The book of Tobit, regarded by Jews and Protestants as apocryphal and by Roman Catholics and some Orthodox churches as deuterocanonical (See Apocrypha, article on Jewish Apocrypha), is named after its alleged author Tobit, a generous and God‐fearing Jew whose blindness and poverty in Nineveh (Map 6:H3) are the direct result of his performing one of his most characteristic good deeds, namely, burying an executed compatriot.
But thanks to the courageous efforts of his devoted son, Tobias (who unknown to both of them was assisted by the angel Raphael masquerading as Azariah), Tobit ultimately recovers his sight and fortune and also gains a virtuous daughter‐in‐law, Sarah, a Medean relative from whom Tobias has exorcised Asmodeus, the demon who had claimed the lives of each of her seven previous husbands on their wedding night. Shortly before his death as a very old man, Tobit has Tobias and his large family move from Nineveh to Ecbatana (Map 6:J4), where Tobias lives to a very rich old age.
Although the book has all the outer trappings of a historical account, including mention of well‐known historical personages (e.g., Shalmaneser V in 1.13; Sennacherib in 1.15) and places (e.g., Nineveh, 1.3; Ecbatana, 3.7; and Rages, 4.1), the narrative is best understood as a novella or, more specifically, a Diaspora romance, centering on a successful quest. The story is intended to edify and to inspire faith in God and human effort; for without Tobias's own devotion and courage (5.1–8; 6.2–3, 14–18; 7.9–13; 8.1–3), neither his father nor his wife would have been delivered, the help of the angel Raphael notwithstanding (6.4–9; 8.3).
In creating this charming pastiche about everyday Jewish “saints” in the Dispersion, the ancient narrator utilized as his basic fabrics three well‐known folktales: the ubiquitous story of the Grateful Dead, the tale about a man who was at first impoverished but ultimately was rewarded for burying an abused corpse; the Monster in the Bridal Chamber, a widespread tale featuring an evil creature who is in love with a beautiful maiden and kills her husband on their wedding night; and the Ahiqar Story, the last‐named being a wise courtier who, though betrayed by his adopted son, is ultimately vindicated.
Although the author of Tobit wove these folktales together quite skillfully, their seams are occasionally discernable in certain loose or incompatible threads: e.g., the gratuitous mention of Tobias's dog, an unclean animal (Tob. 6.2 and 11.4); and Tobit's injunction to his son to pour his wine on the grave of the righteous (4.17), which, while contrary to biblical teaching (Deut. 26.14), is included in the counsels of the nonbiblical Ahiqar.
Even though the basic fabrics of the book are secular folktales, their designs and colors are distinctly biblical, being patterned after stories in Genesis (e.g., the story of Joseph [Gen. 37 and 39–50] and the betrothal stories of Isaac and Jacob [cf. Tob. 5.17–22; 7.1–16; 10.7–13 with Gen. 24 and 29]) and colored by the theology of the book of Deuteronomy in general, and its doctrine of just deserts in particular. The author of Tobit subscribed to the Deuteronomic equation (cf. Deut. 28) that righteousness ultimately results in material prosperity (so Tob. 11.14–18; 13.10–11; 14.1–2), while wickedness always brings punishment and material disaster (so Tob. 1.21; 3.3–6; 13.12; 14.4, 10).
The author of Tobit also used the biblical Job as the model for Tobit; the two characters are both men of outstandingly good deeds and piety who, though they suffered and were tested (cf. Job. 1.6–2.10 and Tob. 12.14), did not lose their faith (so Job 31.37 and Tob. 3.2–6) and ultimately were rewarded with even greater blessings (so Job 42.10–16 and Tob. 14.1–2). While the author of Tobit expressly mentions Amos (2.6) and Nahum (14.4), it is prophets who are not mentioned by name, notably Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Third Isaiah, who exerted the strongest influence on him, especially in Tobit 13–14, where Israel's exile and return are predicted.
