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.

The Words of Ahikar

Ahikar (also spelled Ahiqar) is “one of the best-known and most widely disseminated tales in the ancient modern world” (Lindenberger, OTP 2:480). The text is quite old, probably dating from the fifth or sixth century B.C. The book likely had an influence on several Apocryphal books, such as Tobit 1:41 (Charles APOT 1:296 lists parallels between Ahikar and Sirach) and was popular well into the Christian Era. The book is considerably different than any surveyed thus far because it is a part of the context of Mesopotamia rather than the Old Testament. While this is certainly wisdom literature, it may not be Hebrew wisdom literature, at least in its most basic form. OTP 2:483-484 discusses the possibility of an historical Ahiqar based on cuneiform tablets discovered at Uruk.

Words of AhikarThe name of the book appears and there are several other superficial parallels. The genre of Ahikar is a “court tale,” so often a parallel is made to Daniel (Goldingay, Daniel, 6), although it is possible also to see an affinity to Esther as well in that Ahikar saved a man’s life, then later that man has power over him. The value of the book for New Testament studies is primarily in the “sayings” section. There are many sayings which have parallels to Old Testament wisdom and therefore may be present in the New Testament as well. Likely as not the New Testament stands on the foundation of the Old rather than on a book like Ahikar. The book does serve to show the sort of proverbial wisdom which was current in the centuries before Christ and an interesting study could be done tracing the trajectory from Old Testament wisdom to Ahiqar then to Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, then into Christian wisdom like material.

The “plot” of the book concerns the retirement of Ahikar after the death of Sennacherib. Ahikar requests that his adopted son Nadin take his role as advisor and scribe for the new king, Esarhaddon. Nadin spreads a rumor that Ahikar has devised a “wicked plot” against Esarhaddon, so the king orders him killed. The guard sent to capture and execute Ahikar was once involved in a court intrigue himself and Ahikar spared his life. This guard proposes to kill a eunuch slave and tell people it was Ahikar in order to spare his life. They do this, and Ahikar hides himself while everyone thinks he is dead.

The story breaks off at that point, but Lindenberger summarizes the rest of the story as reconstructed from later versions: The king of Egypt contacts Esarhaddon and asks for the wisest man in Assyria to come and supervise the building of a temple between heaven and earth. No one can meet the challenge of the king’s riddles and Esarhaddon rues killing Ahikar. The guard realizes the time is right, so he brings Ahikar out of hiding and the king rejoices. After the king apologizes, Ahiqar asks to punish Nadin (which involves being chained up and beaten while Ahikar lectures him).

The Sayings of Ahikar amount to several pages of proverbial wisdom. Many are nearly identical to Proverbs (line 82, for example, “spare the rod and spoil the child” cf. Prov. 23:13). Some are obscure and difficult to understand the point. For example, line 117 says “there is no lion in the sea, therefore the sea-snake is called labbu.” Other proverbs invoke the name of various gods (Shamash the Sun-God, Baal Shamayn, “The Merciful” in line 107).

There are a few lines which are reminiscent of New Testament verses. Line 100, for example, describes the king’s word as sharper than a double-edged sword (cf., Heb. 4:12, the word of the Lord is sharper than a double-edged sword). The parallel is superficial, but may indicate the figure of speech was part of common speech in the first century. Other parallels are thematic, such as line 137 which condemns amassing great wealth, a common theme in both the Old and New Testament (1 Tim. 6:10, for example).