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  • Bible Study – August 18th

    Like the sand in an hourglass, so are the days of our lives! Happy day!!

    Greetings, all! I hope you are enjoying our exploration of the Apocrypha, through the Book of Tobit. Let’s pray, and then see what chapter 2 holds for us!

    Direct us, Lord God, in all our doings with your most gracious favor, and extend to us your continual help that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy name, and finally, by your mercy, bring us to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

    https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Tobit+2&version=NRSV)

    ” target=”_blank” rel=”noreferrer noopener”>Tobit, Chapter 2

    Tobit, allowed to come home through the negotiations of his nephew, now prepares to pick up his faithful life right where he left off. First up– a festival, Pentecost. Wait–this was written BEFORE Jesus was born, and Pentecost happened AFTER Jesus died, right? The reason all those people were in Jerusalem on the day when the Holy Spirit descended was because they were celebrating the Jewish festival of Pentecost–the day God sent another gift from above—the day that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, the ‘contract” of relationship between God and God’s people. 

    Tobit, in exile, cannot make the required journey to Jerusalem, so instead he makes his offering one of hospitality and sharing God’s gifts, so he sends his son out to find someone who has need. He not only expands the ways of honoring God and God’s gifts, he also sets a model of that before his son.

    As he goes out to search, Tobias instead finds another dead Israelite, whose body has been left exposed in the marketplace, after execution. Tobit doesn’t have any second thoughts about how burying the dead caused him further exile in the midst of exile, and how he’d just got back—he immediately leaves his feast and tends to the body…but he does wait to bury it unti after sunset, so it won’t draw attention. 

    There is a lot of back and forth between the body and the meal, with taunting from his neighbors (so much for avoiding attention!) and cleanliness/ purification issues woven through.

    There were laws about contact with dead bodies, and rituals for purification–it seems Tobit was trying to honor these, even in exile, by washing and sleeping outside. 

    So, how is Tobit rewarded for all this faithfulness, all these attempts in exile to do what God has asked of all his people, all this determination to risk everything for the sake of doing what is right, all this courage to endure mockery from his own and punishment from his oppressors? Blinded by bird poop. 

    That is seriously unexpected, seriously awful, and seriously hilarious! I mean—Job had boils and all, but this?! Blinded by bird poop? That is some great story-telling, right there!

    So, Tobit can no longer work, is no longer the primary earner in the home. His nephew Ahiqar shows up again, and subsidizes him for a couple of years, but leaves/moves/is reassigned. So the story turns to Tobit’s wife, Anna, and her work.

    One commentary says, “Because of her family’s need, Anna becomes the Bible’s first working mother.” (We shouty women will let pass the notion that mothers don’t work—this is just work outside the home, for pay. Bet she still has plenty of work to do at home!)

    It appears that Anna is good at her job—she not only gets her regular pay, but is also given a bonus, a young goat. 

    The ensuing argument is…well, as I sit here and sigh, trying to find a word, too many words come to mind. DIsappointing. Frustrating. Predictable. Sad. 

    Even, still, today, the dynamic between male and female, and the weighted traditions of who works, who makes more, who cooks, who does the laundry, who takes care of the kids…it goes on. In these quarantine days, when both mom and dad, both professionals,  work from home, studies have shown that the woman is still picking up the majority of home and child care. 

    In any case, Tobit has been shown as a capable man, good at his job, faithful to his religious duties..and now, for four years, he’s been dependent on others. Yes, it is easy to understand his frustration. But to have it all finally surface in an argument that Anna couldn’t be that good at her work that she got a bonus, that the only way she could have possibly obtained a goat was to steal it…well, as arguments go, it is also no surprise that if he wouldn’t believe the truth, Anna was going to up the stakes, and hard…

    …if blessing comes from doing good, then Mr. Perfect, Mr. Holier Than Thou—you have been cursed! What haven’t you told us? Why did God blind you? What did you do to deserve that?You accuse me? I accuse you!

    Whew! Be careful when you argue, friends, because most of the time, the thing you are arguing about is not the true source of the argument. This argument is four years, at least, in the making. 

    And so we are left with Anna’s angry words ringing in our ears. She issues a challenge that reverberates yet today—is the God formula really do good = blessings, do wrong = curse? It is certainly the foundation of the prosperity gospel—God WANTS to bless you, so how can you tap into that blessing stream? The, why do good things happen to bad people? Why do bad things happen to good people? 

    How does Tobit answer Anna’s charge? We’ll see, next week, in chapter 3!

    Blessings!

    Pr Suellen


  • Tobit Bible Study – Week Two

    Blessings, all! Tobit mixes faith with humor, so here’s a prayer to begin our study:



    Worrier’s Prayer



    Dear Lord,
    Help me to relax about insignificant details, beginning tomorrow at 7:41:23 a.m. EST. 
    Help me to consider people’s feelings, even if most of them are hypersensitive. 
    Help me to take responsibility for the consequences of my actions,
    even though they’re usually not my fault. 
    Help me to not try to run everything – but, if you need some help, please feel free to ask me. 
    Help me to be more laid back, and help me to do it exactly right. 
    Help me to take things more seriously, especially laughter, parties, and dancing. 
    Give me patience, and I mean right now! 
    Help me not be a perfectionist. (Did I spell that correctly?) 
    Help me to finish everything I sta 
    Help me to keep my mind on one thing … oh, look, a bird … at a time. 
    Help me to do only what I can, and trust you for the rest. And would you mind putting that in writing? 
    Keep me open to others’ ideas, misguided though they may be. 
    Help me follow established procedures. Hey, wait … this is wrong …
    Help me slow down andnotrushthroughwhatido. 

