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.

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.

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