Tobit

Chapter 9


 
Wisdom 9:

1) God of my ancestors, Lord of mercy,

you who have made all things by your word


COMMENTARY:  This is a variation of a prayer by Solomon elsewhere in the Bible.  Most people in the world at this time considered deities ethnicity-specific; hence the writer invoking the “God of my ancestors”.  Back in the Psalms, when David, begging not to be exiled, asks if God would want him to worship foreign gods, he wasn’t saying, “Do what I want or I’ll go to some other god who will!” but spoke a genuine concern that he might be obliged to serve other gods as part of becoming a citizen of another land. Accordingly, the earliest forms of apostasy from Judaism took the form of adopting the deities worshiped before in the territories which they now occupied, in the belief that these would have more weight locally.

 

But the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob challenged that idea from the outset, forbidding the wandering Jews from taking on local deities wherever they went.  The tabernacle was a symbol of the same deity that they had always had traveling with them wherever they went.  Ultimately, when finally settling down in the Promised Land, the Jews signaled their intention to sink roots in the land by building a stationary temple modeled on the tabernacle.

 

The Babylonian exile and the first destruction of the temple forced them to reconsider how their migrant herding ancestors held onto their Jewish identity, even before the creation of the tabernacle.  Invoking these forebears reminded them that the truest temple is the heart—an important point for the Alexandrian Diaspora to whom the writer addresses this book.

The Greeks and Romans had begun to shake up even ancestral ties, however, as religion began to become a choice rather than an inheritance.  Not only did more and more of their subjects adopt the religions of their conquerors, but they themselves increasingly adopted the religions of other lands and brought then home or to far distant colonies.

This cultural expropriation had the unexpected consequence of making the spread of Christianity possible.  One of fiercest debates in the early Church was whether non-Jews could become Christians.  Starting with St. Peter’s vision of God offering him a feast of unclean meats, and assuring him that henceforth nothing—and no one—created by God would be considered unclean, and promoted by St. Paul championing the right for converts to remain uncircumcised, the Council of Nicea ultimately settled the matter for most Christians, declaring Christianity to be “catholic”—that is to say universal, applicable to all ethnicities.

 

The prayer also address God as the Lord of Mercy.  People forget just how central Mercy is to Judeo-Christian religion, and when they remember, they usually apply it only to themselves.  People often teach that God’s love is unconditional, but it’s not quite.  Jesus, reflecting common rabbinical thought, pointed out that God gives mercy only to the merciful—you could be forgiven anything, so long as you yourself forgave others.  Not only did He enshrine this in the Lord’s Prayer, He also told a parable of a servant forgiven a great debt by his master, only to turn around and beat up someone else who owed him far less.  The master changed his mind and reinstated the debt, ordering his merciless servant arrested.

 

 

2) And in your wisdom have established humankind

to rule the creatures produced by you,


COMMENTARY:  I had a great deal of trouble with this verse, as you can imagine!  I looked into whether “rule” might be mistranslated, but could find no loophole.

However, the context of Jesus’s teachings transforms it marvelously.  When Jesus stripped down to a towel around his waist like a common slave, and did a slave’s work washing the dusty feet of His apostles, He specifically said that anyone who leads in His name must similarly—totally, humbly—serve those they lead.

 

Why us?  My guess would be creativity.  There are creatures (whales and dolphins, bonobo apes, ravens, elephants) who might possibly match us for intelligence, or close, certainly with some overlap between their most gifted and our most impaired, but when it comes to creativity, in the animal kingdom you have the chaotic collections of the bower-bird or the octopus, and the monotonous sand-mandalas of the puffer fish, the raven’s mating dance, and that’s it.  One might also include elephants jamming on musical instruments for pleasure when taught how, but not spontaneously creating instruments in the wild.  Human beings, in contrast, have been exploring and expanding art with nonutilitarian enthusiasm since before we had even fully taken our present form, creating tools such as ocher-clay crayons and bone flutes, for no other purpose.

 

This artifice has tremendous potential for good—and equally tremendous potential for evil.  We can create cures for diseases of man and beast, tend forests for their greatest well-being, or cause one of the greatest extinction-waves in geologic history—that latter being something that no other animal or plant has ever “achieved” all by itself.

If rulership means power, then we have that.  The question is, are we wise enough to use it correctly?  Does the world’s physical salvation depend on our spiritual salvation?

 

 

3) And to govern the world in holiness and righteousness,

and to render judgment in integrity of heart:


COMMENTARY:  Okay, that’s how we’re SUPPOSED to do it.  But what does that mean?  Can we govern anything or anyone in holiness if we regard them as mere resources for our pleasure?  Shouldn’t we recognize the holiness of God’s touch in all Creation, and treat Creation with appropriate reverence, gratitude and awe, as we would treat a painting by a great human master?  Is there anything righteous about treating living things cruelly just because we can?  And if a judge renders judgment in integrity of heart, that means he divorces his selfish desires from what is best for all. 

 

 

4) Give me Wisdom, the consort at your throne,

and do not reject me from among your children;


COMMENTARY:  It’s a bold move to ask a king for his consort!  Solomon executed his own brother, Adonijah, for requesting of their father’s many concubines: a prepubescent girl named Abishag, who hadn’t had relations with the elderly, dying king, but only acted as his nursemaid (which therefore made it not incest.)  Why?  Because marrying a prince to his king-father’s consort could establish his claim as heir to the throne. 

