during the fall of 2001.  I thank Wesley Kort for permission to quote from these less formal remarks that were of particular pertinence to my work.

[3] By convention, I used the title Sirach to refer to the book itself, and the name Ben Sira to refer to its writer.

[4] Formal analysis typically distinguishes the poem on famous men in chs. 44-49 from the poem on the high priest Simeon in ch. 50.  Thematically, however, it seems clear that the reader is supposed to see Simeon as the last in this sequence.

[5] The dating, however, has recently been challenged by Ingrid Hjelm (2000), who would time him in the Hasmonean period, though still in Jerusalem.   The location has been challenged by Paul McKechnie (2000), who would place him in the Egyptian diaspora, though still in the earlier part of the century. 

[6] Psalm 78 is notable for an introduction that could have come from the pen of our sage:

Give ear, O my people to my teaching;

incline your ears to the words of my mouth.

I will open my mouth in a parable;

I will utter dark sayings from of old,

things that we have heard and known,

that our fathers have told us.  (vv. 1-3)

[7] Mack (1985: 19-20, 207-11).  Mack further argues that it is the office the man holds rather than the individual himself that is important to Ben Sira.  While there is truth in this, it is also the case that Ben Sira chooses a narrative sequence for his presentation that cannot be ignored.

[8]   Mack suggests that David appears here, out of chronological order, as part of a literary unit that develops the theme of covenant (1985: 39). 

[9] Between Nehemiah (49.13) and Simeon (50.1) are named, out of chronological order, Enoch, Joseph, Shem, Seth, and Enosh (49.14-16).  The authenticity of these verses is disputed, based on both the varied manuscript evidence and thematic analysis disputed (Mack 1985: 199-203).  On the other hand, a case can be made for them as an introduction to the Simeon passage (Hayward 1996: 44-46).

[10] Unless one considers the genealogies, which may indeed provide a model from which Ben Sira works.  It is possible to read the famous men as the forebears of the illustrious Simeon.  This would raise some furtherconsiderations about the meaning of kinship in Sirach to those I shall raise below.

[11] Skehen and DiLella supply a word from Deut 32.8-9, where God “fixes the boundaries” of the peoples, but this spatial term is notably missing from the Hebrew text of Ben Sira (1987: 503-504). 

[12] If with Hayward we accept the preceding verses as someone’s authentic view, Simon’s beauty is set in parallel with that of Adam, which is “above every living thing” (49.16)—ultimate indeed (1996: 45).

[13] Translating v. 15 with Skehan and DiLella (1987: 523), based on the Greek; the Hebrew does not make sense.  Verse 16 is found only in Greek.

[14] See Camp (2000: 184-85) for an analysis of the shift from seed to word in relation to Solomon already at work in the Hebrew Bible.

[15] In the narratives of Leviticus and Numbers, of course, Aaron has four sons, which complicates the matter of the covenantal lineage considerably.  Does Ben Sira not know the whole of this tradition, or has he streamlined it to suit his linear purposes?

[16] Many scholars have noted a new level of autobiographical reference by Ben Sira that shows a greater awareness of himself as author.  Ben Sira’s authorial self-consciousness, as it relates to the text-person-temple nexus I’ve tried to develop in this paper, deserves a treatment of its own.

[17]   For a detailed analysis of the relationship of sexuality and shame in Sirach, see Camp 1991.

[18] On the displacement of the female figure by the similarly-imaged male, see Camp 1997.

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