28 Jun 2011

Tobit: Triumph of Faith in Adversity

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Bible, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, King James Version, Tobit


Tobit is represented as a Jew of Galilee, living in the eighth century B.C. Though his fellow Israelites follow idolatrous practices he maintained his devotion to Yahweh and the temple in Jerusalem. He often went on pilgrimages to observe the festivals of the Torah, taking three-tenths of his income as his tithe (1.1-9). His family, however, is taken into captivity to Nineveh during the reign of Shalmaneser (2 Kings 18.9-11, the date in the story would be around 722 B.C.). Tobit attempts to remain faithful to God even while in exile. He eats only kosher food, takes care of his neighbors, attends to prayer, fasting and burying the dead. This sets up the real plot . . . which involves a son, a girl with a demon, an angel in disguise . . . the elements of a good adventure!

Tobit is simply a wonderful, and edifying, story. The popularity of this book among Jews and Christians through the centuries can be seen by the number of versions that have survived from the ancient world. The book survives abundantly in ancient versions – three Greek versions, two Latin versions, two Syriac editions, four Hebrew, Sahidic, Armenian and is preserved in Ethiopic as well. The book has been discovered in both Hebrew and Aramaic among the Dead Sea Scrolls as well. Early Christians were fond of the story and found considerable worth in it.

Tobit, like the Epistle of Jeremiah, is quite old. As we have seen with previous posts the Dead Sea Scrolls have cast into doubt many previously held notions about Tobit. Tobit was written in either Hebrew or Aramaic (both exist in the DSS) and was probably written no later than 300 B.C. (for questions of language and date see, Carey A. Moore, The Anchor Bible: Tobit, pp. 33-39 and 40-42). One fragment of Tobit, 4Q199, found in the caves of Qumran dates to 100 B.C. (see Moore, p. 38). The other texts of Tobit found at Qumran are known as 4Q196; 4Q197; 4Q198 and 4Q200 {that is 197th text from Cave Four at Qumran, etc).

Martin Luther on Tobit

It is often asserted that Luther had a very low view of the Apocrypha. This is not entirely accurate. It is true that the great Reformer rejected the Apocrypha as far as the canon goes or using the texts for establishing doctrine. However, he did not reject the Apocrypha from Christian use, indeed, he did just the opposite with these books. What did Luther think of Tobit? What follows is from the “Preface to the Book of Tobit.”

“What was said about the book of Judith may also be said about this book of Tobit. If the events really happened, then it is fine and holy history. But if they are all made up, then it is indeed a truly beautiful, wholesome, and useful fiction or drama by a gifted poet. . . Tobit shows how things may go badly with a pious peasant . . . there may be much suffering in married life, yet God always graciously helps and finally crowns the outcome with joy . . . Therefore this book is useful and good for us Christians to read. It is the work of a fine Hebrew author who deals not with trivial but important issues, and whose writing and concerns are extraordinarily Christian.” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 35 pp. 345-347).

Theology In Tobit

Though Tobit is, most likely, unhistorical it is a valuable historical source of Jewish theology and faith in the fourth and third centuries before Jesus. The air of simple goodness and heartfelt devotion which pervades the book reflects the highest aspirations of God’s People. The book touches on virtually every aspect of family life (and does so with a sprinkling of grace). Husband, wife, son, daughter and even the family dog (6.2; 11.4) is thrown in – which I think is a delightful touch.

Tobit reveals a deep doctrine of God. Yahweh is presented as a transcendent God who hears prayers, simultaneously and in vastly distant geographical locations. God’s power and majesty is seen through the following appellations given to him, “King of heaven” (13. 7,11), the “Great King” (13.15), the “Everlasting King” 13.6, 10). God is the “Holy One” (12. 12, 15), surrounded by glory (12.15). The Lord is merciful (3.2) and is like a Father (13.4). He will restore his people from captivity (14.5). The book even acknowledges that the Gentiles will one day come and worship the God of Israel (13.11).

Tobit sees the life of faith grounded in what would later be called the “three pillars of Judaism.” These “pillars” are prayer, almsgiving and fasting (12.8). Almsgiving (helping the poor) is to be practiced by both the wealthy (1.16) and poorer (11.14). Prayer is a major aspect of Tobit. Beautiful prayers are shared by Tobit (3. 1-6; 13), Sarah (3.11-15) and Tobias (8.5-7). Also stress is laid upon the dignity of a human being by giving a decent burial to the dead.

Tobit also says a great deal about demons and angels. The Hebrew Bible does not say much about either of these beings but the are every where in the New Testament. Tobit gives us insight into the “development” of ideas regarding the doctrines on spiritual reality.

