By Mary Jane Chaignot

The story opens with the introduction of Tobit, the main character and a righteous man. As a member of the tribe of Naphtali, he began by musing upon his life in the Northern kingdom. Naphtali was the sixth son of Jacob and the second child of Bilhah, Rachel's maidservant. His was one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. After the northern kingdom split from the south, Naphtali comprised the part of Galilee that included Capernaum and Bethsaida. The division of the kingdom posed challenges that touched every aspect of their lives -- not the least of which was their desire to worship Yahweh. Jeroboam, the king of the Northern kingdom, chose Shechem, a city in Northern Israel, to serve as his new capital. He also strategically placed two golden calves, one in the north in Dan (near the tribe of Naphtali) and the other in the south at Bethel where the people could stop to worship. Despite these accommodations, however, Tobit maintained his loyalty to the Jerusalem temple located in the south. He journeyed there regularly to offer sacrifices and to give alms. 

In 721 BCE, the Northern kingdoms were conquered by Assyria, and Tobit might have been one of those who was taken in exile to Nineveh. At the time, Shalmaneser was the king of Assyria. Tobit soon rose to prominence in Shalmaneser's palace and was paid handsomely for his work. Like others before him, those successes were attributed to his faithfulness to God. Even in Shalmaneser's court, however, Tobit still maintained his loyalty to the covenant traditions. This was particularly evidenced in two ways. He continued to give alms to the poor, and he diligently buried any Jewish corpses that he found. 

In 705 BCE, Sennacherib came into power in Assyria. After suffering defeat at the hands of Judah, Sennacherib clamped down against those of Jewish descent. Tobit's sense of duty, then, brought him into direct conflict with the authorities. It was no time at all before he was a hunted man and his property was confiscated. Sennacherib's reign, however, was cut short when he was assassinated by his own sons. A change in administration generally brings in new people, and in this case, Tobit's nephew became a valued player in the Assyrian court. He was able to intercede for his uncle, and soon Tobit was able to return to Nineveh with his wife and son. 

They were poised to celebrate their return (apparently at the time of Weeks/Pentecost) when Tobit asked his son to gather up the homeless because they had more than enough food to share. While in the process of doing that, his son heard of another Jewish death. Tobit immediately left the celebration to bury him. His neighbors mocked him, thinking he had not yet learned his lesson. After finishing his task, he lay down in the courtyard to sleep. That night, sparrow droppings fell into his eyes, rendering him blind. This was highly ironic since his misfortune came about because of his good deed. Nonetheless, he was soon dependent upon his wife for support. She went out to work and one day was rewarded with a goat. Tobit was convinced she had stolen it, and they had a huge argument, at which point, she told him to take a good look at himself to see what good had come from all his good works. Cut to the core, Tobit prayed and asked that God take his life. Such a prayer gives good insight into his character. He was at his wit's end; still he prayed. He no longer expected to live a useful life and simply wanted his suffering to end.

At this point, the story flashes to another righteous soul in Media. A young woman, Sarah, had had seven husbands. She was tormented by a demon that lusted for her, so he kept killing her husbands on their wedding night. Needless to say, she had quite a reputation in their community. She also prayed that God would take her life.

The prayers of both these righteous people eventually reached the ears of God. He "heard their cries." In response, He sent the angel Raphael to rescue both of them.

The story then moved back to Nineveh, where Tobit began preparing for his death. Suddenly, he remembered the stash of money he had accumulated from his time in Shalmaneser's court. He called his son, Tobias, to his side and began to give him final instructions on how he should live his life after Tobit was gone. At the very end, he told his son about the money and suggested he find someone to travel with him back to the homeland to get it. And while he was there, he should also select a wife from their kinsmen. Tobias went out and found "Raphael" who was the angel sent by God, though Tobias did not know that. Before giving his blessing for their journey, Tobit wanted to meet the mystery man. Raphael could hardly tell him his true identity, so he said his name was Azariah, a distant cousin of Tobit's. Tobit was so delighted that he hired him on the spot.

The first night of their journey, they stopped by a stream to make camp. As Tobias was washing in the river, a large fish jumped out and attacked him. Raphael told him to capture the fish, which he was able to do. The angel then instructed him to cut out the heart, liver, and gall bladder. The rest he ate or salted.

