Journey Through the Deuteroncanonicals: Tobit

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Introduction

This is part of a series I am writing on my first reading of the Deuterocanonical books of the Bible. As I said in the initial post, Catholic Bible includes those books and writings that are usually removed in Protestant Bibles (helpful comparison chart), and I figured it was about time to start reading them. I am recording my initial thoughts here (you can follow along at Apocrypha.org if you do not have your own copy).

“Tobit” means “my good” in Greek or “God is good” following the Hebrew “Tobias” (not to be confused with Tobit’s son Tobiah or his father Tobiel). The book is listed in the earliest biblical canons of such councils as the Hippo (393 AD), Carthage (397 AD), Florence (1442), and finalized at Trent (1546). is It is included in Codex Sinaiticus, and copies of the Hebrew text were discovered in Qumran among the Dead Sea Scrolls. These copies have been dated to between 100 BC and  25 AD, and are in agreement with the Greek texts used by the Church for 2,000 years.

 

Outline and Summary

  1. Tobit’s Pious Biography
  2. Tobit’s Blindness
  3. Tobit and Sarah Pray for Death
  4. Tobit’s Wise Admonitions to Tobias
  5. Tobit Sends Tobias with Raphael
  6. Tobias and the Fish
  7. Tobias and Sarah Marry
  8. Asmodeus Bound, Tobias and Sarah Safe
  9. Raphael Retreives Tobit’s Money
  10. Tobias and Sarah Sent Back to Nineveh
  11. Tobit Healed
  12. Raphael Reveals His Identity
  13. Tobit’s Prayer of Rejoicing
  14. Tobit’s Prophecy and Final Blessings

Tobit is the story of a righteous Israelite living in Nineveh after his tribe (Naphtali) was deported to Assyria in 721 BC. Tobit reports that he alone remained loyal to the worship of God at the temple in Jerusalem, instead of joining in the Baal cult like the rest of his tribe. he also performed numerous acts of charity, including proper burial of the Israelite dead. Because of these things, he was blessed by God and lived well. One night, however, he falls asleep and is blinded after bird droppings fall into his eyes. Tobit believes his sufferings to be the result of God’s judgment against him and his people, and he eventually prays for his death. At the same time, in Media, a woman names Sarah has done likewise due to her loss of seven husbands to the demon Asmodeus who kills every man she marries on their wedding night before it can be consummated. God hears both their prayers and sends the angel Raphael to them (disguised as a human named Azarias) to “scale away the white films of Tobit’s eyes; to give Sarah the daughter of Raguel in marriage to Tobias the son of Tobit, and to bind Asmodeus the evil demon.”

At this time, Tobit blesses his son Tobias with reminders to be faithful to God, help the upright poor, and marry a woman from his own people. Tobit also remembers some money he left with a friend in Media and sends his son Tobias (with Raphael to retrieve it before he dies. When they reach the Tigris river, Tobias is attacked by a fish and Raphael tells him to capture, gut, and eat it – also to keep the guts for medicinal purposes. When they arrive in Media, Raphael suggests that Tobias marry Sarah. Fearing that Asmodeus (who is in love with Sarah) will kill him too, Tobias demures, but raphael assures him that it is his father’s will and that if he sets fire to some of the fish guts, the smoke will drive the demon away. Tobias and Sarah marry, and when Asmodeus flees as promised, he is bound by Raphael in Egypt. Raphael retrieves Tobit’s money while the marriage feast continues, and when it is finally over, Tobias and Sarah are allowed to return to Nineveh.

When they arrive, Tobias sprinkles the remaining fish guts on Tobit’s eyes. When Tobit rubs them, the scales which had blinded him fall away and his sight returns. Tobit rejoices with a beautiful prayer. At the end of his life, Tobit blesses his children and grandchildren with words of wisdom and an interesting prophecy about the rebuilt temple. With that, Tobit dies at the age of 158. He is buried, and later his wife Anna with him. Tobias returns to Media and eventually buries in in-laws as well. As predicted, Nineveh falls. Tobias lives ot be 127 years old, and dies with a fine inheritance left over for his family.