Tobit and the New Testament

There are numerous echoes of Tobit in the NT. Where there is not an explicit echo Tobit sheds considerable light on numerous passages in the life of Jesus and the Epistles. For example Raphael and Jesus both assume that “prayer, fasting and almsgiving” will be part of the life of God’s People (Tobit 12.6-10; Matthew 6.1-18). Paul and Tobit stress giving cheerfully and not grudgingly (Tobit 4.8; 2 Corinthians 8.12). Help is not to be denied the poor (Tobit 4.7; Luke 6.30). Almsgiving is especially encouraged by Tobit and Paul towards the righteous: in Tobit the faithful Jew, in Paul toward the “household of faith” (Tobit 4.6; Galatians 6.10).

Tobit says that giving to the poor is the way one lays up a treasure, one that will prove helpful in a day of adversity (Tobit 4.9). Giving is better than gold (Tobit 12.8). Clearly Jesus approved this teaching. The Lord says,

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”(Luke 12.33-34).

In Tobit we encounter what is called the “Golden Rule” reversed. “And what you hate, do not do to anyone” (Tobit 4.15; cf. Matthew 7.12 and Luke 6.31). This version of the Golden Rule is quoted in the early Christian document, The Didache 1.2.

Most readers of Tobit, when they encounter the sad tale of Sarah’s life, cannot help but think of a day in the life of Jesus. While teaching in the temple some Sadducees came and challenged Jesus. They told of a woman who had been married to seven husbands and all seven died (Matthew 22.23-28)! Yet in Tobit we read how Sarah had been married seven times but the demon Asmodeus had killed them all (Tobit 3.7-9). Where did the Sadducees get that question? Surely Tobit! (see Peter G. Bolt, “What Were the Sadducees Reading? An Inquiry into the Literary Background of Mark 12:18-23,” Tyndale Bulletin 45 [1994]:369-394) In the Gospel of John we read of the “strange” phenomenon of Jesus making mud out of his saliva and putting it in the eyes of the blind man (John 9.6); Raphael tells Tobias that if he smears the gall of a fish on the eyes of Tobit his blindness will be healed (Tobit 6.9; 11.8).

The language of Raphael’s “ascension” certainly has “echoes” in the NT. Raphael declaration, “See, I am ascending to him who sent me” (Tobit 12.20) finds at least an echo in such passages where Jesus says “him who sent me” (John 1.33; 4.34; 5.30, 38; 6.29, 38-39) and in Jesus announcement “I am going to him who sent me” (John 7.33; 16.5). Continuing with this ascension language, Tobit says after Raphael’s departure, “they could see him no more” and they “kept blessing God and singing his praises” (Tobit 12.21-22). This language may have provide Luke with a “model” for expressing the events of Luke 24.51-53 and Acts 1.9.

The reader of the New Testament may wonder what prompted Joseph of Arimathea to take down the body of Jesus from the Cross and wrap it in a linen shroud, and lay it in a tomb (Matt. 27.57-60; Mk. 15.43-46; Lk. 23.50-53). At least part of the reason is the piety that is revealed in Tobit where we learn that it was an act of selfless devotion to God to bury those who have been oppressed and abused (Tobit 1.17-18; 2.3-5, 7-9).

Another “echo” that occurs in the NT would certainly be in the description of Anna watching longingly for her lost son Tobias (Tobit 10.3-7a). Jesus’ own description of the Father (not a mother) in the Parable of the Lost Son longing for his own son (Lk. 15.20ff) has some similarities with Anna.

Lastly one cannot help but think of Tobias journey through the country with Raphael (disguised as Azariah) when reading Hebrews 13.1-3. Some have indeed been with angels unaware!

Tobit has been very popular through the history of the church. Quoted frequently in the writings of the Church Fathers, Tobit was found to be a source of healthy teaching. Polycarp, for example quotes Tobit twice (4.10 & 12.9) in his Letter to the Philippians (ch. 10). The story of Tobias and Sarah has often been used in weddings through the centuries. The model of beginning a relationship in prayer caught the fancy of many a Christian through the years. Artists have painted and repainted the story dozens of times.

Choice Texts from Tobit

An example of Tobit’s generosity is given in chapter 2:

Then during the reign of Esar-haddon I returned home, and my wife Anna and my son Tobias was restored to me. At our festival of Pentecost, which is the sacred festival of weeks, a good dinner was prepared for me and I reclined to eat. When the table was set for me, I said to my son Tobias, ‘Go, my child, and bring whatever poor person you may find of our people among the exiles in Nineveh, who is wholeheartedly mindful of God, and he shall eat together with me. I will wait for you, until you come back.” (Tobit 2.1-4)

Sarah’s Prayer for Mercy

Blessed are you, merciful God! Blessed is your name forever; let all your works praise you forever. And now, Lord, I turn my face to you, and raise my eyes toward you. Command that I be released from the earth and not listen to such reproach any more. You know, O Master, that I am innocent of any defilement with a man, and that I have not disgraced my name or the name of my father in the land of exile. I am my father’s only child; he has no other child to be his heir; and he has no close relative or other kindred for whom I should keep myself as wife. Already seven husbands of mine have died. Why should I still live? But if it is not pleasing to you, O Lord, to take my life, hear me in my disgrace.” (Tobit 3.11b-15).

