The Narrative Function of Tobit’s Wisdom Instructions

The Narrative Function of Tobit's Wisdom Instructions
Book of Tobit

Stories have the incredible and uncanny ability to leave an indelible imprint on the human mind. Dry facts and statistical data are quickly forgotten, but anecdotes of human interest, once heard or read, do not easily unravel in the finely fashioned fabric of the brain. Perhaps it is because narratives are how we connect the seemingly disparate parts of life and make sense of the disjointedness of existence; they endow human experiences with a unity and shape.1 Perhaps it is because narratives are naturally adept at depicting human life and behavior. Through the character in the story, the reader can have vicarious experiences by living a particular destiny or imagining another way of being in the world. The story sketches the availability of possibilities. Perhaps it is because human consciousness is nothing other than a narrative-processing layer that underlies human experiences. For whatever reason, stories stick; they are readily remembered, they do not let go that easily. Hence, good stories make excellent vehicles for inculcating morals and reinforcing beliefs that the spinner of the tale thinks are of prime significance. It is not surprising to find that narrative is the most characteristic mode of biblical speech.2

Storytelling involves certain devices and techniques suited to meet particular ends. In casting his narrative, the author of Tobit employed sapiential instructions as part of a narrative strategy or plan in telling his story. Specifically, the narrator’s choice of narrative rhetoric in-cludes the repetition of the Didache in three strategic places in Tobit. One can even say that the author has interspersed these practical wis-dom counsels at critical junctures in the course of the story to serve as a kind of guide for the implied reader in interpreting the narrative. The way the story of Tobit is told is crucial to its meaning.

Many Tobit commentators have underappreciated the presence of these instructions in the story. Even those who have positively assessed the role of the proverb-like teachings in Tobit 4 have given them only a passing nod, asserting that Tobit’s speech serves to characterize and show the protagonist’s piety and fidelity to the law.3 Most have con-tended that the exhortations are tangential, disruptive even, to the story, claiming that the Didache in Tobit 4 slows down “the accelerating tempo” of the narrative.4 There is however, a need to account for their presence in the narrative design of the author. How does one make sense of these oftentimes parallel and repetitive units? It is the conten-tion of this chapter that the role of the instructions in the Tobit story has yet to be given the narrative credit it rightfully deserves.

In light of this, the goal of the chapter is to examine the function of the instructions in the narrative world of Tobit. Out of a myriad of pos-sibilities, the writer deliberately decided to mark carefully certain phases of his narrative with wisdom discourses. Since the author deemed the inclusion of these instructions necessary in shaping and telling his story, this narrative element is not incidental but purposeful. To dismiss these wisdom speeches, which are essential parts of the author’s literary expression, as superfluous is to raise the question as to the competence of the writer as a literary artist. Aside from the obvious fact that these instructions elevate the didactic tone of the narrative, the chapter will attempt to point out some possible reasons why the author thought it important to incorporate them at key places in the story as part of his narrative design. The chapter will examine how the instruc-tions contribute to the overall movement of the narrative and how they are integral to their immediate narrative setting.

Tobit as an Ancient Novel

Various literary forms appear in Tobit. The easily recognizable literary units include genealogy, historical information, autobiography, court story, instructions, prayers, hymns, psalms, folktale motifs, legendary conflicts, demonology, angelophany, prophecies, apocalyptic and testament. How does one account for the use and presence of these dis-tinct literary forms in Tobit?

Genre Suggestions

Scholars have given a number of suggestions regarding the genre of Tobit. They describe Tobit as a fictional story,5 an edifying legend,6 a sapiential haggadah,7 a fictional didactic story,8 an aretalogy or a celebratory account of divine marvels,9 and a didactic journey story.10 On account of the facts that Tobit is longer than a short story, and that it portrays the development of characters and situations rather than simply reveal them, the genre novella has also been ascribed to Tobit.11 The only difference in the various classifications lies in how to qualify its fictional status. These genre characterizations clearly indicate that the Book of Tobit is not to be perceived as history. Rather, the work is seen as a fictional creation, but one that may reflect a historical back-ground12 and in fact witness to the historical responses of Judaism to the realities of Diaspora life.13

With many literary forms included, several scholars argue that romance, or the more embracing term ‘novel’14 best describes the literary genre of Tobit.15 A novel, after all, is syncretistic for it accommodates a number of diverse genres.16 With the involvement of divine figures and with the centrality of the quest in which the hero overcomes treacherous obstacles, Tobit is specifically categorized as a Greek romance.17 More accurately, Tobit is characterized as a pious novel that follows the rules of a Greek romance or novel and the ideals of oriental biblical traditions.18

