Down and out with Tobit in Nineveh

Getting to know the Bible’s least lucky philanthropist, deportee, grave-digger, fugitive, and pauper—along with the book that tells his story.

Episode 2 of “Bad” Books of the Bible is live! Click below to listen now, or keep reading for some additional background and bonus material.

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Who is this Tobit and why do we care?

Let’s start with the second question. “The story is both touching and funny,” said Jewish American novelist Saul Bellow, introducing Tobit in his collection of Jewish short stories. And we might as well quote him again because he can’t help but take a pass at our first question, too: “Obstinate, righteous, sententious Tobit is a charming old man.”1

It’s the tension between the touching and righteous that grabs our interest in the first chapters of the book. And the funny does its part to keep us going the rest of the way. It stands out because humor is not something for which the Bible is famous. You know the line from Monty Python’s Holy Grail about the Psalms—the pious cringe, but we all know why the joke works.

And then there’s Tobit with its weighty themes somehow paired with a bouncing, winking narrative, daring us to put away our reservations and give it a go. But, then again, it doesn’t start off all that funny.

Setting the stage (Tobit 1.1–17)

Tobit opens with the backstory of its titular protagonist, a faithful Jew of the northern tribe of Naphtali, dragged off to Nineveh during the Assyrian captivity. We get some of this story from his own lips since the book opens with a rare and striking use of first-person narration.

“I, Tobit, walked in the ways of truth and righteousness all the days of my life,” he says, starting his account of life before the captivity.

While the northern tribes ceased worshipping in Judah after the nation split in two, Tobit still hauled his tithes and offerings, including money for orphans and widows, south to Jerusalem—just like Moses and his own grandmother always said to do.

Later barred from temple observance by his forced exile to Assyria, Tobit remained pious in every way he could manage. He kept kosher, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and buried the dead. And God blessed him for his faithfulness, allowing him to buy and sell for King Shalmaneser and amass a fortune in the process.

But then Shalmaneser died, and his successor, Sennacherib, took the throne. While we will have more to say about the historicity of this story later on, we can say this for now: The situation soured.

Sennacherib’s revenge (Tobit 1.18–22)

Sennacherib’s ambitions outpaced God’s patience. When he tried conquering the southern kingdom, he failed terribly (see 2 Kings 18.17–19.37). He returned to Nineveh defeated—and revenged his humiliation by killing captive Israelites, leaving bodies in the streets.

Tobit jumped into action. As opportunity allowed, he carried the corpses away and gave them a proper burial. That irked the king, but Tobit’s defiance remained a secret until a local Ninevite finked. Exposed, Tobit was forced to flee for his life while Sennacherib seized all his property.

But then Tobit got lucky.

A couple of Sennacherib’s sons killed the king, and a third, Esarhaddon, took the throne. One of Sennacherib’s top officials was named Ahikar—and also Tobit’s nephew. Esarhaddon retained Ahikar’s services and listened when he put in a good word about his uncle. Tobit was suddenly free to return to his wife and young adult son, Anna and Tobias, who soon feature in our story.

Alas—and you knew this was coming—the good vibes don’t last long.

Disaster and bird dung (Tobit 2.1–10)

When the festival of Pentecost (Shavuot) arrived, Tobit’s family prepared to celebrate. Unsurprisingly, Tobit’s concern for charity kicked in as the table was heaped with food. So he asked Tobias to go out and find a poor but faithful Israelite to share the feast with him.

Tobias returned not with a guest but bad news. An Israelite had been murdered and his body left to rot in the street. Tobit leapt from the table and went to retrieve the body. Later that night he dug a grave while his neighbors watched on and gossiped disapprovingly.

Finally finished in the wee hours, Tobit washed up and laid down by his courtyard wall to sleep. But sparrows nesting overhead crapped in his eyes. (The Douay-Rheims version gives us “hot dung,” which can’t be good.) When he woke, films covered Tobit’s eyes and he could not see. Despite the care of physicians, his sight deteriorated until he was totally blind.

Interestingly, in the ancient world, bird dung was seen as curative. Here’s Pliny the Elder from his wide-ranging Natural History:

The small bones of poultry, preserved in a hole in a wall, the medullary channel being left intact, will immediately cure tooth-ache. . . . A similar result is obtained by using raven’s dung, wrapped in wool and attached to the body, or else sparrow’s dung, warmed with oil and injected into the ear on the side affected.2

Tobit was written for Jews thrust into the wider pagan world, people trying to balance their own culture against the good and bad of Hellenistic culture. With this turn in the story, it’s possible the author is making a polemical jab that goes well beyond the medicine cabinet: the things you think of as beneficial are actually harmful.

