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Tobit or not Tobit, that is the question

June 3, 2015

Tobit 2: 1-14                            Tuesday 2 June 2015

This week we’re hearing readings from the Book of Tobit.

It was written about 200 – 180 years before Christ was born. We can work that out by the events mentioned or not mentioned in the book. For example, it was at about that time that there was the Maccabean revolt against the Romans; and new ideas about the nature of life after death and of resurrection (which I was talking about a couple of weeks ago). But these events and ideas do not appear in the Book of Tobit, so it must have been written a bit before they happened. We don’t really know who wrote, or where it was written for that matter – somewhere in the Middle East.

Here’s the surprising thing about this book. It was written to keep us entertained. I think it is probably something like the Coronation Street or East Enders of its day. Experts describe it as a ‘Hebrew romance’. Tobit himself is a fictional character. Isn’t that shocking! A story in the bible that is made up! Well no, not at all. The bible is a collection of all sorts of different literary styles – prophecy, law, history, narrative stories and so on. Why shouldn’t there be a good story thrown in there as well? At the Reformation the Protestants got a little bit exercised about this, and took it out (their rule being that it didn’t appear in the Greek translations of Hebrew scriptures). The Book of Tobit appears as a sort of of appendix (The Apocrypha) of Protestant bibles; we have it in our bibles as part of the ‘canon’ – and there’s a good reason: there are messages in the Book of Tobit that are very pertinent to Christianity.

Although the Book of Tobit may be a work of fiction, it was written for a very definite purpose: the stories and the characters in the Book of Tobit are used as a teaching tool. Quite an entertaining teaching tool. I mean, that bit this morning about the goat being brought in the house, can you imagine that? If you have ever been near a goat, they don’t half smell! And they make a lot of noise, don’t they.It’s just a comical scene, like something out of the film ‘A Private Function’.

The Book of Tobit tells the story of two families who have been exiled from Jerusalem by the wicked Assyrian Empire, two families who come together through marriage. (Incidentally, that’s why some of the stories about marriage in the Book of Tobit are often used during the liturgy for the Sacrament of Matrimony.) The ordinary lives of the God-fearing, faithful characters are used to show us that God is both just and free. It also tells us that suffering is NOT a punishment by God but a test. There are sort of echoes of the Book of Job that you may have noticed this morning, when Anna, Tobit’s wife, is saying, ‘Well, what about you? For all your good works, look what has happened to you – you have gone blind!’ But at the end of it all, God is shown to rewards his faithful servants and punish the baddies.

The idea of being exiled from the Promised Land runs as a thread through the entire book. There is this sense that although the formal exile of the Jews has come to an end, many of the descendants of those who had been originally exiled had become assimulated and settled in the foreign land in the City of Nineveh: they have drifted away from loyalty to their Jewish religion – we’re talking about people here who could have chosen to return to their historic home country, but who remain abroad.

Yesterday’s reading painted a picture of the main character, Tobit. He is a man of three key virtues – truth, righteousness and someone who is merciful and charitable. So we find out that it is the Jewish feast of Pentecost – (not the Christian festival) the celebration by the Chosen People of the harvest. The law laid down by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy said that festival meals should be shared with aliens, orphans and widows, and that’s why Tobit sends his son Tobias to find “ some poor, loyal-hearted man among our brothers exiled in Nineveh.” But the plan goes wrong, there’s a twist in the story (see, it is a bit of a soap opera). Tobit’s son returns with news that one of their fellow Jews has been murdered, with the body left lying in the street. Tobit immediately abandons his celebration meal to go and bury his compatriot – and in the process he makes himself ritually unclean. Do you remember how at our Lord’s burial it had to be rushed so that those doing it were not unclean for the up-coming Feast of The Passover. It’s the same thing – contact with a dead body is to be avoided, especially during religious festivals. But Tobit shows he is a charitable man by doing what needs to be done.

This brings us to today’s part of the story. Being ritually unclean, Tobit returns home, has a bath and then he sleeps in the courtyard.

He chooses to sleep outside because even after his bath he is not properly clean. Why is he not properly clean?

The problem is that, being in exile, they haven’t got the right kind of water to wash in to purify themselves, what they called ‘lustral water’. What on earth is that? Well, if you touched a dead body you should really be sprinkled with specially prepared holy water that had been through what they called the ‘red heifer ritual’. It required the sacrifice of a red heifer. Problem – animal sacrifices could only take place in the Temple in Jerusalem, and they are in exile. So where Tobit is there’s no proper holy water to wash in. And incidentally, the holy water ritual (I looked it up yesterday to see what they did)) was specially designed to offer atonement after someone had been murdered by an unknown person. So the red heifer ritual water was perfect for Tobit’s circumstances: he had buried a murdered man. The problem was it was very difficult to properly observe these ritual rules away from Jerusalem and it was also difficult because most of Tobit’s compatriots had given up being observant Jews. I think it’s a bit like being a second or third generation Irish Catholic in this country: most of the descendants of the original immigrants who came in the 1950s and 1960s have, sadly, become like the majority of the host community, the English, and have given up practicing their faith; for Tobit it was a bit like trying to find a good Catholic funeral director, and all you can find is some secular undertaker who knows very little about Christianity. Is that not frustrating and angering?

Things get from bad to worse for Tobit. He gets birds’ muck in his eyes while lying asleep in the open, and he goes blind. The ointment doesn’t work, the medicine doesn’t work! Can you see that it was his desire to follow very strictly the Law of Moses that has led to his misery? Things then get very hard for the family. He is looked after for two years by a relative, then that guy has to go and Anna his wife has to start work to make ends meet. Then we hear them arguing. Anna has been paid for spinning and weaving, and gets a bonus kid goat. Tobit refuses to accept it, saying it might be stolen. Then Anna turns on him – why should he refuse the kindness of other people – refuse their kindness and charity that would bring them some happiness, bring them dinner! After all, she says, can’t he see what misery has been the result of his own good works. Tobit may have a reputation for being a good, holy man, but he is still human. There he is, blind and helpless, being cared for by his wife. And how does he treat her. She brings home the bacon (well, OK, they’re Jewish, she brings home the goat) and he goes and gets the wrong end of the stick, accusing her of receiving stolen goods! Oh dear, some of this sounds a bit like me with Catherine sometimes. What a muddle we frail humans can get in to.

Tomorrow we’ll hear how a contrite Tobit realises that he has gone too far this time, and launches into a prayer asking God not to continue punishing him for his sins. Like all good soap operas, today’s episode ends on a cliffhanger. Will God reward the righteous or continue to inflict misery?

Cue: East Ender drums. Find out tomorrow morning!

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