Tobit: An Apocryphal Romance

The Book of Tobit can be found in Catholic and other Orthodox biblical texts, however it is not canonical in the Protestant or Hebrew canons. It is considered an apocryphal book. However, it was announced to be canonical at the Council of Hippo 393, as well as other councils extending into the 16th century. Aramaic and Hebrew copies were found among the scrolls at Qumran, it was included among the texts of the Greek Septuagint, and also Jerome included Tobit in his Vulgate (apparently, he had access to an Aramaic version of the text). Various theories exist as to why the book is not truly considered to be part of the biblical canon.

Tobit is a moral and upstanding Israelite, following all of the guidelines of the Torah and avoiding eating the foreign meat while in captivity in Nineveh. He has a confrontational wife and a son named Tobias. He initially finds favor among the region’s leaders, and gives charitably to his fellow Israelites in captivity, while also lecturing them on proper godliness, however eventually the emperor’s son banishes Tobit. In the night, he sleeps on the street and a bird defecates onto his eyes, leaving him blinded. This is described as a test of Tobit, not unlike “holy Job.”

“Archangel Raphael and Tobit” by Titian in 1542

At the same time, in the land of the Medes (possibly Persia), a young woman named Sara is distraught for a demon (Asmodeus, the “worst of demons” -an evil, Epicurean devil of earthly lust) kills each of her husbands on their wedding night before their marriage may be consummated. Thus God sends the angel Raphael to guide Tobias as he leaves home -Tobias is sent by Tobit to collect money of his held by the Medes. One the road, Tobias goes fishing and is attacked by a fish. Raphael instructs Tobias to take out the fishes innards. When he arrives in Media, he falls in love with Sara (his cousin, whom he is therefore legally within his rights to marry) and on their wedding night he burns the liver and heart of the fish, per Raphael’s instructions, to scare away the demon. The fumes drive the demon to upper Egypt where Raphael attacks and binds him. After their wedding feast, Tobias and Sara return to Nineveh where Tobias uses the rest of the fishes innards to cure his father, Tobit, of his blindness. They pray together and Tobit advises him to leave Nineveh, as God plans destruction on the Assyrians. Therefore, the text concludes with Tobias and Sara returning to Media.

The book is a beautiful fable; a comedy of two people suffering who find joy in the end, thanks, in part, due to the piousness of their families and also due to the intervention of a divine deus ex machina. The inclusion of “aeshma daeva” the demon transliterated as Asmodeus, is intriguing and Tobit is the primary occurrence where Asmodeus, “the prince of all demons” appears in biblical literature, though he originates somewhere in Talmudic folklore and continues throughout Christian and Islamic traditions. His country of origin is likely as a deity of ancient Syria.

For this reading I used an internet-based Project Gutenberg translation.

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