Tobit

Chapter 14


 
Wisdom 14:

1)  Again, one preparing for a voyage and about to traverse the wild waves

cries out to wood more unsound than the boat that bears him.


COMMENTARY:  This refers to the idol on the sacrificial altar aboard Pagan ships of the time.  The altar itself (according to a recent archaeological find) in at least one case was terracotta, and looks a lot like a bird-bath, for receiving the blood of a sacrifice.  Considering that this was found in a shipwreck, I’m guessing that it didn’t work.

 

 

2)  For the urge for profits devised this latter,

and Wisdom the artisan produced it.


COMMENTARY:  It was better to rely on the practicalities of the ship’s construction, for the shipwright whose boats had a reputation for sinking wouldn’t stay in business very long.  But an idol-maker whose idols didn’t deliver could always blame the vagaries of competing gods.

 

 

3)  But your providence, O Father! guides it,

for you have furnished even in the sea a road,

and through the waves a steady path,


COMMENTARY:  Except for King Solomon’s merchant marines, Jewish states didn’t really have fleets, controlling no ports throughout most of their history (which was why capturing Joppa was such a big deal, as you’ll remember from our studies of 1 and 2 Maccabees.)  They did have fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee, but not large-scale vessels, except for the legendary Ship of Oniyahu.  There were a few Jewish pirate ships, but these wouldn’t be people known for their piety.

However, the international market had expanded, which meant a lot more Jews boarded ships as passengers, most of them riding on Pagan vessels.  They would see the sacrifices being made during storms, and fear of the storm could easily tempt them to pray in their hearts to the same deity as the sailors.  For this reason the writer takes care to admonish her readers to rely on the God of their ancestors rather than foreign imports.

 

 

4)  Showing that you can save from any danger,

so that even one without skill may embark.


COMMENTARY:  That would refer to the Jewish passengers, not the seasoned crew.

 

 

5)  But you will that the products of your Wisdom be not idle;

therefore people trust their lives even to most frail wood,

and were safe crossing the waves on a raft.


COMMENTARY:  Jewish culture prizes hard work and enterprise, not only for its own sake but also as a protection in times of invasion or persecution.  They’ve had more than their share, throughout history, of times where they had to pull themselves back up by their bootstraps after devastation. 

To rebuild financially often required courage and taking risks, including the risk of setting foot on something as unfamiliar and alarming as a ship and braving real perils to get to the other side of a sea.  Consider a desert-dweller boarding a ship for the first time—it moves constantly underfoot, and creaks ominously every few minutes, all while suspended on the surface of waters well-known to have drowned countless sailors.  The alien nature of the experience would make the Jewish traveler far more vulnerable to the temptation of idolatry than usual, especially when he sees the crew, in the midst of a storm, sacrificing to their deities.

 

 

6)  For of old, when the proud giants were being destroyed,

the hope of the universe, who took refuge on a raft,

left to the world a future for the human family, under the guidance of your hand.


COMMENTARY:  The “raft” referred to would be Noah’s ark.  Many have been confused, thousands of years after the writing of the Bible, by its references to “giants” and the “sons of angels” (a polite translation, avoiding the even more controversial “sons of gods”)  But kings from time immemorial have taken on god-status in the arrogance of their tyranny, and their children (raised in narcissistic privilege by being renowned for their parentage, rather than any deeds of their own) were often dramatically taller than those of lower caste, primarily from enjoying a better diet, although the Persian Kings did choose tall queens and concubines in order to breed tall princes (thus adding a special horror to being conquered by the diminutive Alexander the Great!)

Have I mentioned before the Neolithic flood that wiped out most of Eastern European/Middle-Eastern humanity and created the Black Sea?  Short explanation if I haven’t:  When an ice age ended, a glacier the size of multiple nations started to melt from the inside out, creating a gigantic ice-bowl holding an entire sea, the wall of that bowl growing progressively thinner, till finally all it took was a prolonged warm rain to break it wide open.  Similar floods happened all over the world, but this was probably the one commemorated as Noah’s flood.  Remains of Neolithic villages rest on the floor of the Black Sea to this day.

It wiped out entire budding civilizations, run by brutal tyrants.  Evidence in the bones shows that Neolithic peasants starved on a seasonal basis that periodically halted their growth in their formative years, creating a significant gap between their height and that of their elites.  Paleolithic hold-outs not yet enslaved were even taller. 

 

Yes, civilization was founded on slavery.  This, I think, is why survivors of the time of floods could see God’s hand wiping out an oppressive system to give humanity a fresh start—what they had before the deluge was even worse.

 

 

7) For blest is the wood through which righteousness comes about;


COMMENTARY:  This verse has been seen by Catholics as also referring to the wood of the cross, connecting it to the saving wood of the ark.

