Dr. Amy-Jill Levine Talks Tobit and Canon Envy
We chat with the renowned Jewish New Testament scholar about the themes of Tobit, its historical context, and contemporary application.
Jamey: So last week we got to the end of our time going through Tobit. We've been taking it chapter by chapter, bit by bit, having conversations where we get a chance to dig deeper into the text, look at what it means, how it might apply today, and a few interesting facts along the way. We also had the chance to look at a few related issues, dig into things that interested us, little side journeys through history or through the text. But what I got really excited about was we had a chance to sit down with a couple of experts outside of our ordinary circles who know a little something about Tobit and the other bad books of the Bible. Joel, can you tell us a little bit about whom we have today?
Joel: Yeah, totally! I'm stoked about this. We have spoken with two outside experts on the book of Tobit, and the first interview is one we're going to share with you today. It's with Dr. Amy-Jill Levine. She likes to joke to say that her name would be great if it rhymed with "divine," but it doesn't; it's lev-EEN. She's a professor at Vanderbilt and teaches in the divinity school there. Her connection to the apocrypha is fascinating because she teaches Tobit and she not only teaches Tobit, but in The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, she actually prepared the notes, the study notes for that particular edition of the book of Tobit. She's been involved in other books related to the bad books of the Bible, including The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha. She was one of the scholars involved with that project.
She's also co-editor of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and that reflects one of her key interests, which is the intersection of Jewish and Christian Scripture, because there is quite a lot of overlap—and overlap in unexpected areas. So that's kind of what she helps bring to the party, and that's one of the reasons why we were so excited to talk with her about the book of Tobit.
Now, I should say in advance that we had some audio trouble. We had a gremlin, as it were; our own Asmodeus got into the picture and mucked up the sound on my end, on my mic, but Dr. Levine sounds fantastic. You sound fantastic, Jamey.
Jamey: Oh, thank you.
Joel: And so either of you sounds great except when I talk. So if everyone could please just tune me out, that'd be amazing. But, without further ado, let's hear from Dr. Levine.
Jamey: Well, I really appreciate your being on the show today. I've just got to say that first. We've both followed a little bit of your trajectory in your career. We both have been reading The Bible With and Without Jesus, so it's really an honor to be able to talk with you.
AJ: Oh, you're a sweetheart. Thank you. I am absolutely delighted to be able to talk about Tobit, which is one of my favorite… I have canon envy! I am Jewish; Tobit is not, and my canon… I'm so envious of Anglicans and Catholics and Orthodox, because you get to read this stuff! I have an icon of Tobit that I bought in Rome, this absolutely gorgeous one, with Raphael and then Tobias and Sarah, but it cost something like 3,000 Euro, and I couldn't afford it, so I got a little stripped-down one that only has the angel and the guy and Sarah's somewhere off on some other thing… And it's hanging in my living room.
Joel: That's wonderful!
Jamey: I haven't even seen that, but I'm not surprised that it exists, because the book is really popular, and it was especially popular from a pretty early point. Why do you think it's resonated with readers since very early on?
AJ: Because it's funny! I mean, people like good stories, and this is a good story, and it's a particularly good story because the more you know about the Bible—and this is not including the New Testament—but the more you know about the Scriptures of Israel that got translated into Greek, the Septuagint, and the more you know about Hellenistic Jewish literature, the more you can hear the echoes. So it's a parody of Jonah; it's got strong connections to some of the other books in the apocrypha. You begin to get angelology and demonology, and who doesn't like angels and demons? It's a fairy tale with a happy ending. What's not to like? Plus, you know, there's a magic fish. It's got everything you need and could possibly want in a good story.
Joel: Well, you just brought up a number of aspects that argue perhaps against its historicity, because as we were researching the book, we found several people that were pretty insistent that this was a historical book. I don't think it needs to be taken that way, and there were several things, as you pointed out, that would argue against that. What do you think about the book's historicity? What is the book of Tobit?
AJ: [Laughter] Well, probably the best way of defining it would be like historical fiction. It's history like the book of Jonah is history. Or the book of Judith is history, and Tobit and Judith actually have a lot in common, besides both being placed in the deuterocanonical collection: Hellenistic Jewish literature that may have had an original Hebrew or Aramaic background, but it's only extant fully in Greek. Judith is faked, and it tells you that right from the beginning, and Tobit is faked as well. But the only reason… I mean, you would… You might believe in disguise and demons that kill husbands on a bride's wedding night because they were in love with the bride, and fathers-in-law who dig graves because they know the husband's going to die before the murder. You may believe in all that stuff, but what Tobit does is what Judith does. It starts off with a number of historical inaccuracies that people at the time would have known, but people today don't.
Joel: And that's like a tip-off that this is fiction.