The goat and the throw down (Tobit 2.11–14)

Ahikar was able to care for his uncle for a couple of years. But eventually, Ahikar left for another post and Tobit was left to fend for himself. Thankfully, Anna knew her way around a loom and went to work weaving cloth.3

She evidently performed well enough at her work—or perhaps was so pitiable in her plight—that her employers gave her a bonus: a goat. But when she returned home and blind Tobit heard the animal’s bleat, he failed to register the sound of dinner. Tobit could only imagine his wife had stolen the creature! “I became flushed with anger,” he admitted and told her to return it.

That’s when Anna let him have it. “Where are your acts of charity?” she said—and you can imagine her voice raised in exasperation. “Where are your righteous deeds? These things are known about you!” All your faithfulness, she’s saying, evidently counts for nothing.

Anna’s challenge calls to mind another wife in another book: Job’s wife. Job’s unnamed wife told her husband to curse God and die after his life went sideways. Anna doesn’t go that far, but the challenge is similar and ancient readers would have readily noticed the parallel. That’s also true for other examples from the Bible.

Echoes from the rest of the Bible

The story of Tobit echoes other biblical narratives. Tobit’s faithful life in exile, for instance, recalls that of Joseph and Daniel—same with his experience of royal favor. And the profound reversal of his fortunes make comparisons with Job inevitable.

The Vulgate Bible cements the link, relating a textual variant that twice mentions Job by name.

Now this trial the Lord therefore permitted to happen to him, that an example might be given to posterity of his patience, as also of holy Job. . . . For as the kings insulted over holy Job: so his relations and kinsmen mocked at his life, saying: Where is you hope, for which you gave alms and buried the dead? (2.12,15–16)

These references are absent from other versions. No one knows Jerome’s source text, but it’s possible this variant—or at least the thought behind it—goes back as far as Jesus’ day. In his eponymous letter St. James tells his readers, “You’ve heard of the patience of Job” (5.11).

Where had they heard it? Job appears none too patient in the book that bears his name, at least in the Hebrew version.4 Perhaps they were instead familiar with a version of Tobit that specifically mentions Job’s patience, as the Vulgate, and (presumably?) Jerome’s source text, does.5

There are other explanations, of course. It’s possible that James’s audience had heard the connection from another source entirely (for instance, tradition preserved in another book or extemporized in the synagogue or church) and Jerome just dropped it in his translation of Tobit because he was already familiar with the comparison. Maybe it was a marginal note in his copy.

Wherever it came from exactly, ancient and medieval Christians were well acquainted with Tobit’s ties to Job.6 And it shows up in patristic writings and commentary as a result. See, for example, the bit from Cyprian quoted below.

Different versions?

Mentioning textual variants opens up another line of thought. There are two primary versions modern translations are based upon, a long and a short. The short, called GI by scholars, is found in modern day Catholic Bibles and other translations such as the RSV and the Orthodox Study Bible. The long, called GII by those same scholars, is found in Bibles like the NRSV.

Scholars believe the longer version came first, and the shorter version, which is lighter by about 1700 words, represents an abridgment of the original—a sort of Reader’s Digest edition. Tobit’s gifts to widows and orphans, which we included in our summary above, is an example of something trimmed from the shorter version.

If you want to read these two versions side by side, there’s an online version of the New English Translation of the Septuagint that contains the two versions in parallel columns. The gaps become quite noticeable as the story progresses.

The Lexham English Septuagint helpfully contains both versions of the story, though not in parallel. The LES is arranged in single-column pages for easy reading. We’ve so far been working from both versions in various Bibles—and plan to do so as long as the Lord tarries.

Themes in play

Regardless of which version you’re following, several themes emerge from the story so far that are worth keeping in mind as we progress:

  • Sin, exile, and return. The story of Tobit takes place in Assyria, the land of exile. That exile was the result of sin and would only be reversed by human faithfulness and God’s forgiveness. It’s a recurring motif in the Hebrew Scripture, present in the Eden narrative, warned about in Deuteronomy and the prophets, and evident in the histories. Tobit is another chapter in that same story.

