The Book of Tobit: An Ancestral Story

IRENE NOWELL, O.S.B.

The Book of Tobit: An Ancestral Story

Our enjoyment of the recent film, Brother, Where Art Thou, is
enhanced if we recognize the Cyclops and the sirens and realize that
this is a remake of the Odyssey. The classic musical, Kiss Me Kate, is
more delightful if we have read Shakespeare’s The Taming of the
Shrew. The dependence of the Book of Tobit on Genesis is a commonly
accepted fact. Over a century ago Abrahams outlined the relationship
between the two books.1 Scholars have emphasized various passages,
characters, or themes as the key to this relationship.2 I propose that the

1I. Abrahams, “Tobit and Genesis,” JQR 5 (1893) 348-50.
2Paul Deselaers (Das Buch Tobit: Studien zu seiner Entstehung, Komposition und
Theologie [OBO 43; Freiburg (Schweiz)/Göttingen: Universitätsverlag/Vandenhoeck &
Ruprecht, 1982] 292-303) argues that Genesis 24 is the foundation story for the plot.
Lothar Ruppert (“Das Buch Tobias—Ein Modellfall nachgestaltener Erzählung,” Wort,
Lied, und Gottesspruch: I. Beiträge zur Septuaginta [FS J. Ziegler; ed. J. Schreiner; FB
1; Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 1972] 109-19, esp. 114-17) finds the model for Tobit in the
Joseph story. George W. E. Nickelsburg (“Tobit, Genesis, and the Odyssey: A Complex
Web of Intertextuality,” Mimesis and Intertextuality in Antiquity and Christianity [ed.
Dennis R. MacDonald; Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001] 41-55) finds a
web of relationships between Tobit, Genesis, Jubilees, and the Odyssey. Andrew
Chester (“Citing the Old Testament,” It is Written: Scripture Citing Scripture [FS Barn-
abas Lindars, SSF; ed. D. A. Carson and H.G.M. Williamson; Cambridge, UK: Cam-

Book of Tobit, particularly in regard to the description of characters
and the flow of the plot, is modeled on Genesis as a whole, telling the
story of two patriarchs who “sojourn” outside the land of promise.3
The marriage of their children links the two families and carries for-
ward the hope of a return to the “land of Abraham” (Tob 14:7).4
Several time periods are layered in this story. The remembered ideal
is the time of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their families. The story itself
is set in the eighth or seventh century B.C.E. The story forms a model of
righteous living for an audience living in the Diaspora during the
second century B.C.E. and for all the generations between their time
and ours.

Tobit and Raguel: the Patriarchs

Both Tobit and Raguel are modeled on the patriarchs, especially
Abraham. At the beginning of Tobit’s self-introduction he declares that
he has “walked all the days of [his] life on paths of fidelity and righ-
teousness” (dikaiosuvnh, Tob 1:3).5 Others know him as righteous (Tob
7:7; 9:6).6 He exhorts Tobiah and his grandchildren to live in righ-
teousness (Tob 4:5-6; 14:8, 9). Abraham is known through the tradition
as one who is righteous. “Abram put his faith in the LORD, who cred-
ited it to him as an act of righteousness” (Gen 15:6). God declares,
“Indeed, I have singled him out that he may direct his sons and his posterity

to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so
that the LORD may carry into effect for Abraham the promises he made
about him” (Gen 18:19). He “walked” in the ways of God (Gen 17:1;
24:40; 48:15).

The ancestors were people of prayer. Abraham frequently converses
with God (e.g., Gen 15:1-5; 18:22-33). Isaac prays for his wife and
Rebekah herself consults the Lord (Gen 25:21-23). God speaks to Jacob
and he responds with a vow (Gen 28:13-15, 20-22).7 The Book of Tobit is
characterized by prayer. Every character prays except Anna. Tobit
prays for death (Tob 3:2-6) and in thanksgiving for healing (Tob 11:14-
15). At the end of the book he sings a long hymn of praise (Tob 13:1-18).8
Raphael reveals that God sent him to test Tobit (peiravsai Tob 12:14).
God’s testing of Abraham by asking for his son Isaac is the climax of
the patriarch’s life (Gen 22:1).9 All that remains of Abraham’s story
after that event is the burial of his wife and the obtaining of a wife for
his son. At the end of Abraham’s testing, the messenger (^alm; LXX
a[ggelo”) who stops his hand says, “I know now how you fear God,
since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son” (Gen 22:12;
my translation). Tobit too is known for his fear of God: after his test-
ing was over, “he continued to fear God and give thanks to the divine
majesty” (Tob 14:2).10

