Book of Tobit {toh' - bit} - Background

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A book in the Old Testament Apocrypha

General Information

Tobit, or Tobias, is a book in the Old Testament Apocrypha, written (c.200 - 170 BC) in Hebrew or Aramaic and constructed as a didactic romance. It became popular among Hellenistic Jews and Christians in its Greek translation. The book relates how Tobit, a devout Jew in exile in Assyria, and his son Tobias were rewarded for their piety and good deeds. Tobit buried the bodies of executed Jews in Nineveh. Despite this and other good works, he was blinded. As he prayed for God to end his life, Sarah, a widow whose seven husbands have each been killed by the demon Asmodeus on their wedding night, also entreats God to end her misery.

In answer to these prayers, God sends the angel Raphael to Earth to help them. Tobias marries Sarah and, with Raphael's help, overcomes the demon and restores his father's sight. The demonology, magic, and folklore motifs in the story show affinities with ancient Near Eastern stories from 500 BC on.

Norman K Gottwald


L H Brockington, A Critical Introduction to the Apocrypha (1961); S Zeitlin, ed., Jewish Apocryphal Literature (1958).

More Information

Tobit is a book of the Old Testament in those versions of the Bible following the Greek Septuagint (generally Roman Catholic and Orthodox versions). It does not appear in the Hebrew Bible and is placed with the Apocrypha in Protestant versions of the Bible.

The narrative is set in the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh sometime between the latter part of the 8th century BC, after the defeat of the kingdom of Israel by Assyria, and the destruction of Nineveh in 612BC. Modern scholars generally agree, however, that Tobit reflects little that can be considered genuine history, except perhaps the names of some of the characters. A type of wisdom literature, the book was probably written as late as the 2nd or even the 1st century BC in Palestine. The author is unknown. The language of the original was either Aramaic or Hebrew; the oldest surviving complete text is, however, in Greek. In 1955 fragments of the book in Aramaic and in Hebrew were recovered at Qumrân (see Dead Sea Scrolls).

The narrative begins with Tobit, a pious Israelite of the tribe of Naphtali, who has become blind in Nineveh despite his good works and uprightness. Sorely afflicted, he asks God to let him die (see 1:1-3:6). On the very day of Tobit's prayer, Sarah, a young relative of Tobit living in the Median capital, Ecbatana, also prays for death. She has been married seven times, and every one of her husbands has been killed on their wedding night by the jealous demon Asmodeus. The prayers of both are heard, and the archangel Raphael is sent to help them (see 3:7-17).

At this point, Tobit decides to send his son Tobias to the Median city of Rages (now Shahr-e Rey, near Tehrân, Iran) to recover money left there in trust with a friend. Raphael (disguised as Azarias, another of Tobit's relatives) appears, to accompany and guide Tobias. En route, Tobias catches a large fish in the Tigris River and is advised by his heavenly guide to keep its heart, liver, and gall because of their magical healing properties (see 6:1-8). When they reach Ecbatana, the archangel persuades Tobias to marry Sarah. On the wedding night, Tobias, using the heart and liver of the fish as instructed by the archangel, routs Asmodeus (see 6:9-8:21).

The next four chapters relate Raphael's journey to Rages, to recover the money held in trust. Tobias, Sarah, and Raphael return to Nineveh, where Tobias uses the gall of the fish to restore his father's sight. Raphael then reveals his identity and departs. Immediately afterward, inspired by the archangel's final exhortation, Tobit composes and recites a hymn of praise to God (chap. 13). In chapter 14, the last, Tobit lives 100 years more in great happiness and, before dying, predicts the destruction of Nineveh. Tobias departs with Sarah for Ecbatana, where they eventually hear of and rejoice over the fall of Nineveh before Tobias dies at the age of 127.

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