Tobit

Chapter 11


 
Wisdom 10:

2) Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little,

warn them, and remind them of the sins they are committing,

that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, Lord!


COMMENTARY:  Much of this is simply a matter of allowing people to harm themselves, so as to learn the consequences of their actions.  And yes, this chapter does start with 2, because the translators thought that its first verse belonged elsewhere.

 

 

3) For truly, the ancient inhabitants of your holy land,


COMMENTARY:  That would be the Canaanites.

 

 

4) whom you hated for deeds most odious—

works of sorcery and impious sacrifices;


COMMENTARY:  “Sorcery” includes several things. 

1)  Herbal abuse—that is, poisoning people, fatally or partially, for one’s own ends.  The latter case would include confusing people as to what is real by drugging them with psychoactives, or giving them what gives temporary advantage only to harm them later, such as stimulant-drugging, or inducing sleep so that you can exploit them—everything that the sorceress, Medea, did at various times in her myth.  This was why the Hippocratic oath says, “First, do no harm.”  What distinguished a doctor from a sorcerer was that even though he knew how to mess people up with herbs, he refused to use them for that purpose.

2)  Psychic abuse, compelling the living and the dead, interfering with God’s gift of free will.  As the Witch of Endor reluctantly did at swordpoint for Saul, summoning up the unwilling spirit of the Prophet Samuel.

3)  Using the power of demons, either being lured into thinking that they could control the demons and harness their power (when in fact they were being tricked into becoming increasingly arrogant and cruel) or forcing someone else to suffer possession so as to use a demon’s power through her (as in the case of the possessed slave forced to be a fortuneteller, whom St. Paul delivered.)

“Impious sacrifices” we will get to below.  It wasn’t that the Canaanites were naively worshiping someone else, for unlike the Jewish people they had no covenant with the God of Abraham.  It’s how they went about it that God found so appalling.

 

 

5) These merciless murderers of children,

devourers of human flesh,

and initiates engaged in a blood ritual,

6) and parents who took with their own hands defenseless lives,

You willed to destroy by the hands of our ancestors,


COMMENTARY:  For a long time historians wanted to believe that the immolations of infants was a slander aimed at the Canaanites and Phoenicians by their enemies, till they found archaeological evidence that this did indeed took place, and that a “children’s graveyard” was in fact specifically for the remains of sacrificial victims.

Human beings have a strange habit of imagining God to be harsher than he is, to demand extremes that go beyond what any sane mind would define as a “loving god.”  People sacrificed their children because that was what they valued most in all the world.  This practice, for a time, spread from the Canaanites to the Israelites, but the prophet Jeremiah heard God cry out, “I never asked this of them!”

 

 

7) that the land that is dearest of all to you

might receive a worthy colony of God’s servants.


COMMENTARY:  I wonder if “colony” is the right translation, here?  The Israelites returned to a land that they had left during a famine.  They didn’t colonize it, they retook it.  There was no homeland elsewhere for them to extend with conquest.

If so, it is a harmful mistranslation, for too many Christians have used this as a pretext for subjugating indigenous people elsewhere in the word.  Conversion by conquest, in turn, always has a flaw deep in its foundation that undermines the conquered until they can acknowledge and heal the wound.

If the word doesn’t mean an outpost of conquest, the way “colony” does, then the context would be that the returning original inhabitants of the land best knew how to worship the deity of that land.  The idea of a God being universal had only begun to emerge, and at the point of this writing was only being applied by Greeks and Romans, in a way that menaced Judaism.

 

 

8) But even these you spared, since they were but mortals

and sent wasps as forerunners of your army

that they might exterminate them by degrees.


COMMENTARY:  Exodus and Deuteronomy make reference to God sending hornets to throw Canaanite armies into panic ahead of the Israelite forces.  Some speculate that these were literal hornets, and some that these were various misfortunes colloquially referred to as hornets—lots and lots of miserable little stings that individually wouldn’t count for much but collectively could greatly weaken them.  In either event, those who fled the hornets, or didn’t show up because of myriad problems, would have escaped being slain on the battlefield.

 

 

9) Not that you were without power to have the wicked vanquished in battle by the righteous,

or wiped out at once by terrible beasts or by one decisive word;


COMMENTARY:  God’s mercy isn’t weakness.

 

 

10But condemning them by degrees, you gave them space for repentance.

You were not unaware that their origins were wicked

and their malice ingrained,

And that their dispositions would never change;


COMMENTARY:  This seems contradictory to me—giving space for repentance and yet believing repentance impossible?  Or is it?  My disposition will never change, in that I have a fierce and vengeful temper.  But I have repented those times when I allowed my initial vengeful impulse (or worse, long-term malicious plotting) to become action, and for many years now have schooled myself to practice mercy instead, sometimes as a grueling sacrifice.  I wrestle with desires for vengeance all the time, but I do so consciously, and deliberately choose alternatives to harming others.

 

 

11) for they were a people accursed from the beginning.

Neither out of fear for anyone

did you grant release from their sins.


