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The Book of Tobit

The book of Tobit together with Judith and Esther form a little group which Latin and Greek editions place among the historical books after Ezra and Nehemiah. It takes its name from its two main characters, father and son; the Septuagint, to distinguish them, calls the father Tobit and the son Tobias, the name being an abbreviation of the Hebrew title tobhiyyahu (= God is good).

The book which we have derives from a lost Semitic original. Jerome used a Chaldean (Aramaic) text, which also is no longer extant, to produce the Latin translation included in the Vulgate. The Qumran discoveries include a few Hebrew and Aramaic fragments of this book, but our main source for the text is the Greek Septuagint of which we have four separate recensions, which are divided into two groups–the Vatican and Alexandrian manuscripts on the one hand, and the Sinaitic Codex and the Vetus latina on the other.

Jews and Protestants regard the book of Tobit as apocryphal although they read it with respect and regard it as containing true history. The Catholic Church recognized it as an inspired book very early on, in the patristic period, placing it among the canonical books in the West from the 382 Roman synod forward, and in the East from the Council of Constantinople in 692. We do not have the name of the human author but he could well have been a Jew in the Diaspora and could have written it in Egypt, in Aramaic perhaps, in the third or fourth century B.C. The words of the angel at the end of his assignment (12:20)–“Write in a book everything that has happened”–or the fact that the first three chapters are written in the first person, are probably a literary device often found in narratives, used by someone writing in a later period, but still writing under divine inspiration.

The story given in Tobit is an episode of family history. All the indications are that the sacred writer is reporting something that really happened: He gives the family tree of the main people involved and is very precise about details of geography and historical chronology; however, we cannot exclude the possibility of some passages being fictitious, the writer’s purpose being one of spiritual and moral teaching rather than history proper.

Tobit, a Jew of the tribe of Naphtali who had been deported to Nineveh, was a man of exceptional piety and charity. He soon gained the trust of King Shalmaneser but he later got into trouble because he buried some Jews executed by the king. Everything goes wrong for him: His property is confiscated, he loses his sight, his friends and even his wife taunt him. In a moment of severe tribulation he begs God to let him die because life holds no more for him.

At around the same time, Raguel, a relative of his in Ecbatana, is saddened to see his daughter Sarah reproached by her maids because her seven husbands have each died on their wedding night, slain they think by the evil demon Asmodeus. Like Tobit, Sarah also prays to God to end her life. But God listens to both their prayers and comes to their rescue, to turn their sorrow into joy.

He sends his angel Raphael, under the name of Azarias, to accompany and guide Tobit’s son Tobias to the house of Raguel. This would be a stage on his journey because he was headed for Rages to collect money his father lent to a man called Gabriel. After being blessed by Tobit they start out; the angel saves Tobias from a dangerous fish and suggests that he marry Sarah. He also gives him the means to cure his father’s blindness. Everything the angel predicts happens: Tobias marries Sarah, who is freed from demonic influence; the angel collects the money in Rages and returns with the young married couple to Nineveh, where Tobit miraculously recovers his sight.

The story told in Tobit contains a whole series of teachings which are useful for the education of conscience and also encourage people to practice virtue, especially virtues to do with the works of mercy. Parents feel urged to educate their children in the love of God and in the practice of prudence, generosity, etc. and themselves to imitate Tobit’s patience when they encounter unforeseen difficulties in their family life, even to the point of their own relatives turning their backs on them.

The book also shows that things which we normally regard as difficulties or misfortunes can become blessings if accepted and appreciated as coming from God’s hands. God is the Father who never abandons us; he is in fact watching over us night and day because he desires only our good.

Additionally, the book shows us that angels are the protectors of men. Raphael reveals this when he says: “I will not conceal anything from you. … God sent me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sarah. I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One. . . . Do not be afraid; you will be safe. But praise God for ever. For I did not come as a favor on my part, but by the will of our God. Therefore praise him forever. All these days I merely appeared to you and did not eat or drink, but you were seeing a vision. And now give thanks to God, for I am ascending to him who sent me” (Tob. 12:11-20).

Tobit’s conversation with his son contains important teaching on marriage (4:12ff), stressing the purity of mind and heart with which a couple should approach marriage. Marriage, we know, is a lifelong union of one man and one woman; they become one (Matt. 19:15, 1 Cor. 6:16). Jesus will raise the marriage contract to the status of a sacrament (cf. Prov. 2:17, Mal. 2:14), thereby giving the true interpretation of what marriage was at the beginning of the human race (Matt. 19:4-8).

Tobit also stresses the importance of love of one’s neighbor, which should lead us to act justly: “What you hate, do not do to any one” (4:15); to accept the advice of prudent people; and to praise God always and ask him to keep us on the right road. It also emphasizes the essential need for works of mercy, especially alms giving. Tobias learned from his father to lead a life of service and to be appreciative to God for everything. He is an example to Christian families, especially those concerned about the religious or spiritual education of their children.

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