Tobit is known for his concern for proper burial of the dead (see Tob
1:17-18; 2:4-8; 12:12-13), and twice he asks Tobiah to bury him with Anna
in the same grave (4:3-4; 14:10). Tobit’s concern reflects Abraham’s care
for the burial of Sarah (Gen 23:3-20) and his burial with her at Mach-
pelah (Gen 25:9-10). Like Abraham, Tobit lived to a ripe old age. Abra-
ham died at the age of 175 (Gen 25:7), Tobit at the age of 112 (Tob 14:1).11
There are also similarities between Tobit and the other patriarchs.
Like Isaac, he was blind (Tob 2:10; Gen 27:1). Isaac sent his son on a
journey as did Tobit (Gen 28:2; Tob 4:20–5:2).12 At the end of his life

Tobit summons his son and grandchildren to describe his vision of the
future and give them final instructions (Tob 14:2; cf. 4:2-3).13 Jacob
summons his sons for a similar purpose (Gen 48:1).14 Like Joseph,
Tobit found favor with and served under a foreign ruler (Tob 1:13; Gen
39:2-4; 41:38-44).

The other “patriarch” in the Book of Tobit is Raguel. It is in the area
of hospitality that Raguel is most like Abraham. After Raguel wel-
comed Tobiah and Raphael, he “slaughtered a ram from the flock and
gave them a warm reception” (Tob 7:9). The next day he began prepa-
rations for the wedding feast: “He asked his wife to bake many loaves
of bread; he himself went out to the herd and brought two steers and
four rams, which he ordered to be slaughtered” (Tob 8:19). After greet-
ing the three men who appear before him, “Abraham hastened into the
tent and told Sarah, ‘Quick, three seahs of fine flour! Knead it and
make rolls.’ He ran to the herd, picked out a tender, choice steer, and
gave it to a servant, who quickly prepared it” (Gen 18:6-7). Like Abra-
ham, Raguel has welcomed “angels unawares” (see Heb 13:2).
The title, “God of heaven” is used in connection with two prayers of
Raguel, his petition for the newlyweds and his prayer of thanksgiving
(Tob 7:12; 8:15).15 It is a title used by Abraham as he sends his servant to
find a wife for his son (Gen 24:3, 7).

Thus it is not difficult to see Tobit and Raguel as seventh-century
embodiments of Abraham: righteous, hospitable fathers, interested in
the welfare of their children and their people, and faithful to God
through thick and thin.

Anna, Edna, and Sarah: the Matriarchs

Sarah has several characteristics of the matriarchs. She is beautiful
(kalov” Tob 6:12) like Sarah (Gen 12:14), Rebekah (Gen 24:16), and
Rachel (Gen 29:17).16 Like them, she is childless and her situation

