Monday, September 17, 2007

Tobit on a First Reading

I've never read Tobit. Before now, that is. It's a story of a man Tobit (Heb. good), his wife Anna and son Tobias who live in the diaspora in Nineveh. Internal evidence suggests a date of writing around 200BC. Copies of the Book of Tobit were found amongst the manuscripts at Qumran, indicating their extant nature during the time of Christ. In the tale, Tobit is an observant and wealthy Jew who falls into trouble when he is persecuted for his good deeds and has to flee. However, God sends an angel to resolve his troubles and to bring him blessing again through the marriage of Tobias to Sarah, the daughter of his relatives Raguel and Edna. Here are some of my initial reactions:
  • When Tobit returns home after the threat to him has passed, he is blinded by sparrows pooing in his eyes (2:10). Interesting! Not quite Job, is it!
  • 'Set aside part of your goods for almsgiving. Never turn your face from the poor and God will never turn his from you. Measure your alms by what you have; if you have much, give more; if you have little, do not be afraid to give less in alms. So doing, you will lay up for yourself a great treasure for the day of necessity (4:7ff)'. What is the 'day of necessity' and how does this compare with Jesus' teaching of laying up treasure in heaven? In many aspects, the tale is an interesting insight into Second Temple Jewish piety.
  • The angel Raphael (who is one of seven archangels) reminds me of the gods in Homer: he disguises himself as a man and tells a blatant lie about who he is (The angel said 'I am Azarius, son of the great Ananias, one of your kinsmen', 5:13). The role of the angel and demon here are prominent. Apparently it is the same in the Enoch literature and is a feature of intertestamental Jewish writings.
  • When the demon (who lusts after Sarah and who has killed seven previous bridegrooms on their wedding night) flees, he flees to Egypt (8:3), where Raphael shackles him and strangles him.
  • Raguel digs a grave while Tobias and Sarah are in the bedroom on their wedding night! He sends Edna up to see if Tobias is dead - and then quickly fills in the grave before dawn when he isn't! There's a fair bit of comedy in this tale!
  • Tobias goes into a far country to seek reward. When he is delayed, his parents Tobit and Anna think he is dead. When he returns, he is in fact rich, married to the daughter of a kinsmen (who he has saved from a demon), and heals his father's blindness. Would the Parable of the Lost Son have evoked this tale? If so, the contrasting fortunes of the son would be powerful: not a son through whom everything is put right (Tobias), but a son who has become nothing.
  • Tobit's hope for the restoration of Israel is in the restoration of the Temple (13:10) and the consequent comfort for every exile (13:10), light to the world and worship of many nations (13:11). This sheds light on Second Temple eschatology and on the reaction of the Jews to Christ's indictment of the Temple.
A ripping non-canonical Jewish yarn, and a useful insight into Jewish life and culture, all told!