On the way to Media, Raphael told Tobias that he was destined to marry Sarah. Tobias was concerned because he knew about the previous seven husbands. Raphael told him to burn the heart and liver of the fish when he and Sarah were alone in the room. Arrangements were made when they arrived at the home of Sarah's father. When Tobias and Sarah retired to their room, Sarah's father secretly dug a grave, thinking he would quietly bury husband #8. In the meantime, Tobias and Sarah burned the liver and heart of the fish. The aroma drove away the demon, who fled to northern Egypt where Raphael was able to bind him. As the evening wore on, Sarah's father sent some servants to check on the couple. He was elated to find out that Tobias was still alive. Without fanfare, he had the grave filled in.

The next morning, plans were made for the wedding celebration. It was to last two weeks. Since Tobias was busy with wedding commitments, he sent Raphael to retrieve the money. All this happened without difficulty. Then it was time for Tobias and Sarah to return to Nineveh. Needless to say, her parents were distraught, but they gave the newly wed couple their blessings.

Back in Nineveh, however, Tobit and his wife had almost given up hope of ever seeing their son again. Their grief knew no bounds. When the travelers were approaching the city, Raphael convinced Tobias they should go on ahead to "get things ready for Sarah." While Tobias was hugging Tobit, he rubbed some of the fish's gall onto his eyes. The substance stung, and as Tobit was wiping his eyes, he also wiped away the white film. He could see! Their joy had no bounds.

Out of gratitude, Tobit offered to pay Raphael for his time. This put Raphael into a difficult situation, so he had to actually tell him who he was. The whole family was grateful and sang God's praises. Then the angel disappeared. Tobias and Sarah lived in Nineveh until Tobit and his wife died. Then they moved back to Media where Sarah's parents lived. The story has a very happy ending.

So is this just a nice novelette with a happy ending? Scholars don't think so. It probably had a larger purpose. It tells the story of two Diaspora families that both suffered grave misfortunes despite being righteous and holding to the law. It is most blatant in the case of Tobit. He suffered because he was adhering to the covenant law. Yet, at the end of the story, both families were vindicated – even better, they were united! Some scholars see threads of Deuteronomy throughout the story – the admonition to be faithful despite all evidence to the contrary. They have even dubbed this as the "family values" story of the Old Testament, in part because the characters are well-developed and fully dimensional. And, yes, they are vindicated and blessed in the end because they were faithful.

The question of authorship, however, remains a mystery. Obviously, he was a pious and observant Jew despite living in Gentile (hostile) territory. But where he wrote from is a mystery, as is when he wrote this. Mistakes involving geography and chronology suggest a setting in the Diaspora (as opposed to Palestine) and a date much later than the eighth century that it attempts to portray. Its aim was, perhaps, to both entertain and edify.

The existence of such a book witnesses to the values of Jews after the destruction of the temple in 587 BCE. They tried to maintain their separateness and distinctive identity in the face of attempts to assimilate their culture into the dominant one. Tobit, for example, both practices what he speaks and teaches his son to do the same. He is a model of integrity. Tobias and Sarah are also model children, putting their parents first and taking care of them throughout their old age. But mostly, the book stresses the obligations of observant Jews – giving alms to the poor and burying the dead. Through speeches and prayers, we glimpse Tobit's commitment to God and to God's commands. God is both just and merciful, and Tobit prayed to act within God's larger purpose. We also see beyond his family unit. Kinfolk play an important role; dealings with them are trustworthy as well as necessary.

The underlying assumption is always one of faithfulness to the covenant commands. Obedience leads to prosperity; disobedience results in misfortune. Unlike Job, Tobit accepted that he must have sinned when misfortune struck. And if it turned out that he wasn't individually responsible, then as a member of the larger community, he accepted culpability for the sins of the nation. The book of Tobit also believes in the activity of angels, who move in and about the lives of the people. Mostly though, Tobit is about the destiny of Israel. He predicted the destruction of Jerusalem as well as its restoration. In the storyline of the eighth century, this would have been prophetic. In the actual world of the author, it had happened ages ago.

Like many of the books of the Apocrypha, Tobit was thought to be canonical in the West. Luther thought it was an edifying story for Christians. It, however, was not part of the Jewish canon. Most think it was too late to be added, but others argue it would have been around the same time as Daniel, which was obviously included. The actual reasons are unknown. Because of its Greek origins, most Christians included it in their canon, a decision that Jerome ignored in the fourth century. It remains part of the canon of the Roman Catholic Church as well as the Orthodox churches.

