Chapter 1 I am Tobit and this is the story of my life.My father was Tobiel, my grandfather was Ananiel, and my great-grandfather was Aduel … a part of the tribe of Naphtali. 2 During the time that Shalmaneser was emperor of Assyria, I was taken captive in my hometown of Thisbe, located in northern Galilee ….
So begins the short story about Tobit. Tobit
is part of the Apocrypha, a
hidden book that
was never accepted as scripture by the rabbis and
for that reason not accepted by the Lutherans and
other Protestants. On the other hand, Tobit
is considered to be scripture by Ethiopian Jews
and by Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians.
In any case, the final decisions about which books belong in the Bible were not made until after Jesus lived, died, and rose: for the rabbis, probably late in our first century; for the Christians, not until the 16th and 17th centuries. The story of Tobit was likely a popular and respected part of the Jewish culture into which Jesus was born.
Tobit was probably written at least 100 years before Jesus. It was probably in Aramaic (the common language of the whole region), although the oldest versions we have are several translations into Greek.
Tobit is a short story. It is set in the time of the Babylonian Exile, but this is not a history of that time. Both time and distance are compressed in order to enhance the narrative. Neither is this a message from God in the ways that Deuteronomy or Isaiah bring us the word of God. Instead, by telling a very modern story about Tobit and his family, we are enticed to think about what we can expect from God and from each other.
3 All my life I have been honest and have tried to do what was right. I often gave money to help needy relatives and other Jews who had been deported with me to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria.
6 I was the only one in my family who regularly went to Jerusalem to celebrate the religious festivals, as the Law of Moses commands everyone to do. I would hurry off to Jerusalem with the first part of my harvest, the first-born of my animals, a tenth of my cattle, and the freshly clipped wool from my sheep. Then I would stand before the altar in the Temple, and give these offerings to the priests, the descendants of Aaron.
8 But every third year, I would give a third tithe to widows and orphans and to foreigners living among my people, and we would eat the festival meal together. I did this in keeping with the Law of Moses, which Deborah, the mother of my grandfather Ananiel, had taught me to obey. (I had been left an orphan when my father died.)
9 When I grew up, I married Anna, a member of my own tribe. We had a son and named him Tobias. 10 Later, I was taken captive and deported to Assyria, and that is how I came to live in Nineveh.
14 Before the emperor [Shalmaneser] died, I made regular trips to the land of Media to buy things for him there. Once, when I was in the city of Rages in Media, I left some bags of money there with Gabael, Gabrias' brother, and asked him to keep them for me. There were more than 600 pounds of silver coins in those bags. 15 When Shalmaneser died, his son Sennacherib succeeded him as emperor. It soon became so dangerous to travel on the roads in Media that I could no longer go there.
16 While Shalmaneser was still emperor, I took good care of my own people whenever they were in need. 17 If they were hungry, I shared my food with them; if they needed clothes, I gave them some of my own. Whenever I saw that the dead body of one of my people had been thrown outside the city wall, I gave it a decent burial.
Tobit's description of himself and his own good works may sound a bit like bragging: I am such a good man! But I think we would do better to look at his report as a spiritual testament. Tobit is remembering the good things in his life. These good things he is sharing with his family as a legacy. Through the story, Tobit invites us to become his spiritual descendents. We are being invited to accept this history of doing good, to make his story a part of our own story, and to continue that story with our own lives.
And how does Tobit describe this good life, which he wants us to carry on? There are three threads in his telling: First, he gave regularly to the needy through planned giving. This is the festival meal every third year. Second, he was prudent in his good fortune. When the emperor smiled on him and gave him the opportunity to become wealthy, Tobit accepted his good fortune and set money aside for future needs. Finally, Tobit was open to meet people's needs for food, for clothing, and for respect whenever these needs became apparent. We could do worse than follow Tobit's example in planned giving, in prudence, and in openness to meet unexpected needs.
We all know that life is not so simple as this. Tobit, living as an exile in a despotic state, is vulnerable to regime change. Shalmaneser's time in office was good to him, but Sennacherib's regime was dangerous for good men and a boon to bandits on the highways, informants, and political assassins.
