Tobit: A Faithful Israelite

The book of Tobit is, on the face of it, a fairy-tale about a young man, Tobias, who goes out into the wide world, encounters many dangers, but is under the protection of the Heavenly Powers and returns with great riches and with Sarah, his wife, with whom he lives happily ever after. Benedikt Otzen

Tobit was written in either Hebrew or Aramaic, there dozens of fragments from five manuscripts found at Qumran. Little can be said of the author other than the fact he was likely a diaspora Jew. The book is difficult to date, but since there is no reference to the Maccabean revolt, but if the provenance of the book is outside of Judah then it is possible the author was not particularly concerned with the problems of living according to the Law in Jerusalem. Carey therefore gives a range of dates from 300 to 100 B. C. (ABD 6:1358).

Often studies on Tobit focus on two well-known literary features. First, the “Grateful Dead” motif refers to a character who does some kindness for the dead. The dead then reciprocate in some way. Tobit risks his own life and health to give the dead a proper burial, but this is not done in order to illicit a favor at all, he is simply performing a duty required by the Torah. In addition, it is not the dead who bless Tobit, but rather God (through the agency of an angelic being). If a Greco-Roman “Grateful Dead” motif is present it is adapted along Jewish lines since it is God who reward Tobit’s piety rather than the ghost of the dead person.

The second motif is the “The Poisonous Bride,” another common theme in the ancient literature.  In the story Sarah is married seven times, but her husband is killed by a demon before consummating the marriage. As with the “Grateful Dead,” this motif is fairly minor in the book of Tobit and cannot be considered the driving motif of the book.

A far more fertile ground for literary parallels is the Hebrew Bible, especially the patriarchal narrative. Tobias goes on a journey and obtains a wife, recalling Isaac and Rebekah (Gen 24) and Jacob (Gen 29). In both of these stories a member of Abraham’s family leaves the Land and journeys to a distant country, yet finds both extended family and the blessing of God through marriage. That Tobit is a righteous sufferer clearly recalls the book of Job. Even the complaints of Tobit’s wife are not unlike those of Job’s wife (Job 2:9-10). While Job is not a part of the Pentateuch, the story of Job was thought to be patriarchal.

Tobit seems to be drawing on the most ancient stories of the Jewish people in order to demonstrate to Diaspora Jews that God still works in the same way he always has even if his people have gone well beyond the Land of the Promise (Weitzman, 60). Like Daniel, Nehemiah, Modecai or Esther, Tobit is a righteous Diaspora Jew.

Is this a fair reading of Tobit? Is there anything else in the book which might support this view?



Bibliography: Benedikt Otzen, Tobit and Judith (Guides to Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha; Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic, 2002), 2; Steven Weitzman, “Allusion, Artifice, and Exile in the Hymn of Tobit,” JBL115 (1996): 49-61; 60.

12 thoughts on “Tobit: A Faithful Israelite

  1. I think that it is really interesting that you can see a resemblance in Tobit’s “Grateful Dead” and “The Poisonous Bride” and some of the other stories in the Old Testament; i.e. Isaac and Rebekah, Jobs’ complaining wife, and even similarities to Jonah’s situation in Nineveh. It is also interesting to have a little bit of insight of what may have been going on at that time; however it does seem that Tobit likes to talk about himself a lot; he makes himself out to be a “righteous sufferer”. I think that Tobit is looking for recognition for the things/deeds that he did and accomplished throughout his life.

  2. That is an excellent reading of Tobit. The story may have been written to encourage the Diaspora Jews’ faith in Yahweh. In addition, it was no doubt motivated by themes within the Old Testament canon itself, as they often appear within the narrative. Like you said, patriarchal themes from Genesis and Job appear in it as well as a stubborn and reverent adherence to the Torah while living in exile.

    Joseph of Arimathea is a great example of someone who follows the “Grateful Dead” motif. Even though Joseph was not a Diaspora Jew (Arimathea is located in Judea), he is an example of someone who sacrifices to keep proper Torah law. As a reverent Jew, do you think his motive had something to do with the “Grateful Dead” assumption? In his act of burying the body of Jesus, was Joseph only trying to keep the law or did he think that God would bless him in doing so? Or both?

