The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Overview of the Book of Tobit (Tobias) Chapters 1-3

Posted by Dim Bulb on May 28, 2017

NOTE: The content of this post is excerpted from an old work by Bishop Knecht entitled: A PRACTICAL COMMENTARY ON HOLY SCRIPTURE. Tobit is portrayed as being among the exiles forced from the northern kingdom of Israel after the Assyrian conquest of 721 BC. But the book post-dates this event considerably, and its composition is usually dated to about 200 BC, a time when the people of God were being pressured by various means (political, legal, economic, etc) to give up their distinctive religious beliefs and practices. The book is usually characterized as “haggadic midrash”: “a type of writing that consisted in freely elaborating and building upon some historical event or character in such a way as to provide instruction or edification for the reader” (THE MEN AND MESSAGE OF THE OLD TESTAMENT, by Peter F. Ellis). Father Leslie J. Hoppe, in his contribution to the Reading Guide (#’s 187-230) found in THE CATHOLIC STUDY BIBLE provides a succinct statement concerning the author’s message: “The author wishes to show how God can manage the circumstances of people’s lives in order to bring God’s plans to fulfillment. Its primary religious message is simple: god rewards those who are faithful.

FROM A PRACTICAL COMMENTARY ON HOLY SCRIPTURE

THE Lord ceased not to send to the Israelites holy prophets 1 who preached penance to them both by word and example. But the Israelites would not be converted, and their wickedness 2 increased to such an extent that the Almighty resolved to punish them in His wrath, and utterly to destroy them. He therefore caused Salmanazar, king of Assyria, to come against them with a mighty army. He laid siege 3 to the strong city of Samaria, and after three years took it and carried off most of its inhabitants captives 4; and thus the kingdom of Israel ceased to exist 5. Thus the prophecy of Amos (9:8) was fulfilled: “Behold, the eyes of the Lord God [are] upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth: but yet I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob.”

The Israelites having been slain or carried off into captivity, their land had become almost a wilderness 6, and the Assyrian king, in order to people it again, sent thither thousands of his pagan subjects who, settling amongst the scattered remains of the ten tribes, were soon so mixed up with them that they became, as it were, a new nation, and scarcely a trace remained of the people of Israel.

The religion of the Samaritans was a mixture of Judaism and Paganism 7; hence they hated the two tribes of Juda and Benjamin, who had remained true to the old religion.

Those who were taken captive to Assyria never returned to their own country. Still God did not fail to give numerous proofs of His watchful care over those unhappy exiles. One of the most remarkable of these instances is found in the history of the good Tobit 8. When he was in his own country and in his earliest years, Tobit never associated with the wicked; never went to adore the golden calf 9, but kept the law of the Lord exactly.

Hence God protected him in the land of captivity, and caused him to find favour in the sight of Salmanazar, who allowed him to go wherever he wished. He went accordingly to all his fellow-captives, consoling and encouraging them. He shared with them all he possessed, fed them when they were hungry, and clothed them when naked. His life was spent in such works of charity.

King Salmanazar being dead, Sennacherib (Fig. 52) 10, his son, who succeeded him on the throne, was not so favourable to Tobit and put many of the Israelites to death. But Tobit, fearing God more than the king, hid the bodies of his brethren in his house, and buried them by night. The king, having heard this, sentenced Tobit to death, and took away all his property.

Tobit fled with his wife and son, and remained concealed in a place of safety, till the death of the wicked king, who forty days later was killed by his own sons. Then Tobit returned, and all his property was restored to him. But the persecution against the Israelites was still raging, so Tobit resumed his former works of charity, relieving the distressed, and burying the dead.

Coming home one day very much fatigued, he lay down near the wall and fell asleep. While he was sleeping the droppings from a swallow’s nest fell on his eyes and made him blind 11. This was a great affliction, but it did not prevent Tobit from fearing and blessing God and thanking Him for all his mercies, even for this new trial. Now Anna, his wife, was his only support. She went out every day to work, and by her hard earnings kept her husband from want. On one occasion, Anna received a young kid for the labour of her hands, and she brought it home. Now Tobit, hearing it bleat, was afraid and said: “Take heed, lest perhaps it be stolen 12; restore it to its owner.” He questioned Anna as to how she got the kid. Now Anna was a good and virtuous woman, but this suspicion of her husband roused her to anger. She replied very sharply and made use of words that were aggravating to her husband. Tobit, however, only sighed and began to pray.