Tobit's habit of giving proper burial to the victims
of violence became dangerous in a time when violence
was being perpetrated by the government. The new
king was upset to find that his victims were not
all left lying along the highways to frighten the
populace – Thank God that we are not facing
such horrors in Green Bay, because we know that
this kind of state terror can happen today.
Predictably, someone informed the secret police
about Tobit's good work and he had to go into
hiding. He remembers,
Everything I owned was seized and put in the
royal treasury. My wife Anna and my son Tobias
were all I had left.
Evil like this can sometimes plant the seeds of its
own destruction, and so it happened in this case.
About six weeks later, two of
Sennacherib's sons assassinated him and then escaped
to the mountains of Ararat. Another son, Esarhaddon,
became emperor. Tobit and his family returned
to their home and started to put their life back
together. Murder is never good, but surely there was
some poetic justice here. If this were only a parable
we would be done; the lesson would be that evil
destroys itself and leaves good to triumph.
But that is not this story.
The family began to put their life together, but as they are sitting down to the holiday dinner young Tobias discovers a fellow Jew has been murdered. We know, but we would rather not remember, that evil is not concentrated in a single evil person. We know, but we would rather not remember, that removing one evil leader is not enough to end all crime and usher in the kingdom of peace. Tobit knows this, too, and wishes he had not been reminded so soon. Tobit gets up from the table and takes care of the victim just as he had done in the past.
Yet that is not all. Tobit tells the story:
Chapter 2 9 That night I washed, so as to purify myself, and went out into my courtyard to sleep by the wall. It was a hot night, and I did not pull the cover up over my head. 10 Sparrows were on the wall right above me, but I did not know it. Their warm droppings fell into my eyes, causing a white film to form on them. I went to one doctor after another, but the more they treated me with their medicines, the worse my eyes became, until finally I was completely blind.
Was it not enough to live through the persecution of an evil government in a land of exile? Was it not enough that murders and poverty continue? Must God's good creation also turn against Tobit? Must nature and science cause as much sorrow as does evil intention? Is this what life is really like? It is enough to drive even a good man to despair.
Chapter 3 as I choked back my tears, I prayed: 2You are righteous, O Lord! You are merciful in all you do, faithful in all your ways. You are the judge of this world. 6 Now treat me as you please. Take my life away and free me from this world; let my body return to the earth. I would be better off dead.
7 That same day in the city of Ecbatana in Media, it happened that Sarah, the daughter of a man named Raguel, was insulted by one of her father's servant women. 8 Sarah had been married seven times, but the evil demon, Asmodeus, killed each husband before the marriage could be consummated. The servant woman said to Sarah,You husband killer! Look at you! You've already had seven husbands, but not one of them lived long enough to give you a son. 9 Why should you take it out on us? Why don't you go and join your dead husbands? I hope we never see a child of yours!
10 Sarah was so depressed that she burst into tears and went upstairs determined to hang herself. But when she thought it over, she said to herself,No, I won't do it! …11 Then Sarah stood by the window, raised her arms in prayer, and said, 12Lord, I look to you for help. 13 Speak the word and set me free from this life; then I will no longer have to hear these insults.
16 As Tobit and Sarah were praying, God in heaven heard their prayers 17 and sent his angel Raphael to help them.
Chapter 4 That same day, Tobit remembered the money that he had left with Gabael at Rages in Media. 2 He thought to himself,Now that I have asked God to let me die, I should call my son Tobias and tell him about the money.
Chapter 5 4 Tobias then went out to look for someone who knew the way to Media and would travel with him. Almost as soon as he left the house, he found himself face-to-face with Raphael. Tobias did not know that Raphael was an angel of God, 5 so he asked him where he was from.
I am an Israelite,Raphael answered,one of your distant relatives, and I have come here to Nineveh to find work.
Do you know the way to Media?Tobias asked.
