I am developing a series of articles here on Messianic Musings about the writings of Second Temple Judaism that we call the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha. These writings, which date from after the time of the Hebrew Bible and until the end of the New Testament period, are a window into Jewish life and thought of the period.
Today’s topic is the book of Tobit. No one can say exactly when it was written, though many think it was before the time of the Maccabees, so before 170 B.C.E.
Tobit is an unusual book, a sort of romance or extended fairy tale, about a Jewish man living in times of compromise with the Gentile world. Tobit is not a historical figure. The writer makes massive historical errors, such as having Tobit alive before the secession of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 922 B.C.E. and yet still alive during the reign of Tiglath Pileser of Assyria in 740 B.C.E. We readers are asked to simply swallow these details in order to enjoy a heartwarming story that encourages Jewish values of righteousness in an unrighteous age.
I won’t attempt to summarize the whole story, but I will point out the two streams of the story that sort of run side by side. One stream is what I think of as the fairy tale and the other is the Jewish tale. The fairy tale side of the story is interesting:
1. There is a bride whose husbands always die on the wedding night because the demon Asmodeus kills them.
2. By the time Tobit’s son Tobias comes along, guess how many would-be grooms have died . . . that’s right, seven.
3. There is a story of a fish attacking Tobit’s son as he camps beside the Tigris river, a giant fish.
4. There is a man who is really an angel, who helps Tobias, and not just any angel, but Raphael, one of the seven angels of God’s presence!
5. There is a sort of magic, when Raphael, pretending to be a man, tells Tobias to burn the fish’s heart and liver on incense to drive away the demon Asmodeus and survive the wedding night with the dangerous bride.
6. There is still a Jewish sense of propriety in the “magic,” since the truth is that Raphael drives the demon away and the magic is simply a ruse to give Tobias confidence.
7. Yet the magic comes back as Tobias uses the gall of the fish to anoint his father Tobit’s eyes and remove the blindness (blindness caused by sparrows dropping excrement in his eyes!).
It’s not hard to see why Tobit does not belong in the Bible. But it is also not hard to see why Tobit has long been considered a book worthy of reading for Christians and Jews. Alongside the fairy tale part of the story, there is a tale of Jewish faithfulness:
1. Tobit lives during the separation of the Northern and Southern kingdoms in 922 B.C.E.
2. Tobit refuses to worship at the false temple of Jeroboam, but goes down to Jerusalem.
3. Tobit faithfully brings all three tithes to God as commanded in the Torah and keeps the dietary law.
4. Tobit highly values caring for the dead, burying Jews even when the Assyrian king decrees that Jewish bodies should not be buried (this theme has a complex history I don’t have time to get into).
5. Tobit highly values giving alms to the poor, primarily the righteous poor.
6. The tale develops the angelology and demonology that will be standard fare by the time of the New Testament.
7. Tobit has a high view of marriage indicated by this prayer of Tobias:
“Blessed are you, O God of our fathers; praised be your name forever and ever. Let the heavens and all your creation praise you forever. You made Adam and you gave him his wife Eve to be his help and support; and from these two the human race descended. You said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; let us make him a partner like himself.’ Now, Lord, you know that I take this wife of mine not because of lust, but for a noble purpose. Call down your mercy on me and on her, and allow us to live together to a happy old age.”
Tobit is part of the stream of Jewish thought that influenced the New Testament. God was not silent during the time between the Testaments. He was at work in Judaism. God put his stamp of approval on many of the ideas of Second Temple Judaism. Here are a few examples:
1. Though the Hebrew Bible says little about angels and demons (Daniel has the most), there is a developed theology of angels and demons by the New Testament. It formed in the time between Ezra and Yeshua.
2. Tobit says there are seven angels who are in God’s presence. This should sound familiar, as Revelation uses the same idea: the seven spirits of God (note: these are not the “seven-fold Spirit of God” as some interpretations suggest, but seven angels).
3. Tobit says that demons can harass people, which the New Testament agrees with (even if Tobit’s version is a bit far-fetched).
4. Tobit places a high value on almsgiving, an overlooked theme of the New Testament.
It is this last stream that I want to close with. Almsgiving is something Protestant Christians have fairly well eliminated. Almsgiving is more than giving to charity. It is also the idea that giving to the poor is an aid to prayer. I can hear many Protestants now, saying this is heretical. Yet, consider the book of Acts, where the stance on almsgiving is the same as that of Tobit:
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. (Acts 10:1-2).
Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. (Acts 9:36)
I’d say that we need to recover some of these Jewish values in Messianic Judaism and in Christianity. The literature of the Second Temple period can help us who believe in Yeshua better understand the way he thought and lived. After all, wasn’t it Yeshua who said, “when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”?