MESSAGE OF THESE CHAPTERS IN RELATION TO GOD’S DISPERSION OF HIS PEOPLE AMONG UNBELIEVERS

The Patience and Justice of God. God was very patient with His ungrateful people. He continued to send prophets who, in stirring language, pointed out to the people their ingratitude and faithlessness towards God, and graphically described the judgments which would overtake them. For two hundred years and more God visited them with famines and other tribulations in the hope of bringing them back to Him, but all in vain! Ninive did penance, but Israel remained impenitent! At last Almighty God’s patience was exhausted, His judgment fell, and the faithless kingdom of Israel came to an end! “Justice exalteth a nation: but sin maketh nations miserable” (Prov. 14:34).

God’s Mercy and Wisdom. Even in His punishments God showed mercy. As a nation Israel was overthrown, but the punishment served for the conversion of individuals. The Israelites had been driven from the land of their fathers, they were scattered and homeless, living among strangers and earning a livelihood by hard work, being all the while sorely oppressed. In their necessity many turned contritely to God, acknowledged His just judgments and found all their consolation in the hope of the promised Redeemer. In them were fulfilled the words of the prophet Jeremias (2:19): “Know thou and see that it is an evil and a bitter thing for thee to have left the Lord thy God.” For the kingdom of Assyria also the dispersion of Israel was a great blessing. Through the Israelites living in their midst the pagans learnt to know the true and unseen God and the promised Redeemer, for whose coming they were, therefore, prepared. Thus, by God’s Providence, even the sin of Israel and its punishment served for a good end.

The Faithfulness of God. That which God had threatened a hundred years before was brought to pass. The impenitent kingdom of Israel was merged in the great Assyrian empire, and ceased to be an independent state.

The fall of him who resists grace. The history of Israel is the counterpart of the history of every impenitent sinner. What happened to the people of Israel when they broke their covenant with God, is repeated in the case of very many Christians, who do not keep their baptismal vows. By the mouth of His priests, and by the voice of their own consciences, God exhorts sinners to be converted and do penance. He reminds them of the terrors of the judgment and the torments of hell. But, alas, many sinners will not believe, and take these solemn truths of faith for empty threats. Often God visits sinners with sickness or misfortunes, but the amendment of life which these may produce lasts but a short time. Hardly is the trouble removed before the sinner turns away again from God and commits fresh sins. God will bear with him for a long time, seeking to bring him back to Him, but at last His patience is exhausted, the time of grace is past, and God calls the impenitent sinner before His judgment-seat, and gives him over to the power of the enemy. The sinful soul is damned, and thrust for ever out of its heavenly home, to suffer hopelessly, in captivity, the unbearable torments of hell. There, indeed, he at last recognizes his folly and blindness, and bitterly rues his sin and impenitence. But it is too late!

THE VIRTUES OF TOBIT

1. His piety. He loved God from his youth up, prayed willingly, and faithfully fulfilled all his religious duties. The foundations of piety are laid in youth.

2. His brotherly love. His love was universal, for he did not show it towards his friends only, but towards all who were in want, especially Israelites. His love was practical, for he sought out the needy, even sacrificing health and fortune in order to help them. He consoled, instructed, and supported all whom he could, and practised works of mercy towards the living and the dead. Finally, it was disinterested. He did everything in secret, and sought his own glory in nothing. He asked for no reward from man, for no thanks, no honours. This proves that his love was sincere and disinterested.

3. His fortitude. He did not shrink from the perils and labour of long journeys, nor did he fear the anger of the king. He exposed himself to every danger to help the needy and bury the dead.

4. His justice. He conscientiously performed his duty towards God and man. This rudimentary virtue of justice proceeded from his uprightness, which made him, though poor, refuse any reward which he had not justly earned. He said to himself: “If the person who gave us this kid, stole it, it is not his property, and he has no right to give it; and as for me, I may neither buy nor receive as a gift any stolen goods.”

5. His patience in suffering. This was the fruit of faith and hope. Tobit was specially distinguished for his great patience and resignation under suffering. He did not murmur against God, or say to himself: “What have I done to deserve these trials? Have I not feared God from my youth up?” No, he accepted his trials humbly, as a punishment for his own sins and those of his people (Tob. 3:2 f); he thanked God for them, and set all his hopes on a future life. “For we are the children of the Saints”, said he, “and look for that life which God will give to those that never change their faith in Him” (Tob. 2:18). The belief in a future reward comforted him and supported him in the midst of his tribulations. Faith makes people patient and contented under suffering; but a man without faith is without comfort in tribulation, and without hope in death. Poor, unfortunate man!

