Faithful God, we come to you in all our beginnings, trusting in your word to lead and guide us. We ask that you would make all things new, in our hearts, in our minds, in our lives through your word. We ask for your wisdom, for your strength and for your power to make us strong and courageous for the road ahead. Give us ability beyond what we feel able, let your gifts flow freely through us, so that we carry your word with us and share it, in our own words and deeds, today and every new day to come.
With thanks and praise we pray, Amen!
Typically, we alternate Bible studies between the Old and New Testaments. But these together/apart times, stretching beyond days and weeks to months, have made things a little monotonous, a little routine, and I feel a need to spice things up a little! So, let’s explore one of my favorite stories in the Apocrypha, the book of Tobit.
Books of the Apocrypha were probably written in the intertestamental times, those 400 years between the Old and New Testament people and events. Like the other writings of the Bible, the apocrypha contains history, wisdom literature, songs, prayers, apocalyptic accounts, and additions to Old Testament stories. The books of the Apocrypha are considered official, or canonical, scripture by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, but not the Jewish or Protestant churches, although they were originally included in the King James Bible.
Apocrypha/apocryphal have the sense of being hidden—some say because the writings were too sacred or significant for general use, or that they were too questionable for general use.
In any case, they are something different, and right now, something different sounds pretty good! So today, I’ll give you a little bit of an overview of Tobit and familiarize you with it some, and then next week we’ll dive into chapter 1.
Who wrote it? Someone who knew Aramaic, so probably someone Israelite, and because it features a foreign court, maybe someone who was part of the exile. When? Possibly 3rd or 2nd century BCE
What does Martin Luther say about it? “What was said about the book of Judith [another book in the apocrypha] may also be said about the book of Tobit. If the events really happened, then it is a fine and holy history. But if they are all made up, then it is indeed a very beautiful, wholesome, and useful fiction or drama by a gifted poet…Tobit provides a fine, delightful, devout comedy…therefore this book is useful and good for Christians to read.”
What does one commentary say about “blessings for readers?” “Tobit depicts the frustrations of Israelites in exile who sought to practice their faith and piety among unsympathetic Gentiles. This gives us a clear picture of how the people lived with fear and failure. As you read Tobit, note the strong sense that God was guiding the Israelites in the midst of affliction, leading them to genuine comfort and hope.”
Sounds like just what we need, doesn’t it?!
OK, so that you understand the general outline of the story, I’m going to give you a reader’s digest condensed version that’s actually a little more like Fractured Fairy Tales from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Imagine hearing Edward Everett Horton reading this, courtesy of the book Apocrypha Now!
My name is Tobit. For years, I worked as a trade rep for the Assyrian Empire where I developed something of a reputation as a silver and camel man.
I had taken a thousand business trips and always came back safe as a tick on a legless dog. One day, on my way back home, I noticed the bodies of some dead Jews lying in a field. The king had apparently lost some battle to Israel and in a fit of anger, killed every Jew he could get his hands on.
“Aw, poor fellas,” I said. “I bet their families would really want someone to bury their loved ones.”
I returned after dark to bury the bodies. The next day, when the king came out to play with his corpses, he got really angry that I buried them, so he forced me, seized all my property, and forced me to leave Nineveh. [More Nineveh! says Pastor Suellen!]
When the king died, I was allowed to return. But on my way back, I encountered another dead Jew in the grass. “Jeez,” I thought, “don’t people bury their Jews anymore?”
Exhausted from grave digging, I lied down, counting the stars, thinking about how nice it was going to be to get back into the silver and camel game, when at that exact moment, a bird let fly, right into my eyes. I mean, right into my eyes. Both eyes. I was completely blind. “Oh, crumbs, ” I said.
Years passed, and my sight never returned. I have no idea what that bird could have been eating. Eventually, I gave up hope of seeing again, and prayed to God to take my life. Being a strong believer in the power of prayer, I assumed I would die soon after. But there was no lightning bolt from Heaven. The Earth never swallowed me up. I was just blind. I told my son Tobias to go collect some silver owed me by a kinsman, so we would have something to live on.
When Anna, my wife, found out I was sending Tobias on a long trip, she completely fell apart. To be fair, travel is pretty dangerous. You never know when a bird is going to let fly in your eyes, for example. So to make her feel better, I hired a guide named Azarias, and loaded their camels with plenty of extra food and blankets and coats.
“What’s with all the coats?” Tobias asked.
“Some are for wearing, some are for giving away. You want to see a miracle? Give a coat to a man in a loincloth. Before you go, I’d like to give you some fatherly advice. Being generous with others is a service to God. Most sinners aren’t so much wicked as hungry. We’re all one chicken dinner away from doing something sketchy, so feeding people does more for their morality than judging them. Never let it be said that you were stingy with a pickle.”
I heard Anna weeping behind the tent, distraught over the thought of never seeing her son again.
“And take care of your mother, son. Every time a woman gives birth, she risks her life for a stranger, so show her the respect she deserves.”
During their trip, Tobias and Azarias came upon the Tigris River and decided to go fishing. But the fish had other ideas. One of them clamped its mouth around Tobias’ foot and began dragging him into the water.
“Pull it out!” Azarias cried. “Get it on land! Fish hate land!”
