The Apocrypha – The Book of Tobit – A Piece of Religious Fiction from the Second Century BC
I’ve always been an avid reader, and usually loved reading in school, even in Elementary school. Although the only thing I recall reading from Calvert Street Elementary were the selections from the SRA box in third grade. For the uninitiated, the SRA Reading Laboratory consists of a series of large cards, each containing a short story, color coded to reflect increasing difficulty in the level of story and the reading comprehension questions at the end. At your desk, you read the card and jotted down your answers (likely in a notebook or on those wide-lined sheets of brownish paper that tore if you pressed your pencil to hard or tried to erase). Then you retrieved the answer card from the box and calculated your score. Perhaps it was deemed busy work, which was why we were entrusted to score and report our scores without supervision.
The stories were surprisingly engaging, though the fact that I was young and did not have high standards for story—outside of Encyclopedia Brown and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Detectives books was probably a factor. Though short, each card’s story told something interesting, usually with a moral point, though the longer ones—as I recall—were about family or a young girl working hard at her new job to save up to buy a pearl (or maybe a black marble).
Although I have fond memories of these stories—for some reason I seem to have liked the Red stories best—they weren’t something I would save or go back and buy just to have. They served their purpose then and I have moved on.
The Apocrypha’s The Book of Tobit shared a similar fate as those SRA cards. This supposed piece of Biblical fiction (according to the brief introduction in my edition) was excised from the Old Testament. That doesn’t mean it’s worthless or uninteresting though.
This is the story of Tobit, who is prosecuted and jailed for discarding the bodies of dead people (which, apparently, was illegal). With his property seized and him finally released by a new, sympathetic ruler, Tobit has a warm, touching homecoming with his wife and son, Tobias. Soon, a freak accident involving birds blinds Tobit. No worries, for the king supports him and his wife gets a job; but not so fast: Tobit questions some of the gifts his wife gets, but he soon feels shame for doubting his good wife. He then asks God to punish him (3).
Worried that bad is right around the corner, Tobit counsels his son with a number of pieces of advice designed to help him take care of things. Among others: life will be good if you are good, pay those who work for you promptly (4:14), don’t do to anyone what you hate, and don’t get drunk (4:16).
So the son listens like a typical teenager (fine, whatever Dad); he’s more worried about procuring money his father had deposited in another town, for which he has a receipt (5:2). He’s sent on his way, but not before being told to find someone to travel with—which the son finds, in the form of a disguised angel, Raphael (5:5-6).
After catching some fish—parts of which Tobias is told to bury, parts he brings for a later purpose—their journey eventually leads them to the household of a young woman, Sarah, who has been married seven times. Yes, seven. It seems that she’s possessed by a demon, and on her wedding nights, before things can be consummated each new husband is killed. As a way to fix this demon, Raphael figures Tobias will be a good match for her. Which, as you might imagine, because he’s heard of her scares him (6:10). Still, Tobias makes an agreement with her father, and on the night of their wedding the still-carried fish parts enable the demon to be captured (who knew fish was so handy?), thus freeing Sarah. Joyous, her father throws them a 14-day marriage feast (8:19). In the meantime, Tobias asks Raphael to fetch his father’s money (9).
Eventually, Tobias, his new bride, and Raphael return home. There, the remaining fish parts cure Tobit’s blindness. Elated (and not just about regaining his sight), Tobit tells his son to compensate Raphael for all his help, and Tobias hands over half of Sarah’s dowry. Impressed, Raphael finally reveals his identity and promises to capture this story in prose form on a scroll (12:22). Tobit writes a prayer of rejoicing, singing God’s praises (13).
This is the type of story that engages readers, though the younger the better. Adults—myself included—can’t get past how convenient the plot points are or how handy fish parts turn out to be. Still, it’s interesting to see how much the people in this story care for their families, which is perhaps the plot’s best feature. Perhaps the lesson though doesn’t run deep enough to stand up next to more weighty tales, like Esther or Ezra. That doesn’t mean it should be destroyed, just perhaps not elevated in status like the rest of the Old Testament.