    • Any Jewish person in the Second Temple would consider a proper burial a basic human right, and to leave a body unburied was an extreme dishonor to the person and their family. Joseph was properly treating the body of Jesus as would be expected of his followers (although no one else stepped forward to take care of the body, that may have been because it was unusual to request a crucified person for burial).

      I do not think anyone was motivated by “the grateful dead” literary motif, it is just one of those things that keeps turning up in stories (like the orphan ends up being the heir to a fortune, Oliver Twist to Harry Potter. That does not motivate me to care for orphans!)

  3. Being that the book of Tobit is not in the canonical Bible that I use, I was not sure if it would be similar to other books of the Bible in how it read or if it would look completely different. It seemed to be pretty similar and I really enjoyed reading it. I thought that it was really interesting and it makes me excited to read more of the books that are not in my Bible’s canon. I did not realize that there are two different motifs in the book of Tobit, which I thought was really cool to find out. I like the “Grateful Dead” motif because, like it says in the article, God blesses, as well as rewards Tobit instead of the dead person’s ghost. This reveals quite a bit because it shows us that this story is taking more of a Jewish approach rather than a Greco-Roman approach even though the Roman empire was becoming a large part of the world during the time that this book may have been written. Even though there are some books like Tobit that are not canon in all Bibles, there is still a lot that can be learned from them, such as what the culture was like, who was in power, and so much more that provides context for the New Testament. The second motif that is mentioned, which is known as “The Poisonous Bride” did not impact me as much as the other. I think that there is still a lot that can be learned from these non-canonical books, including Tobit, which may help us to learn more about the New Testament and the Bible as a whole.

  4. As I was reading through this blog post, I keep on thinking about the books and movies of Narnia and how some believe that it shows some biblical truth. There are some references to Adam and Eve and there has always been debate of the idea that the lion resembled the idea of Jesus. He was shamed, beaten, and sacrificed and soon after he “rose again” to defeat the evil witch that tries to overpower him. Some may wonder if it is safe for one in the faith to watch that kind of movie or read something like Tobit, but I think that Tomasino makes a very good point about how other views or ideas shape the faith, “The Jewish faith was capable of changing as new circumstances arose, new revelations were given or new challenges posed” (Tomasino, 102). During the Second Temple Period, there were a lot of cultural differences and beliefs about God or gods, angels, demons, but there was always a firm foundation for the Jews to stand on and that allowed God to use the other ideas or beliefs to teach or show the Jews something new about Himself or their relationship. I think that is what Tobit story provides. They share some truth or understandings in story telling similar to the situation with Narnia, there just needs to be a foundation first.

  5. I think that it is a fair reading of the book of Tobit to say that it draws on the stores of the Jewish people and sort of retells them in a way that makes them applicable to the Jews in the Diaspora. We all want to see examples and evidence that God is still working. Even now, we read the stores of the Bible and wish that we had lived in a time where we could have witnessed such miracles and power. I think it is plausible that Tobit takes those stories and combines them and retells them to show that God is still at work among his people. While reading Tobit, I recognized elements that reminded me of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jonah, Job, and Daniel. The story may not be the same as any of these, but it is easy to see where the author may have used them for inspiration. In some ways, this is still done in the modern culture, though not necessarily with stories from the Bible. I can think of several examples of modern literature, The Lunar Chronicles being one such example, that takes classic stories, such as the Disney fairytales, and rewrites them to be set in modern or futuristic times. These versions obviously make some changes to the original stories but they bear a resemblance. We also have many historical fiction novels that base off of historical events but create their own story to accompany the event. I think Tobit fits somewhere between these two genres, for being such a short book, it certainly has much that happens in it. It draws upon historical events in Israel’s past, and it reimagined them as part of its present, in the Diaspora. It is a reminder that God is still working, just as he did in the past, even though the Jews are scattered throughout the land. Tobit also produces this idea that perhaps some of them have walked with angels unaware. In chapter 12, Tobias’ traveling companion reveals that he is Raphael, “one of the seven angels who stand ready and enter before the glory of the Lord” (Tobit 12:15). This is further encouragement to the people that God is still at work among them, sometimes directly, and other times indirectly through others, like angels, that they may be unaware of.

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