AJ: Yeah! It's like saying when Queen Elizabeth ruled the United States under Donald Trump's fifth administration. It's just weird, and everybody then would have known it was weird, but since we today are not very good at history and we don't know the differences among, say, Sennacherib and Tiglath-Pileser III, and we don't know how far it is in the Ancient Near East to get from the city of Media to the city of Rages, we have no idea that this idea that this thing is faked.
Jamey: So you're saying this is kind of a deliberate technique and literary style.
Jamey: So it wasn't a surprise to the early readers.
AJ: No! Jews had a sense of humor! [Laughter] And Jews could write stuff that might have looked liked history but it wasn't, and everybody knew that. And the thing is, you know, Romans are doing the same thing, and Greeks are doing the same thing, because they all knew how to tell good stories, and they also realized that fiction and morality and fiction and theology are not mutually exclusive categories. Jesus realized the same thing by telling parables. So if you don't want to call these things historical fiction, and that's just because they're longer, you could call them kind of entertaining parables.
Joel: You talk about the relationship of Tobit and Jonah; you just did. You also mentioned in The Bible With or Without Jesus. Can you tell us more? And that phrase, like it's a parody. When you talk about Jonah being a parody, it's like a parody of a parody.
AJ: A parody of a parody.
Joel: Tell us more about that.
AJ: Well, I mean, how cool is a parody of a parody? When we get into the Hellenistic period of Israel's history—so Alexander the Great comes through in 333, which is an easy date to remember, and then suddenly everybody in the ancient world is speaking Greek and you have Hellenistic culture meeting Jewish culture, and you start to get this Hellenistic Jewish literature, and a lot of it is parody on parody, or plays on plays. So the book of Judith is in part a play on the Song of Deborah, or a rewrite of the story of Dinah and Shechem in Genesis 34.
What the book of Tobit does is it plays on certain motifs in Jonah, so it's a parody of parody. In Jonah, a giant fish eats a guy, and the guy's in the fish's stomach for three days. Now, granted, there was just off the New England coast a whale that actually—some guy got into a whale and then got out, and everybody's saying, "Oh, Jonah must be true!" Okay, first of all, Jonah's not about a whale; it's about a big fish. So what happens in Tobit is this giant fish leaps onto the land and attempts to swallow Tobias, who is the son of the titular hero, and the romantic lead. And Tobias, who's not really swift on the uptake, doesn't know what to do when this giant fish is about to swallow him, but there's an angel in disguise who will rescue him.
But there's also another play on Jonah which is not quite so funny. In the book of Jonah, Jonah is commissioned by God to go speak to the great city of Nineveh, and in a five-word (in Hebrew) sermon, he gets the entire city of Nineveh to repent. And Nineveh was known in the ancient world as being not only a city of marauders, but it would be Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire—it would be Nineveh that destroyed Jonah's own country of Israel in the generation after Jonah. So whereas the book of Jonah celebrates the repentance of the Ninevites and therefore the lack of destruction of Nineveh, what happens at the end of Tobit is that Tobit speaks against the Ninevites, and the family of Tobit itself—they're from the Israelite tribe of Naphtali, so think of the ten lost tribes: this is one of them—and they were exiled from the Assyrians. So whereas Jonah celebrates the repentance of the Ninevites, Tobit can't do that, because Tobit's family was taken into exile by the Assyrian Empire.
Before he dies, according to the book of Tobit, if I'm remembering this correctly, Tobit rejoices over the destruction of Nineveh. So you have both the fish thing, which is a positive parody, and you have, maybe in Tobit's view, the correction. No, do not celebrate that Nineveh had been spared, because if Nineveh had been spared, then Israel would have been spared as well.
Jamey: Yeah, Jonah's not the only example of other biblical books that come out in Tobit. One of the things we talked about in our conversation was some similarities to Job. Now, there's some divergences as well, but there's some very obvious similarities. Can you comment on that a little bit?
AJ: Oh, absolutely. And by the way, there's actually a Jewish parody of Job that was written in the Hellenistic period; it's called the Testament of Job, where Satan shows up, and Mrs. Job gets a whole lot better lines than "Bless him and die." In the Testament of Job, Job's family has been killed and his body is suffering, and he's being eaten by worms. At one point one of the worms falls off, and he picks up the worm and he puts it back on this festering sore, and he says, "There, there, little worm; it's not your time yet." Bizarre.
So Job is not funny. Job is anything but funny. Job is a story of how do you talk about a just God when humans suffer.
AJ: We're talking about the relationship between Tobit and Job. Job is a righteous man who suffers not because he's being punished and not really to teach him anything either; Job is a book about theodicy and can you still, despite everything, talk about a just God and finding meaning in life despite meaningless suffering. Tobit is actually somewhat like Job. He doesn't lose his family members, although he worries that his son might be dead, because he sent his son off to go find some family treasure in another city and he worries that the son hasn't come back. And the son's life is actually in danger on at least two occasions.
