An little noticed reference to speculation on Adam and the Merkabah in Ben Sira

I am finishing up a detour in my research schedule. Work on a small book on John 5 (forthcoming later this year) has forced me to revisit Ben Sira 50, my favourite Jewish text outside Hebrew Bible. Reading through Otto Mulder’s rich and detailed treatment of the chapter (O. Mulder, Simon the High Priest in Sirach 50: An Exegetical Study of the Significance of Simon the High Priest as Climax to the Praise of the Fathers in Ben Sira’s Concept of the History of Israel, Leiden: Brill, 2003) I noticed for the first time the importance of an odd expression in the Hebrew text at 50:27.

In 50:27 the author sums up all that has gone before with the words:

Instruction concerning insight and the mastery/ruler of the wheels (מושל אופנים),
by Simon, ben Joshua, ben Eleazar, ben Sira,
Who pours forth in pure elucidation,
Who makes to effervesce with understanding.

What does the mysterious expression “mastery/ruler of the wheels” (מושל אופנים) mean?

Mulder argues convincingly that it must have something to do with Ezekiel’s chariot vision, that includes repeated references to the wheels of God’s throne (Ezek 1:15–16, 19–21, cf. Ezek 3:13; 10:6, 9–10, 12–13, 16, 19; 11:22). But why the reference to a “ruler” or “mastery” (מושל)? In Ezekiel 1 the one who sits, ruler-like, on the wheeled chariot is God, or rather “the appearance of the likeness of the Glory of the LORD” (1:26–28); mysteriously shrouded in light, something like fire and all the colours of the rainbow. But he is not referred to as “ruler” in that text.

I am not yet entirely certain how to explain the expression מושל אופנים here. But several observations point towards a remarkable conclusion.

1. Three times already in the foregoing section Ben Sira has referred to, or used the language of, Ezekiel’s throne vision:

49:6 “Ezekiel saw a vision and told of the different features of the chariot (זני מרכבה)”.

This refers to the whole description of the throne of God in Ezek 1:4–25. Then we have Ben Sira 4916b:

“And above/over all the living creatures (כל חי) (is/was) the beauty of a man/of Adam (תפארת אדם).”

This echoes Ezek 1:26:

“And from above the dome which was over (עַל) their heads (the living creatures’) something like lapis lazuli, the likeness of a throne and upon (עַל) the likeness of the throne a likeness as an appearance of a man (דְּמוּת כְּמַרְאֵה אָדָם) upon it (עָלָיו) (above it).”

Then we have Ben Sira 50:7b where, when Simon the high priest comes forth from the sanctuary in heavenly splendour he is

“as a bow appearing in the cloud (כקשת נראתה בענן)”.

This echoes the climax of Ezekiel’s call vision where it says, in Ezek 1:28,

“as the appearance of of the bow in a cloud on a day of rain (כְּמַרְאֵה הַקֶּשֶׁת אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בֶעָנָן בְּיוֹם הַגֶּשֶׁם) such was the appearance of the splendour all around. This was appearance the likeness of the Glory the Lord (כְּבוֹד־יְהוָה)”

The niphal form of the verb “to see” (נראתה) in Ben Sira 50:7b picks up descriptions of the glory of the Lord appearing in Exod 16:10; Num 17:7; Isa 60:1–3.

2. In Ben Sira 49:16 the historical figure Adam is allusively identified with the man-like figure (דְּמוּת כְּמַרְאֵה אָדָם) that Ezekiel sees on the throne in his vision.

3. In Ben Sira 50:7 it is the high priest who is allusively identified with the Glory of God (who appears in human-like form) in Ezekiel’s vision.

4. Whilst these verses of Ben Sira allude or refer to Ezek 1 and its vision of a human-like divine form on the throne, other parts of the text demonstrate an interest in Ps 8 and its praise of a humanity which, though weak and insignificant, is exalted over all creation. The language of Ps 8 runs through the whole of the chapter in its Hebrew original (see my annotated translation of Hebrew of Sira 50).

The Psalm 8 allusions are also applied, in a way that is similar to the Ezekiel 1 allusions, to both Adam (in 49:16a–b) and to the high priest (see esp. vv. 11–13). The combination of Ezekiel 1 and Psalm 8 in the poetic praise of Adam and Simon at the climax of Ben Sira’s wisdom book then presents an explanation of the mysterious phrase מושל אופנים in 50:27a. The verb משל “to rule” is used for humanity’s position of authority in creation in Ps 8:

4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  5 Yet you have made them a little lower than the angels, and crowned them with glory and honour. 6 You have given them rule (תַּמְשִׁילֵהוּ) over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.

Ben Sira’s instruction in the “rule” or “mastery” of the wheels must have something to do with a vision of humanity exalted to position equivalent to, or identical with, the position of the human-like Glory of God that Ezekiel saw. That vision, says Ben Sira 50, is available in the liturgy of the temple. It is available, above all, in the ministry of the high priest. In that ministry there is the human-like Glory of God which Ezekiel saw. He is the one who shows us what it means to be given rule over all the works of God’s hands. He is the one who has a “mastery of the wheels of the divine chariot”.

In his own way, Ben Sira was a merkabah mystic, who provided his disciples an interpretation of Ezekiel 1.

And his remarkable poem in praise of Simon the high priest is surely of inestimable importance for any account of the earliest beliefs about Jesus who was also seen, in his own way, as the fulfilment of the vision for humanity in Psalm 8 (1 Cor 15:27; Eph 1:22; Phil 3:20–21; Heb 1–2).

Leave a Reply