Category Archives: Tobit

Bible and Country Music – Tobit and “The Long Black Veil”

This doesn’t really apply to the entire book, but the ability of the person to see and know what it happening above his grave serves as the connection.

Plus, I really like the song.

Deuterocanonical and Cognate Yearbook 2009 Interaction – Tobit’s Narration

Just working through the Deuterocanonical and Cognate Yearbook 2009 by interacting with a few of the articles.

Death and Burial in the Tobit Narration in the Context of the Old Testament Tradition – Beate Ego

I don’t fully agree with Ego’s understanding of Tobit 3.10, in which Sara is said to keep from committing suicide in order to keep from father from coming to sorrow in Hades (καὶ κατάξω τὸ γῆρας τοῦ πατρός μου μετὰ λύπης εἰς ᾅδου  (Tob 3:10 BGT)). Much like the use of Hades in 13.2, it is a poetic device representing the separation from God. Or, we might have a universalist bent in Tobit. I prefer the first option, and in doing so, find that Ego’s understand of Tobit’s use of Hades in Sara’s speech is mistaken. Hades, at least for Tobit, is a poetic device used to symbolize death, destruction, and separation from God. She doesn’t see Tobit’s statement in 4.10, that alms delivers from death, as a statement on the afterlife.

She does highlight the phrase ἔκχεον τοὺς ἄρτους σου ἐπὶ τὸν τάφον τῶν δικαίων (Tobit 4:17) connecting it to several other Deuterocanonical passages. If Ego is correct, it is interesting then what this might represent as regards to Palestinian beliefs during this time. Further, the use of a ritual which must be called magic is theologically entertaining.

This article presents an interesting development in my understanding of Tobit and his community in several ways. First, they are extremely family oriented, alms focused, and bound in tradition. Further, the author of Tobit either knows other authors of the time, such as Sirach and Baruch, or is in the middle of the same sect. Burying the dead takes on a socio-religious motivation and should refocus study on the purification rituals in the Torah and how they might be applied to the understanding of the after-life among the ancient Hebrews.

State of the (Living) Dead in Tobit 5.10

Tobit’s community is not doubt a mixed one, filled with no hope for the afterlife but entertaining the thoughts of angels; yet, Tobit shares a view of the dead’s state which is perplexing, or perhaps, merely poetic. For Tobit, a person dies and goes “to the eternal place” (3.6), to Sheol (3.10), ‘into the darkness’ (4.10; 14.10) or lie ‘in darkness’ (5.10).  It is the description that Tobit gives in 5.10 that is the most interesting.

Then Tobias went out and called him, and said, “Young man, my father is calling for you.” So he went in to him, and Tobit greeted him first. He replied, “Joyous greetings to you!” But Tobit retorted, “What joy is left for me any more? I am a man without eyesight; I cannot see the light of heaven, but I lie in darkness like the dead who no longer see the light. Although still alive, I am among the dead. I hear people but I cannot see them.” But the young man said, “Take courage; the time is near for God to heal you; take courage.” Then Tobit said to him, “My son Tobias wishes to go to Media. Can you accompany him and guide him? I will pay your wages, brother.” He answered, “I can go with him and I know all the roads, for I have often gone to Media and have crossed all its plains, and I am familiar with its mountains and all of its roads.” (Tob 5:10 NRS)

He compares his present condition, brought on by doing only good deeds, to that of the dead. We must remember that Tobit made a point of burying the dead which eventually caused him to lose his position in the empire (1.16-22). His focus was on the dead, so when we hear his depiction of the dead as being virtually alive, at least consciously, we should take note.

We also find, contrary to the Sadduccean dogma, Christ speaking of the dead in a state, knowing of the (metaphysically) life above them and able to feel pain.

“The rich man shouted, ‘Father Abraham, have some pity! Send Lazarus over here to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue. I am in anguish in these flames.’ (Luke 16:24 NLT)

“Then the rich man said, ‘Please, Father Abraham, at least send him to my father’s home. For I have five brothers, and I want him to warn them so they don’t end up in this place of torment.’ (Luke 16:27-28 NLT)

Both descriptions portray the dead as knowing what is going around them. For Tobit, then, burying the dead was a righteous act, so that they wouldn’t be bothered as they lay decaying under the sun. For Christ, it becomes a parabolic tool to highlight the coming Resurrection[1].


[1] For a fuller treatment on the dead in Tobit, see Beate Ego, Death and Burial in the Tobit Narration in the Context of the Old Testament Tradition, Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature, Yearbook 2009.

Tobit’s Story Expressed in Art

I’ve been reading through Tobit for a while now, and came across some artwork relating to the story. Some of the best were by an artist named Rembrandt:

That’s right, a goat. Read the book to find out why.

I didn’t know that 4th-2nd century bc(e) looked like medieval Europe and angels were all really just big cupids with more clothes. Like Wisdom, Tobit provided inspiration for great European artists along side that of other canonical stories. You can find more here:

Tobit, Anna and Tobias – Olga’s Gallery.

Tobit 4:14 and Matthew 20.1-16 – Get Paid for Working for God

If we take Bauckham’s position that Tobit is a parable to the Northern Tribes in exile, then we can understand the use of parabolic language which also finds its way into the New Testament thought-world. As I wrote previously, I find that there is a slight connection between the author of Tobit and his parables and the parables of Christ in the Gospels. This is another example of that thread of connection.

