Tobit - Introduction
Combining ethical exhortation and prayers with broad humor, a rollicking plot, and vivid characters, the book of Tobit is a splendid example of the Jewish novella or short historical fiction. In addition to its entertainment value, it offers to historians information about the postexilic period and to theologians a view of a God who tests the faithful, responds to prayers, and redeems the covenant community.
The author of the book is unknown. Although the original language of the document was likely Aramaic, only fragments of that text have survived. The translation below is based on the Greek text of Codex Sinaiticus; other versions include the Old Latin, Jerome's Vulgate, a medieval Aramaic rendering, Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, and fragments in both Hebrew and Aramaic among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The book likely dates to sometime in the third century BCE; its place of composition remains unknown, with plausible suggestions including the eastern Diaspora, Egypt, and Israel.
The book is named for its principal character, Tobit. After the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, Tobit, his wife Anna, and his son Tobias were exiled from their home in Galilee to Assyria. There Tobit eventually, like Joseph (Genesis 39–50), Mordecai (in the book of Esther), and Daniel (in the book of Daniel), found himself in the service of a foreign ruler, as an official in the court of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser. This pious Israelite too was tested: he was removed from his official position and then persecuted by Shalmaneser's successor for his insistence on burying the unattended corpses of his fellow Jews. Finally, one evening, following yet another burial, Tobit was blinded by a bird with unfortunate aim. Dependent on others, including his wife, for support, and following an argument with her in which she questioned the value of his piety, Tobit prayed for death. At the same time his relative Sarah was also praying for death. The demon Asmodeus, who had fallen in love with her, had killed each of her seven successive grooms on the wedding night. To resolve these somewhat improbable situations, the angel Raphael, in disguise as Tobias's traveling companion will escort the young man first to Media to exorcise the demon and marry Sarah and then back to Nineveh to cure Tobit.
The relatively complex plot is tied together by the parallel situations of Tobit and Sarah, prayers of praise and references to almsgiving, and frequent supernatural events. Its humorous aspects—from the angel in disguise to the attack of a magical fish—make the stories of Tobit and Sarah almost farcical and so prevent the book from becoming tragic or maudlin. Readers familiar with biblical motifs will recognize various genres and themes incorporated in the volume: wisdom sayings, the antipathy between the matriarch Sarah and her slave Hagar (Gen 16; 21 ), the search for a bride for Isaac (Gen 24 ), the success of the Jew in the royal court, the problems of life in the Diaspora, Job's trials, the role of angels, the centrality of Jerusalem, the fulfillment of prophecy and, especially, the importance of charity. The numerous personal prayers, found also in the stories of Judith, Daniel and the Additions to Daniel (Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Jews, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon), the Greek Additions to Esther, and elsewhere in Jewish postexilic literature, emphasize the universal authority and righteousness of God.
The book of Tobit is also replete with information concerning family life, travel, burial and eating customs, gender roles, and medicine. These various matters testify to the author's interest in providing guidance for life in exile: Where Temple sacrifice is unavailable and the people are scattered, the story insists that Jews maintain their identity not only through piety and practice, but also through strong bonds between parents and children, between husbands and wives, and with family members and fellow Jews. To preserve the community, Tobit also insists that his son imitate Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who “took wives from among their kindred” ( 12–13 ).
The book also has connections with well‐known folktale motifs, including the dangerous bride, the monster in the nuptial chamber, the supernatural being in disguise, the miraculous animal, and the grateful dead. Specifically mentioned are the characters of Ahikar and his nephew, whose story was well known in antiquity; there may also be some hints of Homer's Odyssey.