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

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