“1 The tale of
Tobit son of Tobiel, son of Ananiel, son of Aduel, son of Gabael, of the
lineage of Asiel and tribe of Naphtali.
2 In the days of Shalmaneser king of Assyria, he was
exiled from Thisbe, which is south of Kedesh-Naphtali in Upper Galilee, above
Hazor, some distance to the west, north of Shephat.”
COMMENTARY: This sets an important context. He, and
almost all the rest of Israel, were exiles. At first blush the passage seems
like one of those boring bits you want to gloss over, but it mattered to the
listeners of the time to keep track of where they came from, both in ancestry
and geography, in the face of forces trying to take these things from them.
So we see right away that the Book of Tobit is going
to deal with how to keep faith when, to outward appearances, God's protection
seems to have failed. Israel got conquered, its people enslaved and scattered.
In ancient times people used to play the "My God is stronger than your
God!" game--whoever won in a war had the better deity, end of story. But
after conquest the Israelites had to come to terms with matters not being quite
so simplistic. A lot of suffering and thought led to the Deuterocanonical
I, Tobit, have walked in paths of truth and in good works all the days of my
life. I have given much in alms to my brothers and fellow country-folk, exiled
like me to Nineveh in the country of Assyria.
COMMENTARY: Now we move into 1st person, which
makes it more interesting, I think.
Tobit starts with giving his credentials as a man of God. The very first thing he mentions as a
qualifier for walking “in paths of truth and in good works” is giving
alms. Love should always take the lead.
“4 In my young days, when I was still at home in
the land of Israel, the whole tribe of Naphtali my ancestor broke away from the
House of David and from Jerusalem, though this was the city chosen out of all
the tribes of Israel for their sacrifices; here, the Temple-- God's dwelling-place--
had been built and hallowed for all generations to come.”
COMMENTARY: Here Tobit refers to a political
maneuver. When Israel and Judea split
into two countries, King Jeroboam found himself in the awkward position of
losing the official temple in Jerusalem, now in enemy territory. So he built a new one, with a golden calf
instead of the Ark of the Covenant, to keep people from feeling obliged to visit
his rival nation. The less contact your
citizens have with a people, the easier it is to keep them stirred up against
“5 All my brothers and the House of Naphtali
sacrificed on every hill-top in Galilee to the calf that Jeroboam king of
Israel had made at Dan.”
An archaeologist friend wrote to me that colleagues of his had made a
most embarrassing find: the oldest Jewish altar, featuring a horned figure
carved on it, labeled with the Tetragrammaton.
This might well have been the earliest conception of the Abramic God,
gradually replaced by the important theological development that God does not
need our depictions, doesn’t even need a name, and does not reside in
Mosaic innovation, of God as “I AM”, shows an advance in understanding,
as all new advances it would meet with conservative resistance, counterable by
convincing people that the ancestors before them came to this same conclusion,
and by condemning the older way as a deviation from something older still. (A far more common practice, historically and
even in modern times, than most people realize.) Thus the original depiction, now denounced,
became the template, instead, for Satan.
However, if King Jeroboam wanted, in turn, to introduce an innovation of
his own, he would also have to make it appear conservative, returning to the
older form of the Golden Calf.
Theologically, the difference between the
Jerusalem innovation and that of King Jeroboam was that the former came from a
prophet and the latter from a politician, one listening to God and the other to
his own self-interest. This sets the
stage for explaining the Exile as punishment.
By this understanding, God did not abandon the
Israelites; the Israelites abandoned God.
They had no defender not because the God of Israel was too weak, but
because the Israelites ceased to authentically worship Him, in the way He
wanted worshiped, because He didn’t want confined to limited human imagery such
as a calf or a half-calf man. The
problem with idolatry, from the Abramic perspective, is that we forget how big
God really is, how vast beyond our labels and imaginations.
“6 Often I was quite alone in making the
pilgrimage to Jerusalem, fulfilling the Law that binds all Israel perpetually.
I would hurry to Jerusalem with the first yield of fruits and beasts, the tithe
of cattle and the sheep's first shearings.
7 I would give these to the priests, the sons
of Aaron, for the altar. To the Levites ministering at Jerusalem I would give
my tithe of wine and corn, olives, pomegranates and other fruits. Six years in
succession I took the second tithe in money and went and paid it annually at
8 I gave the third to orphans and widows and to
the strangers who live among the Israelites; I brought it them as a gift every
three years. When we ate, we obeyed both the ordinances of the law of Moses and
the exhortations of Deborah the mother of our ancestor Ananiel; for my father
had died and left me an orphan.”
On the human side, I find this passage moving,
speaking of Tobit’s loneliness in following customs long-discarded by all those
around him, and his empathetic kindness with widows, orphans and resident
aliens, having been an orphan, himself. Like him, we must be prepared, when necessary,
to go it alone in doing what we see as right.
