Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Charms of Tobit

The various books of the Bible can be described in many ways – powerful, thought-provoking, inspiring, even frightening – but there are few that I would describe as charming. Tobit is an exception. This book – canonical in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches, considered apocryphal in most others – is a stand-alone short story that is full of charm. By that I mean that it is gentle, sometimes humorous, and captivating, a tale of faith, good behavior, reward for patience and a love story to boot.

Biblical scholars tell us that Tobit was probably written in what is called the Intertestamental period, the centuries between the compilation of the Tanakh by the Men of the Great Assembly (perhaps around 450 BC) and the writings of the new Testament.

Although not part of the Tanakh, the book of Tobit was included in the Greek translation of the Jewish Bible, called the Septuagint, that was the primary text used by diaspora Jews throughout the Roman Empire for several hundred years (Greek was a commonly spoken language for these Jews, whereas many of them were evidently not fluent in Hebrew), and a fragment of Tobit in Hebrew has been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran.

The Septuagint (roughly, the book of the 70) is named for the process by which it was supposedly created. Seventy-two scribes were said to have been housed separately in 72 cells, and in 72 days produced translations of the Bible in Greek that were word-for-word identical.

According to the Talmud:
"King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one's room and said: 'Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.' God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did."
The resulting text included 10 books that are not part of the Tanakh, plus additions to the books of Daniel and Esther.

When Jerome translated the Bible into Latin in the 5th century, he included Tobit along with six other books of the Septuagint that are not part of the Hebrew text. Thus, Tobit became part of the Roman Catholic canon (the Orthodox churches use the Greek Septuagint as their Old Testament biblical source).

When Martin Luther came in for his cleansing of the church, he threw out those extra books, including Tobit, because they were not part of the Tanakh. And when the great King James translation into English was done, the extra seven books of the Catholic Bible were separated out into a middle section called the Apocrypha (the King James Bible, beautiful and powerful as its language is, was a child of politics – an attempt to create a translation that all English-speaking faithful could use, regardless of their particular brand of faith. Its creation is detailed in Adam Nicolson’s wonderful account, God’s Secretaries.

So today, Tobit is canonical for roughly two-thirds of the world’s Christians, while for most Protestant churches it is considered extra-canonical, and sometimes even heretical.

When Tobit was removed from the Protestant canon, church leaders had to justify its exclusion, and I suspect that arguing that the Jews didn’t consider it canonical didn’t hold much water, given the regard in which Jews were held. So the argument was made that Tobit was full of devilish magic. The argument had to be made strongly, because Tobit was a much-beloved book, for reasons that I will try to make clear (it continues to be beloved in the churches that consider it canonical, and its text is often used in Catholic wedding ceremonies).

Tobit tells the story of a Jewish family in exile from the Holy Land, part of the Assyrian captivity. The character who gives the book its title is a faithful Jew who, even before the captivity, rebelled against his neighbors in the tribe of Napthali who had turned to worship of Ba’al. Unlike them, Tobit continued to travel regularly to Jerusalem, to tithe at the temple. A man of faith and goodness, he also notes that he shopped in Jerusalem, supporting the local economy by spending another tenth of his income there, and gave a third tenth to charity.

The first two chapters of Tobit are narrated in the first person. Tobit tells of being taken captive to the city of Nineveh, on the Tigris, where he remained observant to Jewish dietary law while other Jews turned to the local fare; rose to the rank of purchasing agent in the government of King Shalmaneser; married a kinswoman, Anna, and sired a son, Tobias; and then became a fugitive when he rebelled against the cruel policies of Shalmaneser’s son and successor, King Sennacherib. Sennacherib was a murderous sort, who killed his enemies and cast their bodies to rot outside the city walls. Tobit made it his mission to give those bodies a proper burial, and when the king found out, Tobit had to go into hiding, leaving his wife and son behind.

Fortunately for Tobit, Sennacherib’s reign was short-lived. Within 50 days of Tobit’s flight, Sennacherib was m,urdered by two of his sons, and replaced by one of those sons, Esarhaddon. Esarhaddon, evidently a kindlier sort, appointed Tobit’s nephew as a sort of chief of staff – a sort of analog to Joseph in Egypt – paving the way for Tobit’s return.

But as Tobit and his family are preparing to celebrate the feast of the Pentecost, another crisis occurs. Tobit has sent his son, Tobias, out to find some local poverty-stricken Jews and invite them to the table. But Tobias returns, saying that a Jew has been strangled and dumped in the marketplace. Tobit rushes out to find and bury him, resulting in ridicule from his neighbors. Weeping over this, Tobit goes to the courtyard of his home and falls asleep. Some sparrows poop on his face and into his eyes, causing cataracts that blind him. Oy!

With Tobit out of commission, Anna has to go to work, evidently doing some sort of piecework – perhaps as a seamstress – for the local rich folk.

In chapter 3, we cut to an another scene, in a city called Ectabana of Media (Media being another district of the kingdom). There we learn of a relative of Tobit, Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, who has married seven men, all of whom died on their wedding night, before consummating the marriages.

