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.

8 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. Reading Tobit does give us a good model for the Diaspora Jew, as Christians look to the bible to find what it means to be a “model Christian”. What’s interesting about this in its execution is that while we can’t necessarily apply some of these minor motifs today (although burying the dead is something we much prefer to do, seeing as there are more dead people on this earth than there are living), it gives us a good picture of Second Temple Period history when we look at these texts from a historical standpoint rather than a theological standpoint(although for some it may be more relevant to do so).


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