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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Tobit

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The Double Situation in Nineveh and Ecbatana ( 1:1–3:17 )

( 1:1–2 ) Tobit

Tōb(e)it is the Greek form of Aramaic Ṭôbî, the father's name, which is a shortening of Ṭôbīyāh, the son's name, meaning, ‘YHWH is my good’. The name characterizes what God does for both in the book. Tobiel, the name of Tobit's father, means, ‘El (God) is my good’. The tribe of Naphtali was named after its eponymous ancestor, son of Jacob and second son of Bilhah, the maidservant of Rachel (Gen 30:8 ). The tribe resided in northern Galilee, near Beth-shemesh and Bethanath (Judg 1:33 ). ‘Shalmaneser’ (Gk. Enemessaros): the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V (727–722 BCE) began the siege of Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom (2 Kings 17:5 ), but it capitulated only after his death (721), to his successor, the usurper Sargon II (722–705), who eventually deported Israelites to captivity in Assyria (2 Kings 17:6; cf. 18:9–13 ). Thisbe was a Galilean town otherwise unknown. Kedesh Naphtali was a town in Upper Galilee, mentioned in Josh 20:7 . From it Tiglath-pileser III (745–727) had earlier (733–732) deported Jews to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29 ). Asher was probably Hazor (Josh 11:1; 2 Kings 15:29 ). Asher was probably Hazor (Josh 11:1; 2 Kings 15:29 ). Phogor was another Galilean town otherwise unknown.