There are roughly five sections to this letter: 1:1-2 – Prologue; 1:3-3:17 – Background Information; 4:1-12:22 – The Journey of Tobias; 13:1-14:2 – Tobit's Song of Praise and His Death; 14:3-15 – Epilogue.

I – 1:1-2 – Prologue

  • 1:1-2
    • Introductory verses
    • The hero of the story is Tobit of the tribe of Naphtali
    • Naphtali was one of the northern tribes
    • He was taken captive from Thisbe in upper Galilee to Assyria
    • This occurred during the time of Shalmaneser, king of the Assyrians (727-722 BCE – though most people were deported from this area in 732 during the reign of Tiglath-Pileser. The author might be wrong on his dates, or there could have been several deportations.)
    • Tobit's ancestry is given to seven generations

II – 1:3-3:17 – Background Information

  • 1:3-22
    • Tobit's background
    • This is information that brings the reader up to where the story will start
    • Tobit is the epitome of fidelity and righteousness
    • Therefore, much will be expected of him
    • He gave alms to his relatives, his nation, and fellow captives
    • Then he was deported to Nineveh, which was the capital of Assyria
    • First, he recounts the secession of the tribe of Naphtali from David's kingdom
    • This happened during the reign of Solomon's son, Rehoboam, king of Judah (See 1Kings 12:19ff )
    • Jeroboam I became the leader of the northern tribes – this happened 200 years before Tobit's story began
    • Jeroboam set up high places in the north so people didn't have to go to Jerusalem
    • Tobit, however, continued to go to Jerusalem on feast days as the Law said
    • He continued to offer sacrifices and pay tithes in the temple
    • When it was time for him to marry, Tobit married Hannah, a woman from his tribe
    • This was in accordance with the law of their times
    • After being taken to Nineveh, he remained faithful to dietary laws
    • Because of his faithfulness, God granted Tobit favor in Shalmaneser's court
    • The king paid him handsomely for his work – 10 silver talents
    • Tobit gave the money to a kinsman to hold in trust for him
    • He continued to be a faithful Jew throughout his time in Nineveh
    • He was diligent about burying the dead, even if the king had had them killed
    • Eventually, the Ninevites told the king he was doing this
    • The king was ready to have him killed, but he ran
    • The king took all of his property – leaving him with his wife and son, Tobias
    • Shortly after this, Shalmaneser was assassinated by his sons
    • The new king appointed Tobit's nephew to be in charge of the king's treasury
    • He interceded on behalf of Tobit, who was then allowed to return home
  • 2:1-3:6
    • Hardship befalls Tobit
    • Upon arriving home, Tobit and his family were ready to celebrate the Feast of Weeks
    • They had so much food that Tobit told his son to invite the poor and the homeless
    • During his search, Tobias came across another Jew who had recently been killed
    • Tobit immediately left the meal to go and bury the man
    • People mocked him for not having learned his lesson
    • After burying him and purifying himself, Tobit lay down to sleep in his courtyard
    • Presumably, the time of purification had not yet been completed
    • During the night, droppings from sparrows fell into his eyes, producing a white film
    • Doctors could not help him and eventually he was completely blind
    • For four years he was at the mercy of others' kindness
    • (This is ironic considering he was rendered helpless after doing a good work)
    • During that time, his wife was forced to earn money by doing "women's work"
    • One day, her employers gave her a bonus of a goat
    • Upon hearing the bleating of the goat, Tobit accused her of stealing it
    • Despite her protests, he ordered her to return it
    • She reproached him by pointing out how little his good deeds had done for their family
    • He wept and prayed to God, begging forgiveness for all his offenses
    • God should judge him and take his life
  • 3:7-15
    • A parallel story -- Sarah in Ecbatana
    • Sarah was the daughter of one of Tobit's kin
    • She lived in Ecbatana, in Media
    • She had been given to seven husbands – all died the night of their wedding
    • None of the marriages had been consummated
    • She is depicted as being afflicted with an evil spirit that did all the killing
    • After the seventh died, her maidservants reproached her for being at fault
    • For a while, she considered hanging herself to be rid of such accusations
    • She finally relented because she was the only child of her father
    • (Even in her deep grief, she was able to think of others beside herself)
    • She then prayed to the Lord and asked him to take her life
  • 3:16-17
    • Introduction of Raphael, the angel
    • God heard the cries of Tobit and Sarah and sent the angel, Raphael, to heal them
    • Obviously, these two did not know each other or even of each other
    • The angel was sent to heal Tobit's eyes and bind the demon troubling Sarah

