Chapter Two


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 without him.

     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.'


COMMENTARY:  Tobias 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 world.)

         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.'


COMMENTARY:  It 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 nobody even 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.


COMMENTARY:  Tobit 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 the authorities.



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.


COMMENTARY:  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 again loses the ability to provide for his family, this time (for all he knows) for 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.


COMMENTARY:  No 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.

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