Tobit Explained

The Book of Tobit tells the uplifting story of a pious man who lived a precarious existence while exiled with his wife Anna and son Tobias in Nineveh. Despite his exilic fate, Tobit walks in the ways of truth and righteousness, performing almsgiving for his deported and departed contemporaries. After burying the corpse of a dead fellow Israelite, a tangible and paradigmatic deed of mercy in the narrative, Tobit rests in the courtyard under a tree and bird droppings fall upon his eyes, causing incurable blindness. Tobit is unable to work, suffers financial hardship and after a mocking reproach from his wife, turns desolate. At the height of his despair, he turns to God and prays that God would send him to his everlasting home. With death imminent and a desire to secure his family, Tobit recalls a large sum of money he entrusted to a cousin in Media. He sends his son Tobias to retrieve the deposit. Before Tobias departs, Tobit prepares his son for the journey by giving him a set of practical wisdom counsels and by asking him to find a knowledgeable and experienced traveling companion. Tobias finds his guide in the angel Rafael under the guise of a distant kinsman named Azariah.

From the angel Rafael, Tobias discovers another reason for the journey. With angelic prodding, Tobias has become “as if a blind boy who had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.”1 Tobias learns about Sarah, a kinswoman, whose fate is as bad as his father’s: the lovely Sarah has had seven dead husbands, pushing her to wit’s end and despair. As-modeus, the demon obsessively in love with Sarah, killed all of them on their wedding night. Tobias finds out that he is to marry Sarah, as this has been decided in heaven.

As the two travel along, Tobias encounters a giant fish that almost devours him. With Rafael’s instructions, Tobias gets hold of the fish, draws it to the riverbank, guts it and saves the fish heart, liver and gall per Rafael’s orders. Rafael tells Tobias that these parts will help cure his father’s blindness as well as banish the demon Asmodeus from the bed chamber on his wedding night.

Tobias’s journey ends in success: he comes home married to Sarah and doubly enriched. Placing the fish gall on his father’s eyes, Tobit is cured. Rafael then reveals both his own identity and mission as well as the divine design that underlines the events in the story. Before the in-terpreting angel departs, he gives them a series of admonitions that echo those of Tobit. He commands Tobit and Tobias to praise God and to acknowledge all his works, to which Tobit responds by singing a long canticle of praise that speaks of a future return and the glorious rebuilding of Jerusalem.

The story ends on a happy note, with more given to Tobit and his family and almost everything restored — almost, as the problem of exile remains yet to be resolved.

The story of the reception and interpretation of the Book of Tobit is equally colorful.2 Despite Tobit’s disputed canonical status, the book has found favor and popularity among readers and interpreters for the artistry of its storytelling, for its wisdom counsels, and for its consoling message. Jewish interest in the book was strong from early Judaism to the medieval period.3 The presence of Tobit at Qumran shows that the book was indeed well-regarded at an early stage. As part of the rise of Jewish nationalism and “the secularist rebellion against rabbinic au-thority” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Book of Tobit and other Sefarim Hitzoniyim, or “the outside books,” were then re-claimed as essential texts of the Jewish literary heritage.4

In the Christian tradition, the early church fathers mined the book for its themes, practical instructions and moral lessons as biblical war-rants for catechetical, polemical and doctrinal claims. The patristic writers presented Tobit as a worthy example and symbol of the Christian life.5 The patristic references to Tobit also gave the book a role in the early church’s attempt to define its relationship with the Old Testament. Later Christian authors such as Isidore of Seville and Venerable Bede interpreted the Book of Tobit not in historical but in allegorical terms.6 In fact, iconographic representations of Tobit from the third to the fifth centuries match and parallel the symbolic reading of the book.7 Found on frescoes in catacombs and on sarcophagus re-liefs, the portrayal of Tobias holding a fish became rich “types” or representations of Christ and the sacramental life in Christ in the Eucharist and in baptism. This figurative approach resulted in the wis-dom sayings of Tobit 4 and 12, once a favorite source of citations, yielding to reflection on particular details and sequences of the story.

With its persistent theme of divine assistance in the midst of pain, Tobit has enjoyed a special place in the religious piety of the Christian believer. In Florentine Renaissance, Tobit and its motif of divine guid-ance on a danger-ridden journey inspired a number of artistic works commissioned for liturgical and devotional purposes.8 In liturgical cele-brations, various prayer books for the rite of matrimony often referred to the marriage of Tobias and Sarah as a model.9 In fact, an extract from the Book of Tobit is still one of the proposed readings for celebrating the sacrament of marriage in the Roman Catholic Church. In any case, the wisdom instructions seemed to have declined in appreciation as the wonderful episodes of the story became more ingrained in the imagi-nation of readers and believers.

The last thirty years have seen a growing scholarly attention to the Book of Tobit. One can no longer say these days that interest in the Book of Tobit is primarily disinterest,10 as Paul Deselaers did in intro-ducing his extensive source-critical study of the book in 1982. In his monograph of 1994, Merten Rabenau critically revisits the work of Deselaers by employing a similar diachronic analysis but proceeding from a different textual assumption. Both scholars have argued for a core story that was later redacted in a number of literary stages.

From the other side of the Atlantic, scholarly interest in Tobit fa-vors a synchronic approach. Irene Nowell uses narrative criticism in her 1983 study of Tobit, investigating the literary technique of the book and showing how such artistry conveys the book’s theological con-cerns. In 1984, Patrick Griffin focused on the six prayers in Tobit, analyzing how they contribute to the theology and the narrative movement of the book. Recently, in 2007, Geoffrey Miller combined historical-critical and literary methods of biblical interpretation to ex-plain the view of marriage in Tobit.11 Alexander Di Lella, who stressed the textual influence of Deuteronomy on Tobit, directed all these dis-sertations at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.

In light of the discovery of the Tobit fragments at Qumran, a couple of recent works on the texts of Tobit have also been published. Under the direction of Joseph Fitzmyer, Vincent Skemp compared the Vulgate of Tobit with its other ancient textual witnesses. Michaela Hallermayer, in her detailed 2008 study of the textual traditions of Tobit under Armin Schmitt, concluded, among other things, that Tobit’s original language is Semitic and that the Sinaiticus is closer but not equivalent to its Semitic Urtext.

Major commentaries by John Craghan, Heinrich Gro�, Carey Moore, Beate Ego, Jos� V�lchez, Helen Sch�ngel-Straumann, Joseph Fitzmyer, Robert Littman and Marco Zappella also appeared during this period. Scholars such as George Nickelsburg, Will Soll, Helmut Engel, Amy-Jill Levine, and Devorah Dimant published seminal ar-ticles on Tobit. Lawrence Wills, Erich Gruen and David McCracken recently emphasized the role of humor in the Tobit narrative. In 2004, the First International Conference on the Deuterocanonical Books de-voted its study to Tobit. Various papers, treating themes such as the afterlife, food, prophecy and marriage in the book were published un-der the title The Book of Tobit: Text, Tradition, Theology (eds., G.G. XERAVITS – J. ZSENGELL�R). In 2005, a number of scholars honored the noted scholar of intertextuality Alexander A. Di Lella on the occasion of his 75th birthday with a festschrift entitled Intertextual Studies in Ben Sira and Tobit (eds., J. CORLEY – V.T.M. SKEMP). As the title indicates, half of the volume are articles on Tobit that examine the book’s inter-textual relationship with other biblical passages. Finally in 2006, a book entitled Studies in the Book of Tobit: A Multidisciplinary Approach (ed. M. BREDIN) collected twelve essays using a variety of perspectives and me-thodological approaches, resulting often in fresh and interesting read-ings of Tobit.

Despite this emergent interest in the Book of Tobit, the wisdom in-structions of Tobit 4 have remained largely ignored for one reason or another. The wise sayings of Tobit 4 are certainly treated in various commentaries on Tobit, but no extensive study of them exists. In an essay, Manfred Oeming uses Tobit 4, along with Job 31, as starting points for exploring the shape of ethics in later Judaism. Rabenau does devote the second chapter of his monograph to the wisdom instruc-tions. For the most part, however, his analysis mostly compares the instructions in Tobit 4 with similar admonitions found in Jewish-Helle-nistic wisdom literature to show redactional work and Hellenistic in-fluence on the said chapter. There remains still some disinterest in this key passage in Tobit. In light of the lack of an extensive treatment of such an important section in the Book of Tobit, the present study is a humble attempt to fill in the lacuna.

The exegetical method used for examining the instructions in Tobit 4 is, for the most part, synchronic, which is particularly conducive for investigating narrative texts, of which Tobit is a prime example. With insights from narrative criticism, the research attempts to understand the significance and function of the wisdom instructions, or the Didache, in the book’s narrative world. The study proposes to read Tobit’s wisdom discourse as a vital component in the literary expression of the author. Moreover, the organic role of the wisdom instructions in the author’s literary design is a pointer to their important function in the socio-historical world that the narrative supposes, which is the world of Diaspora living. Put simply, the study situates the instructions within the social realities of Second Temple Judaism, providing a glimpse into how the wisdom tradition of Israel became an essential avenue for shaping the identity of those outside the land during the postexilic period. The Book of Tobit, with its lengthy series of wisdom counsels, reflects some particular realities of such a milieu.

The study is articulated in five chapters. The first chapter argues for the narrative integrity of the Book of Tobit. In chapter 2, the focus shifts to a detailed study of the instructions in Tobit 4 and a structure for the wisdom sayings is proposed. The third chapter investigates the function of the wisdom instructions in the narrative, after which, the tradition of wisdom and its validity in Tobit is examined in the fourth chapter. The final chapter assesses the importance of the wisdom discourse of Tobit 4 for the Diaspora as it is viewed from the inside looking out.

There are certainly episodes and passages in the Book of Tobit that would satisfy the searching curiosity and interest of readers far more than Tobit’s long wisdom lecture that reflects the defining moral and religious code that Tobit wants Tobias to acquire and put into practice. However, if the symmetrical structure of the narrative is any indi-cation, then the role of the wisdom discourse cannot be but significant. As Tobit’s canticle of praise at the end of the story shows, a truly per-fect happy ending for the suffering people of God will happen only in the kair’s of time. In the meantime, as the story begins to march from chaos towards that promised plenitude of a glorious and paradisiacal future, Tobit’s sapiential discourse in the beginning of the narrative hints at the belief that Wisdom is a steady hand, a sure companion, and an unfailing guide and compass along the journey.


1 The phrase comes from Flannery O’Connor’s short story entitled “Parker’s Back.”

2 For a survey of interpretation of the Book of Tobit, see POEHLMANN, Tobit, Book of, 2:577-581. For a recent survey of studies on Tobit, see SPENCER, The Book of Tobit in Recent Research, 147-180.

3 Cf. SIMPSON, The Book of Tobit, 1:198. Cf. also DE LANGE, Apocrypha, 103.

4 Cf. GOLDMAN, Tobit and the Jewish Literary Tradition, 90-98.

5 Cf. GAMBERONI, Die Auslegung des Buches Tobias, 56-72; DRIUSSI, Il libro di Tobia nella letteratura cristiana antica, 59-98; 171-191.

6 Cf. GAMBERONI, Die Auslegung des Buches Tobias, 103-122. Driussi points out that trinitarian and christological interpretations of Tobit, considered as an historical book, started to appear in the works of Clement and Origin of Alexandria. DRIUSSI, Il libro di Tobia nella letteratura cristiana antica, 95-98.

7 For a discussion on how Tobit’s fish evolved from funerary symbolism to sacra-mental catechesis, see DOIGNON, Tobie et le poisson dans la litt�rature et l’icono-graphie occidentals, 113-126. On the early representations of Tobit, cf. DRIUSSI, Il libro di Tobia nella letteratura cristiana antica, 219-233.

8 Cf. HART, Tobit in the Art of the Florentine Renaissance, 72-89. For a survey of other artistic works and musical compositions inspired by the Book of Tobit, see BAYER, Tobit, Book of: In the Arts, 20:13-14. Rembrandt also drew inspiration from the Book of Tobit, illustrating almost every event in the story with drawings, etchings and paintings. HOEKSTRA, Rembrandt and the Bible, 164-195.

9 Cf. METZGER, An Introduction to the Apocrypha, 40-41. For the use of Tobit in the liturgy, see COMIATI, Il libro di Tobit nell�odierna liturgia, 227-231.

10 DESELAERS, Das Buch Tobit, 15: “Das Interesse am Buch Tobit ist weithin ein Disinteresse.”

11 Miller’s doctoral work is being published as a volume in the series Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature Studies. The references in this work are to his dissertation.

Originally posted 2020-01-07 16:39:09.