COMMENTARY:  No accursing, even from the beginning, can resist the power of God’s mercy.  And again the writer asserts that God’s mercy is not based on weakness.  Just as earlier she asserted that God’s sparing people doesn’t mean He cannot punish, so now she asserts that nobody can pressure God into refraining—God forgives because it pleases God to forgive, and for no other reason.

 

 

12For who can say to you, “What have you done?”

or who can oppose your decree?

Or when peoples perish, who can challenge you, their maker;

or who can come into your presence to vindicate the unrighteous?


COMMENTARY:  I heard the other day some rather legalistic types talking about how if you pray one thousand prayers you will get whatever you ask for, but this kind of theology frightens me, and though they were devout (and seemingly rather proud of it, though I am fully capable of having misjudged them) and considered themselves unswervingly doctrinal, Catholic doctrine doesn’t teach that at all!  This was one of those myths that crop up and get passed on by undereducated teachers.

That isn’t prayer, that’s sorcery—the idea that one can force God to do one’s bidding, psychically abuse Him, by correctly performing a ritual.  Yet God alone chooses how to answer our prayers, be they many or few.  The fact that He does answer our prayers so graciously is up to Him, not us.  When we get what we asked for, it is not our place to say “I made that happen,” but to thank Him for deciding to make it happen.

What is the “vain and repetitious” prayer that Jesus warned us about?  It isn’t repetition itself, but vanity in the repetitions, the self-congratulatory quality of it, quantifying one’s faith by prayers said.  One can pray, for instance, the rosary, without vanity.  When one does it correctly, simultaneously meditating on a mystery of Jesus’s story while repeating certain words verbally or mentally, that repeating occupies and arrests the superficial and self-conscious part of the brain that handles words, freeing the rest of the mind to dive into the mystery and come closer to God—there’s some solid neurology behind this, discovered long after the crafting of the rosary.  But when one does this or any prayer with a vain consciousness, as in “look at how many prayers I’m saying!” thinking of that rather than of God, it’s the vanity that paralyzes the soul’s journey to God instead.

Anyway, the upshot is, God does what God wants to do when, where and how God wants to do it, and we’re kidding ourselves to think that we can boss Him around.  We can ask, and like any parent He’s pleased to give, but we don’t compel Him.

 

 

13) For neither is there any god besides you who have the care of all,

that you need show you have not unjustly condemned;


COMMENTARY:  Monotheism means that God has no equal and answers to no one.  God doesn’t owe any explanations. 

I’ll admit that I have sometimes asked for an explanation now and then anyway, not because I felt entitled to one, but trusting that I was loved enough to press my luck.  Sometimes I’ve gotten them, too, although they occasionally take years to unfold.  Other times I’m told to just trust that God knows what He’s doing even if I don’t.  The thing is, my faith doesn’t depend on getting explanations.  I just like to have them when I can.

 

 

14) Nor can any king or prince confront you on behalf of those you have punished.


COMMENTARY:  No human authority matches that of God.  Some leaders today would find that hard to stomach, but it is no less true.

 

 

15) But as you are righteous, you govern all things righteously;

you regard it as unworthy of your power

to punish one who has incurred no blame.


COMMENTARY:  God behaves justly solely because God is just.  The one limit on God’s power is the limit that He imposes on Himself: to never use His power for what is unworthy of it.

 

 

16) For your might is the source of righteousness;

your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all.


COMMENTARY:  Even for God, the ultimate mastery is self-mastery.  He could so easily harm us; He takes pride in benefiting us instead.  Only the weaker creatures feel the desire to inflict suffering just to prove to themselves that they can get away with it.  Bullies deceive themselves into thinking that such insecurity proves strength.

 

 

17) For you show your might when the perfection of your power is disbelieved;

and in those who know you, you rebuke insolence.


COMMENTARY:  God is harshest on those who should know better, or who take His mercy for granted.

 

 

18) But though you are master of might, you judge with clemency,

and with much lenience you govern us;

for power, whenever you will, attends you.


COMMENTARY:  Knowing that He could treat us harshly, God doesn’t.  This is crucial to understanding Jewish law, as put forth by Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  Aviya Kushner (author of “The Grammar of God”) was astonished, in a study of the Bible led by a Christian, to learn that Christians regarded the Old Testament as rigid and merciless.  Having grown up with Scriptural debate in the original language a feature of daily life, she knew that the death penalties assigned to various offenses were maximum penalties, not mandatory ones, and almost never enforced, even in ancient times.

 

When we studied the books of Maccabees we saw the historic forces that drove a period of legalism which Jesus justly rebuked.  Earlier and later generations would not have dragged a woman caught in adultery before him and asked if she should be stoned.  The prophet Joel, for instance had an adulterous wife and never divorced her, let alone gave her over to be executed, but in learning how to repair his marriage he learned also how God wanted the rift between Him and His people repaired.  But as I said, human beings have this tendency to drift towards seeing God as an almighty monster instead of who He really is.