Tobias won the tug-of-war, and sure enough, once he got it out of the water, the fish died. They ate the fish for lunch, saving its heart, liver, and gallbladder for later use in new age medicine.
Tobias and Azarias continued on their journey, stopping at the house of my brother, Raguel. As Tobias freshened up in the guest room, Azarias and Raguel walked into the room, laughing and slapping each other on the back.
“Guess what?” Azarias said. “Raguel here has a single daughter. Her name is Sarah. She’s young, smart, beautiful, and best of all, she’s Raguel’s sole heir.”
“And since you’re her nearest kinsman,” Raguel said smiling, “you get to marry her!”
“This must be my lucky day,” Said Tobias.
“Well yes and no,” Azarias replied, still smiling. “This train comes with a baggage car. The reason you’re next in line is that she’s been widowed seven times.”
“She’s still a virgin, if that’s what worries you, “Raguel said.” “Her husbands all died on their wedding night.”
“That’s not reassuring at all.”
“Okay, here’s the rub,” Azarias said, wrapping his arm around Tobias’ shoulders. “Turns out the demon Asmodeus is in love with Sarah, so every time she gets married the demon slips into the bedroom and kills the guy on the spot. Then he does a funky little pelvis dance and disappears. “
“Wait…you want me to get into a love triangle with a demon?”
“Don’t worry. Your buddy Azarias has a plan. You still have that fish liver?” Tobias nodded. “Okay then. Here’s what you do—on your wedding night, burn the fish liver in the incense. The smell will drive Asmodeus up a wall. Trust me, he won’t want anything to do with either of you when he gets a whiff of that fish.”
“And you’re absolutely sure this will work?” Tobias asked.
“Please marry her,” Raguel pleaded. “She’s so lonely and miserable. After her last husband, I found her praying to God to let her die.”
“Okay,” Tobias said, and the men broke into a three-way hug.
“I’m reasonably sure this will work,” Azarias mumbled.
Not wanting to waste any time, Raguel hastily assembled a wedding party for that night.
“Hi,” said Sarah, almost apologetically. “You seem like a nice guy. Did they tell you about my demon lover?”
“Well, in case I don’t see you in the morning, let me say that I admire your courage.”
Upon completion of their wedding vows, the pair were whisked off to their wedding bed.
“I’m really sorry about the smell,” Tobias said, spreading fish liver in the incense.
“That’s okay. It’s still the most romantic wedding night I’ve ever had.”
There was a flash of smoke and Asmodeus appeared. “IT IS I, ASMODEUS, DESTROYER OF DREAMS….seriously, what is that smell? Oh my God, I think I’m going to puke.” He turned to Sarah, looking hurt. “You’re really going to marry a guy who smells like that? I mean, I know I’m a demon and all, but at least I smell nice…take care of myself…”
“It’s nothing personal, Asmodeus, really, ” Sarah said.
“Forget it, I’m outta here.” And with a puff of smoke, Asmoseus flew to Egypt.
Raguel, meanwhile, was in the backyard digging a grave for the young groom-to-be in case things didn’t work out. Raguel’s wife Edna called him back to the house. “Come quick!” she said. They peeked in on the newlyweds who were both alive and asleep in each other’s arms.
“What’s that smell?” Edna asked.
“Aren’t they sweet, all alive and in love?” Raguel said. “I suppose I’d better refill his grave before he wakes up.”
Tobias found the kinsman, collected the silver, and prepared to return home with his new bride. “I made you some zucchini bread,” Edna said, wiping the tears from her eyes.
“Goodbye, kiddo,” Raguel said, kissing his daughter. “We’re sure going to miss you around here. My only prayer is that I get to see my grandchildren before I die.”
Raguel gave Tobias half of everything he owned, loading him up with gold, and grain, animals, and slaves.
When Anna saw Tobias and Azarias returning with a caravan of camels, and riches, and juggling slaves, she wept tears of joy. “My son is alive!” she cried.
“Do you by chance still have that fish lung?” Azarias asked.
“Go sprinkle it in your dad’s eyes and see what happens.”
I came stumbling out of the tent to greet my son. He grabbed my outstretched arm, and immediately began squeezing fish lungs into my eyes.\
“Aaaaaah! Why are you doing this?” I cried. “It stings!” But after a few moments, the color returned to my eyes, and for the first time in years, I could see again.
Tobias wanted to give Azarias half of his wealth, but Azarias turned him down. “It’s okay, I don’t need your money. The truth is, I’m not really Azarias. I’m the archangel Raphael. I was in the neighborhood when I heard Anna crying for your son’s safe return, so I thought I’d do you a solid.” Raphael nodded farewell, then did a funky little pelvic dance and then disappeared up into the clouds.
Tobais and Sarah had several children and took care of us for many years. Tobias told me how my brother Raguel had prayed to see his grandchildren before he died. “Then you must go to him,” I said. “It’s the generous thing to do. And being generous is the most important thing there is, ” I said. “Because more often than not, it is we who must be God’s answer to prayer.”
I hope that gives you an idea of how silly, and surprising, fun and faith-filled this story is. I hope that inspires you to dig into it more fully, as we’ll let the story unfold in more official, chapter by chapter form across the next weeks.
If your Bible doesn’t have an apocrypha section, you can read TOBIT CHAPTER ONE.