Tobit is our first stop in my apocrypha series (see Introduction). The story of Tobit is fascinating and deals heavily with themes that only develop in later Judaism. The scholarly consensus is that Tobit was written around 200 BCE. But the setting of the narrative is sometime between 700 and 600 BCE in ancient Nineveh, Assyria. By modern standards I find this fascinating. As a piece of literary genre it’s as if the author of Tobit thought to himself, “Everybody and their cousin has written about life in the Babylonian exile for Jews. I think I’m going to be original and write about life in exile in ancient Assyria for the ten tribes of Israel.”
Tobit is a narrative of a family from the tribe of Naphtali. In Sum: Tobit, the father of the family, is a very pious Israelite living in exile in Nineveh. He goes blind when some birds poop in his eyeballs. Tobit sends his son to Rages of Media to collect some much-needed money from someone Tobit invested with. But his son, Tobias, doesn’t know the way so he seeks out a guide who happens to be the angel Raphael, “one of the seven angels who stand ready and enter before the Lord of glory” (12:15) we find out later.
But the angel keeps his true identity a secret and instead, he lies to Tobit, “I am Azariah… one of your relatives.” That seems to be good enough for Tobit who agrees to send the two on the journey. But “Azariah” (aka Raphael) has a secret mission of the cupid-nature of things. When they arrive in Media Raphael sets Tobias up with Sarah, a close kinswoman. Now the thing about Sarah is that she’s been married seven times and on each occasion, as her husband entered her bed chamber to consummate the marriage a demon kills him, effectively making her a virgin widowed seven times. But Raphael tells Tobias that he has nothing to worry about. After all, he did save the liver and heart he cut out of a fish that tried to eat his foot. According to the narrative demons are revolted by the aroma of fish liver and heart, especially when mixed with incense (for the record, so am I).
“The odor of the fish so repelled the demon that he fled to the remotest parts of Egypt.” (8:3)
I’d imagine the odor didn’t do much to foster a romantic atmosphere in the bed chamber of Tobias and Sarah’s honeymoon night either. Anyways. Raphael follows the demon to Egypt and binds him there.
After the wedding celebration Tobias and his new bride Sarah as well as Raphael and a whole bunch of wedding gifts in the form of money and goats, return to Tobit back in Nineveh (after collecting the money owed to Tobit of course, not forgetting their original mission). When they arrive back home Tobias takes the “gall” from that same dead, carved up fish (that they’ve carried around for like a month) and rubs it into Tobit’s eyes, restoring his sight.
The narrative ends with Tobit telling Tobias to flee to Media as soon as Tobit and Anna (Tobias’ mom) are dead because, in prophetic fashion, he warns that Assyria will be taken over by Babylon who will also take over Judah, destroying the Temple and Jerusalem. And this is followed by predictions of the end of the exile and restoration.
Tobit was not written in a bubble. Neither did it’s author think his own thoughts in a bubble. Rather I believe we can say with confidence that most of the themes and ideas explored in Tobit reflect convictions held by the community of the author. I also think it would be safe to say that Tobit reflects ideas shared by at least some percentage of post-exilic Jews. That said, here are some of the things that stand out.
1. Tithes, not “Tithe”
I’ve written before about how Christians today misunderstand “the Tithes” in the Bible. That, basically, there were not a single tithe in scripture. Nowhere in scripture are God’s people instructed to give 10% “tithe” (singular). Rather there were three Tithes commanded in the Old Testament. Tobit clearly reflects this fact as a major theme in the book is Tobit’s strict adherence to the laws of Moses.
“I would hurry off to Jerusalem with the first fruits of the crops… the tithes of the cattle… I would give these to the priests… I would save up a second tenth in money and go distribute it in Jerusalem… A third tithe I would give to the orphans and widows… in the third year.” (1:6-8)
2. Demonology and Angelology
It seems Tobit talks more about demons and angels in its 14 chapters than the entire Old Testament combined. Well, actually, there’s only one angel who plays a significant role. But Raphael is mentioned in connection to “seven” other angels who have a special place in the presence of the Lord. But more significantly is the number of demonic references including explicit references to “routing demons” with particular interest in how one particular demon flees not to some nether-world, but to another nation (Egypt) where it is pursued and “bound” my the angel Raphael. What we may be witnessing here is a process of thinking about demons among the Jews that is moving from Daniel (where demonic beings are mentioned in special connection to nations and engage in battles with angels) to Jesus (where demonic manifestations and afflictions take place and demons are routed).
I find the method for routing demons in Tobit rather peculiar:
“As for the fish’s heart and liver, you must burn them to make a smoke in the presence of a man or woman afflicted by a demon or evil spirit, and every affliction will flee away and never remain with that person any longer.” (6:8)
3. Adam and Eve lived
In Tobit a reference is made to Adam and Eve as historical figures. In Tobias’s prayer with Sarah after they are married we read:
“You made Adam, and for him you made his wife Eve as a helper and support. From the two of them the human race has sprung.” (8:6)
4. A continued exile
Perhaps most significant for me is the reference in Tobit to the ongoing exile that the author (and, it seems, his audience) believed they were living in.
While the narrative of Tobit takes place around 700 BCE, the author of Tobit lived around 200 BCE and many of the themes in Tobit (obsession with purity and marriage within the ancient lines and so forth) clearly reflect the concerns of Jews living in a post-Babylonian exile era. Near the end of the book Tobit plays the disingenuous prophet (since it’s written after the fact). He “predicts” the fall of Assyria to Babylon and the captivity of Judah as well as the return of the Jews from exile and the rebuilding of the Temple and Jerusalem. But, according to Tobit, this rebuilt Temple is not “the” rebuilt Temple and the return from exile does not mean that “the” Exile had ended at all:
“They will rebuild the temple of God, but not like the first one until the period when the times of fulfillment shall come. After this they all will return from their exile.” (14:5)
The conviction of many Jews living during the second century before Christ was that the exile was continuing and that the return from Babylon and rebuilding of the Temple did not at all signal the end of the exile. It seems the exile was to end, in the Jewish mind, when the “times of fulfillment shall come.” Presumably “just as the prophet’s of Israel have said concerning it,” i.e. the Messiah.
If you’ve read Tobit I welcome your thoughts in the comment box below. Next week we’ll be looking at Judith.