But what happens to Tobit, who is a saint, much like Job, is he's kind of like the Jewish Antigone. So he's out there burying dead bodies when the emperor has said you can't: you have to leave these bodies in the streets because it's a form of dishonoring. And one night after burying a body, he's outside probably because of ritual purity issues; he doesn't want to come inside until the morning. And a bird poops in his eyes, and he goes blind. Now, how can you talk about the justice of God when, when you're doing something righteous, a bird poops in your eyes and you go blind? So he gets these cataracts. So it's like Job, only it's funny!
And whereas Job and the readers of Job don't know that Job is ever going to be vindicated, you know pretty much immediately that [Tobit] is going to be vindicated because Raphael, who is an archangel, who is in disguise, comes to rescue Tobit and rescue Tobias and get Tobias married off to the appropriate woman who turns out to be a cousin, and make everybody happy at the end. You can look at Tobit as a rewriting of Job just as you can look at it as a rewriting of Jonah. So it cleans up disturbing issues, but it also disturbs issues that might be okay in the original. And that's what parodies do: they disrupt.
Joel: One of the things that's interesting in the role of Raphael that you just mentioned is this teasing of what's going to happen before it happens. So there's never any suspense in this story; the whole kit and kaboodle is given away right at the beginning, practically. The minute Raphael shows up, you know the resolution to the story. It feels like half the fun of the story is watching it unfold as it goes.
AJ: That's exactly right.
Joel: Can you tell us about the literary technique? What were they thinking? What was the writer thinking in that?
AJ: Well, there is some suspense in there, but it is more or less, Joel, as you had described it. It's watching how things are going to turn out, and having the sense of you don't have to worry that this is going to be some sort of post-modernist treatment where everybody's unhappy at the end and people land in chaos. It's like watching a comedy. You watch a comedy and you know it's a comedy. You know that the lovers are going to get together at the end, and you know that they're going to have some problems along the way, and they might actually break out into song; well, in Tobit they break out into prayer. So you get these little side notes where you can go to the bathroom or get a snack because you really don't want to pay attention to that stuff.
There's a joy in watching how these things straighten out. Okay, you know there's going to be a problem with Tobias's marrying Sarah. Oh, and by the way, Sarah, the heroine, also has some connection with Sarah as in Sarah and Hagar, if you go back to the book of Genesis. It's not just their name, but Sarah actually winds up mistreating her female slaves—I don't think they're female servants; I think they're slaves—because they tease her because she can't hang onto a husband because her husbands keep dying because a demon keeps killing them. And therefore she can't have a child. So there's an echo of Sarah who's been unable to conceive and then her slave Hagar, who is able to conceive, and once she does, Hagar, as Genesis says, her mistress became light in her eyes, which is a pun, like she's of less worth but also physically lighter, as Hagar is getting more and more heavy through pregnancy. And you get a replay of that when Sarah's slaves begin to mock her and say, "Look at you. The problem is you, lady, not this demon."
So, again, the more you know about what the Church would call the Old Testament, the more interesting Tobit gets. And Tobit's just picking motif after motif after motif and repurposing them. It's kind of like listening to a John Williams score and going: "Oh! There's Beethoven. There's Mozart. There's Haydn." It's all together—and this new thing, which is glorious. [Laughter] I'm sorry!
Jamey: It is an interesting aspect of the story that it is relying on so much prior written material, like in terms of book history this is kind of a new period in time where there's enough old stuff available, on the shelf so to speak, that a new writer can come in and rifle through it all and use it in a way that creates something fresh but echoes all this old material.
AJ: Sure, and of course that's what's going on in pagan literature as well. It's not like Vergil hadn't heard of Homer. And you get these… Oh, and by the way there's also connections between the Odyssey and Tobit, so you can start doing Greco-Roman backgrounds: there's this young man on an adventure with divine help, and a dog—oh, there's a dog; who knew? There's a dog in Tobit; there's a little puppy. So a lot of this is actually pulling out of some Homeric work as well as some what you would call the Old Testament work.
The joy is in reading how the plot will work itself out and at the same time finding all those additional allusions to ancient texts. It's written in that sense to engage in a variety of different audiences. You don't have to know anything about the Old Testament, and Tobit still works. But the more you know about the Old Testament, the more interesting Tobit gets, as if it's written for readers in the know. You know, wink wink nod nod, I know you're referring to Genesis 34 here. Or, gee, I didn't know what was going on here, but I think it was really interesting the way this guy met this girl and it turned out they were cousins and they were fated to be together and he manages to exorcise a demon by basically fumigating her, and it all works out well.
Joel: Coming from an Orthodox Christian perspective, we kind of have this well-developed angel-and-demon theology, and I recognize a lot of it in Tobit in a way that I don't necessarily see in a lot of other parts of the Old Testament.