This is not to say that Tobit is any more inspired than the next novella but it does provide insight into the religious and social expectations of the Northern Tribes as they find themselves faced with exclusion of the Jerusalem Temple, in poverty, and contemplating extinction as a people. (Note that Tobit was blind, poor, and that Sarah was about to leave her bloodline without an heir).  I was recently asked if I accepted or believed this book, which is a bit of a loaded question. I accept that people do believe this book and I do hold some value for this book, as I believe that some of the thoughts, the traces of inspiration if you will, made it into the New Testament. (More on that later)

In the first recension of the Greek text, a majority of Tobit’s speech to his son is missing (verses 7-18), but in the second recension, we find what amounts to an apocryphal set of beatitudes, which is set in a scene between a father who is sending his only son into the world to redeem a special and chosen bride. Tobit is a story of redemption, first of Tobit and then of Sarah, ending with an eschatological, but temporal, hope in a rebuilt (a new?) Jerusalem. (Sound familiar?)

In this portion of Tobit’s speech to his son Tobias, there is a string which weaves itself into the word of Christ in Matthew 20.1-16, the parable of the workers in the vineyard:

“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work.

“At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. So they went to work in the vineyard.

At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing. ”

At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’

“They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’

“The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’ “That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage.

When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’

“He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’

“So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.” (Mat 20:1-16 NLT)

In my previous career as a community organizer, I worked with a nuclear physicist who decided to trade in his comfortable life to fight for the rights of workers. I admired him for that and worked him well, until he stepped into my territory and tried to interpret this passage with the Owner of the Vineyard as an evil taskmaster. My summer interns, a Methodist and a Catholic, destroyed his interpretation and I helped to prod them along, of course.

Compare the thought in Matthew to the words of Tobit:

“Do not keep over until the next day the wages of those who work for you, but pay them at once. If you serve God you will receive payment. (Tob 4:14 NRSV)

Pay your workers each day and don’t make them wait until the next day to receive their wages. If you serve God you will be rewarded.  (Tobit 4:14 NLT-CRE)

Granted, it is only a thread, but I think that we can find something in the parables of Christ which connects them not just to the tribes which weren’t exiled, but also the hopes and aspirations of the ‘Lost’ Northern Tribes (Is anything Lost to God?). Both stress justice, Tobit is temporal, Christ is eternal, but both use the workers and wages as a symbol of God’s reward to the faithful.

Tobit 2.1-2 – New Testament Banquets for the Righteous

Then during the reign of Esar-haddon I returned home, and my wife Anna and my son Tobias were restored to me. At our festival of Pentecost, which is the sacred festival of weeks, a good dinner was prepared for me and I reclined to eat. When the table was set for me and an abundance of food placed before me, I said to my son Tobias, “Go, my child, and bring whatever poor person you may find of our people among the exiles in Nineveh, who is wholeheartedly mindful of God, and he shall eat together with me. I will wait for you, until you come back.” (Tobit 2:1-2 NRSV)

The feast, or banquet, was seen as a status symbol in ancient times, where the wealthy would compassionately invite the poor to feast. Once Tobit had been restored to some sense of financial stability, he returned the favor, part of his almsgiving, and sent his son to invite the poor – but only those who follow God. The casual Christian reader should see the resemblance in the parable being related here; it is the exact same one found in the parables of Jesus Christ. (Matthew 22.1-14; Luke 14.16-24) We also find that John uses the parable of the wedding feast (Revelation 19.6-9) to describe the carnage and destruction at the end of the world. It is no coincidence that the wedding guests in both texts should be seen as the Jews. Unlike Tobit, however, the wedding invitation in the Gospel can be construed to be extended to the Gentiles.

This is not surprising, especially if Richard Bauckham is correct, in that Tobit is a parable written to the Northern (Lost) Tribes. I’ll have more interact with Bauckham’s essay, later, but so far, we find parabolic material in Tobit, which we will later find used in the Gospels.

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.

Tobit 2.3-7 – Fulfilling Prophecy, On Purpose

Tobit 2:3-7, RSV:

But he came back and said, “Father, one of our people has been strangled and thrown into the market place.” So before I tasted anything I sprang up and removed the body to a place of shelter until sunset. And when I returned I washed myself and ate my food in sorrow.

Then I remembered the prophecy of Amos, how he said,

“Your feasts shall be turned into mourning, and all your festivities into lamentation.”

And I wept. When the sun had set I went and dug a grave and buried the body.

While reading Le Donne’s work, my opinions were shaped, somewhat, into examining prophecy as a method more of understanding not the future, but either the recent past or into guiding the present. If we truly examine Matthew’s vision of prophetic fulfillment, we find that he interpreted the actions of Christ by and through interaction with the Old Testament. The Hebrew Scriptures were held up not just as a validator, however, but as the path to validation. In other words, not only were the Scriptures used to explain an event in the life of Matthew’s Jesus, but served as a guide as to what must happen next.

We find the same goal of theologizing the by the author of Tobit, or if we read this uncritically, Tobit himself. Tobit applies Amos 8.10 to himself and just as the ‘words of the prophet’ says to do, he weeps, thus fulfilling the prophecy.