  • Gospel. It’s also a remarkable summary of the Christian story. It is the whole of scripture in miniature: Tobit tells of a father sending a son to retrieve a treasure, conquer a demon, save a bride, and return home with healing and restoration for God’s chosen people. For him (and her) that hath ears to hear. . . . It might be a bit of a stretch but I (Joel) once used Tobit as an overview of the Old Testament in a Sunday School class. Try it: You can plot salvation history along its arc, including the culminating echoes in Revelation (something we’ll get to later on).

  • Suffering and trust. Between now and restoration, we will endure the trials inherent to life on the thorny side of Eden. Tobit and his patience reminds us to trust in God’s faithfulness. And come what may, it is that trust that enables human faithfulness.

  • Providence. Tobit also remind us that God is trustworthy because he is active in the trials and tragedies of history working all things for good. We readers are given glimpses of what the characters do not see: divine concern for our plight and assistance throughout the journey.

Useful quotes

Daniel J. Harrington on Tobit as exemplar:

On all counts Tobit appears to be the model of biblical piety—dedicated to good works, observant of the Torah, and part of a good family. He is Deuteronomy incarnate.7

Cyprian of Carthage, linking Job and Tobit:

Job was searched out and proved, and was raised up to the very highest pinnacle of praise by the virtue of patience. . . . Job is not broken down by his severe and repeated conflicts, nor the blessing of God withheld from being declared in the midst of those difficulties and trials of his, by the victory of patience. Tobit also, who, after the sublime works of his justice and mercy, was tried with the loss of his eyes, in proportion as he patiently endured his blindness, in that proportion deserved greatly of God by the praise of patience.8

William John Ferrar, discussing the influence of Tobit on later readers:

By the simple skill of the writer in artistically uniting the domestic, the moral, the religious, and the marvelous [the story of Tobit] has charmed the ears of Jew and Christian alike through the two thousand years of its life. . . . With regard to the influence of this book on the New Testament, there is no doubt that it acted constantly with the force of a set of ideas that had by their artistic presentment worked itself into the minds of cultured and uncultured alike. In idea and turn of phrase Tobit is always reappearing in the New Testament.9

Malka Z. Simkovich on the past and ongoing relevance of the book:

Like many biblical stories, Tobit is timeless, and like its biblical antecedents, it can be read differently depending on the readers’ time period and cultural context.10 

Bonus article

Simkovich has written a wonderful article that sheds light on the ancient and medieval Jewish appreciation and use of Tobit. It explains the themes that continued to register through the centuries as well as how its use changed with new emphases over time.

As we mention in the episode, in the Middle Ages Tobit was read by Jews during Pentecost. Why? Simkovich says, “The reading of Tobit on Shavuot would have served to underscore for Jews in the medieval period the importance of using their bounty or harvest to care for the poor of their community. This would have spoken to medieval Jews in particular, who were more often than not living in communities with high levels of poverty and economic uncertainty, and living in societies in which religious piety was aspirational.”11

Aspirational, meaning “desirable but tough to attain.” The same applies to at least some readers today, no? Tobit serves as an encouragement to faith and perseverance.

Where you come in

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1

Saul Bellow, Great Jewish Short Stories (Dell, 1963), 9.

2

Pliny, Natural History 30.8, translated by John Bostock and H. T. Riley (Taylor and Francis, 1855).

3

Historically speaking, women were often tasked with textile work, something Virginia Postrel covers in her fascinating book, The Fabric of Civilization (Basic Books, 2020).

4

According to Stephen J. Vicchio, the Septuagint seems to downplay Job’s feistiness. James’s readers would have been familiar with this “tamer” version in which the portrait of a more patient Job emerges. See Vicchio, Job in the Ancient World (Wipf and Stock, 2006), chapter 5.

5

For what it’s worth, Jerome says that he was working from a Chaldean (Aramaic) original. See “Jerome’s Prologue to Tobias,” translated by Kevin P. Edgecomb, Biblicalia, August 5, 2006. While Aramaic fragments of the book were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the GII and GI mentioned above and in contemporary Bibles are both Greek.

6

Vicchio, Job in the Ancient World, 119–122.

7

Daniel J. Harrington, Invitation to the Apocrypha (Eerdmans, 1999), 13.

8

Cyprian of Carthage, Treatise 9.18, translated by Robert Ernest Wallis, in ANF 5.

9

William John Ferrar, The Uncanonical Jewish Books (SPCK, 1918), 24.