AJ: Sure, and that's a good recognition, because angels don't have much of a role in the Old Testament. They really come in primarily in the Hellenistic period. You have in Hebrew a figure called a malach; the plural would be malachim. That gets translated into Greek as angelos, angeloi, but a malach is really a messenger, like the Prophet Malachi, that's just a title; it means "my messenger"; then it becomes a proper name later. These malachim, they are basically kind of like Hermes in Greek mythology; they go from God to humanity when God's not speaking to humanity directly. But when you get into the Hellenistic period, these malachim start getting named, so that you get named angels, for example, in the book of Daniel: you get the Angel Michael. That's a Hellenistic thing. And because Tobit is part of that same Hellenistic period, you start getting named angels here, too, like Raphael. You get a bunch of angels in 1 Enoch, which made it into some Orthodox, like the Ethiopian Church has that as canonical.
So what do we know about angels? A really good example of an angel that's kind of like Raphael shows up in Judges—I think it's chapter 13—where this malach meets a lady—we don't have her name, but her husband's name is Manoah, so we'll call her Mrs. Manoah. And Mrs. Manoah—you know, what else are you going to call her?—or Ms. Manoah, she's out in the field one day, and this malach appears to her and announces to her that she's going to have a baby. She and the husband have been having fertility problems. She's going to have a baby, he gives her some prenatal instructions, and it's all nice.
And she goes home and she says to Manoah, "Sweetie, I met this guy in the field. He looked like a malach, just drop-dead gorgeous." I'm paraphrasing, but only slightly. "And he told me I'm going to have a baby." Okay, now, if I'm Manoah, I'm going to think that my wife met this gorgeous guy in the field and suddenly she's pregnant? Okay, that sounds a little weird. So he says, "Okay, the next time this malach appears to you, call me so I can come." I would not have let her go back by herself, but anyway she goes, the angel shows up. So she gets the husband, and the husband says, "So what did you tell my wife?" And the malach says, "She already told you! What's your problem?"
Turns out she gets pregnant, not sure who the father is, but the kid is Samson, and that's the birth story of Samson, which is a kind of parody on all those other annunciation scenes where an angel or god appears to somebody and says, "You're going to have a baby." It's just this time it's funny, and neither Manoah nor Mrs. Manoah had actually… I mean, they had been infertile, but nobody had said they were desperate for a kid. And whether Samson has the strength of a divine father or whether he's a chip off the old block, because Manoah's not so bright and neither is Samson—the text never tells you. So you begin to get hints of angels with personalities, and this angel's a little bit huffy.
In the Hellenistic period, more and more angels, and then eventually you get, in later Christendom, angels divided: angels and archangels and thrones and dominions, and angelic ranks. Not so much in Judaism. So they're there in Jewish thought clearly in the Hellenistic period, but this is one of those cases in that separation between Judaism and Christianity, Christianity really went the angels and the demons and Judaism said, "Yeah, they're there, but we're not going to make too big a deal about them, because we really just want to talk about God and we don't want to spend a whole lot of time talking about Satan. We just really want to focus on God and not on these various messengers."
Jamey: When it comes to Raphael, at the end of the book, he essentially ascends out of their midst. Of course, we've got an Ascension in Christianity, but this concept of an angel appearing and then ascending seems to me to be the only time I see that that I can think of in the Old Testament era.
AJ: You have angels sort of ascending and descending in the book of Revelation, to come talk to John. And that's probably some time between 60 and 90 of the Common Era. So you're not too far past the time of Tobit or past the time of Daniel. Daniel's visions of angels tend to be in dreams; same thing with Joseph in the Gospel of Matthew, where an angel appears to Joseph in a dream. I'm not sure you could make a whole big deal about angels ascending and descending. I mean, they're home is heaven except for the ones who live on earth or under the earth—you get some of that in 1 Enoch, the Watcher tradition—but since their home is heaven, it wouldn't surprise me that they would go back home.
What you have with Jesus is something that develops as you go from the earliest gospel, Mark, to the latest gospel, John. So Mark you have neither an incarnation nor a resurrection appearance; you just have an empty tomb, in the earliest manuscripts of Mark, and there is no Ascension. You get the Ascension in Luke. Matthew precludes it. The very last line in the Gospel of Matthew is Jesus talking to the disciples, or at least the eleven who were left, saying, "I will be with you unto the end of the age." So you don't have to have an Ascension and then a descent of the Spirit, because Jesus is always there. Luke gets you the Ascension, and John ramps it up one and says not only is there an Ascension but there's also a kind of a coming-down, like: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word becomes flesh." So you get to start up there, come down here, and go back up there again. You get the same thing in Philippians in the Christ hymn. "Though he was in the form of God, didn't grasp hold of that but emptied himself," and you get this kenosis language, emptying, "taking the form of a slave," and then an Ascension after.
Jamey: What about women? In the book of Tobit, we see kind of a move towards a greater understanding of equality between the sexes.
