1 In the reign of Esarhaddon, therefore, I
returned home, and my wife Anna was
restored to me with my son Tobias. At our feast of Pentecost (the
feast of Weeks) there was a good dinner. I
took my place for the meal;
COMMENTARY: So we
learn that, although Tobit said that he had lost everything except for his wife
and son, he did suffer separation from them.
This meant a lot more in the ancient world, where economic opportunities
did not abound for single mothers. This
is why, when the Bible refers to taking care of “widows and orphans” the “orphans” are not motherless, just
fatherless, and their mothers without aid.
So among his great griefs he had to worry about how his family managed
Thus he feels it necessary to report that “there was a
good dinner”. He wants to make clear
that by the time Pentecost came around, he was able to provide for them again. You will see how much this matters later.
Did he have something to feel ashamed of, running away
and leaving his family in the lurch? No,
not really. He made sure that he
outlived the King’s displeasure and could come home again. Had he stayed, he would have died and could
never provide for them again.
2 the table was brought to me
and various dishes were brought. I then said to my son Tobias, 'Go, my child,
and seek out some poor, loyal-hearted man among our brothers exiled in Nineveh,
and bring him to share my meal. I will wait until you come back, my child.'
cannot imagine feasting without sharing with someone in need, even though he
can’t have built up too much economic cushion in less than a year. And he wants to make sure that he raises his
son with the same values. Again we see
the emphasis, how deeply the Israelites prized charity to the poor and
considered this a value worth teaching and repeating in this story.
We take these values for granted now, but this was not
universal. Contemporary Greek society,
for instance, and Roman after them, measured civic generosity by the building
of temples, gymnasiums, community baths and other contributions to society as a
whole, but did not make provision for the poor, on the grounds that they had
apparently earned the displeasure of the gods.
This was why poor people became the largest contingent of converts to
Christianity. Christianity, in sending
forth missionaries, brought the Jewish concept of charity to Europe. This also underlines why the Book of Tobit
needs to keep reinforcing the importance of charity to people engulfed by other
cultures without a clue.
Pentecost, or Shavuot, happens seven weeks after
Passover, celebrating simultaneously the gift of the Torah and the first grain
harvest. In this way they thank God for
both feeding their bodies and their spirits, inextricably. The idea of separating body and spirit came
later, from Aristotle and Plato. The
reason for “counting the weeks” between Passover and Pentecost is to duplicate
the yearning for the Law, after the Israelites escaped slavery but before Moses
received the Ten Commandments. In
Passover liberation from slavery opens up the ground for the seed of faith, and
that seed bears fruit in the form of the Torah and the definition, in writing,
of what it means to be Jewish.
(Interestingly, Jewish and other sites that I visited to research this also
mention that many modern Jews today have forgotten about Pentecost and don’t
celebrate it, or no longer remember the connection with Passover, and teachers
seek to correct this. They have needs
not unlike those in Tobit’s days, for help reclaiming culture in a hostile
We can see parallels in Christianity, for Jesus died and
was resurrected during Passover Week, and the Holy Spirit came at
Pentecost. This underlines why the
followers of Jesus saw His death and resurrection as liberation from sin
corresponding to liberation from Egypt, and the Holy Spirit as a kind of new
Torah written upon the hearts of believers, the harvest of their waiting after
Easter, the new nourishment for the soul.
Jesus becomes the seed that dies and is reborn, and the Holy Spirit
becomes the fruit of that seed.
3 So Tobias went out to look
for some poor man among our brothers, but he came back again and said,
'Father!' I replied, 'What is it, my child?' He went on, 'Father, one of our
nation has just been murdered; he has been strangled and then thrown down in
the market place; he is there still.'
breaks Jewish law to even strangle an animal.
A kosher butcher kills a meat animal as quickly and humanely as possible;
Jews cannot eat the meat of anything strangled.
So this carries an added layer of horror, on top of the fact that
Ninevites could murder any Jew they pleased with impunity (notice
suggests going to the authorities on the murdered man’s behalf, and no
ancient constables show an interest in why a Jewish body lies dead in
the streets) and the
already-mentioned indignity that Jews didn’t get funerals.
4 I sprang up at once, left my
meal untouched, took the man from the market place and laid him in one of my
rooms, waiting until sunset to bury him.
5 I came in again and washed
myself and ate my bread in sorrow,
6 remembering the words of the prophet
Amos concerning Bethel: I shall turn your festivals into mourning and all your
singing into lamentation.
7 And I wept. When the sun was
down, I went and dug a grave and buried him.
abandons the feast to take care of the corpse.
Charitable action takes precedence over ritual. And he weeps for the stranger, in the midst
of what would’ve otherwise been a celebration, appreciating that anyone’s
murder lessens us all.
Jews do not believe in bottling up their grief. It’s considered natural and healthy to weep,
wail, rock where you sit, rip your clothing and give full vent to your
mourning. Friends and family will come
to your home and weep with you, help you to get it all out and let you be as
unhappy as you need to be. Some
indigenous tribes in the Americas act similarly.
And it IS healthy.
You cannot fully experience happiness without allowing yourself to fully
feel unhappiness in contrast. And if you
cannot let yourself completely grieve a loss, you cannot allow yourself to completely
relish who and what you have while you have them.
Some these days will call it lack of faith to grieve, as
if it meant that one had no hope in Heaven. I have
even heard people rebuke others for mourning at the funeral! More commonly, people will act like there’s
something wrong with you if you don’t get over it within months or even
days. This is completely unnatural. Of course one can hope in Heaven and STILL
realize that a long time, from this mortal perspective, will pass before one
can reunite with a lost loved one again.
