Tobit 1 – Storytelling Conceit and Incarnational Storytelling

In 1952, the Hebrew and Aramaic fragments of the book of Tobit, one of the so-called deuterocanonical books of the Catholics and the East, were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. It has historically developed along three different lines of textual criticism. It purports to tell the first-hand account of a battle with a demon and the restoration of the household order of a Godly Israelite. Historically, it is missing a few details which has forever excluded it from the Protestant Canon, however, if we take the time to examine it more closely, we might find that it has a close proximity to the New Testament than previously thought. It was most likely written in the 2nd century before Christ, relating events six centuries prior, in a community close to that of Sirach (both stress the value of alms) as well as the more apocalyptic communities, as it unusually involves demons and angels. It doesn’t bare much of an eschatological note, except in the final words which bares an affinity to John’s Apocalypse. This is not the only area of connection with the New Testament, however. In Mark 12.20-22, the Sadduccees quiz Christ about a woman who was married seven times. It is possible that they are alluding to this story, especially since this book fits well into the Sadduccee’s view on the afterlife. Tobit’s righteous life is about material gain, although that gain is made at the direction of God and may be accompanied with suffering.

In the first chapter, we are introduced to Tobit, who on the surface is conceited, and describes himself in very flattering terms, unlike previous Hebrew Prophets. As well, unlike previous Hebrew biographical account, this is an autobiography. Tobit the story teller takes this opportunity to spin his tale in light of recognizable Hebrew stories. Easily seen is his incarnational motif, placing himself as Daniel, Joseph and Elijah:

Daniel:

Now when I was carried away captive to Nineveh, all my brethren and my relatives ate the food of the Gentiles; but I kept myself from eating it, because I remembered God with all my heart. Then the Most High gave me favor and good appearance in the sight of Shalmaneser, and I was his buyer of provisions. (Tob 1:10-13 RSV)

Compare this brief statement to Daniel 1.5-16, in which Daniel and the Three Youths were ordered to eat the fine foods (non-kosher) of the Royal Court. Refusing, he begged for the chance to prove that they could eat the Jewish foods and remain healthy and could prove this if given ten days. At the end of those ten days, Daniel was proved right. Tobit refused to eat the food of the Gentiles, keeping instead the Jewish dietary laws. Because of this, his appearance changed and because of God’s favor, was given a high-ranking job, of procurement, for King Shalmanaser.

Joseph:

In Tobit 1.4-22, we read of Tobit’s promotion to the King’s buyer and his subsequent fall from that position when the King’s son came to power, who like the Pharaoh’s of Egypt forgot about what a great man Tobit really was.  Like Joseph, but perhaps far greater than Joseph, he become charitable to his ‘brothers’ which is seen as all the Jews in the Empire instead of a particular clan.

Elijah:

In Tobit 1.3-6 we read that he alone continued to serve God while everyone else revolted and served Baal, much like Elijah in 1st Kings 19.10.

All the tribes that joined in apostasy used to sacrifice to the calf Baal, and so did the house of Naphtali my forefather. But I alone went often to Jerusalem for the feasts, as it is ordained for all Israel by an everlasting decree.  (Tobit 1:5-6 RSV)

Compare it to:

He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1Ki 19:10 RSV)

Tobit does spend come considerable amount of time focused on burying the dead, leaving me to think of the connection between him and the words of Christ in Luke 9,

But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” (Luk 9:60 NASB)

This was the concern of the young man who had come to Christ and it seems that it is the primary concern for Tobit as well. We do know that it was a prime duty for the Jews to bury their dead, so it might be that our humble author is again stating his own self-importance.

At the end of the chapter, Tobit reveals that with the new King came a new possibility that he would be forgiven of his sins of burying the dead. The new King appointed Tobit’s nephew as cup-bearer and the keeper of the royal seal (much like Nehemiah), but in this story, I believe, is an allusion to another tale which finds its way back to the Hebrew bible and Deuterocanon. The name of the nephew who received this honor was Ahikar. This name would not have been unknown to the author of Tobit, as the name was one of an ancient hero-philosopher, in the tradition of King Solomon. The author of Tobit is using a well-known person, which is still considered a matter of scholarly interest, to again propel himself into the reader’s imagination as a hero who has defied kings and who is connected with those who are known to be wise.

Post By Joel Watts (10,072 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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