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The book of Tobit. A journey to discover oneself

“Tobias” is an Hebrew name that means “God is my good”. It is the title of one of the three booklets that are the pride of the biblical narrative. The other two are Judith and Esther. In our Bibles they are included in the historical books, because they contain few allusions to a certain period of history. However these references serve to project into the glorious past of Israel the historical period in which the author of the book lived.

Their truth has not to be sought in the reality of the situations and characters of the book, but in what those situations and characters evoke in us. These are stories that provide a model for the understanding of ourselves and to understand how God helps any man who decides to move towards the realization of himself.

What is the historical context in which the author lived?

The author of the book lived in a difficult period in the history of Israel, around the third century BC. It was the period of the great expansion of the Greek culture, following the conquest of by Alexander the Great. Many of the Greek customs were in sharp contrast to the lifestyle that of the observant Jew. This conflict will reach its climax shortly after, when in Judea Antiochus IV Epiphanes would have reigned. He introduced hellenistic customs, language and way of thinking, thus provoking a violent reaction from conservatives, including the famous “Maccabees brothers“. The Book of Tobit reflects the period shortly before the Maccabees and although the cultural and religious conflict had not yet come to these levels, the problem of the relationship between religious identity and confrontation with the outside world was already very experienced. There were different attitudes of the Jews in the face of challenges of the Hellenistic culture.

There were those who lived their religion in a rigid way, without any opening towards the new cultural climate of Hellenistic society. There was, instead, who welcomed uncritically uses and Greek costumes, abandoning the traditions of the fathers. There were those who tried a middle way, sought an intelligent comparison with the surrounding world, as an opportunity to deepen their humanity in the light of an authentic and renewed faith in God. In my opinion the author of the Book of Tobit belonged to the latter category of persons.

What is the theme of the book of Tobit?

Tobit tells the story of two families: the family of Tobit and Anna and that of Tobias and Sarah. But it also tells the human and spiritual journey of each of its components.

TOBI (and Anna)

The details of his personal life, such as the fact that he was an orphan of Father (cfr. Tb 1:15) and therefore had to grow up alone, are placed in the background. Only one aspect of the life of Tobi is exalted: his blamelessness and his faithfulness to God. It serves almost as a frontispiece of the book: I, Tobit, walked in the ways of truth and righteousness all the days of my life, and I performed many acts of charity to my brethren and countrymen who went with me into the land of the Assyrians, to Nin′eveh. (Tb 1:3). Indeed, Tobit was the only one of his tribe to have preserved the authentic faith (cf. Tb 1:4 ff.). A man against a world far from God; Tobit was the model of every good Israelite (cf. Tb 1:10-12). His job was to bury the corpses left on the streets (Tb 1:17 ff.). His job was worthy of praise in the Bible (cf. 2 Sam 21), but perhaps it also reveals something of Tobit. Why Tobit among all the corporal works of mercy chose to bury the corpses? Why all this research of death rather than life?

This is especially true when in a moment of feast, along with his family, he gets up from lunch to go and bury a corpse. The Bible says that Tobi “ate the food in sorrow” (cfr. Tb 2:3 -5). For him the party has never started. No joy, no happiness. So he cries (cf. Tb 2:7). What seems to be missing in his life is the joy of his faith’s experience. A life of struggle against all, sad, bitter and isolated. Perhaps this is the symbolic meaning of his blindness (cf. Tb 2:9-11). It is better to ignore forever a world who doesn’t understand the absolute honesty of Tobi. Some may argue by saying that it is just physical blindness, a further distress the faithful Tobi. So why only an angel – a spiritual being – could cure him? (If you want to read the entire commentary on the book of Tobit send to me an email: venturini@simoneventurini.it)

Simone Venturini

Scrittore

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