The book of Tobit, like the meaning of his name (“[God] is my good”), is essentially ironic. Although Tobit fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and buried exposed corpses (cf. 1.16–18)—all of which he insisted delivers one from death and keeps one “from going into the Darkness” (Tob. 4.10)—he lost both his wealth and his sight. Sarah, too, is an ironic figure: a virtuous, loving, and level‐headed young maiden, she was plagued by an evil that almost drove her to suicide (3.10–15).
The story has little tension or suspense, for quite early in the narrative the reader learns not only that Sarah and Tobit will be healed (3.16–17) but even how (6.6–9). But this special knowledge also enables the reader better to appreciate various ironies in the story, including Tobit's assurance to his son that “an angel” will accompany him and Azariah (5.17), Raguel furtively digging a grave for the apparently doomed Tobias (8.9–12), and the conviction of Tobias's mother that her long‐delayed son is dead (10.4–7).
Given the tragic circumstances of Tobit and Sarah at the height of their miseries, many of the names in the story are highly ironic. Tobit's father was Tobiel (“God is my good”); Tobit's sharp‐tongued wife (2.14; 5.18–20; 10.7) is called Anna (“Grace”); the angel Raphael (“God heals”) poses as Azariah (“Yahweh has helped”); the mother of the demon‐possessed Sarah is Edna (“Pleasure”).
The narrator's theological views are clearly and effectively expressed in the book's plot as well as in its characters' monologues (e.g., 1.3–3.6, 10), conversations (e.g., 2.11–14; 5.18–22; 6.16–18), speeches (4.3–21; 12.6–15, 17–20; 14.3–11), and especially their prayers (3.1–6, 11–15; 8.5–8; 13.1–17).
The century‐long debate by scholars as to whether the book was originally composed in Greek or in a Semitic language has been resolved by the discovery of one Hebrew and four Aramaic manuscripts of the book among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. Because the manuscripts are very fragmentary and not fully published, certainty is denied us; but it would appear that Aramaic was the original language of the book, though the Septuagint may be based upon a Hebrew version. In the Qumran texts, Tobit's name is Tobi; his son's name, Tobiyah.
In spite of Tobit's obvious literary and theological merits, it was excluded from the Jewish canon, probably because of the late date of its composition (see below), though it does also contradict the rabbinic halakah on marriage, whereby the groom, not the bride's father as in Tobit 7.12–13, writes out the marriage contract.
As for the Christian canon, more often than not Eastern church fathers denied Tobit canonicity, while Western councils and fathers, starting with Pseudo‐Clement (2 Clem. 16.4) ca. 150 CE, nearly always accepted the book.
Converging lines of evidence suggest that the book was composed sometime ca. 225–175 BCE. The phrase “the law/book of Moses” (Tob. 6.13; 7.11, 12, 13) is late, occurring first in 2 Chronicles (23.18); and not until ca. 200 BCE were the prophetic books regarded as the word of God (cf. Tob. 14.4). A date of composition later than 175 BCE is precluded by the total absence from the book of any of the strife and turmoil associated with the days of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BCE) and the Maccabees (164–135 BCE). Then too, by the first century BCE, Jewish concern for endogamy, which is so prominent in Tobit (4.12–13; 6.10–12, 16; 7.8–15), had diminished. The book's presence at Qumran virtually rules out a first‐century BCE date.
Whether the book originated in Mesopotamia, Egypt, or Palestine is unclear, though arguments for a Palestinian provenance may be gaining support.
Of the three major versions of Tobit used by Christian churches down through the millennia, the so‐called longer recension (longer by 1700 Greek words as preserved by Codex Sinaiticus, and the Old Latin version) is the most authentic and is the basis for the NEB and the NRSV; the “shorter recension,” used by the RSV, is an abbreviation of the longer, while, as Jerome himself reports, his Vulgate was based upon an Aramaic text.
Carey A. Moore