The Apocrypha, Lesson 8: Tobit, Pt. 1

Tobias Leaving His Mother and FatherIntroduction

Though Tobit includes historical reality in its background setting, it is not history but a religious novel to teach the faithful.  Like Judith, this book contains information known not to be true, drawing the hearer to focus on the religious content, not the historical facts.  For example, the sequence of Assyrian kings is incomplete and inaccurate, with no mention of Tiglath-Pileser III and Sargon II.  Like Judith, some the geographical information is also not real. 

Tobit was written in Aramaic, though some scholars think Hebrew, most likely before 200 BC.  The Dead-Sea Scrolls have five surviving fragmentary manuscripts, four in Aramaic and one in Hebrew. 

Tobit tells the stories of two families of Diaspora Jews who suffer because of they try to follow God’s Covenant.  The characters are not kings or prophets but “regular folks.”  Even so, God hears their prayers and intervenes to bring about a good outcome.  In the end, they all vindicated become a single family.


The Cast of Characters

Tobit: The father of Tobias.  Tobit is the Greek form of the Aramaic Tovi, which is a shortened form of Toviyah, meaning, “Yahweh is my good.”

Tobias: A Greek form of Toviel, which means, “El (God) is my good.”

Anna: The Greek form of Hannah, which means “grace” or “favor.”

Raguel: Greek form of the Aramaic Reuel. Meaning “friend of El (God).”

Sarah: means “princess.”

Asmodeus: A Greek version of the Persian term aeshma daeva, meaning “demon of wrath.”


The Story Begins

The story opens in the Northern Kingdom of Israel (after the North split from the South after Solomon’s death).  Tobit is a faithful Jew, who remains true to God’s Old Covenant.  King Jeroboam established sanctuaries in Dan and Bethel for the people of the North to offer sacrifices without having to go to Jerusalem.  There, he placed golden calves as thrones for the God of Israel!

Instead of going to alternate worship sites, Tobit travels to Jerusalem.  There he takes a triple tithe, one for the priests and Levites, the others for the poor and to support of the festivals in Jerusalem.

His tribe of Naphtali is exiled by the Assyrians, but he remains faithful.  He follows the Jewish dietary laws despite most of his fellow Jews eating the food of the Gentiles (1:10-11).  On Pentecost (now celebrated in the home, because of the exile), Tobit sends out his son, Tobias, to invite the poor to enjoy the meal with them.

2:1b At our festival of Pentecost… 2 When the table was set for me and an abundance of food placed before me, I said to my son Tobias, “Go, my child, and bring whatever poor person you may find of our people among the exiles in Nineveh, who is wholeheartedly mindful of God, and he shall eat together with me.


New-Testament Tie-In

Passover had a ritual evening meal with lamb, with Pentecost having an earlier meal, which included fish.  One translation of Tobit 2:2 tells of small fish being on the menu during the morning.  Later in the book, fish will play an important supportive role in the narrative.  In the New Testament, the catching of fish, and the multiplication of loaves and fishes is a recurring Pentecost theme.

Tobias returns with the disturbing news of a murdered Jew left unburied.  Tobit abandons the table and buries the corpse, not finishing until after sunset.

That night, he washes himself because he had become ritually impure from touching a corpse, and he sleeps outside (Numbers 19:11-13).

2:9b Because of the heat I left my face uncovered.  10 Sparrows were on the wall right above me, but I did not know it.  Their fresh droppings fell into my eyes and produced white scales on them.  I went to one doctor after another, but the more they treated me with their medicines, the worse my eyes became, until finally, I became blind.

A relative supports him for a while, but he becomes dependent on his wife, Anna, who must now earn money doing “women’s work” (2:9-11).

Anna’s employers are pleased with her work and give her a goat as a bonus.  Tobit accuses Anna of stealing the goat and tells her to return it.  She reminds him of his past generosity when he was well to do.  Ashamed, pitiful, and filled with self-loathing, Tobit prays to God to take his life.  “Command my breath to be taken from me, so I may be released from the face of the earth and become dust” (3:6).


God Working Through All Things for the Good

3:7 On the same day, at Ecbatana in Media, it also happened that Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, was reproached by one of her father’s maids.  8 For she had been married to seven husbands, and the wicked demon Asmodeus had killed each of them before they had been with her as is customary for wives.  So the maid said to her, “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 of them.  9 Why do you beat us?  Because your husbands are dead?  Go with them!  May we never see a son or daughter of yours!”

She prays:

3:13 “Command and free me from the earth so I do not need to listen to such reproaches any more….  15b Seven husbands have died on me already, so why should I go on living?  But if it is not pleasing to you, O Lord, to take my life, hear me in my disgrace.”


New-Testament Tie-In

Matthew 22:23-28: The Sadducees:

That same day some Sadducees, who claim there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question.  Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him [Deuteronomy 25:5-6].  Now there were seven brothers among us.  The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother.  The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh [adapted from Tobit 3:7-8, 15; 7:11].  27 Last of all, the woman died.  In the resurrection, then, whose wife will she be of the seven? For they all had married her.”

Matthew 22:29: Jesus’ Response: “Jesus answered them, ‘You are mistaken because you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God.’”

  • Based on Jesus’ response, what does He consider to be Scripture, which the Sadducees do not?


  • What did Jesus mean when He said, “You don’t know the power of God”?


4:1 That day Tobit remembered the silver he had entrusted to Gabael in Rages of Media.  2 He thought to himself, “Now that I have asked for death, why should I not call my son Tobias and let him know about this money before I die?”

So, Tobit tells his only son to recover a large sum of silver (10 talents) he had deposited with a relative in faraway Media, and has another Jew, Azariah, to travel with him.

Talent: The heaviest measure of weight for money in the Bible.  A talent was about 75-95 pounds of silver, which would equal at least a thousand days’ wages for a common laborer of gross income.  So Tobias now remembers the 30 years of earnings he stashed away elsewhere!  Would someone really forget this amount of money?  This has all the hallmarks of a “parable.”

Before sending Tobias on his journey, Tobit passes on his instructions on how to live.

  • Bury your parents and tend to their needs in their old age (4:3-4).
  • “Remember the Lord all your days,” and follow His commandments (4:5-6a).
  • Help the poor (4:6b-11).
  • Avoid fornication and marry within the people of Israel (4:12-13).
  • Don’t withhold money you owe to another (4:14).
  • The golden rule: “And what you hate, do not do to anyone” (15a).
  • Don’t be a drunkard (15b).
  • “Do not let your eye begrudge your giving of alms” (4:16).
  • Seek advice from the wise (4:18).
  • Ask God to direct your ways (4:19).
  • The list finishes by defining true wealth as fearing God, fleeing from every sin, and doing what is right in the sight of the Lord your God (4:21).


New-Testament Tie-In

  • Matthew 7:12: Jesus said, “Therefore, whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus says “the Law and the Prophets,” a Jewish expression meaning “Scripture.”  The problem confronting us is this: In the current-day Protestant Old Testament, you will find no such passage teaching the “golden rule.”  But you do find a form of it in the Apocrypha: “And what you hate, do not do to anyone” (Tobit 4:15).  If we take Jesus’ words seriously, He is again referring to Tobit as Scripture.


Lutheran and New-Testament Tie-In

  • Tobit 4:9-10: So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. For almsgiving delivers from death and keeps you from going into the Darkness.
  • Luke 12:33: [Jesus said,] “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Make money-bags for yourselves that won’t grow old, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”

The Church of Rome understands Tobit 4:9-10 as supporting the belief that works of mercy can contribute to a “treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints” (CCC, 1471).  The saints, those holy enough to need no purgatory, build up an excess of good works, which are stored in this “treasury.”  Through indulgences, the Church can remove “either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin [in purgatory].  The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead” (CCC, 1471).  Because of how Rome uses Tobit, the Lutheran Church has become uncomfortable with Tobit.

  • Does anything in the above passages from Tobit or Luke affirm such a “treasury”?


The question before us is this.  Does another’s misuse of a Bible passage make that passage illegitimate?  No!  Besides, we already learned Jesus referred to Tobit as “Scripture.”  Further, when our Lutheran Confessions deal with this passage from Tobit, they do not assert Tobit is not Scripture (which is what most Lutherans would do today).  Instead, we find:

Tobit [4:10], “Almsgiving delivers from death,” is also cited….  We must return to the rule that without Christ the teaching of the law is of no value.  The almsgiving pleasing to God is that which follows, not precedes reconciliation…  Faith with its fruits is what pleases God….  The address of Tobias, taken in its entirety, shows that faith is required before alms.  “Remember the Lord our God all your days,” [4:5] and “at all times bless the Lord God and ask him to direct your ways” [4:19].  These actions are part of the faith about which we are speaking, which believes God is gracious because of his mercy and asks him to preserve and govern us. [Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Section III (Of Love and the Fulfilling of the Law), para 156-158]


Excursus: The Nature of Good Works

“For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).  In other words, anything done apart from faith is sin in God’s eyes.  What a hard verse to grasp, for unbelievers also do many “good works,” which benefit others.  How can what they are doing be “sin,” for those deeds are helpful and useful.  To understand what Paul writes, we need to realize before whom someone is righteous (or “good”).

“By nature, we were destined for wrath, just like everyone else” (Ephesians 2:3), which the universality of death reveals.  “For the wages of sin are death” (Romans 6:23).  Because we are “by nature” sinful, we sin.  Because we are “by nature” sinful, everything we do is still tainted with sin, which makes it unacceptable to God.  We are not sinners because we happen to commit a sin; no, we commit sins because we are sinners.  Jesus said:

Don’t you realize that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is eliminated?  But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For from the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies, slander.  These are what defile a person… [Matthew 5:17-20]

The crux comes down to “before God” and “before man.”  Before God, only divine righteousness matters, which is the righteousness God gives to the person (Romans 1:16-17).  What we have or what we do, in ourselves, does not count before God.  For our righteousness, no matter how good in the eyes of the world, is still ruined by the taint of sin.


8, Good Works before God


We do what we do because of who we are.  Made God’s child through Jesus’ work and merit, in the Holy Spirit, God give us faith, makes us righteous, and defines us.  So, faith causes the Christian to act, and the Christian does what he does in faith.

Civic righteousness, the good deeds someone does toward others in society can do nothing to improve our standing before God or reconcile us to Him.  Through such acts, however, God works for the good of others and our neighbor—but such works do not save!  Through such deeds done in this fallen world, God helps keep to good order and preserve peace, but this does not reconcile someone to God.

So, the exercise of civic righteousness is valuable!  Human life depends on people and the institutions of life to function through which, before others, people live out what it means to be human.  So, life is better for others because of what people, even non-Christians, do.  This also benefits the Church, allowing Christians to gather in worship, bring Christ to others, and carry out works of mercy.

So, the good deeds one does for others in the world cannot, and does not, replace the righteousness the Christian has because of Christ’s faithfulness.  Nonetheless, we still praise such civic righteousness because God demands it (Don’t kill, etc.), uses it to restrain evil activity, and honors it with earthly rewards (when Government functions as God intends).



Understanding “almsgiving delivers from death” follows “remember the Lord our God all your days,” we learn Tobit is not teaching a righteousness of works but a righteousness of faith, which then produces good works in the life of the believer.

We are unaccustomed to almsgiving in our day, but our Lord Jesus taught that almsgiving is part of what a disciple of Jesus does.  “When [not if] you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3).

Tobit gives good practical counsel on giving alms. “Give in proportion to what you own.  The more you have, the more you should give.  Even if you have only a little, don’t be afraid to give in proportion to the little you have” (4: 8).  As you have received, give accordingly.

Giving to others and back to God demonstrates your trust that God will provide for your own needs even as he provides for other’s needs through you.  Tobit also says that in almsgiving, “You will store up a valuable treasure for a time of need” (4: 9).  Jesus says as much in the “Parable the Dishonest Manager.”  “Make friends for yourselves with unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

Tobit will send his son to retrieve his treasure of ten talents of silver.  His final words to him remind us that we are to pursue heavenly treasures above all else.  “My son, remember my commands [to follow God in faith] and do not let them be blotted out of your mind” (4:19).


Next Week: Tobias begins his journey


Link to the next Lesson in this series.


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