The author beautifully captures the pathos of Anna as she longs for her only Son.

His wife Anna said, ‘My child has perished and is no longer among the living.’ And she began to weep and mourn for her son, saying, ‘Woe to me, my child, the Light of my eyes, that I let you make the journey.’ . . . She answered him [Tobit] Stop trying to deceive me! My child has perished!’ She would rush out every day and watch the road her son had taken, and would heed no one. When the sun had set she would go in and mourn and weep all night long, getting no sleep at all.” (Tobit 10. 4-7a).

Tobit’s description of the New Jerusalem will connect with readers of the New Testament

My soul blesses the Lord, the great King! For Jerusalem will be built as his houses for all ages. How Happy I will be if a remnant of my descendants should survive to see your glory and acknowledge the King of heaven. The gates of Jerusalem will be built with sapphire and emerald, and all your walls with precious stones. The towers of Jerusalem will be built with gold, and their battlements with pure gold. The streets of Jerusalem will be paved with ruby and with stones of Ophir. The gates of Jerusalem will sing hymns of joy, and all her houses will cry, ‘Hallelujah!’ Blessed be the God of Israel!’ and the blessed will bless the holy name forever and ever.” (13.15-17)

The whole story is a jewel filled with many delightful and edifying passages. Tobias and Sarah’s prayer on their wedding night is one that is a classic used in Christian weddings centuries

Blessed are you, O God of our ancestors, and blessed is your name in all generations forever. Let the heavens and the whole creation bless you forever. 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. You said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; let us make a helper for him like himself.’ I now am taking this kinswoman of mine, not because of lust but with sincerity. Grant that she and I may find mercy and that we may grow old together” (8.5-7)

May that prayer be ours as well.

7 Responses to “Tobit: Triumph of Faith in Adversity”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    One exceedingly interesting thing about Tobit is its ability to bridge the epistemological gap between the Hebrew Bible an the NT concerning intermediary beings (i.e. Angels and demons). The HB is scarce on specific infoation about these beings calling them “sons of God” or even just “messengers.” Further, the LXX uses the terms “daimon” and “angelos” interchangeably. Yet, by NT times the distinctions between these beings seems set; angels are good, demons are bad. Tobit offers good historical insight to this transitional period. Nice post!
    Jake Lollar

  2. Randall Says:

    How wonderful and so very interesting. I loved the passages you quoted so much I’ll have to get it for myself and read the whole thing. I wouldn’t have been motivated to do that if you hadn’t shared this with us.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    GW: Bobby, I was teaching at a preaching school in Mexico this past week and, when introducing the Sadducees, one of the texts I used was Luke where they asked Jesus about the woman with seven husbands. I immediately suggested they read Tobit to get a feel for where they might have come up with that question.

    Also, given the large number of Catholics in Mexico, a familiarity with Tobit, which shows up in many Catholic weddings, would help when talking with Catholic people.

    Wouldn’t have been able to speak to that without your help. Gracias.

  4. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Jake & Randall thank u for the feedback.

    Gene I am delighted to be of service to you. Speaking of weddings and Tobit, I have embraced the historic Christian use of Tobias’ prayer on his wedding night and have used that prayer in every wedding I’ve done for at least 10 years now.

    BTW Tobit as the background for Jesus’ discussion with the Sadducees has long been observed. But it is only recently that I discovered Peter Bolt’s outstanding article on the matter (recent enough to be after I shared some materials with you). If you would like it I’ll be glad to forward a copy to you.

  5. HSHENSLEY Says:

    Thank you for another wonderful article. I’ve always had a fascination for the Apocrypha and I’m enjoying your work very much. I especially enjoy the connections to the New Testament and the early church. These are some of the best written and researched works I’ve ever seen. I am so glad I found your blog. Tobit is a favorite and it’s been a while since I’ve read it (or any other apocryphal books). In fact, it was the first apocryphal book I read. I think it’s time to re-read.

    Thanks again Bobby!

  6. Richsheri1 Says:


    Wow, thanks for your comments on my church’s website. I checked out your blog and am enjoying reading your posts.

    Here’s a little blurb I wrote on Tobit: http://sothl.com/2011/06/21/tobit-who/

    Rich Futrell

  7. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Rich, I appreciate you dropping by, reading, and letting me know you did! This series (on the Apocrypha) is part of a larger is part of a larger one on the history of the English Bible (told as the history of the KJV since it is the 400th anniversary). Poke around and let me know what you think. I will check out your Tobit post.

    Bobby V

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