Faithful Diaspora Jews – Daniel, Joseph and Tobit

The book of Daniel tells a remarkable story of accommodation and resistance. Daniel does accommodate himself to some elements of Babylonian culture, but refuses the king’s food at the risk of his own life. In Daniel 3 three Jewish exiles refuse an oath of loyalty to Babylon and in Daniel refuses to pray to an emperor as if he were God.

Tobit burys the Dead, Giovanni Francesco

There are other books in written in the Second Temple Period which portray faithful Jews liking in the Diaspora who also resist elements of Hellenism The book of Tobit presents Tobit as faithful to the Covenant even though he lives in the diaspora. In many ways the character consciously parallels Joseph and Daniel.

Joseph and Daniel are 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.

That Joseph is faithful to the Mosaic Covenant prior to Moses seems to be the belief of Second Temple period Judaism. This is clear in the story of Joseph and Aseneth. Aseneth is the Egyptian woman Joseph marries according to Genesis 41:45. In the story Joseph refuses to kiss Aseneth because her lips have touched unclean food. The book of Joseph and Asenath is in part the story of her conversion to Judaism.

Joseph and Daniel are commitment to aspect of the Law, creating a crisis when they are required to do something which is against Torah. In Genesis 39 Joseph resists adultery; in Daniel 1 the issue is 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.The book 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). Tobit claims to give all three tithes required in the law in Jerusalem even though he lives in Assyria. 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 μιμνῄσκω is translated “to be mindful” in the NRSV and used by the LXX to translate זכר in several key texts in Deuteronomy.

For example, in Deuteronomy 8:18 Moses admonishes the people to “remember (using a future passive of μιμνῄσκω) 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, whoever is “wholeheartedly mindful of God.” This description uses the verb μιμνῄσκω to describe one the faithful among the diaspora Jews.

Tobit does “acts of charity” (1:16-17). The word translated “acts of charity” is ἐλεημοσύνη, an important word in Tobit and other later books in the LXX. Of the 70 occurrences of the word in the LXX, 33 are in Tobit, and 13 are in Sirach. For example, in Sirach 3:30 almsgiving “atones for sin.” Significantly, the word appears twice in Daniel 4:27 (The word also occurs in Daniel 9:16, but it is the righteous acts of the Lord which are in mind). After Nebuchadnezzar is restored from his madness, Daniel admonishes him concerning his sins, telling him to “redeem them with almsgiving.”

One specific act of charity in Tobit is the proper burial of the dead. While a general respect for the dead is found in the biblical material, there seems to be no specific foundation in the Hebrew Bible for Tobit’s insistence on helping to bury the dead. Whatever his motivation, Tobit performs these acts of charity because they are at the heart of his religion.

Like both Joseph and Daniel, Tobit’s commitment to burying the dead leads to suffering. When Tobit cares for the bodies of those killed by Sennacherib, he is persecuted by the king (1:17-20). Tobit loses his property and is under the threat of death, but within forty days Sennacherib is assassinated by his own sons and Tobit’s property is restored through the intervention of Ahikar (1:21-22). When he buries the body he is mocked by his neighbors (presumably Jews) for again doing an act of charity which could result in his own suffering. Because Tobit is unclean as a result of touching the corpse he sleeps outside of the house (at the wall, 29; cf, Num 19:11-13), indicating his observance of purity laws.

When Tobit is about to die, he is described as a man who had “lived in prosperity, giving alms and continually blessing God” (14:2). Like both Joseph and Daniel, Tobit’s commitment to core elements of his Jewish faith result in real-world prosperity despite suffering as a result of his commitment.

Tobit is therefore a faithful Jewish person living in the exile. Like Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon, he remains committed to core elements of the Covenant and suffers because of these commitments. That Joseph, Daniel, and Tobit are all eventually rewarded and prosperous would have been an encouragement to Jewish readers living in the Diaspora.

9 thoughts on “Faithful Diaspora Jews – Daniel, Joseph and Tobit

  1. This is the first time I’ve really been made to notice the similarity between Daniel 4:27 and the Second-Temple motif of atonement through almsgiving. Definitely going to have to study that a bit. It looks like a lot of English translations render the term as “break away” from your sins as opposed to “redeem” them.

  2. First off, amen Dr. Long! I absolutely loved how you connected Joshua and Daniel with Tobit! I also love your word studies here! I was proud of myself; I was able to recognize (zakar) without the vowels!

    To elaborate on your post, Daniel in Babylon and Tobit in Assyria are both excellent examples of Jews being faithful to the Mosaic Covenant and their relationship with YHWH while in the diaspora. Interestingly, as you stated, Joseph observes and holds to the Mosaic Covenant before the Mosaic covenant is even established. However, Joseph is not the only example of this in the Old Testament. We also have the wonderful story of Job, who made sacrifices daily with the mindset, “perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their heart” (Job 1:5 NIV). Therefore, Job didn’t just make sacrifices when he or his family sinned, he sacrificed daily just in case they sinned! Job’s heart was recognized by YHWH, for YHWH states about Job, “there is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8). Both Joseph and Job are examples of YHWH worshipers observing the Mosaic Covenant before it is even established! Therefore, there was clearly and oral Jewish law that was well known among YHWH worshipers. I state this because Joseph was in Egypt, and Job was in the land of Uz (Job 1:1). Interestingly, Job is not stated as a Jewish or Hebrew man, he is only stated as a wealthy man, “who feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). Therefore, Job very well could have been a Gentile observing Jewish law and worshiping YHWH.