AJ: Yes, although it's a complicated sort of thing. There is a sense of greater equality in that you begin to see women in the workforce, and that was relatively normative. It's not that women were locked up in women's quarters, because most houses only had one room. So this idea of some sort of gynaika, like the women are up in the back and you never see them and they're playing canasta or whatever, was only for the uber-rich, and even they got out on occasion. Most women were in the workforce, so that when Anna goes out to work, you've got women in antiquity working in textiles, you've got them doing wet-nursing, you've got them making pottery, you've got some women engaged in trade like little bits of import-export business, you've got women renting out rooms. So women do a variety of things in the subsistence economy. So you get this sense of women doing things, and that looks like it's more women-equal.
However, Tobit wants to tuck women neatly away so that they don't cause trouble, and for Tobit women are the source of trouble, which makes Tobit a standard romantic comedy up until this present day, because what you want to do—and we're thinking in a completely heterosexist mode here—is you want to get the women married off because an unmarried woman is a problem. [Laughter] And you can have that with Sarah, the unmarried woman. Okay, granted, the demon keeps killing her husbands, but that's a problem. You have very good relationships between her parents, by the way, Edna and Raguel. And they have a great relationship! The mother and the daughter have a great relationship, which you don't often see in biblical materials. So there's a little bit of Ruth and Naomi there, by the way, about finding the husband for the younger woman—yet another biblical allusion.
On the other hand, the angel doesn't like being around women, so that even when he and Tobias and Sarah are coming back so that the son can reunite with his parents and the parents can meet the daughter-in-law, the angel says to Tobias, "Let's run on ahead." So there's this sense of, if you read it closely, the angel doesn't want to be around women. There's a reason for that. Angels can be attracted to women. So at the same time you begin to get all these stories about angels and demons, you start getting a story that develops off the beginning of Genesis 6, which says the sons of God—that's literally what it says—the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful, and then they… you know, they got together, and they produced this race of giants called the nephilim, which comes from the Hebrew naphal, which means "fallen ones." So it looks kind of like the Titan myth: divine father, human mother—and then you get Hercules or the Titans, these kind of semi-divine people.
So eventually by the Hellenistic period, you get this concern that if an angel gets too close, bad things are going to happen. So Raphael, being a clued-in angel, is thinking, "Probably better not hang out with the women." [Laughter] And the story really is quite andro-centric. Sarah's like the minor character; Tobit's the major one. Sarah has adventures, but she has to be rescued. Tobias has adventures, but he is the rescuer, and she can't do anything on her own; she needs this intervention from the male side of the family. Women are sort of equal, but it's still that same old, same old.
Joel: Thinking of Raphael needing to be separate from the women reminds me of some sort of apocryphal Billy Graham rule happening there.
AJ: [Laughter] I hadn't thought about it in those terms, but, yeah, there's something happening there. I believe that's also the Mike Pence rule.
Joel: So one of the areas where, in our conversation, where we had thought about there being some equality or seeming equality, a movement towards that potentially, is in the prayers of Sarah and Tobit. They're pretty much equal in length, they follow a very similar pattern, and there is a sense in which there is an equality before God in those prayers. God hears them both at the same time as they're brought by Raphael, and he answers them both—not in the way they would want them to be answered—they both want to die, and God says, "I've got something better. We're going to try something different"—and he sends Raphael.
AJ: That is, by the way, another Jonah connection.
AJ: Jonah's prayer in the fish is: "You might as well kill me." Jonah's passive-aggressive; he's not going to kill himself, but "Okay, God. Fine. Kill me. I know you're all-powerful, but you might as well kill me." [Laughter] But there's nothing new there. You already have, for long prayers, the song of Deborah, the prayer of Deborah; you have the prayer of Hannah. If you go to the other books in the deuterocanonical literature, you have—what is it?—chapter 9 in the book of Judith: it's an entire prayer by Judith. You have Susanna in the additions to Daniel, also part of this Hellenistic Jewish literature, praying. But because you… And you have in the Greek additions to Esther, you have lots of prayers.
So what happens in the Hellenistic period is you start getting more prayers assigned to more individual characters. But the idea that men and women are equal before God is already there in Genesis 1, and it's continued all the way through your Old Testament. So there's nothing new here other than we get a greater emphasis in the Hellenistic period on personal prayer, and that's part of the move toward the novel.
Joel: Tell us more about that?
AJ: Because as you start moving towards novels, individual stories of people, where the entire story is contained in a book—and here Ruth would be an example, Jonah's an example; Abraham and Sarah, it's like vignette to vignette to vignette: it's not really a novel; David is vignette to vignette to vignette. So you have these complete stories in themselves. Well, how do you understand characterization? And this is part of that Greek literature coming in. Where you know the Greek characters. You know about Cassandra and that nobody will believe her prophecies, and you know the angst that Hector is going through, and you know what's going on with Odysseus because he never shuts up.
So what you get in these personal prayers is a sense of the interiority of the individual character, and that's something quite distinct from what you have in the Hebrew texts, where characterization is based on what people do and what they say rather than what they think. Prayers give you what's inside somebody's heart, so it's a way of developing character.
