Tobit

Chapter 11


 
Wisdom 11:

1)  She prospered their affairs through the holy prophet.


COMMENTARY:  “She” would be Wisdom.  “The holy prophet” in this case is Moses.  For those reading this after I messed up the order and accidentally skipped chapter 11, we’re back in the section where the writer gives historic examples of God’s Wisdom helping the Israelites.

 

 

2) They journeyed through the uninhabited desert,

and in lonely places they pitched their tents;


COMMENTARY:  This refers to the Exodus from Egypt to the promised land.

 

 

3) they withstood enemies and warded off their foes.


COMMENTARY:  This refers to battles along the way,  with the Amalekites, Canaanites, Amorites, and Midianites.  Although the Bible seems to describe annihilation of their enemies, the archaeological record shows only the innermost circle of the cities in these battles being burnt down.  One must remember that “citizens” only meant those with a say in policy, so wiping out “all” of the male citizens would only actually target a small handful of oppressors.  There’s some evidence that the Israelites sided with slave revolts along the way, clearing their path.  The God of Israel might even, according to one theory, have been originally regarded by such slaves as the God of Freedom.

 

 

4) When they thirsted, they called upon you,

and water was given them from the sheer rock,

a quenching of their thirst from the hard stone.


COMMENTARY:  This refers to Moses obeying God to strike a rock, from which potable water flowed.  This is what I would call miraculous knowledge.  It is scientifically possible for such a blow to expose a subterranean spring following a hidden rock fissure, but it would take God to point out to Moses precisely where to strike.

 

 

5)  For by the things through which their foes were punished

they in their need were benefited.


COMMENTARY:  This refers to Pharaoh’s charioteers washed away by the return of the Red Sea.  Regardless of the various possible scientific explanations for the parting of the Red Sea, it would still count as a miracle of timing—that it happened precisely when the Israelites arrived with Pharaoh’s army hot on their tails, and that it ended precisely when it would wash away the Egyptians and not the Jews.

 

 

6) Instead of a river’s perennial source,

troubled with impure blood


COMMENTARY:  That would be the Nile turning to blood.  Some have speculated that this involved a plague of dying, hemorrhaging fish.  The absence of fish would have prevented them from eating the toad eggs that they normally would have dined on (the language not actually distinguishing between toads and frogs) which would cause a toad population explosion in unsustainable numbers, which would then die off quickly and breed gnats and flies, which would spread abscess causing diseases in beast and man, etc.  An ecological cascade of disaster.

Blood, of course, is considered ritually unclean by the Jew, when it’s not in its proper place inside the body.  It is also, however, considered the very stuff of life.  When someone is sick, for instance, some Jews will brew “beef tea” for them—basically a tea made of beef blood.  (In all other foods they deliberately drain the blood out of meat before eating it—prudent for a desert people, for blood rots first of all, as any hunter will tell you.  That’s why hunters always immediately hang a slain deer up by the hind-hoofs and slit the throat, to drain out as much blood as possible before the long, unrefrigerated journey home.)  This belies the scruples of those who fear that transfusion might violate God’s law—a notion perplexing to devout Jews.  Blood saving life is not the same as blood spilled.

 

 

7)  as a rebuke to the decree for the slaying of infants,

You gave them abundant water beyond their hope,


COMMENTARY:  This rebuke refers to Egyptians trying to control the population of their Jewish slaves by, for a time, culling out male babies at birth.  In defiance of this, God gives the Jews an abundance of pure water.

 

 

8) after you had shown by the thirst they experienced

how you punished their adversaries.

9) For when they had been tried, though only mildly chastised,

they recognized how the wicked, condemned in anger, were being tormented.


COMMENTARY:  The polluted water left those in the wealthiest Egyptian communities desperate, while the Israelite settlement, being farther from the Nile, didn’t suffer.

 

 

10) You tested your own people, admonishing them as a father;

but as a stern king you probed and condemned the wicked.


COMMENTARY:  This would be as a Jewish father, who would never think of killing or doing lasting harm to his own child, unlike the Greco-Roman norm, where killing one’s own child was a patriarch’s prerogative.  Kings, too, could deal out harsh sentences forbidden to Jewish fathers.

 

 

11)  Those near and far were equally afflicted:

12)  for a twofold grief* took hold of them

and a groaning at the remembrance of the ones who had departed.

13)  For when they heard that the cause of their own torments

was a benefit to these others, they recognized the Lord.


COMMENTARY:  Not only did the Egyptians endure punishment for their mistreatment of their Israelite slaves, they also had to deal with those slaves escaping when they were too stricken to prevent it.

 

 

14) For though they had mocked and rejected him who had been cast out and abandoned long ago,

in the final outcome, they marveled at him,

since their thirst proved unlike that of the righteous.


COMMENTARY:  The one who had been cast out was Moses, set adrift in a pitch-sealed basket among the bulrushes to try and escape the Egyptian midwives ordered to kill Israelite boys at birth.