III – 4:1-12:22 – The Journey of Tobias

  • 4:1-21
    • Tobit remembered his money
    • After praying to die, Tobit suddenly remembered the money held by his cousin
    • He shared the information with his son, thinking he really would be dying soon
    • Before sending him off to visit the cousin, Tobit counseled him in the way he should live
    • He was to treat his mother with care and respect, keep God's commandments, and give alms to those who needed it
    • Tobit also counseled him to take a wife from his tribe and to be fair and honest in all his dealings
    • At the end, he told Tobias about the money that was located in the land of the Medes
  • 5:1-6:1
    • Raphael accompanied Tobias to Media
    • Tobias wondered how the cousin would know he was the son
    • The cousin and Tobit had exchanged bonds, which he now gave to Tobias
    • Tobit counseled Tobias to find a companion – he found Raphael
    • Of course, he did not know it was the angel
    • Raphael said he knew the cousin and that was good enough for Tobias
    • However, Tobit wanted to meet this man
    • He quizzed him – of what tribe are you and from what family?
    • Raphael stammered, then said his name was Azariah, son of Hananiah the Great
    • Tobit was delighted since he had had dealings with this family
    • He told him that when he returned, he would be paid for his work
    • He blessed Tobias and the angel: "May the God who dwells in heaven help you both on your way and may his angel accompany you both!"
    • The mother was sad that her son was about to go off
    • She thought Tobit was putting money ahead of the safety of their son
    • Though still blind, Tobit was full of optimism
    • Tobit reassured her by saying God's angel would keep him safe
    • (Little did he know how true this was)
  • 6:2-18
    • The journey to Media
    • Tobias and the angel began their journey
    • At their first campsite, Tobias went to wash his feet in the Tigris River
    • Suddenly, a big fish jumped out and tried to swallow his foot
    • Raphael told him to capture the fish and save its heart, liver, and gall
    • The rest of the fish was dinner the first night
    • When Tobias inquired about the fish parts they had saved, the angel told him if someone was troubled by an evil spirit (like Sarah), he should smoke the heart and liver
    • If someone had white film over his eyes (like his father, Tobit) he should anoint those eyes with gall
    • When they arrived at Media, the angel determined they should stay at the house of Sarah's father, Raguel
    • The angel said he would talk to Raguel about Tobias taking Sarah as his wife
    • He claimed they were destined for each other
    • Tobias, however, had heard the stories about the seven dead husbands and was not at all sure this was a good idea since he was the only son of his father
    • According to the story, a demon loved Sarah and killed all her husbands so he could have her all to himself
    • The angel reminded him of Tobit's words about taking a wife from their tribe
    • He also spoke of smoking the liver and heart of the fish on their wedding night
    • The demon would smell it and flee, never to return again
    • He told Tobias that Sarah had been "prepared for you since eternity"
    • With that, Tobias fell deeply in love with Sarah (though they had not yet met)
  • 7:1-17
    • Tobias married Sarah
    • When Tobias entered Raguel's house, he met Sarah
    • Raguel commented on how much he resembled Tobit – even before he knew whose son he was
    • When he realized this was, indeed, Tobit's son, he jumped up, kissed him, and wept
    • He wept even more when he heard that Tobit was blind
    • Nonetheless, they planned a big celebration in honor of the young couple
    • Raguel was concerned for Tobias since seven men had already died
    • Regardless, he readily gave Sarah in marriage to Tobias
  • 8:1-21
    • The wedding night
    • Tobias remembered the words of the angel
    • He smoked the heart and liver of the fish
    • When the demon smelled the aroma, he fled to the "upper parts of Egypt" where he was bound by the angel
    • Then Tobias and Sarah prayed for God's blessing
    • While they slept, Raguel dug a grave for Tobias, thinking he would be dead by morning and they could quietly bury him
    • He sent a servant to their room to see if he was dead
    • He had hoped to avoid more scandal and planned to bury him right then and there if he had died
    • The servant returned with good news – he's alive!
    • Raguel told the servant to fill up the grave before morning
    • Then Raguel praised God for taking pity on two "only" children
    • The next morning, they began the two-week celebration of their marriage
    • At the end of two weeks, Raguel told Tobias he would give him half of his possessions and he could return safe and sound to his father
  • 9:1-6
    • Raphael gets Tobit's money
    • Because Tobias was still involved with the wedding, he sent Raphael off to get the money
    • This was accomplished without any problems
    • Not only that, but the cousin joined them in the wedding festivities
  • 10:1-13
    • Tobias gets ready to return to Nineveh
    • Tobit, of course, was counting the days while his son was gone
    • Both parents were worried sick over his absence
    • They tried to comfort each other, but mostly they just worried
    • At the end of the fourteen days, Tobias told Raguel to send them off because he knew how much his parents would be worrying
    • Raguel offered to send news of the wedding, but hoped Tobias would remain with him
    • Tobias refused and Raguel relented, giving the married couple not only his blessings but also half his possessions
  • 11:1-19
    • Tobias returned home
    • As they neared Nineveh, Raphael suggested they go on ahead to "prepare things for Sarah"
    • He also told Tobias to take the fish's gall with them
    • Tobias' mother, Hannah, saw them when they were a long way off
    • She told Tobit; Raphael reminded Tobias about the fish's gall
    • After embracing his parents, Tobias spread the gall on his father's eyes
    • The gall burned, and as Tobit rubbed his eyes, the white film peeled off
    • Tobit's eyesight was restored and he could see his son clearly
    • He gave thanksgiving to God
    • Together the family went out to greet Sarah, and everyone was amazed that Tobit could now see
    • They had another marriage celebration lasting for seven days
  • 12:1-22
    • Raphael's identity is made known
    • Eventually, it came time to pay Raphael for his services
    • Tobias offered to give him half of the possessions that he had brought back
    • Then Raphael offered some divine guidance and finally revealed himself as one of the seven angels of the divine presence
    • Obviously, angels have no need of any money
    • Both Tobit and Tobias fell before him
    • The angel then departed but told Tobit to write everything down 
    • Both Tobit and Tobias praised God for his great and wonderful deeds