    Moving forward, all four of these men, Joseph, Daniel, Tobit, and Job all choose to worship YHWH and hold to their beliefs no matter the consequences. The consequences of this for Joseph, Daniel, and Tobit are all stated above. For Job, this seems to cause animosity between him and his wife. For after Job and his wife lose everything, his wife says to Job, “are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9). Job responds with, “you are talking like a foolish woman” (Job 2:10), displaying that no matter what happens or the result, Job will not stop worshiping YHWH. This is truly inspiring. As Christians living in the United States, we are very fortunate to freely worship God. However, not all are as lucky. There are currently Christians dying all around the world for being believers in Jesus Christ. Joshua, Daniel, Tobit, Job, and martyrs today can all be used as examples and inspiration to stand firm in our faith and hold to our relationships with God no matter the result or consequence!

  3. Following the exile and dispersion of Israel, many were confronted with questions of how a faithful Jew was to follow Yahweh while being separate from the Temple and the land. This expulsion signaled the end of Yahwism, which emphasized temple sacrifice and nationalism, and the beginning of Judaism, which emphasized personal obedience to the law (Tomasino, 48-49). In Daniel and Second Temple Literature, this concern was heavily discussed, As in Daniel 3, where Daniel is described as refusing to pray to the emperor and the three Jewish exiles refusing to partake in an oath of loyalty to Babylon. Similarly, in the Book of Tobit, Tobit is a Jew living in the diaspora who remained faithful to the covenant and obedient to the law. Despite living in Assyria, he still attends festivals in Jerusalem and gives the required tithes and offerings described in the Torah (Long, 2020). Furthermore, similar to Daniel, Tobit refused to eat unclean foods, unlike many diaspora Jews who assimilated into the dominant practices of the surrounding cultures.
    These two examples of faithful Jews in exile from national Israel display that, despite many Jews assimilating to the customs and practices of the surrounding nations, others remained steadfast in their moral and religions observance of the Law and obedience to Yahweh. This is a significant development since the manner in which Judaism was practiced radically altered, embracing a more individualistic approach to obedience and service to Yahweh. Additionally, once the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem, to rebuild the temple and the walls around Jerusalem, many of these faithful Jews who lived in exile would return and contribute to the restoration of the fallen state. Regardless, this shift from Yahwism to Judaism transformed the way religious Jews were to practice their beliefs and interact with the surrounding culture, as the book of Daniel and the book of Tobit illustrate.

  4. I always love the contrast between Daniel and Jehoiachin. Daniel refuses to assimilate into Babylonian religion/culture, so he receives both earthly success and the favor of Yhwh. But Jehoiachin submits to pagan life, and he eats at the king’s table until he dies. Even after Awel-Marduk frees Jehoiachin from his bondage, he chooses to enslave himself anyway. Abandoning the Lord is itself an eternal slavery to sin. It’s an eternal exile in Babylon.

    We can make the same contrast between Jehoiachin and Tobit. Tobit refuses to abandon his Jewish heritage; burying bodies so as to not defile his people. Ignoring threats from Shalmaneser and Sennacherib, he continues to honor his people and his Lord. Like Daniel, Tobit also refuses to eat the food of Babylon. Perhaps this is because the food is ritualistically unclean, or because it has been sacrificed to Babylonian gods.

    In what ways do we eat at the king’s table today? In what ways do we abandon our Christian brothers – and our Lord – to instead pursue pagan customs? When we submit to the culture, we often feel free. It can feel like we are released from our moral bondage. In reality, we – like Jehoiachin – are placing ourselves into eternal slavery. Freedom is found in discipline, not assimilation. Freedom is found in the Lord alone.

  5. I find it interesting how Tobit was insistent in giving the dead a proper burial as an “act of charity” since it related to his religion. This act speaks volume to Tobit’s character. Throughout the book of Tobit, he is viewed as being a faithful Jew. In fact, at the end of his life, he was described as a man who lived in prosperity and who gave what he had to bless God despite living in exile. This shadows both Daniel and Joseph in the Bible. Joseph was held in captivity in Egypt (Genesis 37:18-36) while Daniel was held captive in Babylon (Daniel 1:1-8:26). It is interesting how Tobit is held in such a high regard like Daniel and Joseph were.

    What I found most interesting from what was discussed of Tobit in class, was how Tobit also seems to shadow Job. Job was a righteous man in the Old Testament whose faith was tested. Similar to this, Tobit endures suffering as well. Something that stood out to me most from the class notes was how Tobit’s wife made complaints that are extremely similar to the ones that Job’s wife made. In Job 2:9 it says, “His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” Overall, it is perplexing to see such significant similarities not just between Tobit, Joseph, and Daniel, but between Tobit and Job as well.

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