Joel: I mean, it seems to me that that would influence actual piety, so that somebody is reading this book, it is new to them or that experience of prayer is new to them, and it alters prayer. It alters the practice of prayer of the people reading a book like this. How do we think about the role of a book affecting new behaviors?
AJ: You would have to make the case that the behavior is new rather than the increasing appearance of a particular genre in literature is new. Again, we have prayers in your Old Testament, our Tanakh, so people would already know that personal prayer is okay. People also knew that you could pick up a psalm. Psalms were generally designed to be kind of all-purpose things, and you found a psalm that had at least one verse that hooked in, and if a couple of other verses didn't quite hook in, well, that's all right; it's part of the thing anyway. So they were basically usable prayers. So they already knew about personal prayer; here you just get more examples of them.
I'm not sure that that actually increased the personal piety of the average Jew in, say, 160 BCE or 90 BCE or even in the first century, because I think they're already doing it. Were they doing it more? How would we know? Don't know.
We also see personal prayers at Qumran: the Hodayot scroll, 1QH, where the teacher of righteousness says his own prayers, and then it's possible that people would have picked up those prayers and used them as a standard prayer model, just as in the New Testament, in Matthew and Luke, Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray. They would have other prayers, but now they have a Jesus prayer to tack on with it, which would be the Our Father prayer.
Jamey: When we're talking about practices of personal piety, where prayer is the right hand, almsgiving seems to be the left hand in many traditions. Where would that sit in today's society, and what can we learn from Tobit about that?
AJ: That's a really good question. Let me just back it up a little bit to talk about how it impacts the New Testament and therefore how it ought to impact Christianity, and then we can move it forward, because this is a really, really interesting study. And if you want more on this, the person whose work I'm drawing from is an academic named Gary Anderson, who wrote a brilliant book called Sin. Catchy title. And I was able to take some of his work and develop it, but I think his stuff is really, really good. You start getting, as you mentioned, a very strong focus on almsgiving.
There's a model in Tobit that suggests that almsgiving can function in place of temple sacrifice when you no longer have access to a temple. And the only place where you can offer an animal sacrifice in the Jewish tradition is the temple in Jerusalem. And Tobit's in exile in Assyria, so he can't get there, and he talks about how he used to give sacrifice in Jerusalem. He's very huffy about this, though. "I used to go all the time, I and my family." [Laughter] And looks forward to being able to do it again. But if you can't do that—so the temple gets burned down in 70; you can't do that any more—what are the mechanisms by which you make an offering to God?
So what was happening at the time of Tobit is we begin to get a different sense of how we understand sin. So sin in antiquity has a thing-ness to it, like it adheres. It can sink and adhere to the altar, and it can adhere to the sanctuary, and it can adhere to you, because there's a thing-ness to it. So people needed metaphors in order to talk about what sin was. I mean, we do the same thing today. So sin was a stain that needed to be washed off, so you get "washed in the blood of the Lamb," because blood is detergent, and blood can cleanse away sin. That eventually gets you to the epistle to the Hebrews: you can't have forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood. Or sin was a burden that needed to be lifted off. And you can see how that works: when somebody recognizes that he or she has done something wrong, even the posture becomes hunched over or low, and when that person receives forgiveness, the shoulders go back and you can stand up more straight.
But we begin to get in the Hellenistic period—and Tobit is the best example of this—sin is a debt that needs to be repaid, as if up in heaven there were these heavenly bank accounts, and you all start with a certain amount, and every time you sin you drawn down against the account. So how do you refill the accounts? Well, to put money into the hands of the poor is like laying a gift on the altar. So let's then move to the New Testament. When Jesus talks about—and here I'm in the Sermon on the Mount—don't lay up treasure where moths and rust can get at it, but lay up treasure in heaven, that was the metaphor. You want to make sure those bank accounts are filled so that in the gospels of Mark and Matthew—and this gets picked up in some of the epistolary work as well—Jesus talks about dying as a ransom for many, as if one way of understanding the cross was to see his death as refilling all those accounts that were completely in arrears because of sin. So basically you'd get a reboot; your accounts are filled; everything is right between you and the heavenly accountant.
So almsgiving takes on a major place in Judaism, particularly—I mean, it was already there before the destruction of the temple, but it becomes even more important after the destruction of the temple, because it belonged with repentance and a variety of other mechanisms to deal with sin without animal sacrifice. It becomes a dominant way of maintaining community relationships and also doing what God wanted you to do.
You can also see that in the book of Deuteronomy, and here's another one of those biblical allusions. The book of Deuteronomy says you will always have the poor with you, which is what Jesus quotes in Matthew and Mark when the anointing lady anoints him right at the beginning of Holy Week. "You will always have the poor with you, but you won't always have me, and she has anointed me for my burial." But the next line in Deuteronomy is "therefore, extend your hand to the poor and needy." You are mandated to do that, because according to the book of Deuteronomy, the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger are under God's particular care, and if they're under God's care, they better be under yours.