In terms of literary form, novel as a genre designation for Tobit may be accurate since Tobit is a comprehensive narrative form that displays a level of cohesion by developing the interior lives and con-necting the experiences of all the individual characters via its plot. Moreover, novels or romances are narrative expressions primarily in-tended for the sake of entertainment, religious instruction and for their own ends as stories.19 The problem arises when the novel is viewed as being for entertainment purposes only.20 Unlike most recent avant-garde fiction written as exercises in form and style, ancient novels al-most always convey a definite message; they recommend to the reader ideals and a particular view of life, usually religious.21

A Tale of Two Genres

A part of Tobit can be characterized as a traditional tale of a hero. The core story in Tobit 4–12, which occupies a major and important portion of the narrative, describes in fact the adventurous and entertaining journey of Tobias. The odyssey of Tobias is the story around which the larger narrative is built: Tobit 1–3 provides the problematic situation that justifies the journey and Tobit 13–14 typifies a sort of a happily-ever-after ending. Having conquered all kinds of trials and having saved the distressed characters in the story, all described in colorful and fantastic detail, the young Tobias comes out as the victorious but unlikely hero of the narrative.22 This quest that culminates in a mar-riage unifies the entire extended narrative of Tobit.23 According to Su-san Niditch, such paradigmatic tales of heroes and journeys display conventional or formulaic structures that are open to improvisation.24 Further, the fact that the dramatis personae of Tobit are not merely per-sonal but are representative of the collective, underscores an appropri-ation of a time-honored paradigm.25 This folktale plot common in conventional styles of composition is a serviceable formula that af-forded the writer of Tobit a set of loose structural pattern to convey a message appropriate to the needs and tastes of his original reader.26 Despite the traditional blueprint, Tobit still feels fresh.

Such characterization, however, is insufficient to capture the nature of the Tobit narrative. To reduce Tobit to a heroic tale is to ignore how the entire narrative is entitled, even built. The fact that the story is in-troduced as bi,bloj lo,gwn Twbiq, literally ‘the book of the words of To-bit,’27 should provoke further reflection. This title, which the Vetus La-tina translates as ‘liber sermonum Thobi,’ may in fact reflect the inten-tion of the author, but even if it does not, the title given to the work immediately colors the reader’s perception of the text.

This description of the work is actually appropriate since the frames of the main story, namely Tobit 1–3 and Tobit 13–14, are pre-dominantly the words of Tobit. Tobit 1–3 is told from a first person point of view, and the story therein recounted is literally the words of Tobit. Tobit’s prayer in Tob 3:1-6 and his long hymn of praise in Tobit 13 are his own words as well. Generally speaking, the nature of Tobit’s words in Tobit 1–3 and in Tobit 13 can be described as instructional. By recounting in his own words his own exemplary deeds of piety and righteousness in the former, and by singing a psalm of praise to God in the latter, Tobit is like a sage who edifies both by example and act of praise.

Before the journey of his son, Tobit gives Tobias words of instruc-tions. Tobit certainly waxes didactic in his farewell discourse in Tob 14:3-11. In short, the words of Tobit hover over and bracket the tradi-tional tale of a hero. Without the tale, Tobit’s words are mere words – without content, illustration or narrative validity. Without Tobit’s words, the tale is just like any other tale. The title and the words of To-bit that dominate the narrative, unmask the author’s intent not only to entertain but equally to edify his reader and disseminate wisdom val-ues. The lo,gwn Twbiq of this bi,bloj make the sapiential shading of the narrative more pronounced.

This compositional style suggests a hybrid of genres, a mixture of tale and instruction, which the tag ‘sapiential novel’ may best denote. Tobit’s affinity to Ahiqar bolsters the description of Tobit as a wisdom novel.28 In a typical sapiential novel, a traditional popular story, which may already exude an admonitory or exemplary value, is employed as a foundational story that is then enhanced by a substantial amount of wisdom materials.29 The author has appropriated both literary types as suitable vehicles for the construction of something quite new and unique30 in order to respond to the religious and cultural needs of the people in the Diaspora.31 In the Book of Tobit, the tale of Tobias and the words of Tobit are structurally and intimately related.

Originally posted 2020-03-10 09:13:19.