The characters in this story are more true to life than you find in many religious books. Tobit, for example, is presented as a remarkably good and patient man. He survives being orphaned, exile, a dramatic financial disaster, persecution, and social isolation with equanimity. But his blindness, the resulting poverty, the need to rely on whatever work Anna could do – this in an age when women were neither expected nor permitted to work real jobs – and the stress that this put on his wife and their marriage, eventually brought Tobit to depression.
Meanwhile, in Media, his young relative Sarah suffers from the horror of losing husband after husband each in the night following the wedding. What a terrible thing for a young woman to lose one husband on their wedding day, but seven! What can Sarah think? What would the neighbors think? There must be a demon at work – unless, as her own servant baldly says to her, Sarah herself is the murderer.
Life is not always good. Life is not always easy. Life as these people know it seems to be beyond enduring. Pious phrases about how everything will surely turn out well in the end ring pretty hollow when there are seven graves in the family plot. What can be done?
Practical matters move life forward. Tobit had given up on life for himself, but for his son Tobias there were still things to do. One of those matters was to recover the family's financial security which had been inaccessible during the many years of political turmoil. To that end, Tobit tells Tobias about the money which is on deposit in Media. But Tobias has grown up during a time when the roads to Media were unsafe – he does not know the way.
In those days, GPS wasn't yet available for camels.
Dealing with the mundane matters of life gives Raphael an opening to bring God's healing to Tobit, Anna, and Tobias, and to Raguel, Edna, and Sarah. Never underrate the value of mundane affairs. Bread and burials had been Tobit's main gifts to others; a bank account now becomes the gateway for Tobit to overcome his troubles.
In a lovely exchange of dialog that would match anything being written today, Tobias brings Raphael to meet Tobit, the two of them hit it off, and then Raphael (under the name Azarias) is engaged to be Tobias' guide and traveling companion. Raphael promises Tobit and Anna that he will bring Tobias to Media and then safely home.
16God be with you!Tobit replied [to Raphael]. Then he called Tobias and said to him,Son, get everything ready that you need for the journey, so that the two of you can be on your way. May God and his angel watch over you both and bring you back to me safe and sound.
Chapter 6 So Tobias and the angel started out toward Media, taking Tobias' dog along with them. They walked on until sunset, then camped by the Tigris River. 2 Tobias had gone down to wash his feet in the river, when suddenly a huge fish jumped up out of the water and tried to swallow one of his feet. Tobias let out a yell, 3 and the angel called to him,Grab that fish! Don't let it get away.Then Tobias grabbed the fish and dragged it up on the bank.
4Cut the fish open,the angel instructed,and take out its gall bladder, heart, and liver. Keep these with you; they can be used for medicine.5 Tobias did as the angel had told him. Then he cooked the fish, ate part of it, and salted the rest to take along with him. The two continued on together until they were near Media.
[On the way, Raphael explained,] 8You can use the gall bladder to treat someone whose eyes are covered with a white film. Just rub it on his eyes and blow on the film, and he will be able to see again.
9 When they had reached Media and were approaching the city of Ecbatana, 10 Raphael said,Tobias, my friend.
Yes, what is it?Tobias asked.
Raphael continued,Tonight we will stay at the home of your relative Raguel. He has only one child, a daughter named Sarah, 11 and since you are her closest relative, you have the right to marry her. You also have the right to inherit all her father's property.
Chapter 7 Raguel brought them into his house 2 and said to his wife Edna,Doesn't this young man look just like my cousin Tobit?
When We Lift Our Pack and Go
The story of Tobit participates in that tradition which enumerates and denominates the residents of God's heavenly kingdom. Raphael, whose name means God's healing, is described as a suprahuman entity and an intermediary between human beings and God; he is known not merely as an angel but an archangel, a general (so to speak) in the armies of God.
Those of us who have studied a little bit of Moses
ben Maimon know that you do not need to be a celestial
being in order to be an angel of God. Anyone or
anything which brings the power of God to others is
an angel. There is nothing in the plot which
demands that Raphael be anything more than what he
claims to be when Tobias first meets him:
Israelite, one of your distant relatives who
has been to Media
There is nothing to keep us from being God's angel in the way that Raphael was an angel to Tobias and to Sarah. Or we can be an angel in the way that Tobit was an angel to the poor and persecuted in his own neighborhood. Or in the way that Anna served as an angel to her husband and son during their time of poverty and blindness.