Sarah is being mocked by her maids in a scene that recalls an earlier Sarah, Abraham’s barren sister-wife, being mocked by the pregnant slave girl Hagar. The maids suggest that Sarah of Raguel has strangled her husbands, and hope that she never is able to bear children.

In cross-cutting that strikes me as very cinematic, we return to Nineveh and Tobit, who suddenly remembers that years ago he left some money for safe-keeping with a friend in another Median city, Rages. This money could now be useful, since Tobit can’t work and he has argued with Anna over her income (he suggests that she stole a goat that she was given in payment, and she calls him a “know-it-all”).

So Tobit enlists his son, Tobias, to travel to Rages to collect the cash.

Enter Raphael, an archangel. Raphael has been sent to help the family out, both the Tobits in Nineveh and the Raguels in Rages. Tobias goes searching for a traveling companion and finds Raphael, who presents himself to the family as a distant relative (the angel’s deception is another basis for early Protestants arguments against the canonicity of Tobit – angels don’t lie!) and is given Tobit’s blessing to accompany his son on the journey.

The archangel Raphael is mentioned by name only in the book of Tobit. In Daniel, we have two other named archangels, Michael and Gabriel (Gabriel shows up again in the gospel of Luke, to speak to Zacharias about the unexpected late-in-life pregnancy of Elizabeth). A fourth named archangel, Uriel, shows up in several deuterocanonical books (Enoch, 2 Esdras) and some Gnostic texts. These angels act as messengers and guides – the word angel comes from the Hebrew for messenger – and only marginally act in supernatural ways. Thus Raphael gives Tobias what one might call unconventional medical advice (it may have been conventional at the time, for all I know), but doesn’t really provide anything in the way of supernatural assistance, at least in my reading of the book.

The boy and the angel set out, with – wait for it – Tobias’ little dog in tow. This is the first time in the Bible we hear about a pet. The dog doesn’t play any sort of pivotal role, and is only mentioned twice – on the journey to Rages and the journey home – but still. A pet. Another reason to love the story. (that dog has captured the imagination of many writers, including Swift, Voltaire and Smollett--- all of whom refer to him in their works – as well as that of painters, who inevitably include the dog in their depictions of Tobias and Raphael).

On the road, the trio stop to fish for dinner, and Tobias catches a big one. Raphael tells him to save the liver, the heart and the gall, because they make useful medicine (this is the source of the charges that the story is magical in nature. I don’t know, sounds like folk medicine to me).

So on they go to Rages, where they stop in at their relative Raguel’s house and Tobias falls in love with Sarah. The pair marry as the family and the maids look on in fear, but Raphael has told Tobias that if anyone is troubled by a demon (Sarah’s woes are ascribed to the demon Asmodeus), burning the heart and liver and surrounding the afflicted person with the smoke will drive the demon away. Tobias does as he has been told, lives through the wedding night, and emerges in the morning to the delight of all involved.

Tobias asks Raphael to go to Rages and collect his Dad’s money (they have the receipt), which Raphael does, allowing Tobias and Sarah to spend some time with Sarah’s folks before they move back to Nineveh. On their arrival in Nineveh, Tobias rubs the fish gall in Tobit’s eyes (yuk, but I can see why the caustic gall might have been tried as a remedy for cataracts), curing him.

And, essentially, they all live happily ever after.

Woven through the story are testament’s to Tobit’s faith and kindness. He not only buries the dead, he tithes, gives to the poor and loves his family deeply. I want to quote extensively from Chapter 4, where Tobit gives fatherly advice to Tobias before sending him off on his journey.
“My son, if I die, bury me, but do not disregard your mother. Honor her all the days of your life. Do what is pleasing to her; but do not grieve her. Remember, my son, that she experienced many dangers for you while you were in the womb … My son, remember the Lord our God all your days, and do not desire to sin or to disobey His commandments. Do righteousness all the days of your life, and do not walk in the ways of wrongdoing. For if you walk in the truth, you will be successful in your works. Do almsgiving from your possessions to all who do righteousness. When you do almsgiving, do not let your eye be envious. Do not turn your face away from any poor man, so the face of God will not be turned away from you. Do almsgiving based on the quantity of your possessions. If you possess only a few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have … So now, my son, love your brothers and do not be arrogant in your heart against your brothers, the sons and daughters of your people. Take a wife for yourself from them, for arrogance brings destruction and great disorder, and in such worthlessness there is loss and great defect … Do not keep overnight the wages of any man who works for you, but pay him immediately. If you serve God, He will pay you. Give heed to yourself, my son, in all your works, and be disciplined in all your conduct. What you yourself hate, do not do to anyone … From your bread, give to him who is hungry and from your clothing, give to the naked … Seek counsel from every sensible man, and do not treat any useful advice with contempt. At every opportunity bless the Lord God, but more than this ask that your ways may become straight, and that all your paths and purposes may prosper.”
Beautiful, wonderful advice for living. I’ll say no more, because there is no way I could say it as well.

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