Resisting peer pressure can make us lonely, but loneliness can, if we
choose, make us compassionate rather than bitter. In fact, every sorrow in life can contribute
to us either becoming bitter or empathetic—our choice.
On the political side, as you can see, King Jeroboam also had a financial
incentive to make his own temples.
Better (in his eyes) to have that tithe circulating in Israel than
Judea! And did I mention that Jeroboam
also discontinued the practice of having only Levites offer sacrifice? In theory this opened the priesthood up to
anybody, which might seem egalitarian to Americans. But in practice it meant that he could make
appointments as he saw fit, and increase his power-base.
For the record, the Levites depended on these
offerings of food. Alone of all the
twelve tribes, they had no ancestral land.
This came from the curse of Levi’s father, Israel, on Levi and his
brother Simeon. What happened was that a
Hivite Prince, Shechem, had raped their sister Dinah. Israel felt put in a bind when Shechem’s
powerful father, King Hamor, asked that he surrender Dinah to become Shechem’s
wife, and he reluctantly agreed. Levi
and Simeon then found out and tricked Shechem, telling him that the wedding
could only happen if he and every male in his city would be circumcised. Hamor and Shechem agreed eagerly, saying that
there would be peace, trade, shared land and intermarriage between the two
peoples forever. But when they had all
undergone circumcision, before the men could recover from this painful
procedure, Simeon and Levi massacred them all.
Now, as you can see, there are two sides to
this. It is absolutely wrong to let
somebody rape your sister and use her for a bargaining chip. On the other hand, the brothers didn’t stop
with the rapist, but killed off everyone.
Maybe that made strategic sense—otherwise the enraged citizenry might
have warred against them. But it didn’t
make moral sense. But neither did
Israel’s concession to Hamor.
In any case, they could have, after all,
escaped after killing Shechem while the rest of the men lay bedridden, and the
men could not have pursued them for days.
Their father might have been ticked off at having to abandon a
profitable alliance, but he was a nomad and it would have cost him only a
The important thing is, though, that God reads
hearts, and we don’t know the whole story.
He made no particular recompense for Simeon, but he gave Levi and his
descendants the priesthood. Perhaps Levi
was more into defending his sister, while Simeon was more into the strategic
advantage of killing the innocent along with the guilty. Maybe Levi just got swept along, frightened
by Simeon telling him of dire repercussions after the death of Shechem. The Bible rarely goes into much detail; I can
only speculate. But my speculations do
touch upon a possible lesson: sometimes we let people lead us into evil after we’re
in too deep to see, in our mortal limits, a way out. But God can tell which of us has a heart open
If nothing else, God feels no obligation to curse when He wants to bless, even
if we ask Him to curse somebody. Israel
might make it binding that Levi have no heritage in land, but God stepped in
and gave him a special heritage of his own.
“9 When I came to man's estate, I married a
woman from our kinsfolk whose name was Anna; she bore me a son whom I called
Tobit carefully mentions that Anna came from “our kinsfolk”. This matters because other parts of the Bible
condemn those who, during the exile, married non-Jewish wives, who got blamed
for weakening the culture. I don’t much
like that, being myself multiracial and in a marriage with a man of other
religion. I’m just being honest
here. God knows my heart, what I like
and don’t like, so I might as well admit it.
In any case, the New Testament throws the door
wide open to the salvation of all ethnicities.
And while it discourages mixed-religion marriages, it also makes
provision for them sometimes happening.
Besides, I dreamed the Virgin Mary herself told me to go ahead and marry
David, and I sent that dream to my priest when I made the wedding arrangements. (And yes, I tested her credentials, right in
the dream itself. I asked her to “say
the words that will set my heart at ease,” and she answered, “Jesus is my Lord
and my son.”)
“10 When the banishment into Assyria came, I was
taken away and went to Nineveh. All my brothers and the people of my race ate
the food of the heathen,
11 but for my part I was careful not to eat the
food of the heathen.”
In other words, he ate kosher.
He’s reporting a widespread loss of culture and his attempts to hold
onto his Jewish identity in the face of many pressures.
“12 And because I had kept faith with my God with
my whole heart,
13 the Most High granted me the favour of
Shalmaneser, and I became the king's purveyor.
14 Until his death I used to travel to Media,
where I transacted business on his behalf, and I deposited sacks of silver
worth ten talents with Gabael the brother of Gabrias at Rhages in Media.”
COMMENTARY: Shalmaneser was the King of Assyria at the time. Interesting that Tobit would attribute his
position with a Pagan king to God’s reward for his faithfulness, when others
might say that the way to climb in a king’s favor would be to follow the king’s
ways, and downplay the Jewish bit. The
truth is, though, any leader worth his salt appreciates those who stay true to
their own values, while working hard on the leader’s behalf, above the
blandishment of yes-men and sycophants.