IV -- 13:1-14:2 – Tobit's Song of Praise and His Death

  • Tobit continued to praise God and to thank him for his deliverance
  • In addition to thanking God for his own blessings, Tobit prayed for all of the Jewish exiles and especially for Jerusalem
  • Much of his song of praise echoes prayers of Moses in Exodus
  • He acknowledged the sovereignty of God
  • Just as Moses prayed shortly before his death, Tobit also prays just before his death
  • With his "words of thanksgiving" at an end, Tobit passed on at the age of 112
  • He was buried with honor in Nineveh

V – 14:3-15 -- Epilogue

  • Just before his death, he summoned Tobias and his six grandsons
  • He told Tobit to flee to Media because Nineveh was on the verge of becoming desolate
  • He also predicted that Jerusalem would be destroyed and abandoned for a time
  • Then God would show mercy and bring the captives back from their captivity
  • The city would be rebuilt in all its splendor and people would reverence God
  • Tobias listened to his father's advice
  • He stayed until both his parents had passed on and gave them a proper burial
  • Then he left with Sarah and returned to her home in Ecbatana
  • He cherished his parents-in-law until their deaths
  • Shortly before he passed on, he heard about the destruction of Nineveh
  • Tobias lived until 117 years of age
  • He was buried with honor

Though some scholars argue for the historicity of this book, most think this was a work of fiction. If it is, it is a beautifully written piece of fiction. Some think it might have been one among many compositions that were available among the Jews. These stories would have been repeated and celebrated on festival occasions. Even in good times, such stories would have been heartening and reminders that God's presence was alive and well. The issues of faithfulness and righteousness never get old. This writer dealt with them in a readable and delightful manner. Though written about ancient Judaism, their actions are timeless and very Christian.


deSilva, David. Introducing the Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002.

Fitzmeyer, Joseph. "Tobit." Commentaries on Early Jewish Literature. Berlin, Germany: Hubert & Co. 2003.

Harrington, Daniel J. The Maccabean Revolt. Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier. 1988.

Harrington, Daniel J. Invitation to the Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans. 1999.

Moore, Carey A. "Tobit." The Anchor Bible. New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing. 1996.

Meeks, Wayne, ed. The Harper Collins Study Bible. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers. 1993.

Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson, Eds. "Deuterocanonicals/Apocrypha." Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press. 1995.

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