Leslie J. Hoppe
The Moral of the Story
The book of Tobit is a complex literary work with a very uncomplicated moral. The book narrates important incidents in the lives of Tobit, Sarah, and Tobiah. It tells the story of their tragedies and triumphs. The author weaves the stories of these three people together very skillfully so that the book results from the intersection of three different but related plots. This rhetorical feat of weaving the stories of these three people so tightly has a theological purpose: to show how God can manage the circumstances of people's lives in order to bring God's plans to fulfillment. Its primary religious message is simple: God rewards those who are faithful.
Approaching the Book: The Literary Form of Tobit
The introduction to this book describes Tobit as a “religious novel” (OT, p. 537 ). The historical and geographical details given in the book are there simply to provide a plausible setting for the story. Tobit is not a work of history‐writing. Its author confuses the kings of Assyria, shows an ignorance of the topography of Mesopotamia, and dates Tobit's exile earlier than it could have been (see notes to 1, 2.15; 5, 6; and 14, 15 ). Though calling Tobit a novel may not be entirely satisfactory, the book is the work of a single author and not a product of oral or literary tradition despite the author's attempt to associate his principal character with Ahiqar, a very popular figure of ancient Near Eastern wisdom tradition (see note on 1, 21; OT, p. 539 ). As a novel, the book of Tobit presents three characters in an intricately developed plot that the introduction summarizes on p. 537 .
What is especially important to notice is how the author of Tobit tells the stories of Tobit and his relative Sarah. Both suffer undeservedly. Tobit became blind while doing an act of charity by burying the dead. In his despondency he prays for death. Sarah believes that she will remain a childless widow. A demon has killed each of her seven husbands on their respective wedding nights. Sarah too prays for death. God answers their prayers by enabling Tobiah, Tobit's son, to cure Tobit's blindness and break the power of the demon that was killing Sarah's husbands. Tobiah is able to accomplish this with the help of the angel Raphael. The action of Tobiah solves the problems of both Tobit and Sarah.
Since Tobit is such a cleverly told story, it is important that one read the story through in order to appreciate the author's message. Tobit is short enough to read in a single sitting. One key to understanding the author's purpose is the unfolding of the story and how God answers the prayers of the innocent Tobit and Sarah in a way they hardly expected.
The Religious Horizons of the Book
The basic concern of this book becomes clear as God acts through Raphael to solve the problems of Tobit, Sarah, and Tobiah. Each problem contains the germ of a solution for the others. Tobit is going to die, so he sends his son Tobiah to collect an outstanding debt. This brings Tobiah in contact with Raphael, who gives him a way to cure his father and to eliminate Sarah's problem. In the process of traveling to collect the debt, Tobiah meets Sarah and falls in love with her. Tobiah is able to break the power of the demon that tormented Sarah. In the end, the medicine Raphael gives Tobiah cures Tobit's blindness, Tobiah recovers the money owed to his father, Tobiah marries Sarah, and together they raise a family.
The purpose of this engaging tale is to show that God controls events and manages the circumstances in order to ensure that God's own purposes come to fruition. The story assumes God's sovereignty in people's lives and God's determination to reward the just. When the just suffer, there is a limit to that suffering. Once that limit occurs God will intervene, and sometimes that intervention is miraculous.
Tobit's reaction to his suffering and its alleviation underscores the religious views of the book. At first Tobit's response is one of despair, since he sees death as the only way of deliverance. Once he experiences God's deliverance, Tobit is eloquent in his praise of God's mercy. The book's answer to the problem of suffering is in 11, 15 : “…it was he who scourged me, and it is he who has had mercy on me.”
The Judaism of the Book
The introduction (OT, p. 537 ) states that the book of Tobit appeared fewer than two hundred years before Christ. It reveals a form of Judaism that accepted magic and had a strong belief in angels and demons. Raphael, an angel of God, suggests the means for negating the power of the demon ( 6, 7–9 ), and so the magical means of dealing with demonic powers must be legitimate for any Jew. Mysterious powers in the entrails of a fish serve not only to cure illnesses but also to bind the demonic powers that harm people.
Tobit, then, represents a Judaism that sees angels and demons as having important roles to play in the drama between God and human beings. This contrasts sharply with books such as Judith and Esther where human beings are in control of their own destiny without any intervention of angelic and demonic powers. The author of Tobit considers angels to be more than simply God's messengers: they mediate prayers in God's throne room ( 3, 16; 12, 12–15 ); they oppose demons ( 8, 2f ); they commission the writing of books ( 12, 11f ). Belief in demons accompanies a belief in angels. While angels make their interventions for the good of people, demons are hostile powers.
The book also reflects the importance that the book of Deuteronomy came to have in early Judaism. This is especially clear in Tobit 14, 4–7 , which asserts that the exile happened because of Israel's infidelity (see Dt 28, 15–68 ), that the exile is not God's final judgment on Israel but that there is hope for mercy (see Dt 30, 1–4 ), and that the Temple of Jerusalem is the only legitimate place for worship (see Dt 12, 1–14 ). The Judaism that Tobit depicts is a Judaism that measures fidelity to God in terms of fulfillment of the Torah, which is just what Deuteronomy preaches.
