Tobit: Remembering the Covenant

The author the book of Tobit presents Tobit as keeping the Covenant in the diaspora by consciously paralleling him to Joseph and Daniel, the two characters in the Hebrew Bible who lived in a foreign country yet remained true to the Mosaic Covenant. In both stories the hero is described as committed to the covenant and therefore as successful. Both Joseph and Daniel experience the blessings of the covenant and rise to powerful positions in the administration of a foreign government.  Their commitment to the Law creates a crisis when required to do something which is against Torah (Genesis 39, adultery; Daniel 1, unclean food; Daniel 3 and 6, prayer to an idol).  The hero is then persecuted and stripped of position, yet still remains faithful.  Because of continued faith in persecution, they are restored once again to a state of blessing.  In both the Joseph and Daniel stories, this cycle is repeated several times.

In Genesis, Joseph is selected as the heir, but his thrown into the pit by his brothers and sold into slavery.  He is appointed head over Potiphar’s house, but is then thrown into prison (also a pit).  He then rises to prominence in the prison, but is forgotten after he interprets the baker and butler’s dreams.  In Daniel, Daniel is rises higher in the government in chapters 1, 2, 5, and 6, although only 1 and 6 are in direct connection to some form of pressure on Jewish traditions. The book of Tobit should not therefore be read as “an enchanting but nonetheless esoteric romance that lies outside the mainstream of authentic Judaism,” but rather as a “well-constructed narrative in the service of Israel’s religion” (Di Lella, Tobit, 387).

The book begins with Tobit in captivity in Assyria.  Tobit claims to be the only Jew in the Diaspora who attends festivals in Jerusalem (1:6a) and to do all which the “everlasting covenant” requires (1:6b, cf. 5:14, he lists others in the Diaspora who attended festival with him). Tobit makes all of the appropriate tithes and offerings required by the Torah (1:6b-8). In Deuteronomy 14:26 the people were encouraged to come to Jerusalem and spend a “second tithe” on whatever they want, as long as the money was spent in Jerusalem (Tobit 1:7). A family might have participated in a shared sacrifice, providing them with meat for a banquet with friends and family.  While the Law required participation in all festivals (Ex 33:17; Deut. 16:16) it was unlikely anyone living outside of Jerusalem made more than one a year, Diaspora Jews even less, perhaps once in a lifetime. Yet Tobit here claims to give all three tithes required in the law in Jerusalem!  He married within this family rather than marrying either outside the clan or outside of Israel (1:9).

Like Daniel, Tobit states he has kept himself from Gentile food, despite the fact that many Jews at this potentially unclean food (1:10-11). Because he was “mindful of God” with all his heart the Lord gives him favor and good standing in the government of Shalmaneser.  The verb translated “to be mindful” in the NRSV is μιμνῄσκομαι, a verb used in the LXX to translate זכר in several key texts in Deuteronomy. For example, Deuteronomy 8:18 Moses admonishes the people to “remember (using a future passive of μιμνῄσκομαι) the Lord your God” because he is able to give them the ability to produce wealth “and so confirms his covenant which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today” (NRSV).

Remembering the Lord God is linked to production of wealth and the blessings of the covenant.  In 2:2 Tobit tells Tobias his son take some food from the feast and deliver it to the poor, to anyone who is “wholeheartedly mindful of God.” This description uses the verb “remember” to describe one the faithful among the diaspora Jews.

The book of Tobit would be an encouragement to Jewish readers living in the Diaspora to remain faithful to the covenant God gave to Israel. God still remembers his people even when they are living in exile and he will bless them when they remain “wholeheartedly mindful of God.” This may have resonated with early Christianity who sometimes described itself as “exiles” in this world (1 Peter 1:1).

Are the other examples of in Tobit of remembering the God of Israel?

5 thoughts on “Tobit: Remembering the Covenant

  1. “While the Law required participation in all festivals (Ex 33:17; Deut. 16:16) it was unlikely anyone living outside of Jerusalem made more than one a year, Diaspora Jews even less, perhaps once in a lifetime.”

    Your comment reminded me of something I think about from time to time. While Jesus was an infant he depended on his earthly parents to completely observe the law of Moses. This includes the festivals. For most of his infancy and youth I assume Jesus lived in Nazareth, a five day walk to Jerusalem…

  2. Tobit is a very interesting read for Jewish literature. It reflects many concepts that we see in the Old Testament when it comes to those who are living away from Israel. In many ways the story of Tobit reminds me of Pilgrims Progress because Tobit stands out as such upstanding Jew, he remembers God all the time. The twist and turns of Tobit’s life display how a man who follows the Torah holds fast to God through trials and challenges. Tobit displays the best actions for Diaspora Jews. He makes all the tithes every year (Tobit 1). They are required at the temple even though he does not live in Israel. He also makes sure to marry a woman with in his clan and does not settle for marrying an outsider. The thing that is humorous with Tobit’s devotion to marrying a fellow Jew is that he marries a demon possessed woman, which in the narrative could be showing the statement to Israel that it is better to marry a possessed Israelite than to marry a foreigner. This is a compelling part to the plot in the story of Tobit. Overall the story of Tobit holds onto the idea that if Israel loves the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength they will be blessed where they are at. “ and we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28).

  3. It’s interesting that Tobit, in captivity, was still faithful. Israel was notorious for its compulsive apostasy when in hard times, a sign of a stubborn and rebellious people. Rather than turn back to God, abandonment of whom was the reason for their troubles, they continued to fall further and deeper into resistance to His ways. This is a uniquely Old Covenant phenomenon. Now, in the New Covenant, God restrains His punishment of the unfaithful on Earth through grace. Believers going through their own hard times have scripture to point them back to the Lord; the Jewish nation had spiritual corruption going all the way to the central core of their leadership. It is a form of mercy and grace, though, that the Israelites were allowed the opportunity to turn back to Him at any point. Their punishment was not death, but “only” being scattered and conquered. Another aspect of their punishment was falling into the sinful ways of their conquerors (God’s Law is righteousness, and following it brings His reward, while other laws are sin, and following them brings His wrath). But Tobit was spared from this punishment by being allowed to remain in the faith of his ancestors, whether from his upbringing or from personal study. Why was it that God ordained for Tobit to be faithful? Whatever the reason is, Tobit kept the Covenant, and maybe that’s why the authors saw fit to write about him. They saw him as an anomaly in the stereotypical Jewish captive mindset.

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