Monday, 10 June 2013

Tobit

Anyway, enough of this angry politics. I promised you a little while ago that I would write some posts about the Apocrypha, so here is the first.

The book of Tobit is the first book in the Christian Apocrypha, and it tells you immediately why most Christian and Jewish authorites give these books less authority than the other parts of Scripture.  Probably written in the second century BCE, it is a kind of literary mash-up - a narrative spiced with extracts from wisdom literature and a couple of lovely pieces of poetry.

It's framing story is, I think, best understood as a piece of historical fantasy.  Some scholars think it may combine two stories that were originally unconnected.  We have an angel disguised as a human, a besetting devil, the symbolic use of the number seven, a magic fish and a curious and unexplained dog.


Tobit is a faithful Israelite of the tribe of Naphtali, taken captive to Nineveh when the Assyrians invaded the Northern Kingdom in the seventh century.  There he continues to be faithful the Lord amidst great peril, providing alms to the poor and risking his own life by giving proper burial to fellow Israelites who have been left unburied by their Assyrian executioners

As a result of his faithfulness, he finds himself in deep trouble - his possessions confiscated, his eyes accidentally blinded, and his family's future resting precariously on the success of his sole child Tobias.  In his extremity he prays for death. 

Meanwhile in the parallel story, in nearby Ecbatana, another exile is also praying for death after being shamed by her own servant.  Sarah, the only child of Raguel, is afflicted by a demon who has prevented her from consummating seven successive marriages by killing her husbands in the marital chamber.  As a result her community sees her as cursed, and in her prayer she protests to God that if he is going to allow this injustice he may as well take her out of the world.

The Lord hears both prayers and sends the angel Raphael to help.  Disguised as a fellow Israelite, he guides Tobias on a journey to recover some money Tobit has left in the care of a relative in Media, stopping along the way to engineer his marriage to Sarah, defeat the troublesome demon, restore Tobit's sight and ensure the future of both Tobit's and Raguel's lines.

Despite its frankly fanciful nature, the story communicates some very important ideas.  First of all, we see here in the very first book of the Apocrypha an idea that does not appear at all in the Old Testament - the idea that death involves being taken to another place, as Tobit prays:

Command, O Lord, that I be released from this distress,
release me to go to the eternal home,
and do not, O Lord, turn your face away from me.

The idea is not spelt out, but for the first time we can see a hope that the sufferings of this life are not all there is.

The second is the idea that the nation of Israel can be rebuilt in exile.  Certainly they face danger, and the lines of both Raguel and Tobit are imperilled by persecution, demonic intervention and the distance between their scattered communities and kin.  Yet two things can bring them together.  First of all, they must remain faithful.  Tobit is the primary vehicle for this message, exhorting his son to remain sexually pure, marry within his own kin, be generous in giving alms, be honest in paying wages to his workers, and always bless the Lord.  If they do this, the story assures us, the Lord will intervene on their behalf.  Throught Raphael's agency the clan is regathered, and the two lone children of Tobit and Raguel bear seven sons to replace the seven husbands of Sarah killed by the demon. 

Finally the story includes a beautiful prayer or song placed in the mouth of Tobit, which on its own would justify the preservation of the book.  Here are a few extracts - read the whole thing!

Blessed be God who lives for ever,
because his kingdom lasts throughout all ages.
For he afflicts, and he shows mercy;
he leads down to Hades in the lowest regions of the earth,
and he brings up from the great abyss,
    and there is nothing that can escape his hand.
Acknowledge him before the nations, O children of Israel;
for he has scattered you among them.
He has shown you his greatness even there....


If you turn to him with all your heart and with all your soul,
to do what is true before him,
then he will turn to you
and will no longer hide his face from you.
So now see what he has done for you;
acknowledge him at the top of your voice.
Bless the Lord of righteousness,
and exalt the King of the ages.
In the land of my exile I acknowledge him,
and show his power and majesty to a nation of sinners:
“Turn back, you sinners, and do what is right before him;
perhaps he may look with favour upon you and show you mercy.”...