Finally Tobit seems to reflect the circumstances of Jews in the Diaspora (Jewish settlements outside of Palestine). The book portrays Gentiles as unsympathetic to Tobit's activities ( 2, 8) and as those responsible for persecuting him ( 1, 16–20 ). The book presents marriage within Judaism as a duty. It teaches that God is sovereign over all people and that God is present to those in exile, even in the midst of their suffering. It underscores the need to maintain Jewish identity in the Diaspora. The means to accomplish this is the family. The book's emphasis on the family is one reason that Tobit remained popular in the Church, even though the book did not become part of the Jewish canon of the Old Testament.
Reading the Book
The only way to savor the book's literary artistry and to appreciate its religious perspectives is to follow the way the author unfolds the events related to Tobit's life. Notice the suffering of Tobit, Sarah, and their families in the first part of the book. In despair they pray for death since they do not experience God's presence in this life. Notice how the stories of Tobit and Sarah parallel one another. See table below .
God hears these prayers but responds to them in a totally unexpected manner. Raphael stands as a symbol of God's presence with both Tobit and Sarah. Even though they felt abandoned by God, God was with them in the midst of their suffering. When Tobiah finishes his journey and Tobit realizes the presence of God in his own life and in the lives of his son and new daughter‐in‐law, he breaks into enthusiastic and joyful praise of God. The reader should notice the movement in the book from despair to thanksgiving and praise.
Angels and Demons
There are two important nonhuman characters in the book: Asmodeus, the demon who torments Sarah ( 3, 8 ) and Raphael, who reveals himself as one of the seven angels who “serve before the Glory of the Lord” ( 12, 15 ). The book of Tobit, then, reflects the belief of early Judaism in angels and demons as supernatural beings. The first form of this belief seems to be “the messenger of the Lord,” which belongs to the earliest narratives in the Hebrew Bible. In some of these stories, clearly the messenger of the Lord is not different from the Lord (see Gn 16, 13; 21, 18; 31, 13 ). Since God confronts people directly in many of the early stories, the appearance of angels is somewhat irregular. As people begin to think of God as transcendent, far beyond the human sphere, angels become a more regular feature of the narratives. Ideas develop about good angels and bad angels (the demons), a hierarchy of angels, and the various duties of angels. In Tobit, Raphael is one of the seven holy angels who offer up the prayers of the pious (Tb 12, 15 ).
Angels and demons play a prominent role in the noncanonical literature of early Judaism. For example, in the book of Enoch, Raphael is an archangel (1 Enoch 20, 3). He heals the illnesses and injuries of human beings (1 Enoch 40, 9). By the time of the New Testament, angels were thought of as spiritual beings who were God's allies in opposition to Satan and his “angels,” the demons.
It is possible to see popular imagination at work in the description of angels. They wear white garments (Dn 10, 5f ; 1 Enoch 87, 2). The angels have wings (Dn 9, 21 [note that the NAB follows the Septuagint and translates the Hebrew phrase “borne in winged flight” as “came in rapid flight”]; 1 Enoch 61, 1). Finally, around the turn of the era, there appears in a few Jewish texts what seems to be the belief that it was permissible to portray figures from Israel's past, especially Adam and Jacob, as angels. Evidently some Jews held that it was possible for a select few to transcend humanity and become angels.
Belief in angels was not universal in early Judaism. Acts 23, 8 asserts that the Pharisees representing more liberal and popular beliefs acknowledged the existence of angels, while the more conservative and aristocratic Sadducees rejected the existence of angels along with belief in spirits and the resurrection.
The Purpose of the Book
Why did the author tell the story of Tobit? Was it simply to entertain? Even though the book is highly entertaining as a short novel, its purpose goes far beyond the enjoyment of its readers. The author tells his story to teach while entertaining. The book calls for prayer, fasting, and especially almsgiving ( 4, 7–11; 12, 8 ). It presents the Jewish
|Tobit's piety ( 2, 1–7 )||Sarah's innocence ( 3, 14 )|
|Tobit's blindness ( 2, 9–10 )||Sarah's demon ( 3, 8 )|
|Tobit's reproach ( 2, 14 )||Sarah's reproach ( 3, 7–10 )|
|Tobit's prayer ( 3, 1–6 )||Sarah's prayer ( 3, 10–15 )|
The author addresses his message to people who easily identify with the principal characters of the book. They wonder about the value of fidelity to their God since it sometimes brings them undeserved difficulties. Tobit reaffirms the value of fidelity. While there may be difficult times, God will never desert those who remain faithful, and the God who controls human events will ensure that the faithful will find their reward.
The author wishes to affirm the importance of the community. One's commitment to the community is the measure of one's commitment to God. It is important to support the poor, bury the dead, honor one's parents, marry within the community. The Jewish community will have a future as long as there are Tobits who pledge themselves to its preservation.
The purpose of the book is to move its readers from despair to prayer. The figure of Tobit is a paradigm for the pious Jews who experience not God's presence but his absence in their suffering. The central affirmation of the book is that God is with Tobit even when Tobit does not experience the divine presence. Once Raphael makes Tobit aware that God has always been with him, Tobit launches into a song of praise ( 13, 1–18 ).