So this sense of giving to charity is already there, and Tobit just ramps it up more by pushing on the metaphors by which we understand it. Isn't that wonderful?
Joel: That's fantastic.
AJ: I love this stuff! [Laughter]
Joel: Okay, so speaking of "you love this stuff," tell us about your favorite moments in the story.
AJ: [Laughter] I've been through the book of Tobit a number of times in Greek, because I teach it and because I write on it, and academics have to do this sort of thing. You read the text in Greek and you put footnotes in German. [Laughter] There are different parts that I really like. I like it when Tobit and Edna argue, because it just seems so normal. He misunderstands her, she misunderstands him, and she gives back as good as she gets, and I just appreciate that, because she's not a doormat.
Joel: Yeah, when she says what, it's "be quiet yourself" right back at him.
AJ: And it sounds a little harsher in Greek, as it should. [Laughter] I really like the relationship in the family of Sarah and Reguel and Edna. I'm an only child, and this idea of an only child, a daughter, and your parents really love you and they want the best for you, I just identified with that. Again, because it's folktale, even though it's set in the eighth century BCE in the Assyrian Empire, there's a part of it that rings true, because it's what families do and it's how families get along. There are parts of it that are just laugh-out-loud funny. After you read something like Job, you need something that's laugh-out-loud funny. Okay, a bird pooping in your eyes and you're going blind—I mean, if it happened to me, it would be tragic, but because you know this is a comedy you can deal with it. A fish that leaps out on land and tries to eat you—how bizarre is that? And the angel's going, "Save the liver. We can use it later." I'm thinking this thing had to stink! Let's carry fish guts throughout the Ancient Near East without refrigeration; it'll be fine. No wonder the demon runs away! He can't stand the smell.
I love the father-in-law digging graves in the night—so you should be prepared! How funny is that! Just these moments, and it's like a really good comedy where it knows how to pace the jokes, so you get a little bit of adventure, and you get a moment to just sit and "I don't believe they just said that," and then you go on a little bit more. [Laughter]
So it's a text that has an infinite amount of delight. Even Tobit, who's a bit of a bore, he kind of reminds me of Polonius in Hamlet; he just kind of goes on and on in his own self-righteousness, and you know that self-righteousness is going to get popped. So he's kind of like a really annoying uncle, but you love him anyway. Even the demon has this—at least he has good taste in women. [Laughter] Even the bad characters are kind of interesting!
Jamey: One of the things that has fascinated me about your work is that you've spent so much of your time on the borderlines between the Jewish and Christian Scriptures and then how these two worlds are similar or cross paths or that sort of thing. I'm curious though: what sparked that interest and what sustains it for you?
AJ: Well, so I don't consider it as a borderline, because it's all Jewish literature.
Jamey: Okay! [Laughter]
AJ: See, you can't talk about Christian literature until you actually have people who identify as somehow detached, and I don't see much—I don't see most of the New Testament as doing that. So I haven't spent a lot of times with things like 2 Peter, which is fairly detached, but even there you've got some connections to some of the Jewish pseudepigrapha. So I look at this all as a part of doing Jewish history; I don't see the border as strongly as some of you. It's like going from Tennessee to Kentucky. You can do it and not even know you've done it.
I'm interested in it part because I was raised in a Roman Catholic neighborhood, and I was interested in what my friends were doing in church. I'm interested in it because when I was a kid I was accused of killing God, and I found that completely incomprehensible and started asking questions about why somebody would be saying that. And I do it because I just love the literature. As an undergraduate, back before the two of you were born, I majored in both English and religion, and I kept seeing the overlap: Oh! These are texts! You can read them! They're narratives! You can <em>do</em> something with them! Or, this is Paul: well, it's still a text, and you have to figure out what's he talking about, which is not always clear, and how does understanding the audience help you understand what he's saying, and why is he making all these allusions to Isaiah or to Habakkuk or whatever.
So it's literature, but it's not like working in classics, which also interested me very much. I like Homer and I like Vergil, and there's even Sophocles, by the way, because I mentioned Tobit's like a Jewish Antigone except funny. And I'm interested how all those allusions work, but the thing is that looking at biblical literature, unlike Sophocles or unlike Homer or unlike Vergil, it has meaning in people's lives today. So whether you want to call it inspired or authoritative, there's a meaning that works in classics don't have, or works in Shakespeare don't have, and I'm interested in how that interpretation in history plays itself out, and how the messages change over time—we would call this reception history, or, if you want, Wirkungsgeschichte, because, you know, it's what you do.