I have observed a sequence of errors that leads to this fanaticism.  It goes like this.  “I am miserable.  I must have offended God.”  (Error #1: not all misery is a punishment.  More often there’s something to be learned, a strength to gain.)  “I will be stricter in my practices to appease God.”  (Error #2:  God is more often offended by major cruelties than minor omissions.)  “Now I feel even more miserable.  I will invent new, stricter rules and abide by them.”  (Error #3: Adam and Eve’s second mistake.  They had no need to feel shame at being naked in the presence of each other, as husband and wife, but when you lose touch with God’s guidance you start inventing nonsensical rules of your own.)  “Now I feel extremely miserable!  I must do the last things possible and go into extreme sacrifices to appease God.”  (Error #4: God wants mercy more than sacrifice.)  “I feel so miserable I want to die!  Since I am doing everything possible and am nearly dead of my penances, I must be suffering collective punishment for the sins of my neighbors—I need to impose my rules on them, too!  Only when they, too, live as I do will I have any hope of happiness.”  (Error #5: conversion by force, as mentioned before, is no conversion at all, and anything based on this builds on a cracked foundation.)  At no point does the fanatic dare to admit that she herself is the author of her own suffering, and in fact she drives herself away from the True God and towards a deformed idol of her own making.

 

 

19) You taught your people, by these deeds,

that those who are righteous must be kind;

And you gave your children reason to hope

that you would allow them to repent for their sins.


COMMENTARY:  Since God shows us mercy, who are we to deny it to others?

 

 

20) For these were enemies of your servants, doomed to death;

yet, while you punished them with such solicitude and indulgence,

granting time and opportunity to abandon wickedness,

21) With what exactitude you judged your children,

to whose ancestors you gave the sworn covenants of goodly promises!

22) Therefore to give us a lesson you punish our enemies with measured deliberation

so that we may think earnestly of your goodness when we judge,

and, when being judged, we may look for mercy.


COMMENTARY:  By judging leniently those who didn’t know any better, and strictly those who knew better but used their knowledge to be judgmental of others, God teaches us that in order to receive mercy we have to give it.

 

 

23) Hence those unrighteous who lived a life of folly,

you tormented through their own abominations.


COMMENTARY:  As I’ve said before, God’s favorite method of justice is to give us enough rope to hang ourselves.  Often as not He doesn’t do the punishing Himself, but lets us reap the consequences of our bad choices, in the hope that we will learn from them.  For He doesn’t want us to suffer what we inflict on ourselves, and wouldn’t impose it on us, in fact he tries to persuade us to treat ourselves better than that.  Yet if we insist on pursuing folly He lets us drink it to the dregs, so that we can see for ourselves why He forbids such things.

 

 

24) For they went far astray in the paths of error,

taking for gods the worthless and disgusting among beasts,

being deceived like senseless infants.


COMMENTARY:  “They” here being the ancient Egyptians.  The scarab, for instance, is an iridescent dung beetle.  An unsupervised infant might see a dung beetle, think it pretty, pick it up, and promptly put it in her mouth, germs and all.  God expects us to think a little deeper than that.

To be fair to the Egyptians, as one of the most ancient civilizations, they faced one of the steepest learning curves of all just in figuring how to do “civilized”.  Unsanitary deities, bread ground by putting sand in it (causing agonizing dental problems) poisonous cosmetics and incestuous dynasties were just a few of the many things that they had to learn were bad ideas by trying them out.  They had no precedents to go by.  So, in groping for who or what to worship, they tried out dung beetles, poisonous asps, jackals, and all kinds of strange choices.  Mind you, all of these creatures have their own dignity as part of God’s creation, but setting them up as masters was not only foolish but no doubt confusing and annoying to the animals in question.

 

Keep in mind that practically every animal in the Egyptian pantheon were unclean to Jews, with the exception of Hathor the Cow.  Unsurprisingly, then, the one animal-worship they brought out of Egypt manifested later as the Golden Calf.  God was not amused.

 

 

25) Therefore as though upon unreasoning children,

you sent your judgment on them as a mockery;


COMMENTARY:  The first plagues Biblically thrown against the Egyptians (to induce them to free the Israelites from bondage) consisted of things like toads and gnats and such.  These were mild punishments, slaps on the wrists to get their attention.

 

 

26) But they who took no heed of a punishment which was but child’s play

were to experience a condemnation worthy of God.

27) For by the things through which they suffered distress,

being tortured by the very things they deemed gods,

They saw and recognized the true God whom formerly they had refused to know;

with this, their final condemnation came upon them.

 

COMMENTARY:   Pharaoh kept realizing that he should let the Israelites go, only to harden his heart all over again, each time with more understanding of just how wrong he was.  And so the penalties worsened, until finally they became so devastating that he couldn’t deny the strength of his opposition any longer.  Even then he sought to renege on his promise at the last minute—and lost a sizeable chunk of his army as a result.

The lesson for us?  We can be excused much for honest ignorance, but willful ignorance—the decision to not know what we don’t want to admit—is abominable.  When we fight even ourselves to justify the unjustifiable we’re just digging ourselves in deeper.



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