seems beyond hope (Tob 3:9, 15; see Gen 11:30; 18:11; 25:21; 29:31; 30:1).
But Sarah is most like her namesake. Like her, she proposes a solution
to her difficulty, but God has other plans. Raguel’s daughter asks God
for death (Tob 3:13); Abraham’s wife asks him to give her a son through
Hagar (Gen 16:2). God will give each woman a child by her own hus-
band. Raguel’s daughter “had to listen to reproaches from one of her
father’s maids” (Tob 3:7); Abraham’s wife was scorned by her maid
Hagar (Gen 16:4). Sarah also has similarities to the little-honored
matriarch Tamar. Like Tamar, Sarah has been widowed more than
once. Both women wait for a husband through the custom of levirate
marriage (Gen 38:6-11; Tob 3:8, 15). Both women are suspected of killing
their husbands (Gen 38:11; Tob 3:8).
Anna is like Rebekah. She has a blind husband. She is falsely
accused of deceiving her husband in the matter of a young goat (Tob
2:12-14), whereas Rebekah does deceive Isaac with two young goats
(Gen 27:9-13). Both women must endure the departure of their beloved
sons (Gen 27:42-46; Tob 5:18-22).17 Rebekah will not see Jacob again,
but Anna will have the joy of reunion with her son. In that reunion she
uses the words, not of a matriarch but a patriarch: “Now that I have
seen you again, son, I am ready to die!” (Tob 11:9; see Jacob in Gen
46:30).
Edna is the woman who, like Abraham’s wife, bakes many loaves to
feed the guests (Tob 8:19; Gen 18:6). She is also linked to the story in
Genesis 18 by her name. The name “Edna” (Heb. and[) is not otherwise
attested in biblical literature, but it echoes Sarah’s response to the news
that at last she will have a son (Gen 18:12): “Am I still to have sexual
pleasure?” (hnd[ ylAhtyh).
Thus the women in the Book of Tobit are modeled on the matri-
archs. They are beautiful, resourceful, devoted to their children, and
feisty.

Beloved Children: Hope for the Future

Tobiah and Sarah are only children, beloved by their parents. Their
status as only children is mentioned by Sarah (Tob 3:10, 15), Raphael

(6:12), Tobiah (6:15), and Raguel (8:17). An only child is the parents’ sole
hope and thus is deeply loved. Raguel “loves [Sarah] dearly” (6:12);18
Edna weeps over her daughter and prays for her joy (7:16-17). Anna
declares that Tobiah is the “staff of [their] hands,” weeps over his
departure, and watches for her son’s return with devotion (5:18; 11:5);
Tobit’s concern to find a trustworthy guide (5:11-14), his worry when
Tobiah is late (10:1-3), and his delight at seeing him (11:14) show his love
for his son. Both Anna and Tobit call Tobiah “the light of [their] eyes”
(10:5; 11:14). This love for an “only child” is common in the ancestral
stories. Abraham loves his son Isaac deeply (Gen 22:2); in her devotion
to her only child Sarah drives away Hagar and Ishmael (Gen 21:9-10).
Jacob loves Joseph and Benjamin, the only children of Rachel, with a
special love (Gen 37:3; 44:30-31).
Each child knows this love. Sarah decides not to kill herself lest she
bring her father “laden with sorrow in his old age to Hades” (Tob
3:10). Tobiah is afraid to marry Sarah lest he “bring the life of [his]
father and mother down to their grave in sorrow” (Tob 6:15). Their
words reflect Jacob’s grief over Joseph (Gen 37:35) and his concern for
Benjamin (Gen 42:38; 44:29).
In every other way Tobiah’s connection to the ancestral story has to
do with his journey to find a wife (although he does not know that is
its purpose) and his wedding. His father has instructed him specifically
to model his marriage on that of the patriarchs: “Noah prophesied
first, then Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, our ancestors from the begin-
ning of time. Son, remember that all of them took wives from among
their own kindred and were blessed in their children, and that their
posterity would inherit the land” (4:12).19 Raphael reminds him of this
instruction (6:16). Marriage within the clan is a major concern of the
patriarchs. In Genesis it is reported that Sarah is Abraham’s half-sister
(Gen 20:12). Abraham is insistent that the servant find a wife for Isaac
in his own land and among his own kindred (Gen 24:4). Rebekah tells
Isaac that she will die if Jacob marries a Hittite so Isaac sends him off
to find a wife “from among Laban’s daughters” (Gen 27:46–28:2).

Abraham assures the servant as he sets out on his journey: “The
LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and
the land of my kin, and who confirmed by oath the promise he then
made to me, ‘I will give this land to your descendants’ — he will send
his messenger before you, and you will obtain a wife for my son there”
(Gen 24:7). The servant repeats the reassurance to Laban and to his
household (Gen 24:40).20 On his journey Jacob has a dream where he
sees God’s messengers going up and down a stairway (Gen 28:12).21
Tobiah is accompanied throughout his journey by an angel.
The parallels between the arrival at Raguel’s house in Tobit 7 and
the betrothal scenes in Genesis 24 and 29 are the most striking links
between the Book of Tobit and Genesis. The initial conversation
between Tobiah and Edna closely resembles Genesis 29:22

Gen 24:40 marks one of the occurrences of eujodou’n, a word common to the journeys of Tobit and the servant.