It is not simply that the people of God can be preserved in the land of Exile.  They can serve God's purposes there, revealing the Lord to their captors and providing them in their turn with a chance to repent and turn to the Lord before they are destroyed.  This is a theme we see in the Old Testament in the book of Jonah where the people of Nineveh, the city of Tobit's exile, are invited to repent and do so.

Then, as the culmination of this mission to the nations, we see the glorious restoration of Jerusalem (also seen in the later chapters of Isaiah and in some of the other prophets) not just as a home for the Israelites, but as a destination of pigrimage for all the nations who have been brought to the Lord by the faithfulness of his people. 

O Jerusalem, the holy city,
he afflicted you for the deeds of your hands,
    but will again have mercy on the children of the righteous.

Acknowledge the Lord, for he is good,
    and bless the King of the ages,
so that his tent may be rebuilt in you in joy.
May he cheer all those within you who are captives,
and love all those within you who are distressed,
to all generations for ever.
A bright light will shine to all the ends of the earth;
many nations will come to you from far away,
the inhabitants of the remotest parts of the earth to your holy name,
bearing gifts in their hands for the King of heaven.


These messages stand out above the frank absurdity of the tale and give it its universal resonance.  We are not abandoned in our sufferings.  No matter where we are we can and should still serve God and do his work.  Our sufferings won't be forever.  Messages appropriate for our age, and for every age.

6 comments:

Brad McCoy said...

Hi Jon,
I thought I commented on this a while ago, but obviously not. Thanks for writing this up. Very interesting. Funny that when you posted it I had been thinking a lot about the OT's silence on the afterlife (for want of a better word). Do you have any clues on the reason for this silence?

Jon Eastgate said...

Hi Brad, not spam this time, you must have just forgotten. I don't really know the answer to this one - it's absent from the OT but appears without explanation in some of the apocryphal books, as if its existence will be assumed by readers. They seem to have two views of it - one like here in Tobit, where when you die you go to some other place, and one that appears in the books of Maccabbees for instance, which involves resurrection at the last judgement. The second one seems to be more the Christian view. I wonder if it was a consequence of exposure to Greek thought via Alexander and his successors?

Brad McCoy said...

Well it's interesting that the Jews of Jesus's day don't seem to have any sort of consensus on it (ref. Matt 22:23).

What's always struck me as odd is that the curses God hands out in the story of the Fall in Genesis don't include anything about eternity, at least not explicitly. And God's judgment (of the individuals and nations) in the OT is exclusively physical death, with no mention of eternal consequences.

I've been wondering whether, as you suggest in your comment, the Christian view of an afterlife is influenced by the cultural and religious melting pot of the Roman Empire. But, if this is the case, what does it say about the truth of the sciptures? Some uncomfortable logic there, I must admit.

Jon Eastgate said...

Yes, it's challenging for evangelical faith but I think that's because in evangelical churches we are taught some misconceptions which have to be undone at some point. One of them is the idea that the static, immutable truth was there from the start and just unfolded in revelation. As if we didn't know that change is the only constant in the universe.

Instead, I think it's helpful to see Judaism and Christianity in conversation with their culture. Sure, they may have borrowed the idea of eternal life from the Greeks, but that wasn't all they did with it. The Christian heaven is neither the classical Greek realm of the dead nor the Platonic realm of pure forms, it is a distinctive Christian response to a Greek idea. Remember how the Areopagites reacted when Paul talked about resurrection?

Brad McCoy said...

I can deal with some element of change and influence from other cultures. But if there is an everlasting afterlife, and always has been, and our place in that afterlife is dependent on our actions in this life, that seems like a pretty big thing to be overlooked for thousands of years of God's revelation to humankind.

Jon Eastgate said...

Perhaps the idea of a just God is what's foundational rather than whether that justice it eternal or temporal?