Monday of Week 9 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Tobit 1:1 – 2; 2:1 – 8

Today we begin reading the Book of Tobit. It is one of the so-called “deutero-canonical” books, that is, only recognised by the Church as inspired literature after some hesitancy. It is not part of the Hebrew Bible, and other Christian denominations place it among the apocrypha.

It is one of the most delightful stories in the Bible, full of interest and drama. It is a work of fiction with the story based in Niniveh during the time of the Assyrian conquest, but written some centuries after the events it claims to describe. It is a domestic story about a man who is devout, law-abiding and charitable, but who is struck blind in a freak accident. It is an edifying story in which the emphasis falls on almsgiving and duties towards the dead. True family life is shown at its best, and its ideal of marriage anticipates Christian teaching. God’s providential presence is at once revealed and hidden by the appearance of an angel, who acts has as Yahweh’s messenger.

The book deals with the perennial problem of why the good suffer, but concludes that God’s care is never far away. The author of the book is unknown and the actual date of writing can only be deduced from internal evidence. Dates vary from the 2nd to the 5th century BC and probably originated in the Diaspora, that is, with a Jewish community in exile

Today’s reading begins with Tobit being introduced. ‘Tobit’ is the Greek form of the Hebrew Tobi (my good”), which may be an abbreviation for Tobiah (“Yahweh is my good”), the name of Tobit’s son (Tobias in Greek). As we shall see, the name is appropriate to the story.

A brief family tree is given, and we learn that Tobit came from the tribe of Nephthali, one of Israel’s twelve tribes, descended from the sons of Jacob. The story is taking place during the reign of the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser, father of the famous Sennacherib, the one “who came down like a wolf on the fold”. Tobit, with many other Jews, is living in exile in Niniveh.

Our reading skips most of chapter 1. This is a pity, because it gives very useful information on Tobit’s background which explains what happens in today’s reading. Tobit, although an observant and charitable Jew (unlike many of his kinsmen in exile), had risen very high in the Assyrian court and was very close to the king. But, when the king’s heir, Sennacherib, began persecuting and killing Israelites, Tobit would take the dead bodies and secretly bury them. When someone betrayed him over this, he had to go into hiding and all his property was seized. It was only after Sennacherib was assassinated by his two sons and the new king, Esarhaddon, appointed Ahikar, a nephew of Tobit, as his chief cupbearer that Tobit could return to Niniveh and be restored to his former position.

It is at this point that our reading picks up the story. Tobit has returned to his home and has rejoined his wife, Anna, and his son, Tobias. On the harvest festival of Pentecost he sits down (actually reclines) for a formal dinner of thanksgiving with his family. Pentecost was celebrated fifty days after the Passover (for us, 50 days after Easter). Before the family began to eat and seeing the abundance of food on the table, he tells his son to go out and look for a devout Israelite who is in material need and to bring him back to the house to share the festival meal with them. This is a way of letting us know that Tobit was both religiously very observant and also a person who deeply cared for the poor.

However, when the son returns, he reports that, while he was in the city, he found that one of their people had been murdered and left lying dead in the street. He had been strangled, presumably because he was a Jew.

Without a moment’s hesitation and ignoring the great danger, Tobit leaves the dinner table, the food still untouched, and brings the dead body back to his house so that it can be buried at sunset. He then washed himself, for he was unclean after touching the dead body, and had his meal, though with feelings of great sadness.

For he is reminded of a passage from Amos in which the prophet says to Israel that their festivals will be turned into occasions of mourning and their songs into laments. That is precisely what has happened on this Pentecost, which was meant to be a time of joyful celebration and thanksgiving. And Tobit weeps.

After sunset, Tobit went and gave the dead man a proper burial. His neighbours thought he was an idiot and mocked him. During Sennacherib’s time, he had been hunted down to be put to death and had gone into hiding, for doing precisely this kind of thing. And here he was again doing exactly the same thing. What his neighbours did not realise was that, for Tobit, respect for the dead took precedence even over his own life. It is again an indication of the kind of person he was, and how he remained loyal to the requirements of his religious beliefs even in a purely Gentile environment.

His example is clearly directed towards those who would hear his story told, Jews of the Diaspora, living in a Gentile environment where many of them succumbed to the enticements of Gentile ways and forgot the commitments of their Jewish faith.

After he had buried the man, Tobit again had a ritual washing (expected of the observant Jew which he was). Tomorrow we will see that he goes into the courtyard of his house for the night. His contact with the dead man meant he could not spend the night inside the house. He lay down to sleep beside the wall. Because of the heat, his face was uncovered – and that leads us into tomorrow’s reading.

The passage gives us a clear indication of Tobit’s character – a man of great charity and of courage, a man who deeply cared about his people and was prepared to suffer for them, a man of compassion and integrity. The story manages to show both his concern for the hungry poor and for the unburied dead. It also reveals the courage that often comes to those who have to suffer for their beliefs, and for their sense of truth and justice.

Many Christians today live in diaspora conditions similar to the Jews in exile and at times it can be difficult to remain faithful to the call of Jesus in the Gospel. This can be true even in so-called ‘Christian’ countries. At the same time, our concern should not be so much to be worried about keeping rules, as belonging to strong witnessing communities which set standards for loving care of those around them.

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