Content Comments

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Tobit’s story takes place during an interesting time of prophetic fulfillment and contains some of its own. Much of the wisdom it communicates is reminiscent of the book of Job: despite temporal circumstances, righteousness is ultimately rewarded, and wickedness punished. It also contains numerous proverbial commands concerning the law, treatment of parents, purity of marriage, reverence for the dead, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Tobit repeatedly encourages almsgiving as a pious act of charity (e.g., Tob. 4:7-11 and 12:8-10). We see the same in the teachings of Jesus Christ and his apostles. As in the New Testament (e.g., James , these sorts of acts flow from and contribute to one’s righteousness (e.g., Mt. 6:1–18; 25:35; Luke 11:41, 12:33, 18:22; 2 Cor. 9:6-7; Gal. 2:10; 1 Tim. 6:18; 1 Jn. 3:17; etc.). Thus, although listed with the history books, it seems that Tobit could very well be classified as a wisdom book.

The book of Tobit has occasionally been identified as being in the literary form of religious novel (much like Esther or Judith). Although it has sometimes been considered to be partially fictional (in the same way that Jesus’ proverbs are), Tobit was taken to be historical by Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Athanasius, Cyprian, Ephrem, Ambrose, Augustine, and Aquinas. Despite its solid historical pedigree, however, Tobit is often attacked for its historical errors (much like other biblical books are attacked by skeptics today). Further, Tobit’s manuscript history is messy. These alleged historical errors seem to have been caused by (and can be explained by) Tobit’s multiple manuscript versions and scribal inconsistency. For example, it is claimed that Tobit is in error when it lists Sennacherib as Shalmaneser’s son when he was really the son of Sargon II (Tob. 1:15). However, as often happens in ancient records, this is probably due to lacking and confusing historical records. Tobit also records that, “two of Sennacherib’s sons killed him, and they fled to the mountains of Ararat. Then Esarhaddon, his son, reigned in his place” (Tob. 1:21). Recent findings indicate that the histories this alleged error have been based upon may themselves be mistaken in their identification of these kings (viz., Sennacherib and Sargon II were the same person). Another possibility is that Sargon II was not a proper king (a similar confusion caused skeptics to question Daniel’s writings for quite some time).

Several verses in Tobit repeat Old Testament Scripture, such as First and Second Kings, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and many others. Tobit also seems to follow a typological Gospel narrative: a father sending his only son out into the world to retrieve an inheritance and redeem a bride from satanic attack resulting in a wedding feast (with lamb!) and an empty tomb. Elements of Tobit are found elsewhere in the New Testament such as the death of seven husbands to the same wife (Mk. 12:20–23), the “golden rule” (Mt. 7:12 cf. Tob. 4:15). There are also eschatological predictions reminiscent of the book of Revelation (esp. the ends of ch.s 12 and 13). John speaks of the seven spirits in the throne room of God (1:4) and Raphael reveals to Tobit he is “one of the seven holy angels who report the prayers of the saints and who enter before the glory of the Holy One” (12:15 cf. Rev. 8:3–4). New Jerusalem is also described in similar terms (Rev. 21:19 cf. Tob. 13:16–17).

Conclusion

I enjoyed Tobit immensely. It reads like a story told around the campfire rather than a laborious epic (don’t let its 14 chapters scare you – they’re short, and the book is an easy one-sitting read). Tobit is a value-packed book. Whether you are in the mood for wisdom, prophecy, adventure, angelic warfare, or beautiful prayer, Tobit provides. Its overall message is also one of encouragement for any who suffer for righteousness sake (Cf. Mt. 5:10 and 1 pet. 3:14):

“Blessed is God who lives for ever, and blessed is his kingdom.
For he afflicts, and he shows mercy;
he leads down to Hades, and brings up again,
and there is no one who can escape his hand.” (Tob. 13:1-2)

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