27 Jul 2013

Prayer in the Apcrypha 1: Tobit and Sarah Cry in the Dark Night

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Ministry, Prayer, Spiritual Disciplines, Tobit
The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds, and it will not rest until it reaches its goal; it will not desist until the Most High responds and does justice for the righteous and executes judgment” (Sirach 35.21, NRSV)
Jesus, the son of Mary, was born to a faithful Jewish family.  The Gospel of Luke opens a window into the kind of piety that Jesus was immersed in as he grew in “wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (2.52). The vignette of the young Jesus in the temple is something that is presented as typical not extraordinary for his Jewish family (2.41). Jesus would continue as an adult to participate in the pilgrimages to Jerusalem to worship the God of his ancestors (John 5-12). The Gospels are peppered with prayer from the lips of Jesus.
But it was not just Jesus and his family that were devoted to prayer.  The Jewish people were serious about prayer. When the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk 11.1) they are not implying they were not, or that Jews were not, people of devoted prayer. In fact we often gravely distort, not only Jesus’ mission & message, but the entire NT when we take him and the NT church out of their Jewish context. Caricatures of Judaism’s faith and practice as legalistic, formalistic, harsh, etc, etc. has been a cottage industry among Western Christians for far to long [1]. Even though the evidence is blaring like neon lights in our face we still sometimes turn Jesus not only into a gentile but a European gentile! Thus it is important to remind ourselves of his immersion in Jewish faith and practice. But what was that “faith and practice?” We will look at a few select prayers in the Apocrypha (or Middle Testament) to learn of the “heart and soul” of the prayers Jesus heard and possibly even prayed himself. In the process we will be edified and come closer to the Lord who remains among his people leading us in prayer and singing praises to our Abba (cf. Heb 2.12f).
Prayer in the Apocrypha: Tobit & Sarah
Prayer in the Apocrypha covers every conceivable area of life from war, travel, food, procreation, to safety, and much more [2]. I have dealt with Tobit rather broadly previously (Here: Tobit: Triumph of Faith in Adversity) and in relation to Jewish worship previously (Here: The Worship of God; Insight from the Apocrypha) so I am not going rehash that material. I offer this brief structural outline of the book for contextual purposes
I. Shame and Depression of Tobit and Sarah (ch’s 1-3)
II. Raphael Sent by Grace to Journey with Tobias incognito  (ch’s 4-6)
III. Deliverance of Sarah and her Marriage to tobias (ch’s 7-10)
IV.  Raphael escorts the newly weds back and Delievers Tobit (ch’s 11-12)
V. Tobit’s Prayer of thanksgiving and Testament to Tobias (ch’s 13-14
The book of Tobit is rich in prayer.  Indeed prayer is one of the most pervasive themes.  The prayers of Tobit and Sarah make up the bulk of chapter three. The prayer on the night of the wedding of Tobias and Sarah in chapter 8 and the prayer of praise by Tobit in chapter 13 are profound.
Setting the Scene
Tobit, along with his wife Anna and son Tobias, are among the faithful Israelites that are hauled off with the rest of Israel by the Assyrians to Exile after the collapse of Samaria in 722 B.C. Unlike his fellows, he had journeyed to Jerusalem to worship the one true God according to the covenant of Moses. He delighted in temple worship (we easily hear him singing joyfully the Songs of Ascent, Pss 120-134).
In Exile worship at the temple was no longer possible, so he found other ways of being faithful to Yahweh.  He gave his food to the hungry and poor, clothed the naked and buried the dead (2.17).  Leaving the bodies exposed was an intended insult by the Assyrians, but Tobit in acts of faith driven “civil disobedience” buried them earning the wrath of the overlords. Tobit went into hiding but after the death of the tyrant he returns.  He resumes his ways of helping the poor by telling his Tobias (sounding much like a parable of Jesus btw) to go out and find any poor person he can find so he/she can enjoy the provisions of Pentecost too. He would not eat till the poor come sit and dine at his table. Tobias, however, finds a dead Israelite to whom Tobit immediately goes to bury.  Sleeping outside because of his ritual uncleaness, Tobit becomes the victim of bird droppings in his eyes and looses his sight.