( 1:3–22 ) Tobit's Background

Until 3:6 the story is recounted in the first person singular. Tobit tells of his piety and struggle to lead an upright Jewish life both in Israel and in exile. v. 3 , the ancient city of Nineveh became the capital of Assyria under Sennacherib (705–681) and functioned as such during the last decades of the Assyrian empire. It was located on the east bank of the Tigris River, a site today opposite part of the town of Mosul in northern Iraq. See Jon 1:2; 3:2–7; 4:11; Nah 2:7–8; 3:1–19; Zeph 2:13 . v. 4 , ‘deserted the house of David and Jerusalem’, according to 1 Kings 12:19–20 the revolt of the northern tribes occurred in the days of Jeroboam in 922 BCE, but Tobit speaks of it taking place in his youth. ‘Chosen from … all the tribes’, see Deut 12:1–14; 2 Sam 6:1–19; 1 Kings 5:5; 2 Kings 23:23 . v. 5 , ‘on all the mountains’, high places are mentioned in Hos 10:5, 8; Ezek 6:1–14 . ‘Calf’, see 1 Kings 12:26–33 , where Jeroboam set up shrines in Dan and Bethel so that people would not have to go to Jerusalem to celebrate feast-days. The calf was probably intended as a base for YHWH's throne, but soon it came to be an object of worship itself. Jeroboam also encouraged the offering of sacrifice on high places (1 Kings 14:9 ). v. 6 , ‘everlasting decree’, see Deut 12:11, 13–14; 2 Chr 11:16 . To such a decree Tobit affirms his fidelity, whence arises his loneliness in the face of the apostasy of the rest of Israel; ‘first fruits of the crops’, see Ex 23:16; 34:22; Num 18:21–30; Deut 14:22–3; 18:4 ; ‘firstlings of the flock’, see Ex 13:2; 34:19; Lev 27:26; Deut 14:23 . The first and best part of crops and flocks were to be dedicated to God and his service. v. 7 , ‘the tenth’, or ‘the tithe’, mentioned in Num 18:21–30; Deut 18:1–5; 26:12; Lev 27:30–1 ; ‘second tenth’, this tithe could be converted to money and brought to Jerusalem every seventh year and spent there (Deut 14:24–6 ). v. 8 , ‘third year’ tithe, see Deut 26:12; 14:28–9 ; cf. Josephus, Ant. 4.8.22 §240. Tobit is depicted as religiously carrying out the tithe-regulations as they were interpreted in post-exilic Israel; ‘Deborah’, Tobit credits his grandmother with his religious training. v. 9 , ‘Anna’, called Ḥannāh (‘grace’) in Qumran Aramaic texts; ‘Tobias’ is the Greek form of the son's name, Ṭôbīyāh, see TOB 1:1 . v. 10 , ‘food of Gentiles’, Mosaic law prescribed what foods were clean and unclean for Jewish people (Lev 11:1–47; Deut 14:3–20 ). Unclean food, eaten by Gentiles, caused ritual impurity for Jews. So Tobit is depicted faithfully observing dietary regulations even in captivity. v. 12 , ‘mindful of God’, Tobit is motivated in his fidelity by the Deuteronomic ideas of divine retribution (Deut 28:1–68 ); whence his prosperity and prominent status in Assyria. v. 13 , ‘Shalmaneser’, see TOB 1:2 . v. 14 , Media was a realm south-east of Nineveh, situated today in northern Iran. It was under Assyrian domination 750–614 BCE; ‘ten talents’, this great sum of money becomes an important motif in the story, providing the background for Tobias's journey to Media, his catching of the fish, and his marriage to Sarah, who along with Tobit is eventually cured by the fish's innards. Rages was a town in Media; it is not mentioned in Sinaiticus, but read in G1. Its ruins are found today about 5 miles south-east of Teheran in Iran. v. 15 , ‘his son Sennacherib’, Sennacherib (705–681 BCE) was actually the son of Sargon II, who succeeded Shalmaneser V. v. 16 , ‘many acts of charity’, lit. ‘I made many alms’. v. 17 makes it clear that eleēmosynai has to be understood in a broad sense, including food, clothing, and even burial. Tobit's generosity is extolled, for he practised it even when it was dangerous for him, in his status as a captive. His activity in burying the dead reflects the Jewish horror of corpses left unburied, especially those of fellow Jews. v. 18 , ‘when he came fleeing from Judea’, i.e. Sennacherib, who had unsuccessfully attacked Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:13–19:37; cf. Isa 36:1–37:38 ). Sennacherib's fate is duly ascribed to a decree of heaven; ‘put to death many Israelites’. This was done in retaliation for the king's failure to take Jerusalem. ‘Looked for them’. Perhaps to expose them to further ridicule and disgrace. v. 21 , ‘forty days’, or ‘forty-five days’ (VL), or ‘fifty days’ (G1, Peshitta); ‘killed him’, see 2 Kings 19:37 , where his sons are named as Adrammelech and Sharezer; ‘Ararat’, also mentioned in 19:37 , the traditional spot where Noah's ark landed (Gen 8:4 ) is today in modern Armenia; ‘Esar-haddon’, another son of Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:37 ), he reigned 681–669 BCE. Rightly named in 4QTobasrḥdwn, he is called Sacherdonos in Greek versions and Archedonassar or Archedonosor in VL; ‘Ahikar’, in Aramaic ᾽Aḥîqar, a well-known counsellor of Assyrian kings. See Story and Wisdom of Ahiqar, partly preserved in fifth-century Aramaic papyri from Elephantine (ANET 427–30); and in later legends of many languages (APOT ii. 715–84). Tobit here makes him a ‘son of my brother [kinsman] Hanael’, thus giving him a Jewish background. v. 22 , ‘appointed him as Second to himself’ (my tr.). The Greek ek deuteras is unclear; NRSV renders it, ‘reappointed him’. However, 4QToba reads tnyn lh, ‘second to him(self)’, i.e. made him an Assyrian turtānu/tartānu, an official mentioned in 2 Kings 18:17; Isa 20:1 .

