Thursday, June 19, 2014

Re-Post: On Tobit & The Apocrypha

The Book of Tobit is found in the Apocrypha, which are the additional books that are found in the Greek version of what Christians call the Old Testament, which are not found in the Hebrew version. I think the Apocrypha is incredibly important to get a full grasp on what God is revealing throughout the rest of scripture, especially in the New Testament. There are so many shifts in values and worldview that take place during that period of Israel's history which also set the stage for all that happens in the New Testament. For instance, it is impossible to understand the prevailing Jewish political understanding of Messiah, which is found throughout the Gospels, unless one understands the events surrounding the Maccabean revolt, which is recounted in the Apocryphal books 1 & 2 Maccabees. You cannot fully grasp the apocalyptic worldview of Jesus without books like the Book of Tobit.

The modern protestant rejection of the Apocrypha is strange, to me. It is based on a kind of elevation of the Hebrew version of the Old Testament over the Greek. Strangely enough, many of the New Testament quotes from the Old Testament come from the Greek, not the Hebrew, version. In fact, the Jews only chose to canonize the Hebrew version over the Greek in part to counter Christian use of the Greek books to argue that Jesus was Messiah. 

So I take the Apocrypha to be of some value as records of God's revelation of mankind. This has been true of me for most of my life as a Christian, as I grew up Catholic and today work in an Episcopal Church, both of which to different degrees accept the Apocryphal books as having revelatory validity. The Book of Tobit has been one of my favorite books since I was a child. It tells the story of two families, ripped apart by evil forces. Tobit is an old prophet who was renowned for his virtue, who has been struck blind by an unfortunate series of events. Sarah is a woman who has a stalker that is literally demonic, a fallen angel names asmodeus. He has killed seven men on the night they married her. Both Tobit and Sarah pray for death at the same time, and the message is brought to God by the archangel Raphael. God instructs Raphael to find a way to help both people.

About this time, Tobit sends his son Tobias on a long journey to collect some money owed the family by a distant relative. He instructs his son to find a kinsmen from the town that will go with him. Raphael takes this opportunity to disguise himself as a relative of the Tobit clan, and applies for the job. Tobit sends Tobias on his way with his newfound friend. On the road they encounter a monstrous fish, which they kill for food and because the innards have medicinal powers. They then stop off at the house where Sarah lives, and the hidden Raphael urges Tobias to marry her, as he has the right of redemption. Tobias  resists at first, but Raphael convinces him that all will be well, if he undertakes a specific set of steps to ward off the demon that assaults Sarah's suitors. Tobias uses parts of the fish to ward off asmodeus, and Raphael uses his holy might to chain the demon up in the desert.

Tobias and the hidden Raphael collect the money and go back home with their now expanded family, the money collected, and a considerable dowry for Sarah. There Raphael instructs Tobias to use the rest of the fish to cure his father. At a party not long afterwards, Raphael shows his true form, and instructs the men to give thanks to God alone for all that happened, as Raphael is merely his arm.

This story may seem strange and comic book-ish, but there is so much rich theology here as well. There is the expanded Jewish understanding of suffering. Neither Tobit nor Sarah suffer because of sin, which was the common reason given by the prophets for all suffering in the world. Rather Tobit was undergoing a test, and Sarah was assaulted by a demon. These two explanations for the problem of evil are starting to supplant the old prophetic answers, which I think is a big step forward for Jewish theology. Tobit puts this changing view on display.

It shows the growing importance of angels. People believed that dark powers stood between man and God and that God could only work through intermediaries at this time in history. This is a very important part of Jewish cosmology to understand if one is going to get a full understanding of what is going on in the Gospels. There is the idea of the guardian angel. I just love the thought that some little nodule of the divine is always with us, and always looking after us. There is one of the funniest stories in all of the Bible, when Sarah's dad, convinced that the morning after the wedding Tobias will be dead, digs a grave to put his body in. It lays down, as The Book of Sirach does, a theological attitude towards medicine. The Jews debated what the proper attitude towards medicinal sciences should be. Some thought that healing was in the hands of God alone. Others thought that anything that brought goodness and health was itself the hand of God. Tobit, like Sirach, comes out strongly on this latter side. And we are better for it. On and on, throughout the strange and mythical storytelling, is a glimpse into the mind of the evolving Jewish movement. It is a perfect example of why the Apocrypha is so important to get a full Biblical picture. I simply love it. 

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