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.