THE LESSONS TOBIT TEACHES

The object of suffering. Why did God permit so many troubles to overtake the holy, faithful Tobit? The angel Raphael explained the reason when he said to him: “Because thou wast acceptable to God, it was necessary that temptation should prove thee” (Tob. 12:13). Suffering, therefore, was intended to serve as a probation of Tobit, and to give him the opportunity of practising patience, and gaining more merit. Holy Scripture offers a further explanation of the reason for this holy man’s tribulations in the following passage: “Now this trial (of blindness) the Lord therefore permitted to happen to him that an example might be given to posterity of his patience, as in the case of holy Job” (Tob. 2:12).

The bodies of the dead are worthy of reverence. Why did Tobit expose himself to such great danger in order to bury mere dead bodies? He knew and believed that man is an image of God, so he could not endure the thought that men’s bodies should lie uncared for, to be devoured by wild beasts. The bodies of Christians, furthermore, are the temples of the Holy Ghost, and sanctified by the reception of the holy Sacraments. For this reason they are buried in consecrated ground.

Lawful obedience. Was it not wrong of Tobit to continue to bury the dead after Sennacherib had forbidden it? No, it was rather Sennacherib who did wrong in ordering the dead bodies to be left unburied, for God had commanded, writing it on men’s hearts, that the bodies of the dead should be treated reverently, and buried.

THE APPLICATION OF TOBIT

Dear children, none of you would wish to suffer eternally, to be shut out for ever from the presence of God, and banished from heaven. Lay to heart, therefore, the teaching and holy exhortations which you receive, obey God’s grace, avoid sin, and do heartfelt penance for the sins you have heretofore committed.

Do you think any one will ever be able to say of you: “He has from his youth up observed the commandments of God, and avoided the society of the wicked”?

Do you possess any ill-gotten goods? Have you ever taken anything, even a trifle such as a picture, a pen, or an apple, from any one? Give it back at once, or if you no longer possess it, make compensation for it. Do you ever take things from your parents’ stores? What a shame for a child to steal from his own parents!

Even you could practise many works of mercy. Do you look after your sick companions? Do you pray for the holy souls? You could prevent many a sin by gently appealing to the consciences of your comrades, or brothers and sisters, showing them what they ought to do.

Bishop Knecht’s Footnotes:

1. Prophets. Among these prophets were Hosea and Amos, who announced the judgments of God which were to come.

2. Wickedness. The prophet Hosea (4:2 and 11) thus describes the moral condition of the people: “Cursing, and lying, and killing, and theft, and adultery have overflowed. Wine and drunkenness take away the understanding.” Sedition, regicide and civil war became more and more common.

3. Siege. He encamped all round the town so that no necessaries of life could be brought to it.

4. Captives. Imagine to yourselves with what tears and aching hearts they must have left their homes. Now, no doubt, they repented of their sins and deplored their blindness; but it was too late. The Israelites were divided among the towns in Northern Assyria and were much hampered in the free practice of their religion.

5. Ceased. Being merged in the Assyrian Empire in the year 721 B. C.

6. A wilderness. Because its inhabitants were very few, and the land only partially cultivated.

7. The religion. They worshipped false gods at the same time that they worshipped the Almighty. It was only later that they abandoned idolatry and built a temple to the Lord on Mount Garizim, near Sichar.

8. Tobit. He lived in Ninive, the capital of Assyria.

9. Golden calf. Although he lived in Israel, and not in Juda, he did not go to Bethel to worship the golden calf, as did most of his fellow-countrymen. He faithfully observed all the rules laid down for the worship of God and for the offering of sacrifices.

10. Sennacherib. In revenge for a great defeat he had suffered before Jerusalem (as will be told in chapter LXXIII). When Sennacherib learnt that Tobias buried the dead, he gave orders for him to be put to death. Tobias, however, hid himself and continued to bury the dead.

11. Blind. Inflammation set in and blindness ensued. This was a severe trial for Tobias; however, he did not complain, but, like Job, daily thanked God even for the sufferings sent to him.

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