 

 

5) For I am your servant, the child of your maidservant,

a man weak and short-lived

and lacking in comprehension of judgment and of laws.


COMMENTARY:  Nobody starts out with wisdom.  You have to seek it, through learning, through observation, through thinking about what you have learned and observed, and especially through prayer.

 

 

6) Indeed, though one be perfect among mortals,

if Wisdom, who comes from you, be lacking,

that one will count for nothing.


COMMENTARY:  A tool unwisely used produces nothing good, no matter how fine a tool it is.  What use is human creativity, if we don’t wield it wisely?

 

 

7) You have chosen me king over your people

and magistrate over your sons and daughters.


COMMENTARY:  By God’s people the writer means Israel.  But who are the sons and daughters of God?  Jesus gave an answer, saying that those who do the will of His Father are His brothers and sisters.  And who better does the will of God than Nature, which He created?

 

 

8) You have bid me build a temple on your holy mountain

and an altar in the city that is your dwelling place,

a copy of the holy tabernacle which you had established from of old.


COMMENTARY:  Solomon built this temple after David was denied permission, on account of his sins.  Interestingly, Solomon was the product of one of those sins, as David murdered his mother’s husband on his account.  This goes to show that we are indeed born innocent of the sins of our parents on the level of responsibility, though being raised by sinful parents does incline us to sin, ourselves.

Original sin, however, may literally be hereditary.  If my theory is correct, that the Genesis vision accurately if symbolically reflects the Mesolithic transition, it became a survival trait to become suspicious of strangers and anyone else not like your own band, for they might be Neolithic slavers hunting down Paleolithic types for backbreaking labor.  This stamped hostility, prejudice, conformity and war upon our very DNA.

 

How does this square with the love of money being the root of all evil?  Money is nothing more than the codification of ownership—the Paleolithic concept that motivated the slaving.  We can’t put the genie back in the bottle—ownership and money are here to stay.  But if we love ownership more than we love people, evil ensues.

 

 

9) Now with you is Wisdom, who knows your works

and was present when you made the world;

Who understands what is pleasing in your eyes

and what is conformable with your commands.


COMMENTARY:  God created wisely.  A well-made world in natural balance pleased His eyes.  The more we resemble this balance of Creation, the more we conform to His commands.

 

 

10) Send her forth from your holy heavens

and from your glorious throne dispatch her

That she may be with me and work with me,

that I may know what is pleasing to you.


COMMENTARY:  Again, I wonder if a female wrote this, depicting Wisdom as a wife who works with her husband and advises him, rather than a chattel who does what she is told and has no opinions.  At the very least it shows a far more enlightened view of women than the more common views of the Roman patriarchy.

 

 

11) For she knows and understands all things,

and will guide me prudently in my affairs

and safeguard me by her glory;


COMMENTARY:  We’ve discussed in far too much detail in earlier chapters how wisdom brings safety.  However, here the writer talks not merely of material prudence and physical safety, but safety of the soul.

 

 

12Thus my deeds will be acceptable,

and I will judge your people justly

and be worthy of my father’s throne.


COMMENTARY:  So, to do deeds acceptable to God and to be just, we must listen to God’s feminine side?  Interesting!

 

 

13) For who knows God’s counsel,

or who can conceive what the Lord intends?


COMMENTARY:  When knowledge fails, the wisdom of faith must step in.

 

 

14) For the deliberations of mortals are timid,

and uncertain our plans.


COMMENTARY:  Being limited in our understanding, we make slow, small steps in the dark, afraid of what we might bump into.  Except, of course, for a few reckless souls who occasionally achieve great things and more often wind up bruised up by all of the unknowns that they crash into.

 

 

15) For the corruptible body burdens the soul

and the earthly tent weighs down the mind with its many concerns.


COMMENTARY:  Here the writer uses Platonic philosophy and terminology—well-known in Alexandria, that city being founded by the student of a student of Plato.  Plato originated the idea, in the West, of the body being a burden on the mind and soul, as the Siddhartha Gautama did in the East.  Soon after, when Greek philosophy met Buddhist religion in the Alexandrian expansion, they were compatible enough to give birth to Stoicism—the preferred philosophy of Rome.  (Nevertheless, I must point out that this innovation doesn’t completely square with earlier Biblical thought of the body as a gift from God.)

 

 

16) Scarcely can we guess the things on earth,

and only with difficulty grasp what is at hand;

but things in heaven, who can search them out?


COMMENTARY:  The beginning of wisdom is knowing that no matter how much we learn, we can’t know it all.  Which is no reason to stop learning—quite the opposite.  We can never run out of things to fascinate us!  Even so, we need to humbly admit that we mortals have our limits.

 

 

17) Or who can know your counsel, unless you give Wisdom

and send your holy spirit from on high?


COMMENTARY:  And here we have the solution for the vastness of our ignorance.  We can petition the Holy Spirit to reveal to us whatever we need to fill in critical gaps.

 

 

18) Thus were the paths of those on earth made straight,

and people learned what pleases you,

and were saved by Wisdom.

 

COMMENTARY:  The next chapter will go into this more fully.



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