If you know that your subject has the strength to stand by his own
beliefs, you know he will have the courage to tell you what you need to know
rather than what you want to know—essential in a courtier involved in the royal
“15 On the death of Shalmaneser his son
Sennacherib succeeded; the roads into Media were barred, and I could no longer
At this point Tobit goes from wealth to poverty. He loses access to his bank account. Does he blame God? No. He
accepts misfortune as readily as fortune.
“16 In the days of Shalmaneser I had often given
alms to the people of my race;
17 I gave my bread to the hungry and clothes to
those who lacked them; and I buried, when I saw them, the bodies of my
country-folk thrown over the walls of Nineveh.”
Again, the emphasis on generosity.
All of the rule-following in the world cannot compare to kindness. At this point the generosity remains limited
to one’s own people; later Jesus, and leading rabbis as well, would expand it
to include anyone.
The bodies thrown over the walls of Nineveh
remind us that, even while Tobit personally prospered, he remained one subject
among a conquered people. Jews in
Ninevah didn’t rate a decent burial, but were disposed of like garbage. But Tobit saw to the final dignity of a
funeral whenever he could.
And here we come to an important split between
Catholicism and the more conservative branches of Protestantism: an
understanding that “unclean” does not mean sinful. Touching a dead body made a Jew unclean until
he underwent ritual purification.
Nevertheless, Tobit accounts taking care of dead bodies, undergoing
uncleanness for their sakes, as a good deed.
This matters, because a scripture often quoted
among Protestants, Isaiah 64:6: “All
of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like
menstrual rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep
us away.” Some even translate “unclean”
as “impure with sin”, but that is not an accurate translation.
Menstruation, like handling a dead body, and like a man’s nocturnal emission,
rendered one ritually unclean. These
things were NOT sins; they were perceived as losing life-force, a kind of weakening,
and purification set it right. The
shepherds and farmers of those days understood that sometimes you have to get
dirty to do your job, but afterwards you washed up. (In fact, washing hands before eating became
a ritual mandate among the Jews.)
Purification meant washing a soul contaminated not by sin, but by
various weakening and psychospiritually unhygienic events.
(Yes, Isaiah mentions sin. People with
weakened souls have less resistance to sin; they shrivel up and lack the
substance to keep from getting blown about by temptation. But “sinful” and “unclean” are two distinct
So to compare
righteous acts to menstrual rags does not mean, as too many interpret it, something
“yucky”. It means that they are a
stop-gap measure from letting the weakening get too out of hand, just as
menstrual rags (napkins, tampons) prevent menstruation from staining one’s
clothes. But what the people of Isaiah’s
time really needed was post-traumatic purification. Isaiah guided the restoration of Israel after
their Babylonian Exile, when the people needed help to recover from a great
collective injury. Their spiritual
vitality had become contaminated, and they needed healed.
Repeat: the good
works did not disgust God. They were a
step in the right direction. But the
people needed more than that.
“18 I also buried those who were killed by
Sennacherib. When Sennacherib was beating a disorderly retreat from Judaea
after the King of heaven had punished his blasphemies, he killed a great number
of Israelites in his rage. So I stole their bodies to bury them; Sennacherib
looked for them and could not find them.
19 A Ninevite went and told the king it was I
who had buried them secretly. When I knew that the king had been told about me
and saw myself being hunted by men who would put me to death, I was afraid and
20 All my goods were seized; they were all confiscated
by the treasury; nothing was left me but my wife, Anna, and my son Tobias.”
So the good deeds of Tobit sometimes take considerable courage, and
willingness to sacrifice. When he gets
blessed for doing what is right he appreciates it, but even at the risk of
death he will persist. And now he
becomes even poorer than before.
“21 Less than forty days after this, the king was
murdered by his two sons, who then fled to the mountains of Ararat. His son
Esarhaddon succeeded. Ahikar the son of my brother Anael, was appointed
chancellor of the exchequer for the kingdom and given the main ordering of
22 Ahikar then interceded for me and I was
allowed to return to Nineveh, since Ahikar had been chief cupbearer, keeper of
the signet, administrator and treasurer under Sennacherib king of Assyria, and
Esarhaddon had kept him in office. He was a relation of mine; he was my nephew.”
COMMENTARY: But he does not stay poor for long. “40” in the Bible simply means, “A lot”. Before many days passed the meaner king died. And here we see that although Tobit has
suffered, short-term, in the long run he once again prospers. This theme will recur throughout the Book of
Tobit—something reassuring to exiles who counted for so little that they were tossed
out like garbage when they died.