Tobit

Chapter 13


 
Wisdom 13:

1) Foolish by nature were all who were in ignorance of God,

and who from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing the one who is,

and from studying the works did not discern the artisan;

2)Instead either fire, or wind, or the swift air,

or the circuit of the stars, or the mighty water,

or the luminaries of heaven, the governors of the world, they considered gods.


COMMENTARY:  First, details about words.  “The one who is” is a Greek translation of the Jewish concept of God being “I am”.  The “governors of the world” refers to the sun and moon.

Here begins an important distinction between appreciating nature and worshiping her.  We need this discussion more than ever these days (in the 2020’s) when I repeatedly hear misled Christians call ecological concerns and love of nature “Pagan”.

How can anyone who loves an artist think it an affront to him to love his art?  And these verses make it clear that nature is the art of “The Artisan”, namely God.  The writer doesn’t see the earth as inherently evil (that would be Gnosticism) but as “good things” which point to their source.  The writer tells us that nature ought to bring us closer to God, not away.

Nor does she deny the power in “fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circuit of the stars, or the mighty water, or the luminaries of heaven”.  She even poetically refers to the sun and moon as “governors of the world.”  But a governor acts on behalf of, and under the authority of a supreme sovereign.  To point out the mistake of considering a “governor” a “god” underlines the distinction between respect and worship.  The sin isn’t in respecting these mighty forces, but in failing to recognize who they serve.

 

 

3) Now if out of joy in their beauty they thought them gods,

let them know how far more excellent is the Lord than these;

for the original source of beauty fashioned them.

4) Or if they were struck by their might and energy,

let them realize from these things how much more powerful is the one who made them.

5) For from the greatness and the beauty of created things

their original author, by analogy, is seen.

 

COMMENTARY:  It isn’t wrong to find joy in the beauty of creation, or even to be impressed by her power, so long as you appreciate her still more excellent source.  The beauty and majesty of what God has made should point to Him as the originator of beauty and majesty.

 

 

6) But yet, for these the blame is less;

For they have gone astray perhaps,

though they seek God and wish to find him.

7) For they search busily among his works,

but are distracted by what they see, because the things seen are fair.


COMMENTARY:  Far from being a great sinner, the culpability of the na´ve nature-worshiper is mitigated by his sincere searching and by at least being on the right track, looking for God in what God has made.

 

 

8) But again, not even these are pardonable.

9) For if they so far succeeded in knowledge

that they could speculate about the world,

how did they not more quickly find its Lord?


COMMENTARY:  As mentioned before, Jewish law rarely ever visited the full penalty for any crime. Judges were supposed to do their level best to find any mitigating circumstances that they could.  “Not pardonable” doesn’t mean “deserving of death” but “not without fault”.

In this case the fault is a sort of spiritual or intellectual laziness.  No mortal can understand God completely, yet we should take our understanding as far as it can go.  One should follow clues to their conclusion.

This runs contrary to certain modern teachings that faith and intellect are enemies, that we shouldn’t study science, nor delve too deeply into theology, but instead receive without question whatever we’re told to believe, and never step beyond convention to seek out God directly.  Indeed, I’d hazard to say that the nature-worshiper is better than the passive believer, because the former mistakenly worships the creation of the Creator, while the later worships the creation of a fellow creature—a second remove from God.  But we’ll get to that further in the next verse.

 

 

10) But wretched are they, and in dead things are their hopes,

who termed gods things made by human hands:

Gold and silver, the product of art, and images of beasts,

or useless stone, the work of an ancient hand.


COMMENTARY:  So now we get to idolatry.  Just as nature appreciation sometimes gets misbranded nature worship, so art appreciation sometimes gets branded idolatry.  The distinction is whether the “dead things” serve as a reminder of the Living God, or whether one pins one’s hopes directly onto them.

 

 

11) A carpenter may cut down a suitable tree

and skillfully scrape off all its bark,

And deftly plying his art

produce something fit for daily use,


COMMENTARY:  So far so good.

 

 

12) And use the scraps from his handiwork

in preparing his food, and have his fill;


COMMENTARY:  Burning it to cook with, in other words.  Yes, very practical and thrifty.

 

 

13) Then the good-for-nothing refuse from these remnants,

crooked wood grown full of knots,

he takes and carves to occupy his spare time.

This wood he models with mindless skill,

and patterns it on the image of a human being

14) or makes it resemble some worthless beast.

When he has daubed it with red and crimsoned its surface with red stain,

and daubed over every blemish in it,

15) He makes a fitting shrine for it

and puts it on the wall, fastening it with a nail


COMMENTARY:  For the record, I don’t think pretty, crooked, knotty wood is good for nothing, nor is any beast truly worthless (even though I am currently furious at that bushy-tailed tree-pig who just stole an entire suet cake away from the birds who need it right after a hard frost, stashed it in his hoard, and come back for seed as well.) It’s the context that annoys the writer—that something of such humble origins should be exalted to being worthy of a shrine, when the person who made it knows exactly where it came from.  This is less excusable than somebody who honestly doesn’t know where a flash of lightning or a powerful wind comes from.  Also, it debases the artisan himself, to say, “I am less than what I make. 

 

 

16) Thus he provides for it lest it fall down,

knowing that it cannot help itself;

for, truly, it is an image and needs help.


COMMENTARY:  Spoken with deliberate irony.

 

 

17) But when he prays about his goods or marriage or children,

he is not ashamed to address the thing without a soul.

For vigor he invokes the powerless;

18) for life he entreats the dead;

For aid he beseeches the wholly incompetent;

for travel, something that cannot even walk;

19) For profit in business and success with his hands

he asks power of a thing with hands utterly powerless.

Now if this object, honestly, was merely a representation of the One who is helpful, soulful, vigorous, life-giving, competent, guidance-rich, profitable and powerful, an artistic reminder of something beyond itself, a simple portrait of God, as it were, there would be no fault in it.  Anyone who has ever worn a cross around her neck knows the value of symbols, and who hasn’t kissed a picture of a loved one without actually believing that that loved one’s cheek has received the kiss?  It’s when one loses track of the difference between what’s real and what’s representational that one gets lost.

Some might say that nobody today would make such a mistake, that we are thousands of years more sophisticated than that.  Even a child knows that a doll isn’t really a person.  By this thinking, a taboo against idolatry makes no difference today because nobody falls for it anymore.  Really?  Think again.

Take money.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with money as a method of keeping track of contributions to the well-being of society, tokens exchanged for someone else’s contributions.  So long as you simply see it as a symbol of labor, goods, and resources, it’s fine.  But isn’t it idolatry to pursue it in ways that don’t contribute to society?  To count it more precious than anything destroyed in its pursuit, even human lives, even oneself?  To attribute so much worthiness not to the laborer who actually did the earning, but to these bits of paper and metal or even marks in a ledger is indeed idolatry, and sometimes one demanding human sacrifice.

And then there’s Bible idolatry.  We have indeed grown sophisticated; for now, instead of mistaking wooden portraits of godhood for God, we must mistake complex chains of words inspired by God and transcribed by human hands for the living God Himself.  We can learn a lot about God through such human biographies about Him (or I wouldn’t even bother with these studies that I post) but when we accept a many-removes translation, taken out of context, for Our Creator Himself, and go against our consciences in order to obey what we’ve been told this translation says, in effect ignoring the voice of the God Himself whispering in our hearts, in favor of what human beings say about Him, then we become idolaters.




Back Index Forward