When someone has significance for you, their absence—for the rest of
your life!—is not something you can just shrug off as no big deal. It’s disrespectful both to the dead and to
the survivors to suggest it.
Tobit would have already bathed before the feast, but now
he washes up ritually again after taking in the body. (Remember, the point of this story is to
give, by example, lessons in how to be an observant Jew, to those who had lost
that information in exile.) Waiting till
after dark serves two purposes: 1)
waiting till the holiday ends so that they can have a proper funeral (assuming
this happened on the second day of Passover) and 2) concealing the deed from
8 My neighbours laughed and
said, 'See! He is not afraid any more.' (You must remember that a price had
been set on my head earlier for this very thing.) 'Once before he had to flee,
yet here he is, beginning to bury the dead again.'
COMMENTARY: You do
what’s right, whether it’s safe or not, whether it’s legal or not, and
certainly whether people will laugh at you or not.
9 That night I took a bath;
then I went into the courtyard and lay down by the courtyard wall. Since it was
hot I left my face uncovered.
10 I did not know that there
were sparrows in the wall above my head; their hot droppings fell into my eyes.
This caused white spots to form, which I went to have treated by the doctors.
But the more ointments they tried me with, the more the spots blinded me, and
in the end, I become completely blind. I remained without sight four years; all
my brothers were distressed on my behalf; and Ahikar provided for my upkeep for
two years, until he left for Elymais.
Presumably the bath he refers to is the ritual bath prescribed for after
burying the dead. But talk about bad
luck, and right after he risked his life doing the right thing! If one had a simplistic understanding of
faith, with God as a gumball machine (insert a coin of prayer or good deeds and
out rolls a blessing) this would make you into an atheist! But God plays a long game, and much that
seems like sorrow opens the door to greater fortune than one thought possible.
If he had corneal ulcers from uric acid in the droppings,
adding still more acidic material (good, perhaps, for removing cataracts) would
have indeed made it worse. Or it might
simply have been unsanitary stuff that infected the ulcers. Many ointments of old would have better
served for filling petri-dishes.
And now, barely back home and working again, Tobit
loses the ability to provide for his family, this time (for all he
good. He can’t handle the King’s
finances without being able to read. All
his brothers feel distress for him, but only one kinsman provides for
him. Perhaps the rest were too poor. And Ahikar could only
manage for two years,
before the King posted him elsewhere.
11 My wife Anna then undertook
woman's work; she would spin wool and take cloth to weave;
12 she used to deliver whatever
had been ordered from her and then receive payment. Now on the seventh day of
the month of Dystros, she finished a piece of work and delivered it to her
customers. They paid her all that was due, and into the bargain presented her
with a kid for a meal.
doubt this is how she supported herself in Tobit’s absence. Keep in mind that if it’s hard to be an
employed mother today, it was much harder then.
Never mind things like having no washing-machine, nor a stove where you
could get flame simply by moving a dial—she had to haul all of the water the
family used for the entire day, in big clay jars already heavy before filling
them,for long distances. (To this day this
is how many communities keep women down, by not bothering to make wells in the
middle of town, or not maintaining those that charitable organizations build
for them, which is why Heifer International trains women around the world in
hydraulics—there’s no point, in many lands, of training the men.) So she was spinning and weaving on top of
this, not just for her own family but for others as well.
And she would not have gotten paid very well for her
labors. Anthropologists have confirmed
that, all over the world, wherever weaving is considered men’s work, it
receives high value, and wherever it’s considered women’s work, it hardly gets
any value at all. I’m not just
mentioning this for the sake of feminism (okay, I am, but not JUST for that.) I
want to make clear just what hardships Tobit’s family faced.
(For the record, I am a pro-life feminist. Not only are
these not mutually exclusive, but I consider feminism inextricably
tied to promoting life, and pro-life inextricably
dependent upon feminism to succeed. But then, I have never been
any good at fitting into standard categories.)
13 When the kid came into my
house, it began to bleat. I called to my wife and said, 'Where does this
creature come from? Suppose it has been stolen! Let the owners have it back; we
have no right to eat stolen goods'.
COMMENTARY: Tobit leaps to a terrifying conclusion, that
hunger has driven his poor wife to steal.
But even in extremity he tries to lead a virtuous life.
14 She said, 'No, it was a
present given me over and above my wages.' I did not believe her, and told her
to give it back to the owners (I felt deeply ashamed of her). To which, she
replied, 'What about your own alms? What about your own good works? Everyone
knows what return you have had for them.'
COMMENTARY: Now we come to the dark side
of charity, and an important lesson for Tobit.
If you give freely, yet cannot humble yourself to receive as well, then
you haven’t been giving alms, you’ve been buying other people’s self-respect,
and hoarding it for yourself. We can so
identify with the role of being The Bountiful One that a role-reversal feels
like a lessening—and that’s when we realize that we’ve been lessening those we
gave to. But if we give with love rather
than pride, we receive love as well when others help us out.
Some have compared Anna’s last sentence with Job’s wife’s
bitterness. But I’m not so sure. God likes to work through the charity of His
servants. Maybe she’s saying that it’s
about time God started doing something good for them, all things considered, and
the gift of the kid, through the kindness of others, is a good start.
As we shall see next week, Tobit doesn’t quite
see it that way. At least not yet.