My Understanding of Tobit

Is this Book of Tobit a canonical or non-canonical text? It certainly is an interesting and exotic story. It is often referred to as deutero-canonical or apocryphal book which means that it was not included in the Jewish canonical Tanakh.  Although not part of the English King James Protestant canon, it was part of the Greek Jewish Bible, the Septuagint, and the Jerome Latin Vulgate. Thus it remains in this place in the Roman Catholic Bible, like here in the Jerusalem Bible. In the New Oxford Bible, it is the first apocryphal book. As I am following the structure of the Jerusalem Bible, I have included it here.

Tobit is like a historical romance of a Diaspora Jew, much like the Book of Ruth. Tobit himself is a little like Job, as he does good things, but is not rewarded for it. Tobit is entertaining with a combination of the story about burying dead people and the folklore tale about a monster demon in the bridal chamber. However, this inspirational story does have a strong moral and biblical base with its insistence on the value of the prophets and the Law of Moses. Tobit was trying to be an observant Jew. This was the story of a few common people who are not heroes.

The story in the Book of Tobit is set in the 8th century BCE. Traditionally it was thought to have been written at that time, based on the first person usage of “I”. However, a number of historical errors rule out contemporaneous authorship. There is no scholarly consensus on the place of composition. Almost every region of the ancient world seems to be a candidate. It could have been in Assyria and Persia because of the Persian demons. There are also arguments in favor of a Palestinian or Egyptian composition. The date of this work is anywhere from the third to first century BCE, with the best guess between 225-175 BCE, based on some findings at Qumran. The original language of the composition isn’t clear. The book was possibly originally written in one of the forms of the common Aramaic language since Jerome described his version for the Vulgate as being made from an Aramaic text. Fragmentary texts in both Aramaic and Hebrew were found at Qumran, but the text here is a Greek text.

This book is also closely related to Jewish wisdom literature. It emphasizes the strong role of good angels, particularly Raphael, and evil spirits, especially Asmodeus. This book’s praise for the purity of marriage has led to it being often read during weddings rituals. Tobit has a strong emphasis on intercessory prayers, the intervention and protection of angels, almsgiving, fasting, filial piety, and reverence for the dead.

Tobit is the story of an Israelite man from the Naphtali tribe, living in Nineveh, after his deportation from the northern tribes of Israel to Assyria in 721 BCE under Sargon II. The first two and a half chapters are written in the first person singular as he recounts his activities. Tobit was raised by his paternal grandmother Deborah as he remained loyal to the worship of Yahweh at the Temple in Jerusalem. Unlike many of his neighbors in Naphtali, who joined in the cult of the golden calf at Dan in northern Israel, he was righteous and worshiped in Jerusalem.

Tobit would not eat the Gentile food while in exile, even though other exiles did. He did many acts of charity in Nineveh. He was particularly noted for his diligence in attempting to provide proper burials for the fallen Israelites who had been killed by King Sennacherib of Assyria.  Finally, the Assyrian king seized all his property and exiled him from Nineveh. After King Sennacherib’s death, he was allowed to return to Nineveh.

Tobit then buried a man who had been murdered on the street. People mocked him for doing what he had been sent into exile for doing. That night, he slept in the open area around the wall. There he was blinded by swallow bird droppings that fell in his eyes. His blindness put a strain on his marriage as he and his wife argued over whether a goat was a gift or stolen. Ultimately, he prayed for death.

Meanwhile, in the faraway capital of Media, Ecbatana, a young woman named Sarah also in despair, prayed for her death. She had lost seven husbands to the Persian demon of lust, Asmodeus. This demon killed every man that Sarah married on their wedding night before the marriage could be consummated. Somehow the angel Raphael heard both of these prayers. He then will disguise himself as a human called Azariah and help both Tobit and Sarah.

The main narrative after this is dedicated to Tobit’s son, Tobias. Tobit prepared himself for death. He gave a series of admonitions to his son, about being a righteous person through almsgiving and not marrying with strangers. He warned his son against pride, idleness, injustice, and drunkenness. He should seek charity and good advice from men and God.

Then Tobit explained about some money in Media that he had left with a man named Gabael in Ragas, Media. Tobias, his son, was confused about why he was being sent to collect this money. Tobit wanted his son to find a good companion to lead him there and back. Tobias went to find someone. Then the angel Raphael represented himself as Tobit’s kinsman Azariah. He offered to aid and protect Tobias on his journey. After a meeting with Tobit, he agreed to hire Azariah or Raphael. Tobit gave them a blessing with a sad farewell.

Under the guidance of the angel Raphael, Tobias made the journey to Media, accompanied by his dog. The first night, while washing his feet in the Tigris River, Tobias was attacked by a fish that tried to swallow his foot. The angel Raphael told Tobias to capture the fish. Then he told him to remove the heart, liver and gall bladder in order to make medicine. Tobias was again reluctant. Raphael told him he had a plan for him.

Upon arriving in Media, Raphael told Tobias about the beautiful Sarah who was having trouble keeping a husband. Tobias had the right to marry her because he was her cousin and closest relative, which is reminiscent of Ruth.  They then arrived at the house of Raguel, the father of Sarah. After some discussion between Raphael, Tobias, and Raguel, Raguel agreed to let Tobias marry his daughter. They signed a marriage contract between the father of Sarah and Tobias, not the bride and groom. As Edna the mother of the bride prepared the bridal chamber she comforted her daughter. Meanwhile Raphael instructed Tobias to burn the fish’s liver and heart in order to drive away the demon that had attacked the seven other grooms of Sarah on their wedding nights. Tobias then put the fumes of the burning fish organs in the bridal chamber. This smell drove the demon away to Egypt where the angel Raphael followed him and bound him up. Then Sarah and Tobias prayed on their wedding night.

Meanwhile, Sarah’s father had been digging a grave to secretly bury Tobias, who he assumed would be dead like the seven other previous husbands of Sarah. Surprised to find his son-in-law alive and well, he ordered a double-length wedding feast. Then he had the grave secretly filled. Since he could not leave because of the feast, Tobias sent Raphael to recover his father’s money from Gabael. All went well there, but Tobit and Anna were worried about their son. Tobias wanted to go back home to his father Tobit. Finally after the blessing of Raguel and Edna, Tobias and Sarah return to Nineveh.

Tobias’ mother Anna was very happy to see her son alive, since she thought that he had died. There, the angel Raphael told Tobias to use the fish’s gall bladder to cure his father’s blindness. Then Tobit praised God for the healing of his eyes. Tobias then told his father the whole story of his successful journey. Finally Tobit met and blessed his daughter-in-law.

Tobias and Tobit discussed how much they should pay Raphael. Then Raphael revealed his true identity. He returned to heaven after a prayer about the importance of almsgiving. Tobit and Tobias were afraid when they found out that Raphael was an angel of God.

Tobit sang a hymn or canticle of praise, for all the Israelite exiles. He prayed about the importance of Jerusalem and how it would be the light of the world. He hoped that all would return there.

Tobit told his son to leave Nineveh and go to Ecbatana after the death of him and his wife. God was going to destroy Nineveh because of its evil ways. The prophet Naham had predicted its demise. After the prayer, Tobit died at an advanced age. When Tobias buried his father and mother, he returned to Ecbatana with his seven children, where he took care of and buried the parents of Sarah, his wife. He lived long enough to see King Cyrus invade Nineveh and take over as ruler. The Persians had defeated the Assyrians and Babylonians. So the tale of Tobit, his son Tobias, his wife Sarah and their families ended happily with a long life for both Tobit and Tobias.




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