Chapter One


“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 works.

3 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 those others.


“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.”


COMMENTARY:  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 idols. 


While this  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 Jerusalem.

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 greedy possibility.


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 to redemption.

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 Tobias.”


COMMENTARY:  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.”


COMMENTARY:  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 finances.



“15 On the death of Shalmaneser his son Sennacherib succeeded; the roads into Media were barred, and I could no longer go there.”


COMMENTARY:  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.”


COMMENTARY:  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 concepts.)


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 fled.

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.”


COMMENTARY:  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 affairs.

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.

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