 

 

15In return for their senseless, wicked thoughts,

which misled them into worshiping dumb serpents and worthless insects,

You sent upon them swarms of dumb creatures for vengeance;


COMMENTARY:  Dumb here means without speech, but it also carries the context of “irrational”.  Mastering language was considered the sign of becoming rational.

 

 

16) that they might recognize that one is punished by the very things through which one sins.


COMMENTARY:  That is so often true!  I look back on my life, and every time I let somebody persuade me to go against my conscience, sooner or later that very same person would be the one who would hurt me for it.  And I’ve seen people sin for the sake of their company or organization, only to have this same group throw them under the bus for it later.  One could also see in this how our vices ultimately damage us, as well.

This theme also runs through the history of Israel and Judea.  Whenever they imitated foul practices from the surrounding cultures, God withheld protection and those they imitated conquered them.

 

 

17)  For not without means was your almighty hand,

that had fashioned the universe from formless matter,

to send upon them many bears or fierce lions,


COMMENTARY:  An interesting point, God’s decision not to use the most obvious weapons to come to hand. 

Regarding “formless matter”, that’s a Greek interpretation of what’s now translated in Genesis as “chaos”.  I have recently learned that this word, however, didn’t mean formless matter, but rather wild stuff, such as uncleared land or anything else not prepared for human use.  And what we translate as “In the Beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth, is translated in Jewish Bibles as, “While God was creating the Heavens and the Earth…”.  “Creating” itself is normally used for things like building houses or plowing fields, and could be better translated as “activating” or “preparing” raw materials into a specific use—in this case paving the way for humanity itself to become activated into God’s plan, becoming sentient.

 

 

18)  Or newly created, wrathful, unknown beasts

breathing forth fiery breath,

Or pouring out roaring smoke,

or flashing terrible sparks from their eyes.

19)  Not only could these attack and completely destroy them;

even their frightful appearance itself could slay.


COMMENTARY:  So envisioning fire-breathing dragons goes back quite a ways!  And, of course, in the Deuterocanonical version of Daniel, a dragon does come up, though with no mention of breathing fire.  The Chinese association of dragons with lightning could explain their idea of dragons breathing fire, since fire often results where lightning strikes, and that story could have traveled with silk merchants, but I would have to conclude that, on the whole, dragons don’t actually breathe fire, any more than you or I might do.

 

 

20)  Even without these, they could have been killed at a single blast,

pursued by justice

and winnowed by your mighty spirit.

But you have disposed all things by measure and number and weight.


COMMENTARY:  As happened with Sodom and Gomorrah.  Geologists recently have found evidence that a meteor-strike destroyed these cities and related villages—something quite impressive to the eyes of a barely-historic people!

 

 

21)  For great strength is always present with you;

who can resist the might of your arm?n

22)  Indeed, before you the whole universe is like a grain from a balance,

or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.

23) But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;

and you overlook sins for the sake of repentance.


COMMENTARY:  The truly strong can afford mercy.  Bullies (who often see themselves as victims) are frightened creatures, trying to prove to themselves that they have power, looking for others that they can make seem weaker than themselves, any way they can.  God has no need of such posturing.

 

 

24) For you love all things that are

and loathe nothing that you have made;

for you would not fashion what you hate.

25) How could a thing remain, unless you willed it;

or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?r

26) But you spare all things, because they are yours,

O Ruler and Lover of souls,


COMMENTARY:  I once had a devout friend who kept sending me “funny” memes and jokes that I found rather repulsive, with a degrading element to them, often sexually expressed.  I confronted her with how none of this seemed to respect the dignity of being human.  “Dignity?” she retorted, “There is nothing dignified about being human!”  I didn’t understand her attitude.

But then a different friend, raised in a strict religion similar to hers, showed me a transcript, an example of the sort of sermon that he grew up hearing.  It compared humanity to a disgusting spider that God had every reason to flick off into the flames.  It just went on and on, each line worse than the last, ranting about the vileness of humanity that seemed downright demonic to me—for of course who hates humanity more than the devil?

And what is the fruit of such theology?  The friend with the transcript had grown up bullied by other kids who went to the same church.  He had concluded, at least in his youth, that the preacher was right, and humanity was vile.  Studies have shown that children brought up this way are more likely to be cruel to their classmates than atheist children—what a scandal and a disgrace!  But if you believe in the baseness of humanity, you will live down to expectations.

True theology teaches us that humanity is beloved of God.  That to have a Creator is to be art.  That we are not created by accident, but all of us have a place in God’s plan.  If we are alive, then God wants us here.  And that He had not lost His mind when He made the astonishing decision to die for us.

 

 

12:1) for your imperishable spirit is in all things!


COMMENTARY:  This is technically the first verse of the next chapter, but translators decided to end this chapter with it instead.  Notice that it says, “all things”, not just “all people”.  Further evidence of Biblical animism, in my opinion.  All things have spirit, and that spirit comes from God, and yearns for God.




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