And as any text will change meaning over time because we bring new questions to it and we see things that we might not have seen before, the first time I wrote on Tobit, I didn't pay any attention to the slaves, and the second time I wrote on Tobit I kept seeing them, because American culture had changed and we started seeing things that we hadn't seen before. My early work on Tobit was all on feminist criticism, and the people who were studying Tobit couldn't understand why I was interested in feminist criticism. "What's feminist about the book of Tobit?" Oh, ha, let me tell you!
So the text remaining ever new, and therefore, for people who take them as authoritative or inspired, you can dip back into those texts and they will answer new questions, or, even better, they will prompt new questions that need to be asked, which is in fact what I think the Bible does. I don't think the Bible is an answer book. I think it's a book that really helps us ask the right questions, like: How <em>do</em> we explain, in Tobit, why bad things happen to good people? How do we find hope in a situation of tragedy? which in Tobit, by the way, is forced immigration, which we're even seeing these days when people are being driven out of their homes and having to go somewhere else, whether locally or internationally. How do we find humor in the ridiculous? How do we retell our own stories, and what new iterations can those be? How do we entertain? How do we convey moral concerns and make people laugh at the same time?
How do we convey our values, not by saying, "Do this, do this, do that," but how do we convey our values by telling stories? Values like: How do you preserve your culture? when you're in exile, and you're a minoritized group, and everybody wants to you to be—just be a happy Assyrian! [Laughter] And you want to be a Naphtalite, and you're apart from your land and you're apart from your temple and you're apart from your people. And you're writing in Greek, and you're trying to hold onto Aramaic which is your native language. And Tobit shows you what those struggles are, as well as places where you have to concede a little bit. So Tobit, attempting to hold onto Jewish culture, has to use Greek motifs in order to get there, and this irony of what it means to be a part of a broader global community. I just think that's beautiful, and it gives us some help on how we negotiate our own cultures and our own identities today.
Jamey: That's amazing.
AJ: It's terrific!
Joel: What I love about what you just said is it enables us—it empowers us; it equips us—to read texts like Tobit, to read books like this, with an eye towards what we take away today. I wonder if you could close us out by just giving us a final word on what you see as fundamentally relevant about the book of Tobit today.
AJ: The book of Tobit helps people who live in diaspora, who are away from their homeland, speaking in a new language, forced to speak in a new language, detached from family, not sure if they can ever recuperate any of the material things that they owned, whether money or family pictures or grandmother's candlesticks, whatever it might be. How do you retain your own integrity? How do you manage when even members of your family are at odds? It helps parents when they have to send their kids off to make their way in the world, and what do you do if you're not sure what happens, and there's no internet or the phone service isn't working or they haven't called? And given them the assurance that it's okay to worry, and that's part of what human life is.
What do you do if you were trained to be a stay-at-home parent, and then because of economic concerns you have to go out? And what happens, by the way, if you, the woman—thinking in non-equal, patriarchal cultures, which we are still in—what happens if you start making more money than your husband? And then how do you negotiate that one out? How do you move from one family to another family? So you go from being the daughter in your father's house to the wife in your husband's house: what does that mean? How do you see the divine in the everyday? And to note that there could be some angel in disguise to come visit you, whether that's three people coming to visit Abraham to tell him that his wife Sarah—very menopausal Sarah—is going to have a baby, or whether it's your traveling companion who's also one of your better angels? And that opens up to the possibility that anybody you can meet might have that divine presence there, and you may never know.
How do you see the wonder in the world, or literally the magic of nature? You don't have to worship it, and you can recognize that it can be quite dangerous, but nature will surprise you, so keep an eye out for it. How do you attend to medicine? And what could be brought in from the outside that will cure you? And it turns out that the medicinal aid that the fish guts provide is actually viable in antiquity; the stuff actually worked. So what do you do to achieve medical care if you can't get it elsewhere? I mean, it opens up to so many questions. And finally, just how do you have a good laugh? Well, you know, you can turn on a podcast or you could watch TV or you could listen to comedy radio, but if you can do that and you can read the Bible at the same time, and you recognize that religion and humor are not mutually exclusive and that belief in God does not require you to wear all black and be dour and sad and never laugh because it said that Jesus wept but it never said he laughed—if you could recognize the joy in religion, boy, I think that would be good for everybody.
Jamey: Well, I'm really glad we got a chance to sit down with Amy-Jill Levine. I thought she was super insightful, very funny, and totally gracious.
Joel: Yeah, absolutely.
Jamey: I was not really prepared for how funny she was. [Laughter] And she just got a kick out of everything we talked about and really brought so much of the book to life.
Joel: That's really true. And I think that her appreciation of the humor of the book, in part you can just hear it echoing in her own take on things as we went along. It was great.
Jamey: Yeah. If anything, it just confirmed my love for this book.
Joel: I know. Me, too. And I think that'll be true with our next interview. So next week, we have yet another one of our expert interviews, and that one's pretty special, especially for folks who are fans of Ancient Faith Radio, who are regular listeners to Ancient Faith Radio—Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon.