Monday, March 19, 2012

Tobit 3-5

The Facts (Chapter number: Verse)

3:7-17 - [The beginning of the book mirrors a similar prayer given by Tobit, who wishes for his life to end because his blindness causes him so much suffering] Sarah, daughter of Raguel in Media, was approached by one of her father's maids. Sarah had been married to seven husbands and a demon named Asmodeus had killed each of them before they could give Sarah any children. The maid says to Sarah, "You are the one who kills your husbands! See, you have already been married to seven husbands and have not borne the name of a single one. Why do you beat us? Because your husbands are dead? Go with them! May we never see a son or daughter of yours!" Sarah grieved and wept and went to her father's upper room with the intent to hang herself. After she thought about it, Sarah said, "Never shall they reproach my father, saying to him, 'You had only one beloved daughter but she hanged herself because of her distress.' And I shall bring my father in his old age down in sorrow to Hades. It is better for me not to hang myself, but to pray the Lord that I may die and not listen to these reproaches anymore." So Sarah prayed:

"Blessed are you, merciful God! Blessed is your name forever; let all your works praise you forever. And now, Lord, I turn my face to you, and raise my eyes towards you. Command that I be released from the earth and not listen to such reproaches any more. You know, O Master, that I am innocent of any defilement with a man, and that I have not disgraced my name or the name of my father in the land of my exile. I am my father's only child; he has no close relative or other kindred for whom I should keep myself as wife. Already seven husbands of mine have died. Why should I live? But if it is pleasing to you, O Lord, to take my life, hear me in my disgrace."

God hears both Tobit and Sarah and send the angel Raphael to heal them both. Raphael will remove the white film from Tobit's eyes, bring Tobit's son, Tobias, to Sarah so she may be given in marriage to him, and setting Sarah free from the demon Asmodeus. For Tobias was entitled to Sarah before all others. At the same time that Tobit returned from the courtyard of his house, Sarah came down from her father's upper room.

4:3-4 - "Then [Tobit] called his son Tobias, and when he came to him he said, "My son, when I die, give me a proper burial. Honor your mother and do not abandon her all the days of her life. Do whatever pleases her, and do not grieve her in anything. Remember her, my son, because she faced many dangers for you while you were in her womb. And when she dies, bury her beside me in the same grave."
4:12-13 - "Beware, my son, of every kind of fornication. First of all, marry a woman from among the descendants of your ancestors; do not marry a foreign woman, who is not of your father's tribe; for we are the descendants of the prophets. Remember, my son, that Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, our ancestors of old, all took wives from among their kindred. They were blessed in their children, and their posterity will inherit the land. So now, my son, love your kindred, and in your heart do not disdain your kindred, the sons and daughters of your people, by refusing to take a wife for yourself among them. For in pride there is ruin and great confusion. And in idleness there is loss and dire poverty, because idleness is the mother of famine."

5:17-6:1 - [Tobias begins to set out on a journey with Raphael to retrieve money Tobit left with Gabael in Media] "Before he went to start his journey, he kissed his father and mother. Tobit then said to him, 'Have a safe journey.' But his mother began to weep, and said to Tobit, 'Why is it that you have sent my child away? Is he not the staff of our hand as he goes in and out before us? Do not heap money upon money, but let it be a ransom for our child. For the life that is given to us by the Lord is enough for us.' Tobit said to her, 'Do not worry; our child will leave in good health and return to us in good health. Your eyes will see him on the day he returns to you in good health. Say no more! Do not fear for them, my sister. For a good angel will accompany him; his journey will be successful, and he will come back in good health.' So she stopped weeping."

My Comments

Not gonna lie, Tobit 3 and 4 impress me to a certain degree. Tobit 3 is just kind of cool because it's got a nice literary mirror going with Tobit's prayer for death compared to Sarah's prayer for death. I'm honestly just a sucker for decent story telling, ESPECIALLY since the Bible seems to lack that in so many ways. Also not even a little mad about Sarah's story here. Yeah, it's another story about a woman being deemed less than for failing to conceive heirs. But she's given a voice, unlike so many other women who have faced similar hardships before her. The entire ordeal is not even presented as her fault since it is very clearly a demon who has brought this misfortune upon her (and her late husbands). And on the end of that, we get a great look into Sarah's emotions during this time, which is, again, something the Bible tends to leave out of stories involving women's tragedies. I'm also amazed at the way suicide is looked at here. Tobit and Sarah really do want to end their suffering and pay no lip service to their miserable lives. Compare this to Job, who, while having a horrible time with life, still trudged on and praised the lord despite his suffering. Tobit and Sarah do make mention of god, but not quite in the same vein as Job did.

Tobit 4 actually has Tobit's request to Tobias to protect and look after his mother as one of the FIRST things he lists. It's so rare to see a mother being thought of first before so many other aspects of life including property and godlyness. It's a good chunk of text, too, not the usual throw away line of, "Oh, and don't forget your mother. She's important or something." It really is a nice change and actually seems to have genuine sentiment behind it rather than just being included as a chore that must be attended to.

This may also be a bit of a surprise, but I'm not even mad about Tobit 4:12-13. I will preface that with a few words: The first line is a bit jarring, but I am not sure what exactly is meant by "fornication" in this context, since it is obvious Tobit is not forbidding ALL sex, but my Bible does not give any alternate definitions so I am not sure how it should really be taken. There is also the bit about idleness being the mother of famine, which is just odd because it doesn't seem to fit with anything else Tobit is talking about here, but this can have my usual gripe about evil/not good concepts typically being portrayed as female. Aside from that, Tobit telling his son to marry within the tribe does not bother me. This, right here, is a cultural thing. When most people say sexism in the Bible is a cultural thing that's just bullshit. This bit about foreign women is not strictly a cultural preference to marry within a tribe. This section about foreign women is not simply a statement that marrying within the tribe is just something you do to keep the lineage pure. Foreign women, up to this point, are spoken of as if they were the purest of evil, sent to destroy god's people and lead them down a path of ruin. Yes, the tradition to marry within your own tribe and people was cultural, but the WAY in which these traditions are spoken of is not cultural. Previous passages were utterly sexist in their depiction of foreign women. THIS passage, on the other hand, is what I would consider a non-sexist portrayal of a cultural norm. Tobit does not warn Tobias that foreign women will lead him astray or make him worship false gods or drag him to the pits of wherever. It's just a simple fact. Tobit's tribe has a long lineage which links directly to the old prophets, which is something Tobit wishes to keep intact. Nothing more. Actually, instead of the foreign women being at fault in this passage it would actually be Tobias himself who would be actively disappointing his kinsmen.

I mean, it's kind of sad how impressive this is to me, but with what I've had to endure reading up to this point this is simply amazing.

In looking at Tobit 5:17-6:1, I'm going to double back on the previous post a tiny bit. There was an exchange in the last reading where Tobit accused his wife of stealing, even when she was working to keep them all afloat since Tobit was not able to work due to his blindness. I will not take back what I said about Tobit being an asshole. He was still very much the asshole in that dialogue. What I did not mention, though, was that his wife, Anna, is surprisingly active in her role here. She is not simply yelled at then never given a chance to speak back. Compare this to a woman like Job's wife, who was angry at Job for still worshiping a god who would ruin their lives, but was simply silenced by Job and never heard from again. Tobit yells at his wife for stealing and his wife gets a chance to speak right back at him. "Where are your acts of charity? Where are your righteous deeds? Those things are known about you!" This new interaction is a bit of the usual fare: woman is seemingly unreasonably upset about something, man is the usual stoic and tells her to calm down and she does. But to me, this doesn't quite feel that way. Now, I'll admit it did my first read through. Having had a day to think about it and look over it again, it does not seem as harsh as it did the first time. When Tobit yelled at his wife in chapter 2 that was harsh, and Anna responded appropriately. Here, Anna is understandably upset that her only son is being sent off with a stranger to a strange place, leaving her all alone with a blind husband who cannot work. Tobit, who does not wish for his son to live in the poverty that has befallen their family, knows that Tobias going off to collect the money from Tobit's friend is the only way to get Tobias and their family out of that poverty. I guess it does depend on the tone you give Tobit here, but through a second read to me it feels more like Tobit is comforting Anna rather than commanding her to shut up. In many respects, they are both given enough words to make them seem like a fairly normal couple. Not every couple has the same values. Some people are like Anna, they value family being together more than material comfort, while some are like Tobit, who want everything for their children including physical luxuries they may have never had.

I only think this is achieved because Anna is allowed a voice. She is allowed to put Tobit in his place when he is being unreasonable, and she is allowed to voice her sorrow when Tobit sends Tobias off. While Tobit may receive god's blessing by the end of his book when god heals his blindness, Anna is not overtly shown to be some sort of unfaithful monster for not being okay with everything Tobit does.

The agency given to the women in this book, Anna and Sarah, is such a breath of fresh air and also does a lot to aid in the story telling and leave the women feeling like actual people and less like demons/obstacles for the men to overcome. I really hope the book continues in this vein. I'm happy to finally be reading something that flows much more like an actual story. Sad that such a promising book is apocryphal but whatever.

I will totally understand if there's any disagreement with my interpretations. I'm not used to having so little negative to say about Bible books, too. And I do think some of this is personal interpretation, like how I view Tobit's response to Anna being upset as comforting rather than him just telling her to shut up. I do feel that since Anna is not held in a bad light that the comforting interpretation does hold water, but I'll be more than happy to hear other opinions on the matter.

Next time: More Tobit

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