Genesis 29:4-6 Tobit 7:3-5

Jacob said to them, “Brothers, So Edna asked them, saying,
where are you from?” “We are “Where are you from,
from Haran,” they replied. brothers?” They answered, “We
are descendants of Naphtali,
now captives in Nineveh.”

Then he asked them, “Do you She said to them, “Do you know
know Laban, son of Nahor?” our kinsman Tobit?” They
“We do,” they answered. answered her, “Indeed we do
know him!

He inquired further, “Is he well?” She asked, “Is he well?” They
“He is,” they answered; “and here answered, “Yes, he is alive and
comes his daughter Rachel with well.” Then Tobiah said, “He is
his flock.” my father.”

Not only is the wording similar in these two passages, but several
other similarities between these two scenes should be noted. After the
question about someone’s health, there is mention of a relative, sug-
gesting that the custom of endogamy can be followed (Gen 29:6; Tob
7:5). In both scenes the conversation is followed by kissing and weep-
ing. Jacob kisses Rachel and bursts into tears (Gen 29:11). Raguel kisses
Tobiah and Raguel’s whole family weeps (Tob 7:6-8). In both stories a
wedding follows the arrival, and in each case there is a threat to the
marriage on the wedding night. Jacob is deceived by being given Leah
instead of Rachel (Gen 29:25); Tobiah, with Raphael’s aid, must banish
the demon Asmodeus (Tob 8:2-3).
Some links between the Book of Tobit and the betrothal scene in
Genesis 24 have already been mentioned: the parent’s concern for
endogamy and the assistance of God’s angel on the journey. The simi-
larities in the descriptions of betrothal and marriage confirm the con-
nection. In Genesis 24 Abraham’s servant is in a hurry. He will not eat
until he has told his tale (Gen 24:33). Even though Laban and his house-
hold try to persuade him to stay after the marriage is settled, he begs to
be allowed to return to his master Abraham (Gen 24:54-56). Tobiah
also refuses to eat or drink until Raguel agrees to his marriage with
The Book of Tobit · 11

Sarah (Tob 7:11). He is not quite so anxious to leave, but at the end of
the fourteen-day wedding feast he also begs to be allowed to go home
(Tob 10:7-9). The newlyweds depart with half of Raguel’s property:
“male and female slaves, oxen and sheep, donkeys and camels, cloth-
ing, money, and household goods” (Tob 10:10; cf. Gen 24:35). In both
scenes it is acknowledged that this marriage is a gift of God. Laban
and his household say to the servant: “This thing comes from the
LORD; we can say nothing to you either for or against it” (Gen 24:50).
Raguel says to Tobiah, “Your marriage to her has been decided in
heaven” (Tob 7:11).
The relationship between the Book of Tobit and Genesis is most evi-
dent in the stories of Tobiah and Sarah. Their portrayal is modeled on
the stories of Isaac and Jacob. Like Isaac, each of them is a beloved
only child. They are obedient to their parents regarding marriage to a
close relative. Their children are the hope for the future of the people,
just as the children of Isaac and Jacob are. Their descendants will
return to the land of Abraham (see Tob 14:7).

Allusions to the Creation Story

The ancestor stories are not the only link between Tobit and Gene-
sis. There are strong connections to the creation story also. The
anthropology of Genesis 2 seems to be assumed in the first prayer of
Tobit. When he prays for death, he asks: “Command my life breath to
be taken from me, that I may depart from the face of the earth and
become dust” (Tob 3:6). He understands human beings to be made
from the dust of the earth, enlivened by the breath God blew into them
(Gen 2:7). He considers death to be the return to the dust from which
he was made (Gen 3:19).23
Again it is in the context of Tobiah’s marriage to Sarah that we find
the clearest reference to the creation story. On the wedding night
Tobiah prays with Sarah (Tob 8:6):24

You made Adam, and you made his wife Eve
to be his help and support;
and from these two the human race has come.