Or perhaps some of us can be God's angel like the dog who went along. Michael Gilmour wrote an intriguing essay which suggests that we should think of the dog, too, as an angel of God. He writes:
Tobit says, "May God in heaven bring you [plural] safely there and return you in good health to me; and may his angel, my son, accompany you both for your safety". … Tobit specifically mentions both legs of the journey (there and back), and the mysterious dog appears each time the friends hit the road. The prayer is also for an angelic companion for both Tobias and Raphael. Raphael is an angel, yes, but what angel accompanies him in accordance with Tobit's promised blessing? The dog qualifies.
It is Raphael and the dog and Tobias, and the fish as well, who bring the power of God's healing to Sarah, to Tobit, and to their families. Raphael is an angel of God, and so is Tobias, and the dog, and the fish, and so ought we to be.
Chapter 7 12 Raguel agreed.I will give her to you just as the Law of Moses commands. God in heaven has arranged this marriage, so take her as your wife. From now on, you belong to each other. Sarah is yours today and forever.
Chapter 8 When they had finished the meal, and it was time to go to bed, Sarah's parents led young Tobias to the bedroom … 9 and went to bed for the night.
Later that night, Raguel called his servants, and together they went out to dig a grave, 10 because Raguel thought,Tobias will probably die too, and people will laugh and make fun of us.11 When they finished digging the grave, Raguel went back into the house and said to his wife [Edna], 12Send one of the servant women to find out if Tobias is still alive. If he isn't, then we will bury him before anyone finds out.13 They then sent a servant woman to take a lamp and see if he was still alive. As she opened the door, she could see that both of them were sound asleep. 14 So she went back and told Raguel and Edna that Tobias was alive and unharmed. 18 Then Raguel ordered his servants to fill in the grave before dawn.
19 Raguel told his wife to bake enough bread for a big feast. 20 He called for Tobias and vowed that he would not let him leave for two weeks.
Chapter 9 Then Tobias called Raphael and said to him, 2Azarias, take four of the servants with you, and two camels, and go to Gabael's house in the town of Rages. Give him the signed document, so that he will give you the money. Then bring him back with you for the wedding feast. 3-4 You know that my father is counting the days until I come home, and he will be very upset if I am even one day late.
Chapter 10 Meanwhile, every day Tobit was keeping count of the time needed to travel to Rages and back. When the time was up and his son had not returned, Tobit said to his wife, 2What can be keeping him? Do you suppose Gabael has died? Maybe there is no one to give him the money.
4 Then Anna said,My son is dead. I'm sure of it.Each day she would rush out of the house to the road which Tobias had taken and would watch for him until sunset. She would let no one comfort her, and when she returned home she would weep and mourn for her son all night long, without sleeping.
Chapter 11 When Tobias left [Raguel's house], he was as happy as could be. He praised the Lord of heaven and earth, the King of all the world, because his journey had been so successful, and he promised to honor Raguel and his wife as long as they lived.
As they came near the city of Kaserin, just outside Nineveh, 2 Raphael said,Tobias, you know the condition your father was in when we left him. 3 We should go on ahead of your wife and get the house ready before everyone else arrives. 4 Be sure to bring the fish's gall bladder with you.So they went on ahead, and Tobias' dog ran along with them.
5 Meanwhile, Anna sat looking down the road for her son. 6 Suddenly she saw him coming and she shouted out to Tobit,Look! Our son is coming, and his friend is with him!
Faith, the famous passage in Hebrews 11 reminds
is to be sure of the things we hope for.
Raguel and Anna did not have faith, not in any kind of
fullness, because they were not sure. Raguel dug the
grave, even though he hoped for Tobias' survival. Anna
cried that her son must be dead, and yet she went out
every day to watch for him on the road.