( 2:1–3:6 ) Tobit's Troubles and Prayer

2:1 , ‘Pentecost’, the Greek name for the wheat-harvest feast that followed ‘fifty days’ or ‘seven weeks’ after Passover (Ex 23:16; 34:22; Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11 ). 2:2 , ‘poor person’, Tobit shows his concern to carry out the injunction of Deut 16:11 about strangers, widows, and orphans on the feast. 2:3 , ‘lies there strangled’, another Israelite executed, see 1:18 . 2:4 , burial after sunset would be less likely to be detected. 2:5 , ‘washed myself’, to remove the ritual defilement from contact with a corpse (Num 19:11–13 ). 2:6, see Am 8:10 . 2:10 , ‘white films’, a primitive description of a cause of blindness; ‘four years’, see 14:2 ; Elymais, the Greek name for ancient Elam, a district north-east of the head of the Persian Gulf; see 1 Macc 6:1 . 2:12 , ‘Dystrus’, the Macedonian month Dystros corresponded to the Jewish winter month of Shebat, roughly Jan.–Feb. of the modern calendar. 2:14 , ‘flushed with anger against her’, Tobit, otherwise so righteous, could get angry with his wife, even over a supposed theft, in which she might have been only indirectly involved; ‘your righteous deeds’, Anna's rebuke of Tobit and his righteousness reminds one of the taunt of Job's wife (Job 2:9 ). Her vituperation finds a parallel in that of the maid in 3:8 . 3:1–6 , Tobit's prayer: in this first formal prayer of the book, Tobit begs God for pardon from offences unwittingly committed and for release from this life, which he finds so greatly burdened with affliction, distress, and insult. 3:6 , ‘eternal home’, i.e. Sheol, described in Job 7:9–10; 10:21–2; 14:12 as an abode from which no one returns; ‘it is better for me to die’, cf. Jon 4:3, 8; also Num 11:15 (Moses); 1 Kings 19:4 (Elijah); Job 7:15 (Job).

( 3:7–15 ) Sarah's Troubles and Prayer

The narrative shifts to the third person. v. 7 , ‘on the same day’, this temporal note will dramatically join various parts of the story together (see 3:16, 17; 4:1 ). Ecbatana was the capital of ancient Media, on the site of modern Hamadan in northern Iran. ‘Sarah’, her name means ‘princess’. Her plight parallels that of Tobit in Nineveh. Ragouēl is the Greek form of Aramaic Rĕ῾û᾽ēl, ‘friend of El (God)’, the name of Moses' father-in-law (Ex 2:18 ); ‘reproached’, in this case the vituperation comes from a maid, who blames Sarah for the death of seven husbands-to-be. v. 8 , ‘wicked demon Asmodeus’, probably a Persian name (Aešma daeva, ‘demon of wrath’) used for the spirit that afflicts Sarah; cf. the folktale, ‘The Monster in the Bridal Chamber’. See Tob 6:14–15 . v. 10 , ‘intended to hang herself’, Gen 9:5–6 was usually understood as a prohibition of suicide. Sarah thinks better of it, realizing the reproaches that would come upon her father; ‘in sorrow to Hades’, Sarah echoes a biblical refrain; see Gen 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31 ; ‘pray the Lord that I may die’, her prayer parallels that of (Tobit 3:6 ). v. 11 , ‘With hands outstretched towards the window’, Sarah prays facing Jerusalem, as does Daniel (Dan 6:11 ); cf. 1 Kings 8:44, 48; Isa 28:2 ; ‘Blessed are you’, she uses the traditional beginning of Jewish prayer, as will Tobias ( 8:5 ) and Raguel ( 8:15 ); cf. Ps 119:12; 1 Chr 29:10; Jdt 13:17 . In this second formal prayer, Sarah protests her innocence, her purity, and her lack of responsibility for the death of the seven husbands, begging God to deliver her from continued life and vituperation. v. 15 , ‘I should keep myself as a wife’, Sarah apparently does not know of Tobias, but recognizes the duty, emphasized in this book ( 1:9; 4:12–13; 6:12; 7:10 ) to marry within her ancestral family; cf. Gen 24:4, 38, 40; Num 36:6–8 .

( 3:16–17 ) God's Commission of Raphael to Go to Their Aid

v. 16 , ‘At that very moment’, see 3:7 . The prayers of Tobit and of Sarah are heard simultaneously by God. v. 17 , the angel's name, Rāpā᾽ēl, means ‘God has healed’, a name indicating the source of the cures to come to Tobit and Sarah; ‘At the same time’, again the note of simultaneity.

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