It’s been a little while since my last post, for a couple reasons, but mainly because I’ve been trying to adjust to the aforementioned bifocals. As it turns out, not being able to see is something of a problem.
As I muddled my way through final papers and exams and a trip home, occasionally running into walls and wondering if perhaps a helmet wouldn’t be a good addition to my wardrobe, I kept thinking about Tobit.
The Book of Tobit is an Apocryphal book, probably written originally in Aramaic. It dates to the 4th or 3rd century BCE, and is the tale of Tobit, and his cousin, Sarah. Tobit and Sarah are Diaspora Jews; Tobit lives in Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, where his job/calling is to bury his fellow Israelites who’ve been killed by Sennacherib, the despotic Assyrian ruler, and Sarah lives in Media. Sarah’s chief lament is that all seven of her husbands have died at the hands of a demon, prior to the marriage being consummated, leaving her both childless and husbandless — two major problems in the ancient world.
Tobit is a pious Jew: I…made the frequent journey to Jerusalem prescribed as an eternal commandment for all Israel. I gave to the priests of Aaron’s line for the altar, while the tithe of wine, grain, olive oil, pomegranates and other fruit I gave to the Levites ministering at Jerusalem. (That’s Tobit 1:6-7, and how you know he was pious, ’cause he did what he was supposed to do, in addition to providing proper burials for his fellow Jews.)
Tobit fell out of favor with Sennacherib because of his work, and was forced to flee for a while, but when Sennacherib died, Tobit returned to Nineveh, where he continued to bury the dead. One day, while sleeping on the street (with his eyes open; I’m assuming this is how you sleep, too?), the dung of a sparrow fell into Tobit’s eyes, and blinded him. This was so devastating to Tobit that he prayed that God would take his life.
At the same time, Sarah was over in Media, praying that God would end her life, too, because finding someone to voluntarily be Husband Number Eight wasn’t looking too good. But luckily for Tobit and Sarah, At that very moment the prayers of both were heard in the glorious presence of God… (Tobit 3:16) God, being good like that, dispatched the angel Raphael to help Sarah and Tobit.
Raphael runs into Tobias, Tobit’s son, and together they go to Media, to collect some money that Tobit had stashed there. Tobias stops to wash his feet in the Tigris, as one does, and a fish jumps out and lands near him. Raphael tells Tobias to pick it up, kill it, and save the innards, because — who knew? — burning the fish guts will drive away demons, and using them as a salve will cure blindness!
As the story unfolds, Tobias marries Sarah (after about five minutes, because who has time for all that pesky getting to know you nonsense?), and uses the burning fish innards to drive away the demon that has killed all of her previous husbands. (The demon, it should be noted, flees to Egypt — home to all things demonic, as far as ancient Israel was concerned.) Tobias and Sarah then return to Nineveh, and use the leftover fish guts to cure Tobit’s blindness. Tobit threw his arms round him and burst into tears. ‘I can see you, my son, the light of my eyes!’ …Tobias went inside, rejoicing and praising God with all his might. (Tobit 11: 13-15)
Throughout the story, as in all stories, the person hearing the tale (or, centuries later, reading it) knows more than the main characters do. For instance, since it is established from the outset that Tobit and Sarah live piously, praying to God in their times of affliction, we know that God is at work on Tobit and Sarah’s behalf — even though Sarah and Tobit don’t know this. We also know that Raphael is God’s messenger, although neither Tobit nor Sarah realize that Raphael is an angel.
I think the story was meant to be an instructional tale about how one should live as a Jew of the Diaspora, and its message is still applicable to us today, far removed from the ancient world. We’re meant to pray, trust in God, and keep the law, and to remember that — just as God was willing to intercede on Tobit and Sarah’s behalf — God is accessible and acting in our lives, too.
Furthermore, God’s sending of Raphael – unbeknownst to Tobit and Sarah – reminds us that while we may not understand exactly how God is working among us, we can rest assured that he is. And, as a final lesson, the story of Tobit and Sarah reminds us that we should never cease to thank God for his actions on our behalf, just like Tobit: He lived in prosperity, doing acts of charity and never ceasing to praise God and to proclaim his majesty. (Tobit 14:2)
Throughout history, the Apocryphal books have gotten short shrift. They’re getting more traction now, though, particularly since fragments of various Apocryphal texts, including Tobit, have been found at Qumran, proving that they used to be part of the Jewish canon.
Aside from the obvious correlation between Tobit’s blindness and my own recent Magoo-like state, I’ve been thinking about the text’s lesson about faith. I had a conversation with the Snarky Assbadger this week about some things that have happened in the last couple years, and how easy it is to Monday Morning Quarterback and ask yourself, “What should I have done differently to change the way things worked out?”
And while that is often a useful exercise — it’s critical to understand the role we play in our own outcomes! — sometimes, things just happen. Life throws you a series of misunderstandings, false assumptions, miscommunications, outside interference, and good intentions gone wrong, and you act/react based on what you know…and only later found out how totally wrong you were.
The moral of the story, then, is this: Sometimes the sparrow just shits in your eyes, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.
You’ve got to just admit that you were temporarily blind, and move on — thankful for the people in your life who are willing to hold your hand and guide you out of the darkness and back to sight, or at the very least, accept your apology for all the crashing around you did when you couldn’t see. And then, let it go.
Because the sparrow will be back! And sometimes he just sits and sings his cute little chirpy song, and sometimes he shits in your eyes when you’re trying to sleep. But in both cases, God is there.
If you’re even remotely interested in the community at Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls, or how biblical archeology works, check out some videos of Dr. Jodi Magness. She also has a website (Jodi Magness Website). In addition to being brilliant, I can tell you that Dr. Magness is also kind — I had the good fortune to sit next to her at a dinner many years ago, and earlier this year had a lovely email exchange with her (in which I volunteered to be her Site Bitch on the next dig, fetching pails of water, mopping her brow, whatever. There’s a long list of people who want to work with her in that — or any — capacity, but I’m hopeful!)