 

 

8) but the handmade idol is accursed, and its maker as well:

he for having produced it, and the corruptible thing, because it was termed a god.


COMMENTARY:  I used to live in a house with many roommates—a deeply enjoyable experience, by the way—and I noticed something peculiar.  Whenever somebody moved out, whoever moved in would initially take on some of the mood of the last person to have that room, as if their presence left something of themselves in the walls.

And one of those roommates had a knack for touching an object and knowing something of the person who had touched it before.  In the most dramatic example, I had been cooking when I got hot pepper-juice into my eyes.  While I screamed in pain, my husband had to rush in and push my face under the faucet’s blast; when that didn’t work he actually had to soap my eyes and rinse again before I could get any relief, then help me upstairs to bed, because I was wiped out by the experience.  Well, this roommate came home an hour later, reached for the same faucet to get herself a drink of water, and as soon as she touched it she cried out in horror, “What happened to Dolores?”

My point being, I do believe that objects can absorb something of those in regular contact with it, something which we don’t yet have the means to record, measure or study, but which may come into scientific scrutiny in the future.  And if this is the case, objects subjected to bloody rites could pick up on some essence of those rites, and become as unwholesome to have around as a smallpox-infested blanket.

 

 

9) Equally odious to God are the evildoer and the evil deed;

10)  and the thing made will be punished with its maker.

11)  Therefore upon even the idols of the nations shall a judgment come,

since they became abominable among God’s works,

Snares for human souls

and a trap for the feet of the senseless.


COMMENTARY:  In this messed-up, poisoned world it’s a comforting thought that the end results of sins will be undone.  For it’s not just idols that snare human souls.

 

 

12)  For the source of wantonness is the devising of idols;

and their invention, a corruption of life.


COMMENTARY:  At first glance this seems to contradict Jesus saying that “Love of money is the root of all evil.”  But when you love money, be it a disk of metalm slip of paper or an electronic record, isn’t that idolatry?  To love that which cannot kiss back, that which can neither rejoice in your good luck nor commiserate with your misfortune?  Doesn’t all evil begin with prizing something soulless over someone soulful?

 

 

13)  For in the beginning they were not,

nor can they ever continue;h


COMMENTARY:  God didn’t make a world with idols in it.  We invented that, ourselves.

 

 

14)  for from human emptiness they came into the world,

and therefore a sudden end is devised for them.


COMMENTARY:  An interesting insight.  A recent theory of addiction is that the addict forms a relationship with a numbing-agent rather than with fellow human beings, and restoring human relationships can help the addict let go of the empty obsession that never satisfies.  It looks like this writer had insight on this thousands of years ago.

 

 

15)  For a father, afflicted with untimely mourning,

made an image of the child so quickly taken from him,

And now honored as a god what once was dead

and handed down to his household mysteries and sacrifices.

16)  Then, in the course of time, the impious practice gained strength and was observed as law,

and graven things were worshiped by royal decrees.


COMMENTARY:  This is a surprisingly compassionate description of one way that idolatry would start: out of balance grief taken to an extreme.  Understandable, pathetic—and toxic.

 And it fits with Israeli history.  For there was no ban on idolatry before Egypt.  But that country worshiped more than its more well-known pantheon, Egyptians also owned household ancestral deities, which needed daily feeding, washing, and changing—too much trouble for the family itself to attend to, so these duties fell to the already-overworked slaves (including Hebrew slaves) who could expect a beating for omitting the slightest detail of care for these inanimate objects.  No wonder they left Egypt bitterly opposed to idolatry!

 

It seems we needn’t fear falling into this today—or can we?  For isn’t it tempting to idolize the memory of a dead child, who now can do nothing to besmirch the myth that a grieving parent might weave around him, to the neglect of living children who can never hope to measure up to this ghost?  The same goes for the living spouse who can never live up to the memory of a dead spouse, or worse, the memory of a dead parent.  And what about living citizens who, no matter how heroic their sacrifices, never get credit for them because they’re not dead soldiers?  It is proper and decent to mourn the dead for a time, and to respect their memory thereafter, but not to fetishize them at the expense of the living.

 

 

17)  People who lived so far away that they could not honor him in his presence

copied the appearance of the distant king

And made a public image of him they wished to honor,

out of zeal to flatter the absent one as though present.


COMMENTARY:  So now we come to another source of idolatry that the Jews had to endure in Egypt: the cult of royalty.

 

 

18)  And to promote this observance among those to whom it was strange,

the artisan’s ambition provided a stimulus.


COMMENTARY:  This takes aim directly at those in the Jewish community who embraced foreign deities, especially those whose cults gave them political advantage.