We deceive ourselves when we substitute an illusion
of certainty for the certainty of faith. Faith is a
gift from God, and we cannot have it otherwise.
We are people like Anna and Raguel. We live most of
our lives without certainty.
The key is not that we are certain so much as that
we are faithful to what we hope for.
Don't try to fool me. My son is dead.
But she went every day to watch for him. We could do
worse than to live the kind of uncertain faithfulness
that Anna had.
Anna's faithful watching does not bring Tobias home. Through the ministry of Raphael (and perhaps the dog), the power of God brings Tobias home. But Anna's uncertain, watchful faithfulness provides an opening for God's gift to be known. Anna sees Tobias coming, because she was watching for him. She shouts for joy and hugs him and brings him to his father Tobit.
12-13 Tobias then applied the gall, and beginning from the corners of Tobit's eyes, he peeled away the white film. 14 Tobit threw his arms around Tobias' neck and wept for joy. Then he exclaimed,I can see you! My son, the light of my eyes!
Chapter 12 When the wedding feast was over, Tobit called his son Tobias and said to him,Son, be sure to pay your traveling companion, and don't forget to give him a bonus.
2 Tobias asked him,Father, how much do you think I should pay him? I wouldn't mind giving him half of everything we brought back with us.
6 Then Raphael called the two men aside and said to them,Praise God and tell everyone about the good things he has done for you, so that they too will honor him and sing his praises. Let everyone know what God has done. Never stop praising him. 7 It's a good idea to keep a king's secret, but what God does should be told everywhere, so that he may be praised and honored.
Chapter 14 1-2 Tobit was 62 years old when he became blind, but after his sight had been restored, he lived a very full life. Once again he gave generously to the poor, and he continued to praise God and tell of his greatness. Tobit died a peaceful death at the age of 112, and was given an honorable burial in Nineveh. 12 Later on, Tobit's wife [Anna] died and was buried beside her husband. Then Tobias and his wife moved to Ecbatana in Media, where they lived with Raguel, Tobias' father-in-law. 13 Tobias took care of Edna and Raguel in their old age and showed them great respect.
To God Be The Glory(verses 1 and 3)
Tobit began this account by reciting his spiritual testament, sharing with his family and all of us the good things which he had found. The Book of Tobit makes the claim that if you are faithful to God you will not lose the good things in your life.
We know, as Paul wrote in chapter 8 of his
letter to the Romans,
that in all things God works
for good with those that love him. This is so
in persecutions, in our blindnesses, in deaths and
partings, in all things. It is the same as what Joseph
tells his brothers in Egypt; he said,
evil against me, but God turned it into good. No
one says that the evil of Sennacherib is good, or that
Tobit's years of poverty were good, or that the deaths
of the seven men promised to Sarah were good. And yet
God's healing changes these evils into a legacy which
Anna and Tobit and Edna and Raguel could pass on to
Sarah and Tobias – and to us.
Chapter 9 Jesus called the twelve disciples together and gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases. Then he sent them out to preach the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick, after saying to them,Take nothing with you for the trip: no walking stick, no beggar's bag, no food, no money, not even an extra shirt.
Chapter 22 Then Jesus asked his disciples,When I sent you out that time without purse, bag, or shoes, did you lack anything?Not a thing,they answered.
When you leave your home and travel down the roads of life, is the power of God striding beside you? (And maybe prancing at your feet?) When you go to work, or to camp, or to school, when you visit family or take vacation, what treasure are you looking for? When you return, what healing of insight and relationship do you bring back? When you are old, what legacy of good things will you leave the people of God?
Tobit and Anna, Tobias and Sarah, Edna and Raguel struggled to find the certainty of God travelling with them. We have the advantage. For since the time when Tobit was written down, God has come to live with us. God in Jesus Christ was born, grew up, left home, travelled along the roads. He brought us old treasure that was nearly forgotten and new confidence in the presence and the power of God. Jesus lay down his life for our failures, and picked it up again for us to share in glory.
In response to this gift to us, let us join in benediction to each other: