One of my favorite books of scripture is the book of Tobit. This fondness and familiarity came from spending nearly a year at a previous parish both reading and teaching through it.
Originally written in either Hebrew or Aramaic, Tobit was later translated into Greek (in two extant versions) as part of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by Christ and the early Church. There are manuscripts of Tobit among the Dead Sea Scrolls (discovered in 1947), which has shed light on the textual history of the book.
Tobit in the Early Church
Tobit contains a repeating message as its core: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These are three cardinal virtues of the Christian faith, and are all utilized as a key part of the Gospel message in the New Testament.
Prayer is undoubtedly encouraged by both Christ and his apostles in the New Testament (Matt. 6:6,9–13), and this is the same in Tobit (e.g. 4:19). Fasting is assumed as normative by Jesus when speaking with his disciples, and he even gives instructions on how to do it without hypocrisy (Matt. 6:16,18). The same encouragement is found in Tobit (12:8). Almsgiving is central to the preaching of both Jesus (Matt. 6:1,4; Luke 6:30) and his apostles (2 Cor. 9:7; Gal. 6:10), and the same message predates them in the book of Tobit (e.g. 4:7,9–10,16).
Other parts of Tobit are found referenced either directly or as allusions in the New Testament.
The death of seven husbands to the same wife is an example given by the Sadducees to Jesus in their critique of the resurrection:
There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no children; and the second took her, and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; and the seven left no children. Last of all the woman also died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.” —Mark 12:20–23
While Jesus tells his disciples, “whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them” (Matt. 7:12), we read in Tobit, “what you yourself hate, do not do to anyone” (4:15).
Revelation tells of the seven spirits in the throne room of God (Rev. 1:4)—a reference to the seven archangels (cf. 1 Enoch 20:1–8; 90:21,22)—and the archangel Raphael reveals to Tobit he is “one of the seven holy angels who report the prayers of the saints and who enter before the glory of the Holy One” (12:15; compare to Rev. 8:3–4). The walls of New Jerusalem are said to be “adorned with all kinds of precious stones” in Revelation (21:19), whereas Tobit centuries-earlier reports (13:16–17):
For Jerusalem will be built with sapphire and emerald,
and your walls with precious stone,
and the towers and ramparts pure gold,
and the streets of Jerusalem will be paved with beryl,
and carbuncle, and stone from Souphir.
Finally, there are several early Christians and Church Fathers who refer to Tobit as scripture. Here are just a few:
When you can do good, defer it not, because “alms delivers from death.”
—St. Polycarp of Smyrna, Epistle to the Philippians 10 (ref. Tobit 4:10; 12:9)
Having heard the Scripture which says, “Fasting with prayer is a good thing.” —Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata 6.12 (ref. Tobit 12:8)
He shows also, that when Susannah prayed to God, and was heard, the angel was sent then to help her, just as was the case in the instance of Tobias and Sara. For when they prayed, the supplication of both of them was heard in the same day and the same hour, and the angel Raphael was sent to heal them both.
—St. Hippolytus of Rome, Commentary on Daniel 6:55 (ref. Tobit 3:17)
And thus Holy Scripture instructs us, saying, “Prayer is good with fasting and almsgiving.”
—St. Cyprian of Carthage, Treatise 4.32 (ref. Tobit 12:8)
Tobias also, although under a royal and tyrannical slavery, yet in feeling and spirit free, maintains his confession to God, and sublimely announces both the divine power and majesty, saying: “In the land of my captivity I confess to Him, and I show forth His power in a sinful nation.”
—St. Cyprian of Carthage, Treatise 11.11 (ref. Tobit 13:6)
It is written of the other, “The foolish person will speak foolishness” [Isa. 32:6 LXX]; but of these, “Ask counsel of all that are wise.”
—St. Athanasius the Great, Defense before Constantius 17 (ref. Tobit 4:18)
And again; “Do not to another what thou hatest.”
—St. John Chrysostom, Homily on the Statues 7 (ref. Tobit 4:15)
Tobit as Gospel
From the perspective of a typological hermeneutic, there is an inescapable prototype of the Gospel in the book of Tobit.
As gleaned from the Orthodox Study Bible’s introduction to the writing, the story of Tobit is the story of a father sending his only son out into the world to retrieve an inheritance. In this journey, the son redeems a bride from the curse of both death and the devil. There is a great wedding feast (with lamb) in honor of the bridegroom. A tomb is prepared for him, but they find it empty the next morning. The bridegroom brings the bride—now free from the clutches of both death and the evil one—back to the loving arms of his father.
If early Christians viewed Tobit in this way, it could help explain a second and third-century rejection of Tobit as part of canonical scripture among many post-Christian, rabbinical Jews. Other scriptures were later rejected in certain sects of Judaism due to the insistence of Christians that they taught of Christ (John 5:39). The same can be said of Judith, the Wisdom of Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon.
The Story of Tobit
The story of Tobit takes place in and around Nineveh (present-day Iraq), ca. 721–615 B.C.
Tobit is a faithful and charitable man. While in the process of burying a friend (on the feast of Pentecost), he is stricken with blindness in a freak accident (let’s just say a bird was involved). Given over to despair, Tobit becomes a little cranky and annoys his wife Anna with his attitude. Her gentle rebuke leads him to a prayer of sorrow and repentance (3:2–6):
O Lord, You are righteous. So too are all Your works. All Your ways are mercy and truth. Your judgments are true and just forever … Do not punish me for my sins and my ignorance, nor those sins of my fathers which they committed against You … Now do with me as is best before You. Command that my spirit be taken up, so I may be released and become soil, since it is better for me to die than to live … Command that I be freed from distress to now enter into the eternal place. Do not turn your face away from me.
As Tobit is praying—asking to be brought into Hades, freed from the pains of his life—a woman named Sarah was also praying to God. She had been married seven times, and all seven men had perished on the night of their wedding. She was the scorn of even her own parents and, as a result, thought to be cursed by death and a demon named Asmodeus. She too welcomed death, turning to prayer (3:15):
Seven of my husbands have already perished. What should I live for? But if it does not seem good to You to kill me, command that I be looked upon with favor, and that mercy be shown to me, so I may no longer hear disgrace.
The narrator tells us that the archangel Raphael had heard both prayers, and is sent to “heal the two of them” (3:16). The name Raphael in ancient Hebrew means “God heals.”
The next day, Tobit sends his son Tobias to Media in order to retrieve silver that Tobit had entrusted to a friend named Gabael. Before Tobias departs, Tobit gives his son a few words of parting wisdom. In these words are a number of parallels to Christ’s sermon on the Mount of Olives, and even some of the best parental advice in human history. Some excerpts (4:3–19):
My son, if I die, bury me, but do not disregard your mother. Honor her all the days of your life. Do what is pleasing to her, but do not grieve her. Remember, my son, that she experienced many dangers for you while you were in the womb …
Remember the Lord our God all your days, and do not desire to sin or to disobey His commandments …
[I]f you walk in the truth, you will be successful in your works. Do almsgiving from your possessions to all who do righteousness …
Do not turn your face away from any poor man, so the face of God will not be turned away from you …
Do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. You are storing up a good treasure for yourself in the day of necessity. For almsgiving delivers us from death and prevents us from entering into the darkness …
Do not keep overnight the wages of any man who works for you, but pay him immediately …
Be disciplined in your conduct. What you yourself hate, do not do to anyone …
From your bread, give to him who is hungry, and from your clothing, give to the naked …
Seek counsel from every sensible man, and do not treat any useful advice with contempt. At every opportunity bless the Lord God, but more than this ask that your ways may become straight, and that all Your paths and purposes may prosper …
Let none of my commandments be removed from your heart.
Notable is an inverse of the Golden Rule, as taught by Jesus to his disciples: “What you yourself hate, do not do to anyone.”
The archangel accompanies Tobias on his journey (along with his dog, which has befuddled commentators throughout the centuries), but in disguise, after earning favor from his father. Along the way, they do some fishing, and pieces of the fish are kept by Tobias at the instruction of the angel. Raphael tells Tobias of a godly woman named Sarah in Rages of Media, encouraging their acquaintance. Tobias is fond of this idea, seeing as how she is a diaspora Israelite like Tobias and his family, but he soon learns of her curse and seven dead husbands.
Raphael encourages Tobias to trust in the Lord, and has him burn a concoction of incense from one of the fish organs they harvested earlier, offering prayers to God for deliverance from Sarah’s demon. Her family throws a great wedding feast in Tobias and Sarah’s honor, but the joy is tempered as they prepare a tomb for Tobias in anticipation of his near-certain death! However, the incense Tobias offers is effective, and he passes through the night unharmed. The family awakes to find an empty tomb.
There are other parts of this story that could be discussed, and no summary is perfect. For the sake of brevity, I would just encourage you to sit down and read this story for yourself. All things considered, what is most striking to me in Tobit is the repeated insistence of our Lord’s three-fold message—especially in Matthew’s Gospel—throughout: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. If Tobit could be summarized in three words, those would be it.
As Christians, the value of this story (especially for our children) is clear:
- The way we treat other people matters. In fact, even the way we treat reposed friends and family matters.
- We can overcome both death and the devil with faithfulness and the Lord’s help—but only if we cooperate and listen to his instructions.
- God has provided messengers—angels—to aid in our healing and transformation into the image and likeness of him.
- Our God is the God of the living.
- The essence of Christian asceticism and spirituality is trinitarian: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Selflessness—the heart of Tobit’s message—is at the heart of Christian spirituality. In caring for others, we find true life. And that is the enduring message of Tobit.
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Recommendations for Further Study:
- On Tobit and the Canticle of Habakkuk by the Venerable Bede (out of print)
- The Rest of the Bible: A Guide to the Old Testament of the Early Church by Theron Mathis
- Tobit: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Yale Bible) by Carey A. Moore
- Tobit: The Book of Tobit in Codex Sinaiticus by Robert J. Littman
- A New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) by Oxford University Press
- The Lexham English Septuagint by Lexham Press (digital, for use with Logos Bible Software)
- When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible by Timothy Michael Law