Four years later his wife, Anna, is having to earn food for the family.  She brings home a goat that had been given her for her wages. The blind, and humiliated, Tobit lashes out (wrongfully) at his wife.  True to any genuine relationship, she, stung by his accusation, shouts “Now I see what you are really like! … Where is all that concern of yours for others?” (2.14, TEV). [3]. Crushed by his suffering, in Exile, blinded while doing kingdom work, alienated from his wife, and now even unable to do works for Yahweh he prays that God would take his life.
Meanwhile, Sarah’s life is even worse (!) than Tobit’s.  She is the only child of Raguel, a Jew exiled to Ecbatana in Media (cf 2 Kings 17.5-6) hundreds of miles away. She is attacked by her father’s maid because she had been married seven times. Even more tragic “the worst of demons” Asmodeus (3.8, NJB) had killed each bridegroom before they could consummate the marriage.  We learn later in the story that each of these were killed in the bridal chamber itself (6.14). The maid accuses Sarah of actually murdering her own husbands bringing dishonor to her and her family. Now she believes that there is no hope and intends to commit suicide (3.10). But she realizes that doing so would further dishonor her father so she also prays that the Lord take her life or to do as he pleases.
The Prayers: Ad Dominum cum tribularer
The narrator brilliantly, and inspiringly, conveys how the lives of Tobit and Sarah are parallel and that the Lord, even though far from the “holy land,” cares and knows about what is happening to both. Both cry out to the Lord in the midst of their troubles. Quotations come from John Kohlenberger III’s The Parallel Apocrypha with Greek, KJV, Douay, Know, TEV, NRSV, NAB and NJB in parallel columns.  I follow the more literal NRSV here. Tobit prayed
Then with much grief and anguish of heart I wept, and with groaning began to pray:
‘You are righteous, O Lord,
and all your deeds are just;
all your ways are mercy and truth;
you judge the world.
And now, O Lord, remember me
and look favorably upon me.
Do not punish me for my sins
and for my unwitting offenses
and those of my ancestors committed before you.
They sinned against you,
and disobeyed your commandments.
So you gave us over to plunder, exile, and death,
to become the talk, the byword, and an object of reproach
among all the nations among whom you have
dispersed us.
And now your judgments are true
in exacting penalty from me for my sins.
For we have not kept your commandments
and have not walked in accordance with truth before you.
So now deal with me as you will;
and command my spirit to be taken from me,
so that I may be released from the face of the earth
and become dust.
For it is better for me to die than to live,
because I have had to listen to understand insults,
and great is the sorrow within me.
Command, O Lord, that I be released from this distress;
release me to go to the eternal home,
and do not, O Lord, turn your face away from me.
For it is better for me to die
than to see so much distress in my life
and to listen to insults.” (Tobit 3.1-6, NRSV)
And Sarah prayed …
At that same time, with hands outstretched toward the window, she prayed and said,
‘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 reproaches any more.
You know, O Master, that I am innocent
of any defilement with a man,
and that I have not disgrace my name
or the name of my father in the land of my exile.
I am my father’s only child {uses monogenes here just as in Jn 3.16}
he has no 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 3.11-15, NRSV)
Praying Out on the Limb
Not only can I, but I do, identify with both Tobit and Sarah.  Twice in my life I have felt the world simply crash in on me.  The first time was being fired for teaching that racism is absolute sin before God almighty – and this before Christmas! I thought I was going to get a pay raise but instead got two days to “get your books out of the office.” Did I ever feel wronged and confused. The other was when I was divorced by my wife of 17 years – left on a Sunday morning!! (No joke!) Oh how I felt like less than zero.