23 See Griffin, Theology and Function of Prayer, 117-18, 358-59.
24 See Griffin’s excellent analysis of this prayer (ibid., 136-85, esp. 177-81).
12 · Tobit and the Biblical Tradition

You said, “It is not good for the man to be alone;
let us make him a help like himself.”

Eve is to be Adam’s “help and support” (bohqo;n sthvrigma; compare
bohqovn in LXX Gen 2:18).25 God decides to make a “help” for Adam
b’ecause “It is not good for the man to be alone” (see Gen 2:18). In
Tobiah’s prayer the Greek is virtually identical to the Septuagint Gene-
sis:

Gen 2:18: kai; ei\pen kuvrio” oJ qeov” ouj kalo;n ei\nai to;n a[nqrwpon movnon
poihvswmen aujtw/’ bohqo;n kat! aujtovn

Tob 8:6: kai; su; ei\pa” o{ti ouj kalo;n ei\nai to;n a[nqrwpon movnon
poihvswmen aujtw/’ bohqo;n o{moion aujtw/’

Only the comment about the woman’s likeness to the man is slightly
different: “like to him” (o{moion aujtw/’) instead of “corresponding to
him” (kat! aujtovn; Hebrew wdgnk).26 Tobiah recognizes Sarah as a gift
from God, given to him as a help and support for his life. He acknowl-
edges her as an equal partner in the marriage, “like to himself.” His
comment that from Adam and Eve “the human race descended” sug-
gests his hope for children (cf. Tob 10:11, 13).
There are some differences in the situation of Tobiah and Sarah
compared to that of Adam and Eve. Sarah, not Tobiah, will leave
father and mother (see Gen 2:24). Sarah and Tobiah have seven sons,
whereas we only know of three for Adam and Eve. But as Sarah and
Tobiah have difficulty with a demon (Tob 8:1-3), Adam and Eve will
also face the challenge of evil (Gen 3:1-7).
The understanding of marriage in the Book of Tobit is clearly based
on the theology of the creation narrative. What is missing here in com-
parison with the Genesis story, however, is even more significant.
There is no mention of sin or disobedience in Tobiah’s prayer (com-
pare Genesis 3); there is no turning away from God. There is no mutual
recrimination or “curse.” The creation story is retold in the context
solely of blessing. Just as the Priestly tradition in the Pentateuch, edited
during the exilic/postexilic period, surrounds the story of sin and curse

with blessing, so blessing renders the curse invisible in this postexilic
story of Tobiah and Sarah. The blessing of marriage has been freed
from the curse of sin just as Asmodeus has been banished by the
smoke, the prayer, and the power of God in his angels.

Conclusion

The Book of Tobit is modeled on the stories in Genesis, primarily
the ancestor stories but also the creation stories. The ancestors
sojourned in a land not their own; the characters in Tobit are also
sojourners, exiles from their land.27 The ancestors were bound to God
by the covenant and walked in righteousness before him. They perse-
vered in marriage and in their hope for children. The characters in
Tobit are righteous people, walking before God in obedience. They are
hospitable, generous, and loving in their relationships to one another.
They understand marriage to be given by God and regulated by the
Law. They love their children and entrust the future to them. The
ancestors lived in hope that God’s promises of land and descendants
would be fulfilled for their descendants. The Book of Tobit ends with a
promise that God’s people will again flourish in the land of Abraham.
The Book of Tobit brings encouragement to its audience, Jews living
in the Diaspora. God’s promises to the ancestors have not failed; the
ancient stories are still reflected in the daily lives of faithful people.
“Blessed be God who lives forever” (Tob 13:1).
It is with gratitude that I dedicate this article to Alexander A. Di
Lella, O.F.M. His support through my graduate study was unfailing.
His suggestions and critique during the writing of my dissertation were
prompt and always helpful. I could not have found a better Doktor-
vater. Thank you, Alex!

Originally posted 2020-02-20 13:30:23.