    Thank you, Lord.  Amen 

    If your Bible doesn’t have the Apocrypha, you can read Tobit here.

    or here.

    Tobit, Chapter 1 — This is a detailed introduction to Tobit—his family, his faith, and his character.

    Tobit begins with a 5-generation genealogy, and all the names end with -el, meaning they contain the name of God. Tobiel means ‘God is my good” Hannanial means “God has shown mercy”—so we begin with a family deeply connected to God. His tribe is Naphatali, named for Jacob’s son with the slave/wife Bilhah, a tribe that became part of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, which was defeated by the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE. (Naphtali is one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.)

    Tobit describes himself with three words that will characterize him throughout the book: truth, righteousness, and charity. (“I, Tobit, have walked all the days of my life on the paths of truth and righteousness” compares with Genesis 6.9 “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God.”  Pretty mighty comparison!) He illustrates these with stories of his faithfulness in his youth, his continued fidelity when taken into captivity, and his charitable act of burying the dead.

    Tobit is a scrupulous model of following the commands of worship/sacrifices to the Jerusalem Temple, even though a capital/temple had been established separately for the northern kingdom. He says he alone made the required pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the Festivals of Passover, Weeks (Pentecost), and Booths (Sukkot), and offered the required tithes. Why? Not because there are others around him doing all this—he is alone. Rather, he was following the instruction of his grandmother, Deborah—even though women don’t appear in his genealogy, they play an important part in his formation and in his life. Women and their stories are a key ingredient in the Book of Tobit. 

    Speaking of women, we then hear of Anna, whom he married,  of his tribe and clan. Many in exile married local Gentile women—Tobit adheres to his faith and his peoples. 

    And like Daniel, who also served in the king’s courts in exile, Tobit continues to observe dietary laws.

    Because he has been faithful to God in all things, Tobit then celebrates a consistent Hebrew Bible theme—when you do good, God rewards you. So, he obtains a position of responsibility in the king’s court—a trusted position, that allows him to travel and buy goods on the king’s behalf—and makes enough that he can salt away his own funds hither and yon—kind of his own off-shore accounts!

    It seems he is centered in our often-highlighted Nineveh…even though it doesn’t quite fit the historical data—Nineveh was not established as a capital city and site of the king’s court until 20 years or so after the reign of Shalamaneser V.  Again, this is a story, not a chronicle of history.

    So now we get to Tobit’s acts of charity—he feeds the hungry and clothes the naked, but he details, particularly, his work in burying the dead.  Even though Tobit holds a position of trust, life in exile for Israelites was precarious at best. When they died, no matter the circumstance, their bodies were simply thrown out and left unburied. This was an abomination for the Jews, and one Tobit could not bear. Even though touching the dead made him unclean, he set aside his own concern/piousness to do this work, this act of duty and honor, for the sake of those who could not do it for themselves. So he’d sneak out at night and bury them. But a Ninevite ratted him out. (Have you seen the Veggie Tales version of Jonah and the Whale?  It’s wonderful, but this moment in Tobit made me think of a scene in Jonah, where the peas, in their French accents, spit out a single word of disgust: “Ninevites.” It’s perfect here, too!)

    His faithfulness got him run out of town, with nothing, even leaving his wife and son behind. (apparently things weren’t dire enough to have to tap into his off-shore accounts.) The wheel of kings who live by the sword and die by the sword turns and turns again, and in only 40 days or so, Tobit and his family can return. (40 days, another Noah echo, is Biblical shorthand for a period of time for trial and testing, preparation to do the work God gives you to do.) Another courtier in exile, his nephew Ahiqar, smooths the way for Tobit to return to Nineveh and his family.

    His nephew, Ahiqar, isn’t really a focus in this book, although he appears in four brief moments.His description when we first encounter him is impressive: he was the chief cup-bearer to the king, keeper of the seal, in charge of all the accounts of the king—in control of the entire administration. How can he be overlooked?  He does have his own independent tradition,—there is a story of him originally written in Aramaic, sometime in the 6th century BCE, but appears in several languages: Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Slavonic, and parts have been discovered in Greek and Ethiopic, so it’s a popular tale we’ve never heard of!

    The Story of Ahiqar consists of a narrative portion and a set of proverbs. The narrative tells the story of the life of Ahiqar, a royal official in the courts of  Sennacherib and Esarhaddon. Because he is childless, he adopts Nadin, his nephew, and trains him to succeed his royal position. But Nadin, treacherous and ungrateful, accuses Ahiqar of disloyalty to the king. Ahiqar is condemned to death, but is secretly rescued by the executioner whose life Ahiqar had saved earlier. He remains hidden in a cave under his own house until the king, challenged to a contest of wisdom by the pharaoh of Egypt, expresses the wish that Ahiqar was still alive. Surprise! Ahiqar emerges from his hiding, answers the pharaoh’s challenge, and is restored to his former honor. Nadin is imprisoned and dies.

    I feel like the story of Tobit is like Russian nesting dolls—stories within stories! I hope you are enjoying them!

    Now that we know the players and some background, our story can begin. Next week, chapter 2!

    Blessings! Pastor Suellen


  • Tobit Bible Study

    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.”

    “What?!”

    “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.

    “Absolutely.”

    “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?”

    “Yeah.”

    “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.

    “Yes, why?”

    “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.”

    The end.

    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.