Many of us, just as Tobit had literally gone above and beyond the “letter of the law” in trying to show he was on the Lord’s side only to have a bird literally poop in his eyes.  In his “eyes” he was shamed, of no count. Less than Zero. And now he has wrongfully accused his wife. Shame upon shame! Sarah whose problem was not being barren like the ancient Matriarch, rather it was that her husbands keep dying before they can even have sexual intercourse.  She is the talk of the town and the maid voices what the whole town thinks – she is really murdering her men! Her father is shamed because of her and he has no heir because of her!  She, like Tobit, see no light at the end of the tunnel.  They are out on a limb that has just been cut off.

In the Scriptures that Jesus drank from childhood he encountered numerous prayers uttered from the Pit. I believe the Gospels make it clear that Tobit is one story he knew.  At any rate the Psalms are littered with lamentations where the people are overwhelmed by the “odds.” “In my trouble I cried to the Lord, and he heard me. Lord, deliver my soul from liars and from deceitful people” (Ps 120). “Out of the depths I have cried to you, LordLord, hear my voice.” (Ps 130).  Space does not allow quoting Psalm 88 in full but clearly Tobit and Sarah would feel at home in that psalm. When was the last time you took the time to read the holy book of Lamentations?
Other prayers in Scripture even reveal a desire for death.  Job hated the day he was born and desires to be set free from his misery (Job 3).  Jonah twice tells Yahweh he would rather be dead than live in a world where he lets scum off like he did the Assyrians (Jonah 4).  But Jonah’s death wish is motivated out of anger at God.  Tobit’s and Sarah’s is motivated by anguish at the present and no hope for the future [4]. With such prayers being replayed in his head (like Ps 22), Jesus himself, like Tobit, released his spirit, to die (Tob 3.6)
Tobit’s prayer has three parts. First it has a doxology (3.2).  Second is Tobit’s recognition of his own sin and his identification with the failures of the entire people of God. He neither blames them nor denies his sharing in their guilt (3.3-5). Third his fervent petition to be released from his shame and blindness.
Sarah’s prayer is presented as just as important to God, and the author, as Tobit’s. She is in different circumstances but the same turmoil.  God cares for both men and women. He listens to both. He responds to both. He is Sovereign over all the world, even the Assyrian Empire is used to bring about his will in the lives of his people.
Unlike Tobit, Sarah has no qualms about asserting her innocence before the Lord. She has been faithful and remains even a virgin despite being in an alien land where her virtue could easily have been compromised by slavers. She lives with the horrid memory of being wed, only to literally watch seven husbands destroyed by Asmodeus. But who knew the truth but her?
Wrapping Up
Tobit and Sarah’s prayers reveal faith in a God who is not only powerful but who is merciful and full of truth (or “grace and truth” in NJB in 3.2 much like in John). They believe that God is the only one who can address their problem. Tobit seems to only see death as the only option but Sarah leaves open the door for “your will to be done” [5]. Both reveal an unshakable faith that God is to be praised regardless of the circumstances and that his justice is flawless even in their less than favorable circumstances.
Finally the author of Tobit reminds us that even though those seeking God’s favor are far from the Temple that “at that very moment, the prayers of both of them were heard in the glorious presence of God” (3.16). God sent his angel Raphael not to take the lives of Tobit and Sarah but to deliver him from his blindness so he could “see the glory of the Lord” and to save Sarah from her shame and set her free from the tormenting demon.  The rest of the story is God fulfilling the prayer of two very different people separated by many miles, with very different problems and yet God mysteriously linked them together.
Stories and prayers like these showed Jesus and the early church that God was every present and mysteriously and deeply involved in the world. Faith in him is the victory. These prayers are powerful and show us the kind of prayer Jesus and his followers heard and prayed …

The Art Work …

Tobit, like much of the Apocrypha, was treated as canonical Scripture by artists. They believed it was.  There are stunning works of art on themes from the “Middle Testament.”  The sculpture at the top is by Giovanni Baratta (1670-1747).  The illuminated page is the title page of Tobit in the Gutenberg Bible. And the tapestry is by Neri di Bicci dating to 1471.

1] The sad sordid tale of Christian anti-Semitism is chronicled ad nauseum by Dan Cohn-Sherbok, The Crucified Jew: Twenty Centuries of Christian Anti-Semitism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1992).
2] See Norman B. Johnson’s, Prayer in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (Philadelphia: Society of Biblical Literature, 1948), 7-37. Johnson’s work is both valuable and frustrating. He arranges his brief study topically with little attention to the context in which the prayers occur. His study is also tainted with a not so subtle condescending attitude toward Second Temple Judaism that colors more than one of his interpretations. Nevertheless with that said it is still a good entree into the field of prayer in the Apocrypha.
3] Amy-Jill Levine, a wonderful Jewish scholar has called attention to the domestic relations between Tobit and Anna in a very insightful article, “Tobit: Teaching Jews How to Live in the Diaspora,” Bible Review 8.4 (August 1992), 42-51, 64.  Where I disagree with her, is her conclusion that the Book of Tobit is concerned with keeping in Anna and Sarah “in their place.”  I really think this is a major imposition, and alien to the text.
4] See the oh so brief discussion in Cary A Moore,Tobit, Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday 1996), 139-140.
5] David deSilva correctly, in my judgment, sees Sarah’s prayer as a “model” for praying, as James will direct, “according to God’s will.” See Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context, and Significance (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2002), 78.

One Response to “Prayer in the Apcrypha 1: Tobit and Sarah Cry in the Dark Night”

  1. Ralph Says:

    This is cool!

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