 

 

19)  For he, perhaps in his determination to please the ruler,

labored over the likeness to the best of his skill;


COMMENTARY:  Flattered him unrecognizably, in other words.  

 

 

20) And the masses, drawn by the charm of the workmanship,

soon took as an object of worship the one who shortly before was honored as a human being.


COMMENTARY:  Drawing the line between respecting your leaders and worshiping them.  A line which perhaps needs redrawn today.

 

 

21) And this became a snare for the world,

that people enslaved to either grief or tyranny

conferred the incommunicable Name on stones and wood.


COMMENTARY:  The writer doesn’t try to make idolaters out to be incomprehensible monsters, but shows the pitiable steps by which they fall.  These days we’re all too ready to demonize our enemies—if we don’t see them as human, we feel no need to guard against becoming like them.

 

 

22)  Then it was not enough for them to err in their knowledge of God;

but even though they live in a great war resulting from ignorance,

they call such evils peace.


COMMENTARY:  Honest ignorance is not a sin, but fiercely defending ignorance is.  One rationalizes in the name of finding peace, but it leads to mounting anxiety, battling down one’s conscience.

 

 

23) For while they practice either child sacrifices or occult mysteries,

or frenzied carousing in exotic rites,


COMMENTARY:  Child sacrifice was chiefly a Phoenician import.  “Occult mysteries” refers to rituals held in absolute darkness.  (Occult meaning hidden.)  These became so notorious for exploitation (rape, molestation and theft, chiefly) that eventually the Roman empire banned them.  Frenzied carousing refers to the maenidic rites of Bacchus—a fairly recent innovation to the Jewish community, hence “exotic”.

 

 

24) They no longer respect either lives or purity of marriage;

but they either waylay and kill each other, or aggrieve each other by adultery.


COMMENTARY:  To allow such things in sacred rites makes it easier to rationalize them in mundane life.  We see the same thing in law today: for instance, whenever a state institutes or brings back the death penalty, murders increase.

 

 

25) And all is confusion—blood and murder, theft and guile,o

corruption, faithlessness, turmoil, perjury,


COMMENTARY:  To murder or commit violence is to prize something more than human life—pride or vengeance, for instance.  Theft and guile is to want a thing more than one respects someone else’s efforts to earn it.  Corruption is to want bribes or favors more than one’s own honor.  Faithlessness, turmoil and perjury come from valuing some short-term gain over truth.  All of these are idolatry.

 

 

26)  Disturbance of good people, neglect of gratitude,

besmirching of souls, unnatural lust,

disorder in marriage, adultery and shamelessness.


COMMENTARY:  Inconsideration of others is to idolize your own gratification at the expense of your fellow human beings.  Pursuing the idols in your life means not being thankful for what you already have.  “Besmirching of souls” means loving a thing to which you sacrifice your conscience in order to obtain it.  “Unnatural lust” objectifies the desired one rather than cherishing him or her—to turn this other into an idol, not respecting the human being—which naturally leads us into disorder in marriage, adultery and shamelessness.

 

 

27)  For the worship of infamous idols

is the reason and source and extreme of all evil.p


COMMENTARY:  Loving what has no soul at the expense of the ensouled is an out of balanced way to live.

 

 

28)  For they either go mad with enjoyment, or prophesy lies,

or live lawlessly or lightly perjure themselves.


COMMENTARY:  Many here might think going mad with enjoyment isn’t such a bad fate!  But the Dionysian Maenads would get drunk on drugged wine and go into frenzies where they would tear beasts apart with their bare hands, plus the occasional human being who got in the way (or who got tricked into going to the wrong place at the wrong time, by those with something to gain from it) and they’d get away with it by saying that the god made them do it. 

When Cassander took over Macedonia after the fall of Alexander the Great, he initially couldn’t dislodge Olympias from power—no soldier of his wanted to kill Alexander’s mother!  So instead he gathered together the families of all those who had died at the old Maenad’s hands, left her in their midst, and walked away.  And they tore her apart.

 

 

29)  For as their trust is in lifeless idols,

they expect no harm when they have sworn falsely.


COMMENTARY:  This would particularly apply to Jews with no faith in the idols, knowingly vowing on a deity who couldn’t blast them for breaking the vow, as a loophole to wriggle out of it whenever convenient.

 

 

30)  But on both counts justice shall overtake them:

because they thought perversely of God by devoting themselves to idols,

and because they deliberately swore false oaths, despising piety.

31)  For it is not the might of those by whom they swear,

but the just retribution of sinners,

that ever follows upon the transgression of the wicked.

 

COMMENTARY:  God considers all vows binding, whether sworn upon him or not.




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