We are visiting the archives today, dear ones, because I keep thinking about our buddy Tobit. Remember him?
The Book of Tobit is an Apocryphal book, probably written in Aramaic in the 4th or 3rd century BCE (what we old folks used to simply call BC, before we fell out of favor and were relegated to living in caves with our rotary phones and 8 Tracks). It’s the story of Tobit, and his cousin, Sarah.
Tobit and Sarah are Diaspora Jews, which means they live outside of their ancestral home. Sarah lives in Media. Her big problem is that all seven of her husbands have died at the hands of a demon, prior to the marriage being consummated (how rude!), leaving her both childless and husbandless — two major problems in the ancient world.
Tobit lives in Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, where his job is to bury his fellow Israelites who’ve been killed by Sennacherib, the despotic Assyrian ruler.
Tobit is a pious Jew, but that doesn’t mean a thing to Sennacherib, who persecutes Tobit for his work burying Sennacherib’s victims. So Tobit flees Nineveh for a while. When Sennacherib dies, Tobit is able to return, and resume burying the dead, who’d presumably just been piling up in his absence.
One day, while sleeping on the street (with his eyes open, naturally), the dung of a sparrow falls into Tobit’s eyes, and blinds him. This is so devastating to Tobit that he prays that God will take his life.
At the same time, Sarah is over in Media, praying that God will end her life, too, because finding someone to voluntarily be Husband Number Eight isn’t looking too good.
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, dispatches the angel Raphael to fix things.
So Raphael goes down and runs into *Tobias, Tobit’s son. (*This can get confusing: Tobias is Tobit, as translated from the Greek, so basically, Tobias the Son is just Tobit, Junior. We’ll call him TJ from here on out).
Together, TJ and Raphael go to Media, to collect some money that Tobit had stashed there. TJ stops to wash his feet in the Tigris, and a fish jumps out and lands near him. Raphael tells TJ 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!
So TJ marries his dad’s cousin, Sarah, 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, leaves Sarah and flees to Egypt — which is where all demons live, as far as ancient Israel was concerned.)
TJ and Sarah then return to Nineveh, and use the leftover fish guts to cure Tobit’s blindness!
Throughout the story, the person hearing the tale (or, centuries later, reading it) knows more than the main characters do. Since the text tells us, for instance, that Tobit and Sarah live piously, we know that Yahweh will 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.
The story was likely 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: pray, trust in God, keep the law, and 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 — and this is critical — God’s sending of Raphael reminds us that while we may not understand exactly how God is working among us, we can rest assured that he is working.
I’ve been thinking about Tobit a lot recently. It’s so easy to Monday Morning Quarterback our lives and beat ourselves up about the mistakes we made when the sparrow crapped in our eye and we couldn’t see clearly where to go or what to do.
But that’s pointless. Because when the sparrow has blinded you, the only rational course of action is to feel your way forward – carefully, thoughtfully, prayerfully, and with the help of others.
And then, once your vision has cleared, remember to be thankful for the people in your life who are willing to take your hand and guide you out of the darkness — 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. Move forward.
Because the sparrow will be back! And sometimes he just sits and sings his cute little chirpy song, and sometimes he craps in your eyes when you’re trying to take a nap. But in both cases, God is there, and things are unfolding the way they’re meant to.
The Apocryphal books have gotten short shrift. They’re getting more traction now, though, since fragments of various Apocryphal texts, including Tobit, have been found at Qumran, proving that they used to be part of the Jewish canon. 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). She is one of those rare people who is a rock star in her own right, but hasn’t forgotten what it means to be kind.